LISP 2nd Half 2021 Short Story Finalist 'Tolstoy's Mice' by Guy Ware
- Can you please tell us about you and your daily life?
I am a novelist and short-story writer. Until a year or so ago, I was also a bureaucrat. I spent thirty-something years inside Kafka's Castle, trying to make things better, or at least less bad, or bad less quickly. I left the office on March 23rd 2020 and haven’t been back. This is true for many people, of course, but in my case it’s because after nine months of helping mitigate the crisis from my attic, I retired. As I didn’t work in Downing Street, I am yet to have a leaving party.
I live in New Cross with my wife and two adult children, whose pandemic was worse than mine.
- When and how did you get into writing?
I always feel as though writing is something I started relatively late and relatively recently. Doing the sums for this questions, though, I realise it has been almost twenty years since I submitted my first story, and promptly found myself reading a very personal howl of guilt and fear to a room full of strangers. After that, I became a regular.
An early story was picked for an anthology by Comma Press, who then set me a challenge: write a story a month for a year and, if they were good enough, they would publish a collection. So I wrote a story a month for a year - which was just the discipline I needed - and after four years of the sort of editorial wrangling publishers mostly can’t sustain these days, out popped ‘You Have 24 Hours to Love Us’.
A couple of years later, I’d finished drafting my first novel, ’The Fat of Fed Beasts'. So I did what I later rdiscovered I wasn’t supposed to do: sat in a pub (I did a lot of editing in pubs, pre-Covid) dranking a couple of pints while banging out a cover email full of jokes to the wonderful Salt Publishing; I hit send without re-reading, much less sleeping on it. Nothing happened. After a couple of months I re-sent it, politely wondering if my first email had somehow slipped down the back of their e-sofa. And, despite my woeful lack of professionalism, the rest as they say is history. When the Guardian reviewer said it was the best debut he’d read in years, I thought I was made. Made up, certainly. Seven years and three more novels later I;, still waiting for Hollywood to call, but I’m still publishing, still getting reviewed and - most important - still finding readers.
My latest novel, ’The Peckham Experiment’ comes out in October.
- How often do you write? Do you have a writing routine? And what inspires you to write?
I am a recovering bureaucrat. I now write Monday to Friday, mostly in the mornings. Afternoons and evenings are for research, reading, admin, editing food and Twitter. Too much Twitter. Weekends are for family. And Twitter.
What inspires me? What inspires anybody? Fear of failure, I suppose.
- How does it feel to have your work recognised?
Like being in love. Finally someone gets what you’re about. They’re probably wrong, but by the time you both figure that out, it’s too late.
- What's the best thing and the most challenging thing about writing a Story?
With a short story you can start from a mood, a phrase, an image and let it play out. A first draft might take a week - and then you know if there’s a story there (though that’s when the real work starts). The challenge is knowing if it's any good. With a novel that might take two years. That’s how long I spent writing a 90,000 word draft before spending another year cutting it down into a 30,000-word novella which I threw away.
- How did you come up with the idea for your LISP selected story? Is there a story behind your story? And, how long have you been working on it?
I don’t much like the “write what you know” school of thought - I prefer to write what I don’t know in the hope of finding something out - but ‘Tolstoy’s Mice' is about a political cartoonist who has given up publishing his cartoons because he no longer thinks there’s any point, and a woman who thinks he’s wrong. So you tell me.
Also, the mice are real - in the sense that Tolstoy really wrote about them in his Confession. A lot of fiction never mentions books, in the same way, I suppose, that characters in other soaps never watch Eastenders. But I spend a lot of my life reading; I imagine my readers do, too. Wouldn’t it be odd if something that important to us never bled into my stories?
- Can you please give us a few tips about writing a Story?
Don’t do it. There’re too many already.
- What's the best thing and the most challenging thing about competitions?
- Lastly, do you recommend the writers give a go on LISP?
Of course. But do recognise that competitions are all more or less a lottery. I once helped sift entries, having won a prize the previous year. I read fifty stories and my brief was to pick three. There were perhaps a dozen other readers: six or seven hundred entries. None of my recommendations even made it to the long-list. That’s no reason not to enter, of course, just to be sanguine about not winning. “Posh bingo,” Julian Barnes called the Booker, a quarter of a century before he finally won it.