By Tom Conaghan
This story is like a one-punch knockout. The range and depths of emotions are shocking, the control and craft astounding. I spoke to Courttia about where the story came from, the emotions and politics behind it and the work that went into getting it as tight as it needed to be.
What was your starting point for this story?
I can’t remember what made me want to write a story on this particular theme. What I do remember was I was really really pissed off because I had been rejected for something on the basis that they didn’t understand what I was doing.
I felt like I was being dictated to by what other people wanted, like I was ploughing a very lonely path of Black British writing. So this was me saying how can I write the most fuck off story to everyone because I’m not going to change.
I remember I wanted to use this idea of marrying a European arthouse cinema sensibility to what people call urban fiction, because this had been what I was trying to do in the project that had just got rejected.
I was really upset at the time. Mark Duggan was in the news a lot then so I was really angry. This might have been when I wrote the ‘Gospel According To Cain.’ I was fed up with the whole thing, with rights and I was fed up with the rejection as well and this was the point that I started.
In your guide Writing Short Stories, you mention the notes and ‘working out’ you do in your planning stage. What notes did you make when you first planned this story?
I think how I wrote it was, once I had the idea, I wrote the story in one or two days.
Afterwards, when I did the redrafts, it was more line-by-line, the structure was already there, everything else was just chipping away at it to make every word super-tight.
If you’ve got Sarah [Hall] and Peter [Hobbs] as your editors [for the story collection Sex and Death] you know it was going to get interrogated the hell out of on every single word, particularly the ending, Peter was saying its got to be right, its not quite right the ending. Originally the way I had it, it didn’t quite lock.
It was always the same ending, but I hadn’t settled on what the last word was going to be? I tried to lock it but it didn’t quite work. I can’t remember how many times I worked on those last few lines of that last paragraph.
I was going to ask you more about your ending. What did you want for your ending?
I wanted to start with him as a dead body and end with him as a human being. In a place we all recognise doing a recognisable thing.
Patricia Cumper, the artistic director of Talawa Theatre, said she would not put another black body on the stage — people find it really upsetting that all the time we see black men associated so much with death.
So it was a bold thing to start with a dead body, not that I’m thumbing my nose at it, but people in our community are very uncomfortable that someone is doing that old trope again. I like to take tropes and reinvigorate them — to start with it and then end with something completely different.
When you first took the decision to reverse the chronology, what effect(s) did you want to have? Did you later find any other unexpected effects of this decision?
No, I don’t think so. The point was to move from generic headline to find his humanity. [Fred D — ] said you brought him back to life. And that was the point — I wanted people to see the body, then the antagonists, the police, and then the environment that he comes from and then the forces that had lain in wait to trip him up, and then, finally, him at home. Those were the stages for me.
How did you write this? Did you start from instinct and then shape it, as you describe in your book and then later used the intellect to ask questions of what you’d done unconsciously?
Yeah, completely. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just trying to write something that was in my head.
Unless a story is very long I don’t tend to plan it out on paper. This didn’t need many notes. For us, this is a recurring thing — the whole thing with Mark Duggan, it is not the first time this has happened to someone from Broadwater. With these types of stories, I didn’t need much to write it — it was just there.
You know the details — it’s the same details every time though it might not always end in the shooting of a person. I’ve got a few friends who are dead after contact with the police.
On first reading, I didn’t initially understand that time was moving backwards straight away — was it important that the first section of your story disoriented the reader?
Yeah definitely, because there’s a point — almost like the biting point — when a story really gets going. I wanted to start a little bit before that biting point just before it starts to really go and then overbalances and tips over the edge.
I didn’t want it to be obvious at the beginning. Instead I described the body stirring in really miniscule detail so the story could gather pace from there.
I didn’t want you to know it was reversing until you were part of the way into the story — it was about surprising people with that strategy. It’s funny, people ask me about how I wrote this and the answer is that actually the easiest thing in writing this was writing in reverse.
Was it a conscious strategy to make the language so beautiful and poetic? It made me think of a Steinbeck quote: “With the rhythms of poetry one can get into a reader, open him up and while he is open introduce things on an intellectual level, which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up.” Is there a link between the poetic and political in your story?
Yes, I get what Steinbeck is saying about a story being intellectual and also emotional — that if people can feel it then maybe they can understand it intellectually because it’s seeped into them.
I want people to go away and think about it and not think ‘that was some next’ story — for me it’s more about the emotional which poetry gives you.
I see that world differently to other people. There is a strange beauty in that shit, the culture and humanity that exists in that place has a kind of beauty and poetry to it. I wanted to hone in on those things as well. It’s having that vision directed at a place like that — it doesn’t happen enough and I wanted to see if it was possible to do that, and it turns out it is.
When you edited this story, what changes and improvements did you find yourself making?
I didn’t write a lot. With short stories I tend to keep it quite tight unless it’s going to be a longer short story, like with ‘That Right To Be There’ where I consciously wrote a big expansive short story and treated it like a novel. I wrote it after I read a Daphne du Maurier short story called ‘Monte Verita’ about a mountain with two guys and a woman that spans twenty years. When I read it, I was impressed you could do that, I hadn’t really seen anything like it before and I wanted to set out to cover a twenty year timeframe.
But with this story it was alway meant to be tight, it was very much about keeping it super short with that structure of humanity — I only wanted to reveal his name in the last instance.
The editing was just the words — it was talking about each one and asking, is this word the right one?
We spent a lot of time on the moment that the bullets come out of his chest. Sarah said that it has to be totally right image-wise, rhythm-wise and in its pacing, everything has to be correct. By which I mean whether it has the right emotional impact, when you hear it, read, does it sound right, does it land right, does it give you that feeling, that’s what we were talking about — whether it locked in.
It wasn’t an intellectual ending, it was an emotional ending. Do you get that woah feeling when it finishes of ‘I get it, I understand’? Has information been conveyed and do you get what the story’s about? Even though you might not understand it intellectually, you may just feel that ‘wow he’s sitting and being fed by his mum’! I think especially now we recognise those sorts of things even more, the impact of a mother feeding a son is even more stark. That’s the only edits we did — we didn’t pare it back or lengthen it at all.
You said that writing this story was pretty painless, which is amazing considering its technical challenges. When you read this story now, what skills do you notice in its crafting?
Its structure and language were good, its ability to characterise without exposition was good. It was one of my first stories for doing that. Weirdly enough this feels like one of those ‘short story’ stories that does what the form demands. Like Tobias Wolf’s short story ‘Bullet in the Brain’, I felt like I’d written a ‘story’ story — I mean, I don’t think you can argue this is a short story or has the effect its wants to give.
Edna O’Brien’s ‘Plunder’ is another one of those stories a ‘short story writer’s short story — I don’t know how many people have read it but whenever they do they’re like ‘fucking hell!’
It’s just like one of those stories. When I read it I was like I want do that! There’s two other stories where I’ve tried to do that flagrantly, to try to write like ‘Plunder’.
But really with ‘Reversible’, I was trying to do what came to mind. I had an urge to write my own story and of course it felt more successful in trying to be like ‘Plunder’ because I was being myself. The story just does that thing. I’ve got lots of stories which weren’t liked unanimously but this one always seems to be liked.
What did you learn in the writing of this?
I suppose I learnt that I’m probably at my best when I really don’t give a damn and I’m taking risks. The fun comes in the risk-taking and in the challenge.
Also what I took from that time weirdly enough was the feeling that now I had the sense I was ready. I started off writing short stories after being a novelist and I had to learn it, I wrote a lot of terrible short stories before I was even halfway good — like a whole load of stories that no one’s ever going to see — but after ‘Reversible’ now I can definitely say I’m a short story writer.
It’s not to say I hadn’t written good stories before but this had the whole sense that I had this urge to tell a story and I chose a short story, not a film or a novel, and it came out, it worked well. I took confidence from that; it gave me a freedom to be bold and creative.
There had been good times before that but I hadn’t felt I had got to the feeling I had had an entirely successful venture. I hadn’t felt that thing before that I had cracked it with that one. I’d felt that about bits of stories before but not in that ‘whole’ way that I really liked everything.
When I was writing it I just felt I knew what I wanted to say and it was coming out alright. I struggled with some things but with this one the writing of it is sort of unmemorable because it came out alright. It’s strange that people say it’s really complicated because it didn’t feel complicated at the time, it felt really natural. I felt like I was in the flow.
Courttia Newland’s new collection of speculative short stories, Cosmogramma, is out from Canongate on 28th October.