Interview with Nick Holdstock and Angus Woodward

"Never, ever trust a writer. One minute you're pouring your heart out in the pub, the tale of you and him or you and her; the tears, the anguish, the pain. Next thing you know, it's all over the papers: the best-selling tale of some twit who resembles you in every way except they have black hair and better taste in music. But this is what writers do..."

Stolen Stories, a collection of new writing from Edinburgh-based Forest Publications, dares to admit the inadmissible; that much as we readers might cherish the image of the inspired writer at their desk, waiting for the perfect character/plot/metaphor to spring fully-formed from the creative maze of their mind, more often than not their beautifully crafted dialogue and well-drawn protagonists will be lifted straight from a conversation overheard at a bus stop or a tale told in confidence down the pub.

Stolen Stories features new work from writers including Edinburgh's Makar Ron Butlin, novelist Sarah Salway and many others – asked editor Nick Holdstock and contributor Angus Woodward to tell us about the sacred art of stealing.

Firstly, tell us about where the idea for a collection of stolen stories came from – could it be said that it was in itself 'stolen' from somewhere?

Nick Holdstock: Actually, this is the one aspect of the project that was not stolen. The idea came about as a result of a discussion during a creative writing seminar about the kind of events that readers find implausible. One woman said that some of the most dramatic and interesting events she knew of were so utterly unbelievable that they could not be included in fiction. To support this she told a story involving a shark and a baby, which, to be fair, did sound like preposterous nonsense. She swore, however, that this ridiculous tragedy had in fact happened to friends of hers. After a somewhat shocked silence, during which we contemplated the awful loss of young life, the utter, terrible waste of it all, I asked if she had any plans to turn this into a story. 'No,' she said, then did not say, "But go ahead. Feel free."

And so I wrote the story. Over the next few months I heard other anecdotes from writers, some of which seemed too good to pass up. What made them seem like stolen stories was not that they were events from other's lives, but that they came from other writers- you can draw your own conclusions about my personal set of ethics from this. Anyway, my original intention was to write a whole bunch of these, but after a few I got sidetracked by the birth of my first child (who I will never, ever take swimming in anything but a pool). And so we made this anthology instead, which, if nothing else, will save me having to add even more people to my list of blocked senders.

Stolen Stories is a celebration of the 'stealing' of anecdotes or overheard conversations that just demand to be told but many writers resent the implication that their work has to be based on real life, and seem to get especially fed up with critics looking for autobiographical evidence in the writing. Why do you think the 'stealing' aspect of creativity is sometimes treated as a guilty secret?

NH: I think the reason so many writers resent critics looking for autobiographical scraps is that the whole sorry enterprise of 'biography as criticism' is, to my mind, an incredibly lazy way of looking at a writer's work, the implication being that the primary motivation of the author for writing is merely to recapitulate the details of his or her life. Whilst many of us are shameless egoists, I would suggest that most writers have somewhat grander aims than this, whether we manage to achieve them or not. Whilst a given work will inevitably contain elements drawn from a writer's own life, a knowledge of these is rarely a shortcut to understanding. In most cases, if the story or novel is any good, these elements will have been so transformed, so integrated into the narrative and its characters, that their resemblance to the details of the author's life might as well be coincidental.

I'm not sure that the 'stealing' aspect of creativity is a guilty secret. It's just not something we talk about. Not because we're ashamed. Or guilty. And not because we want to try to believe in the romantic notion of The Artist Who Creates Something From the Depths of His Soul As If He Were As God.

No, I'm sure the reason we don't talk about 'stealing' is that all of us are so fully conversant with the notion that an artist's oeuvre is of necessity a synthesis of all he or she has experienced that to even raise the topic of 'theft' would seem not only naïve and foolish, but also incredibly gauche.

Angus Woodward: We also receive a lot of signals whose message is "writers shouldn't steal." Publishers who fear litigation (i.e., all publishers) insert disclaimers along the lines of, "Nothing in this novel is based on anything or anyone anywhere, and if you think the girl in the purple skirt on p. 87 is you, you need therapy." And all writers have met people who have said, "I've got to tell you this--and you can use it in your book if you want to...," the premise being that we would only "use" the parts of their lives for which they've granted permission. And we don't feel like saying, "Well, I'm not going to use that, but I am going to use some of the details of your marriage to that foreign guy with the iffy reputation."

The book opens with Picasso's observation 'Bad artists copy, good artists steal'. Where do you draw the line between copying and stealing?

NH: It's a difficult line to draw. You need a very fine pencil. Either a high 'H' or better yet, one of those technical pencils.

AW: That thin gray line would demarcate the difference between servile replication and bold appropriation.

Many of the book's contributors are from overseas but now based in Scotland. Do you think the Scots provide particularly rich pickings when it comes to quotable conversations or memorable turns of phrase? Any anecdotes you've come across recently that you know will have to make it into print at some point?

NH: No, I do not think the Scots provide particularly rich pickings. No more than the Fore of New Guinea, or the pig people of Borneo. I must however confess a liking for the 'We'll pay for it later' attitude with which good weather is greeted. It suggests a worldview based not on the moment, whatever its transitory pleasures.

One reason so many of the contributors are now based in Scotland is that most of the people in their native lands have surely acquired the good sense to tell them as little as possible.

Yes, I've heard some good anecdotes. Currently my favourite is the one about some poor, brave souls who tried to interest the reading public in a volume of short stories by writers they had mostly not heard of.

AW: I have been tempted to steal a story that was itself stolen by its teller. A co-worker came into my friend's office and confided to her that he and his wife had never had sex. Before leaving, he swore her to secrecy. Then she told me, and swore me to secrecy. His name was Nathan.

The book aims to explore the ethics of taking moments of private life and turning them into public spectacle. What, if any, conclusions did you come to?

NH: Our main conclusion was that there is absolutely no problem with this, so long as there's no chance of meeting or speaking to any of the people who feature in your story. It's also very important that if these are people you are likely to meet, that they in fact already hate you, and, in some cases, have already broken up with you.

We also came to the conclusion that what angers people most is not so much the act of making the private public, but that you have already spilled the best of the beans they were going to smear across the pages of their how-I-became-a-celebrity-despite-my-utter-lack-of-talent memoir. Even this, I guess, is forgivable if the bean-spilling is what turns them into a celebrity. Sadly, a short story anthology is somewhat less effective for this purpose than sleeping with someone who regularly appears on the cover of Heat or Yes! or whatever those dreadful magazines are called that I have to look at when I stand in the queue in Scotmid.

AW: I've concluded that it is better (okay, safer) to steal from strangers than friends, and better (nicer?) to steal from friends than family. Family want to have some control over who reads what and try to insert vocal disclaimers to everyone they know who might read the story. Friends want to talk about your theft every time they see you. Strangers never know the difference.

  • Stolen Stories

    Cover scan of Stolen Stories


    An anthology of the finest 'stolen' stories, this is a collection of 16 tales from both established and eager, new thieves, all of whom have been forced to confess the source of their thefts.

Covers can of Stolen Stories