The foreman of a desert building project embarks on a journey into California’s underworld when his employer’s daughter goes missing. A lonely widower confronts a disturbing and long suppressed memory. A divorced father tries to reconnect with his son on a hunting trip. The Burning Ground (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is the debut short story collection from award-winning Mancunian poet Adam O’Riordan transports readers to America’s West Coast, observed with an outsider’s eye.
What did the format of the short story allow you to do as a writer that poetry doesn’t?
I think the short story allows you to break free from what poets call “the lyric I”, which is to say that sense that when you’re writing a poem you’re writing in some way about “you” or a version of “you”. Strangely though, passing aspects of yourself through the prism of characters, which is I suppose what happens in a story, can actually be more revealing than poems can be. You sometimes find that you show more of yourself when wearing a mask, as it were.
As a Mancunian, what influenced you to set these stories in America’s West Coast?
I first started going to Los Angeles in 2008 just after finishing my year as poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. I ended up spending a large part of the next couple of years going back and forth to Los Angeles, spending several months of time there. It felt about as far from England as you could get but in some ways still part of the same continuum. I remember standing on Venice Beach early one morning, very jet-lagged on my first trip out and feeling that I had reached an edge of some sort, a kind of limit. And that was a very powerful feeling. I started writing the stories while living in an old bank one summer in downtown LA, which was and still is an incredibly vibrant neighbourhood with the big skyscrapers, the diamond shops, the piñata factories and of course skid row.
Are the eight stories in the collection linked?
Certain characters and places pop up in other stories but fairly quietly and always in the background. For example, the narrator in the title story paints a model up on the Bird Streets in Beverly Hills which is where the child in Black Bear in the Snow lives, and the actors in Magda’s a Dancer pass a man in the lift who may or may not be the painter from the Burning Ground and so on.
Why is male loneliness such an enduring theme in literature and why do you think it is seeing a resurgence now?
I hadn’t realised the stories were about men or indeed about loneliness until my editor at Bloomsbury pointed it out. Perhaps men don’t traditionally have the tools or the language to deal with loneliness. And I suppose we have to separate solitude, which is a form of elected aloneness, and loneliness, which I guess is sadder and more unspoken. I suppose the real masters of the short story, Chekhov, say or Joyce in Dubliners manage to locate that loneliness within the richness and vigour of the lived world.
Has your poetry influenced your writing style in stories?
I suppose in some ways they are quite similar. For instance I thought of the sonnets in my first book of poems, In the Flesh, as sort of very short stories. In other ways there was a lot to unlearn – for instance, over-reliance on a flashy or dazzling metaphor to get you out of trouble. The late William Trevor, master of the short story, said that short stories were concerned with the “total exclusion of meaninglessness”, which is a good way of putting it, I think.
As a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University’s writing school, did you adhere to the advice you give to your students when writing these stories?
The best advice is usually about what to read, not how to write. The tutors at the writing school at Manchester Met are more guides than instructors, helping to structure and broaden the students’ reading. We’ve developed a really special culture there during Carol Ann Duffy’s time as creative director and I think our 80 published graduates are testament to that. There’s a wonderful sense of family and community at the writing school.
Do you have plans for a novel?
Yes, I’m about half way through one. It’s set here in Manchester and follows a family, two sisters and a brother, from 1890 through to the eve of the First World War. I suppose in some ways it’s a sort of Mancunian version of Thomas Mann’s first novel Buddenbrooks. I’m always drawn to the historical reconstruction of the city. I think I’m testing the patience of my editors but I hope it will be worth the wait. I’ve also been working on a pilot for a TV show with the novelist Joe Stretch.