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Exclusive Author Interview #8

#8 Clarion and the Art of the Short Story

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JB: What about short stories? Let's talk about those for a little while. You have written short stories?

TP: I have probably written about six.

JB: I find it interesting that you teach at Clarion – it's a short story writing course – and I've read that you have said about short stories, and I'm paraphrasing here, that it takes as long to plan a short story as it does to do a novel and it pays half as well! So you may as well write the novel.

TP: Right! In fact "half as well" wouldn't be putting it right. A short story probably pays about, I don't know, two to five hundred dollars – and you do want more than twice that for a book! And I have noticed that unless I'm very careful when I write a short story it's either, on the one hand a pointless vignette in which the reader is invited to see implied depths of meaning that aren't there, or on the other hand a telescoped novel. And I mean telescoped like what happens to your legs if your parachute doesn't open!

The characters all come to conclusions way too quick – with insufficient clues. The actions way too fast, too sweeping …

JB: This isn't he case with the short stories you've written though?

TP: Of course not. Ha! It was the case with a lot of short stories I wrote that never got published! But I do find it way more work than it is arguably worth. I've had some fun collaborating with Jim Blaylock on short stories, because he's more a natural short story writer.

JB: Is that what it boils down to? Ostensibly you are just not a short story writer?

TP: I don't think in terms of that length, yeah. But it's fun with Blaylock, because I'll write a first page and give it to him and he'll give it back to me a few days later and it's three pages. And I think – Wow! Look at all this! And I totally rip his stuff up and rearrange it and give it back to him with more added on and he'll rip up mine and… it is sort of a painless way to do it. And it involves going for out for pizza and arguing and stuff and that's always fun.

JB: And yet you teach short story writing?

TP: Yeah. Well I have done it. Ha!

JB: But it's interesting that you take that understanding that you simply don't function best in that form as a writer yourself, but you still are able to pass on your knowledge and wisdom to people who may well be good in that area.

TP: Yeah. I can tell them what would be improvements. I can tell them what they're doing right, what they're doing wrong and a lot of the advice on writing is valid for both novel and short story. Things like characterisation, setting, how to do action, how to do dialogue. And, of course, Clarion students are writing short stories while they're at Clarion , but in probably most cases their ambitions include novel writing. And so they do also want to hear about that.

And there is that great theory that if you want to become a writer, you start with the short story. Do you subscribe to that?

TP: Not necessarily. I did write short stories before I wrote novels, but none of them were published. I didn't have a short story published 'til '83, by which time I think The Anubis Gates was out. It often does happen… well probably in my case too it did happen that I learned a lot of the sheer mechanics of moving paragraphs around by playing with short stories, but in my case none of those were ever published. So, I don't think it's necessary that… for example, if I was talking to a young writer who felt that his or her strength was to do novels, but that they felt somehow duty bound to do some short stories first, I would say no, don't bother. If you really want to write novels first, go ahead and write novels first.