We’ve had him on The Great Word Nerd before and we’re honored to welcome him again in 2018—award-winning British author Nigel Jarrett is back to share the scoop on his latest book, a collection of stories called Who Killed Emil Kreisler? The collection appeared last year from the independent publisher Cultured Llama and is picking up some complimentary reviews (see below). Nigel is a former daily-newspaperman and a regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review and other publications, including Jazz Journal International and Acumen poetry magazine. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His first collection of stories, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in The Independent, The Guardian, and The Times, and long-listed for the Edge Hill prize. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.
What is the latest collection about?
Well, lots of things. As with my first story collection, Funderland, its contents were chosen from an increasing store of published short fiction. This is how most collections are put together, but it’s always interesting and instructive to try to discover a theme. If there’s one here it is the vast richness of human experience. The collection also travels geographically for no other reason than that it’s a way of asserting universals. I’m always interested in temporality, the idea that our time on this miraculous but much-abused planet is limited, or has ended, or is coming to an end. Sometimes the reader has to nose around for evidence of this in these stories, but it’s there. As well as geography there’s also human interest, especially humanity in its marvellous and less-appealing manifestations. There’s a story about a failing Swedish zoo; a child living through the horrors of war in Africa; a late 19th-century exchange of letters between an English writer in Paris and his American friend in New York; an embittered Russian musician on a tour of the British provinces in winter; and so forth. The title story will interest American readers. It’s a piece of short fiction based on the death of the Viennese composer Anton Webern at the end of World War 2. Webern accidentally breached a curfew and was shot by a drunken US infantryman called Raymond Norwood Bell. I became interested in the idea of a soldier who unwittingly shoots someone famous in war and learns about it later. Poor old Bell died an alcoholic and full of remorse. He was treated badly. I have fictionalised the story, which is told by a Mid-Westerner in the first person. By the way, I’m a self-taught artist and I designed the collage that forms the cover of the book. I also drew the image on the cover of my début poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool.
What inspired you to write the book?
The same thing that inspires all writers: the desire to ‘get into print.’ As I mention above, with a story collection this is a two-fold process, a double publication—first in magazines, then between the covers of a book. Predictions about the death of the book and of print will be proved wrong, are already being proved wrong. That said, I have a lot of work published on websites like this one. It’s a far better way of reaching a wide audience. I was also aware of belonging to a tradition of short-story writing, with my focus always but not exclusively on America. So Hemingway, Bierce, Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Munro (I know, she’s Canadian!), Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, William Gass, Denis Johnson, John Updike are inspirational; in Britain and Ireland, among the moderns, Graham Swift, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jon McGregor, Colin Barrett. I’m also inspired by the willingness of publishers like Cultured Llama, against the prospect of making money, to continue bringing out story collections. One’s own exertions are merely drops in the ocean, but one has the satisfaction of making the effort. Some time, one might make a bigger splash.
What was the most difficult part?
Undoubtedly choice. At any one time I have enough published stories to bring out another collection and half of a third. One critic said Who Killed Emil Kreisler? was too rich a mixture. My riposte was that a story collection cannot be read in one go. I always encourage readers to take in one, at most two, stories and think about them. Stories are always open-ended. Supply an ending, imagine what happened before and after the story’s decisive moment. Then go on to the next couple.
Editing is not difficult, having been previously published, a story’s refurbishing has already been done, though not necessarily to the book publisher’s satisfaction. I did have to reject one story in Funderland, because my editor wanted a virtual re-write and I wasn’t prepared to do it. We agreed to differ. (The story did appear in this collection, unaltered! There’s no accounting for taste.)
What is your advice to authors who like your work?
Never give a thought to wanting to fire up the literary world. That way lies accommodation, self-delusion, and disappointment. Just write. Anything. As Henry James, reported by Ezra Pound, said when drowning in subordinate clauses, ‘Something will come, something will come…’ The English novelist Anthony Powell once committed himself to writing 300 words a day. Alan Sillitoe encouraged writers to write anything, even a short letter to someone, or a reminder to self. I’d encourage everyone to blog. I used to fill notebooks with thoughts and ideas; now I blog (www.NigelJarrett.wordpress.com)
What is your writing process?
I live an ordinary life interrupted by ideas for stories, poems, essays, and novels. And I just write when I can, when I feel like it. I can usually make time. Sometimes I write 500 words a day, sometimes 3,000. I read a lot and discard a lot. Updike said a writer was at base a reader who ‘wanted to get in on the act.’ How true. Often I’ll go a long while just thinking about writing. They are usually pleasant thoughts. I don’t revise much. I should. When something has been rejected three times I decide that it needs looking at. But I rarely make drastic changes. Small ones usually make a rejected script acceptable. I’ve been luck in having a career – it still goes on in freelance form – where I have to write because I’ve been told to or I have agreed to. On a newspaper my daily readership might have been in the tens of thousands. Any thing less than that has to be an anti-climax, but book readers and newspaper readers are different fish. I now live in a former psychiatric hospital converted to flats. That’s got the creative juices bubbling. I always use a fountain pen when writing longhand and I use Lamy black ink; the ink is German and expensive, but it’s stylish rather than Biro-vulgar. I love stationery; there’s a lot of it in Wilko’s and it’s cheap. Sonny Rollins said he couldn’t understand anyone who saw a tenor sax glowing in a case and did not want to learn to play it. I feel the same, mutatis mutandis, about the Silvine Perfecto exercise books I buy.
Have you ever had difficulty dealing with a publisher?
No. Except those who’ve rejected my manuscripts. But that’s not difficulty; that’s disappointment. I don’t have an agent. I had a bad experience in that department when a London agent – well-known in the UK – asked me for a script. I sent it, and nine months later I had to chase it up. He’d given it to a colleague and promised to get back to me. He didn’t. I contacted the colleague and she said she’d lost it and asked if I could send it again. I didn’t reply. I’ll be glad when agents and other middlepersons are history. I write for a magazine called Mistress Quickly’s Bed (formerly The Penniless Press), edited by a wonderful eccentric called Alan Dent in Preston, in the north of England. Alan once experimented with contributions and bylines as separate lists. You knew who’d contributed but you couldn’t match a contribution with a writer. His argument was that an author’s name on a piece of work was irrelevant (it certainly is at the ‘small literary magazine’ level). Alan probably thinks that publishing your work for free on the internet with no concern for copyright is the ideal. OK for those who don’t have to make a living from writing but bad news for those who do. Perhaps writers shouldn’t be paid anyway. Maybe they should do useful work in the day, such as looking after the elderly and vulnerable, write at night, and upload finished work on to the internet, gratis. Now there’s a thought.
Which newspapers do you take?
The Guardian mostly, but not every day. The Times when I can’t get The Guardian, though I loathe Rupert Murdoch and his phone-hackers. British newspapers are mostly predictable and right-wing (though not alt-Right). I read a lot of magazines, such as the New Yorker, the Spectator, the New Statesman, The Oldie, Private Eye. This reflects a political spectrum. As a writer I’m not political and I dislike fiction with an unstated, political undertow; I can spot in within three paragraphs. My advice to writers is: subscribe to small literary magazines (SLMs) in any part of the English-speaking world. They probably won’t pay but their acceptances (and rejections) are usually an accurate reflection of your work. Look up writing opportunities on websites as well. The best of them will only publish the best; the internet for them is not an endless and accommodating prairie.
Where can readers buy your books?
On Amazon and from the publishers. There are details on the internet. I have an Author’s Page on Amazon. Last year, too, an independent publisher brought out my first novel, Slowly Burning, based loosely on my life in newspapers, though on an observational level: perish any thought that I should be identified with its narrator!
Here are links to my publishers and some reviews of Who Killed Emil Kreisler?