Magical Realism panel
Interview conducted by Beth Roberts.
Julia Armfield is a fiction writer, shortlisted for the 2019 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, who lives and works in London. Julia’s recent short story collection, salt slow, was longlisted for the 2020 Polari Prize and I wanted to find out how she approaches her short-form and upcoming long-form writing. Leading up to the Magical Realism panel, we also discussed her opinion on the genre she works in, her expertise in Victorian literature and her lockdown reading habits.
Q: Your most recent work salt slow is a collection of short stories, whilst on your Twitter, you have mentioned that you are working on a novel. How have you found writing long-form fiction in comparison to writing short stories?
I think you could call short stories my first love. People often take the view that short stories are in some way limiting – that the short form allows you less space to say what you need to say – but I actually find the structure of a short story very freeing. There is so much that you necessarily don’t have room to say and this allows the unspoken margins of the short story to be broader and more ambiguous. There is the freedom for the reader to imagine whatever they want outside the boundaries of a short story, which I don’t think a novel quite allows. Likewise, I think there are certain pressures that the longform novel imposes, particularly the fact that you and the reader have to exist alongside the characters you’ve created for so much long than you do with a short story. There is an added imperative to make your characters and your scenario bearable, if not to say likeable, simply because you have to sit with them for so much longer. It can be much more emotive, and you can build up a level of concern and love for characters in a different way than you do with short stories, but it can also ramp up the pressure.
Q: You have a Masters in Victorian Art and Literature. Are there any aspects of Victorian literature that have inspired your writing?
Not particularly, as least in a structural sense, although my Masters Dissertation was on images of hair, teeth and nails in the Victorian imagination, which I think definitely speaks to the kind of preoccupations I’ve had for a very long time. I’m fascinated by the way the physical body is used in writing – the way it can be seen as a site of violence and breakdown, the way it takes on double meanings, the way Victorian writing in particular is so often physically punitive. There’s a fascinating bit at the very beginning of A Tale of Two Cities where Dickens preludes his descriptions of Paris with a passage in which an anonymous body is slowly dismembered, apparently at the whim of a sort of personified France, and it sets the tone for the entire novel – a novel in which the abstract human body is always felt to be this queasily vulnerable thing. When you look, Victorian literature is really replete with shorn heads and teeth falling out and bodies betraying themselves and being betrayed and this is a theme I find myself coming back to a lot in my own writing.
Q: How did it feel being shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2019?
Stressful! I don’t think any writer I know is good at being shortlisted for things because most of us get by thinking we’re terrible ninety percent of the time. So much of writing is basically just talking to yourself in the mirror so it’s very strange to have it all suddenly taken very seriously, to find that you were actually talking to a lot of people besides yourself the whole time.
Q: The Sunday Times described salt slow as “full of gothic menace and beautiful writing”. How would you best describe the genre that you write in?
I think I write queer horror, most of the time, or queer speculative fiction. I like to be able to address ordinary things from a slight squint and I’m fascinated by the way uncanny and unfamiliar things become normalised so quickly. I really enjoy constructing a strange situation and then taking it as read – not the shock of the new but the banality of afterwards.
Q: As someone who has written both fiction and non-fiction, do you approach different genres of writing in different ways, or do you have a consistent approach to all your writing?
Not particularly. I’m very methodical – I prefer to start at the beginning and work my way to end. I’m quite precise on the first round which tends to help with edits but also makes it harder to let go of things you know you need to cut later. I don’t really think there’s one way of writing successfully but there’s often only one way for you to write successfully, if you know what I mean.
Q: What do you find to be the hardest thing about writing? Does this differ when you change from fiction to non-fiction, or short-form to long-form?
I think the hardest thing is convincing yourself. Audience buy-in is one thing, but if you can’t make yourself believe in what you’re doing then everything becomes ten times harder.
Q: Throughout the subsequent lockdowns and pandemic, have you been reading in addition to writing? Do you have any favourite contemporary writers to read?
Most recently I’ve been rereading Our Magic Hour and Pulse Points by Jennifer Down, an Australian writer who I really think more people should be aware of. I do a lot of rereading when I’m editing, so over the course of the pandemic I’ve been rereading Annie Proulx, Stephen King, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. Katherine Dunne’s Geek Love etc etc. I recently read Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, which was brilliant. I also just read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton for the first time and am now very frustrated I can’t just immediately read it again!
It was absolutely wonderful to hear Julia’s thoughts on the short story as a literary form and discover where she situates herself within the genres of queer horror and queer speculative fiction. After seeing Julia’s wide range of lockdown reading, I understand why her writing is so exciting and nuanced and why there seems to be simultaneously a nostalgic feel to her prose and a visceral sensation of something utterly new and contemporary. I hope to see many faces at the Magical Realism panel to relish and revel in Julia Armfield’s fantastically melancholy writing style and the haunting tone of her narratives.
Buy Julia’s book
The electrifying debut from the White Review Prize winner
Shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award
‘Wickedly clever prose and a sense of humour that seems to loom up like a character in itself’ M JOHN HARRISON, Guardian
In her brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge.
Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, S alt Slow considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new entirely.
Winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018, Armfield is a writer of sharp, lyrical prose and tilting dark humour – S alt Slow marks the arrival of an ambitious and singular new voice.
‘Salt Slow is exemplary. A distinct new gothic, melancholy, powerful and poised.’ China Mieville, author of The City & The City
Beth Roberts is a Creative Writing MA Student at the University of Surrey, who will be chairing Saturday lunchtime’s Magical Realism panel during this year’s festival.
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