Eley Williams’ short story collection, Attrib. and Other Stories, has received the kind of reviews all writers dream of – the writer Max Porter said: “I love it in a way I usually reserve for people” and Cal Revely-Calder writing in the Guardian called the collection “beautiful”. Ahead of her appearance at Spike Island Williams tells Joe Melia more about her writing and her delight in language.
A love of words and where they appear fills Attrib. – have you always been fascinated by them?
Whether its following unusual etymologies and words’ origins or groaning at the best-but-worst puns, I think that everyone enjoys messing around with language and the ways it can be dismantled or twiddled. My PhD investigated false entries and hoaxes that appear in dictionaries and encyclopaedias which gave me a chance to exploit a specific delight in words’ tricksiness and precarity, the feints and sleights that exist within language as well as its power — the expectations that we have for language and our (in)ability to communicate our thoughts clearly does preoccupy me.
Attrib. has had a great reception and some glowing reviews. How pleased have you been with the reaction to it?
I’m so glad that people seem to be enjoying it. Ali Smith is one of my favourite writers — to think that she had been anywhere near my work let alone read it and selected Attrib. as pick of 2017’s fiction books is a complete dream. I’m completely verklempt and keep gently squawking.
The word ‘experimental’ is often used to describe your writing. Do you see your work in that way?
I don’t set out to scotch a reader’s expectations for prose, and I’m never actively trying to evade a ‘mainstream’ or traditional, orthodox format. Prose is an elastic, generous form and allows so much: I suppose again the word is playfulness. If the presentation of a character’s thought process would be complemented by a lack of punctuation, for example, or a narrator’s tentative nature can be conveyed or amplified on the page by a ricocheting of indented paragraphs, I think the reader enjoys the fact that the story form can be unsettled as well as unsettling. But gimmick can be as plodding as stricture — I hope any experiments are done in a way that attends the text’s needs and themes rather than serve as distractions.
Are you happiest writing poetry or prose?
I do find that writing the first draft of a poem has an enjoyable sense of immediate release compared to the more protracted drafting and shaping process that I need to go through when attempting a satisfying (or a satisfyingly unsatisfying!) short story. Both permit an enjoyable noodling and doodling, exuberant blurts — and both result in many, many wastepaper baskets unhappily filled with abandoned drafts. Maybe prose-poetry is where true happiness lies.
How have teaching Creative Writing and editing 3:AM magazine affected your own work?
Both roles are a complete privilege and I consider myself very lucky to be able to read fresh, engaged and engaging contemporary work regularly. It certainly does ensure that I can never be too precious about my work — just as I know that sometimes some editorial guidance can improve a story whether in a seminar workshop or in a back-and-forth with scribbled notes in the margins of an author’s piece, it means I must pull myself up when writing and ask the same questions of my own work, probe the same wounds with the same kind of wincing alertness. Has my story been designed to have a desired effect upon a reader, or did I only hope that it might? Is my piece derivative in a way that wasn’t obvious while writing? Did I mean to misspell the word desiccated quite so consistently before I hit ‘Print’? Basically, both teaching and editing roles have trained me to make sure I don’t get too slapdash in my own writing lest my students buy a big hat with HYPOCRITE written on it and make me wear it.