To mark the release of Gregory Norminton’s new short story collection, The Ghost Who Bled, we asked him to discuss and shed light on some the stories: his favourites, their origins, and his writing process. We are so excited to share this collection of stories spanning nearly twenty years of Gregory’s writing with you, so go and get reading!
You can get your own copy of the book from our website for a special discount price in paperback, and in all eBook formats. Or, head to your local bookshop to scope one out!
Comma: Do you have any favourites in the collection?
Gregory: I think the strongest stories are probably ‘The Ghost Who Bled’, ‘Zero+30’ and ‘Confessions of a Tyrant’s Double’. ‘Bottleneck’ is the most personal, as I was becoming a parent at the same time as my protagonist.
As is usually the case with fiction, these stories, and their ingredients, are an assemblage from personal experience, my reading habits, and deeper ethical and spiritual anxieties.
‘The Poison Tree’, whose defining moment happens in Malaya during the 1950s Emergency, evolved from my own experience, while shooting a TV documentary in 2005, of the Malaysian jungle. Kuala Lumpur, where we rested after filming, was in the grip of a sickening forest fire haze identical to the one that proves fatal to my character. The central theme of neighbourly enmity that fixes on a gingko tree has its roots in the baffling hostility, years ago, of a neighbour of my parents, whose inner demons sought expression in a hatred of my mother’s planting schemes. Thus, disparate ingredients combine to createstory.
‘Zero + 30’ also grew out of my travels, back in the day when I still travelled. My sense of Cambodia when I visited the country was conditioned by the experiences of my uncle’s partner, a Cambodian woman who survived Pol Pot’s killing fields. I found that I had neither the ‘right’ nor the ability to write from the point-of-view of a survivor. From this came the idea to tell the story from the perspective of the survivor’s pained and powerless American husband.
Some stories in this collection may have fantastic subject matter, yet even these have a personal dimension. The chronically marooned protagonist of ‘The Time Traveller’s Breakdown’ haunts the same Surrey heathland where I spent my childhood.
None of the stories in this book is autobiographical, yet this misses the point that one cannot tell a story without digging into one’s imaginative life. The old cliché that you must ‘write what you know’ is crippling until you realise that it is possible to know – with effort and humility – whatever can be imagined.
Comma: How would you describe your writing process?
Gregory: Writing a novel is very complex: you have many threads to weave together. With a short story, you may only have one thread. For this reason, I often begin with an image, a conceit, or a character. I tend to make plenty of notes, and as many of the stories in this collection are set abroad or in the past (or near future), I add flesh to the bones of my idea through extensive research. Eventually, however, the time comes to get on with the writing, which I tend to do on scraps of paper, by hand, starting with the outline and the bits that already excite me, and then filling in the gaps. Sort of like doing a jigsaw puzzle. I type up my rough draft, making changes as I go along, and then refine the prose – or attempt to – through repeated redrafts. This can go on for years! The oldest story in this collection was broadcast on Radio 4 seventeen years ago, yet I was still making small changes to it with the final proofs.
Comma: How would you describe the collection? What were your key themes or aims?
Gregory: The Ghost Who Bled is not a ‘themed’ collection of stories: it collects the better pieces that I have written over 20 years. However, I like to think that the book’s variety is a positive. I am not really into the ‘vignette’ and its hint of epiphany, the little turn in a life. Plenty of fine writers do this wonderfully, but I like expansive short stories that have some of the scope of the novel, yet compress it. I also tend not to write from my own experience, except obliquely, so that my stories are set in the distant past or the near future, in countries where I have never lived, and told from the perspectives of people quite unlike me. I do have a set of moral and political concerns, and these illuminate many of the stories in the book, but I try not to write polemically, and often the distant perspective is more illuminating, to me at least, than pointed and up-to-date satire. If the book has themes, they include the fate of the individual caught in the storm of history, the purpose (and limits) of resistance, and the strangeness and sadness of existence.
If you want to hear more about the collection and from Gregory himself, he will be reading and talking at two events in May.
An Evening with Gregory Norminton at Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester – 19th May (more info soon).