Jo Cannon's first short story collection, Insignificant Gestures (Pewter Rose Press, 2010) is one of those short story collections that provoked in me a physical reaction. I gasped as I finished a story, I had to put the book aside, I felt something in me was roiling and unsettled by Jo's powerful stories. It's hard these days after reviewing so many collections for me to find unique adjectives to describe what stories do to me, but I find Jo does something quite different in her writing, somehow a melding together of experiences as a GP and travels in Africa. The results, which are sometimes quite odd and surreal, are stories with characters you can't shake once you've finished the story, situations which are both deeply affecting and also, in small ways, hopeful.
Tania: When did you first know/decide you wanted to be a writer?
Jo: I don’t really see myself as a writer, Tania! But in primary school, long before I wanted to be a doctor, my ambition was to be an author. Failing this, I would be a show jumper – the horse, not the rider. The time came when I accepted I would never swish my tail in a show ring. But I didn’t relinquish the hope that one day I would write a book. I wrote numerous novels in those days, in exercise books with the top half of the page devoted to illustrations in felt pen. Mostly twaddle about running away with gypsies or ponies, or both. I didn’t start writing stories again until my mid forties. I needed time to collect better material.
T: Why short stories? What does the short story do for you, as a reader and as a writer?
J: The short story seems to be the genre that comes naturally to me. I made a couple of attempts at novels, but they were sewn up after 3,000 words. Time is an issue, of course. My writing tends to be intense and sporadic, so Insignificant Gestures took five years to write. Had I embarked on a novel I would have literally lost the plot. But I also think my job has pushed me into short stories. Every surgery feels like a collection.
T: What does the word "story" mean to you?
J: At the simplest level a story is a tale made up to entertain others. Ideally a short story should be intense and complete. It must be authentic, so that the reader understands how it feels to be someone else. The language should add meaning, for example, through metaphor. I admire this in other writers, but still have a long way to go!
T: How does a story come to you? Stories come to writers in many different ways: an image, a first line, a voice. What's yours?
J: Usually it is an emotion. Either one I have experienced, or that someone, telling their story, has transferred to me. Sometimes the heart of a story is a powerful, often troubling memory – not always my own - which I exorcise, and give meaning, by turning into fiction. Other stories begin with a dreamy "What if?" For example, sitting in a traffic jam and considering what would happen if I never got out.
T: How long did it take to write all the stories in this collection, and how did you decide what order to put them in?
J: The collection contains about two thirds of my work. Some earlier stories seem clumsy now, and I discarded them. When I considered that they might have a wider readership, some seemed too exposing of real people’s lives, or my own. My publisher rejected a few, chose which story to go first, and also decided on the collection’s title. I tried not to have too many first person narratives together, and followed sad stories with upbeat ones. I separated linked stories, but not too far, hoping the reader might be surprised to recognise the character from a previous incarnation. Eve appears at different ages and her stories are in chronological order, scattered through the collection, ending with her death. The book ends with Jam, which is a metaphor for Eve’s life, and life in general.
T: How does it feel knowing people are reading your book?!
J: I’m over-awed! And thrilled, of course. The book has already sold more than I, or my publisher, expected. I’m aware that a reader has expended a few hours of his or her life, and some hard earned dosh, on my book and I sincerely hope they feel it was worth it.
T: What are you working on now?
J: My ‘other’ job is really busy just now, so writing time is limited. And book promotion activities – like writing blog interviews! – are surprisingly time consuming. I feel the collection should get my best boot out into the world. But when all this settles down, I hope to get back to writing short stories again. I’ve learned so much in the last five years, I’m excited to think where the next five will take me.
Thank you so much, Jo, for those insights. We're exciting about where the next five years take you too! Find out more about the book and Jo's stories on her website, Jo Cannon.
Coming soon... blog interviews with Tom Vowler about his short story collection, The Method, and Andrew Oldham on his poetry collection, Lapwing.