Recently, I was pleased to be able to contribute a story to Little, Brown’s charity eBook, No Man & Other Stories to Help Haiti. All proceeds go to UNICEF to help children affected by the earthquake.
The book includes short stories by Alexander McCall Smith, Dorothy Koomson, Stella Duffy, Kate Furnivall and lots of others. I’m reading it myself at the moment and it’s full of heartwarming stories.
If you’d like a copy, just click on the book cover.
Writing Short Stories
When I was a kid, we lived on a converted Devon farm, with wheat fields and disused barns to play in. I used to roam with my elder sister and two younger brothers, spinning wild stories about being refugees on the run. We’d frighten ourselves as we sprinted from enemy planes (or from the neighbouring farmer, who didn’t like us rearranging bales in his hay barn), with me narrating every skidding step of the way to the safety of the tree house and the stash of ginger biscuits mum had given us for ‘rations’. Making up and acting out stories was part of the way we lived, and we knew that as long as we had imagination, boredom didn’t exist.
If novels are slow-cooked like baked potatoes, and poems are as zingy and fresh as lemons, then short stories could be likened to a sandwich. Any ingredients are possible and it’s not a lengthy matter. But for me, it’s hard to write short stories if I’m deeply into a novel. I prefer to write them when I’ve finished the first novel draft and am waiting for editorial comments, or when any other natural break in the process occurs. This is because the imagery of the novel-in-progress infects every prose piece that I do and write. At one point when I was immersed in Breathing in Colour, elephant imagery was getting everywhere, criss-crossing from one character to the other so that I had to forcibly remove it in places, and it even seeped into my poems. It’s the oddest thing. So now I avoid writing short stories while I’m building the creative bones of a novel, so that my work doesn’t become repetitive.
Right now, I’m in the situation of not having managed to carve out the time or headspace to write a new story in many months, let alone reach the point where I can polish a piece and send it off to a competition, as the novel is my full focus. Still, I jot down the moments or images that catch my imagination, and console myself that these are sparks from which to develop future pieces. Below are excerpts from two of my stories, both of which work with dreamlike, rather surreal imagery.
Excerpt from The Kielius Fish
Copyright Clare Jay 2008
[…] This fish was a bold lemon-yellow and was swimming fatly down to the right-hand corner of the canvas. Its eye was made from the silver lid of a tin can. The artist had decorated eggshells in pale greens and vivid yellows and then crushed them into the thick welts of acrylic paint to create scales. Around the fish, he had ground cigarette stubs into sweeps of purple within crimson. Lilia noticed with a jolt that inside the belly of the fish the artist had pasted a black-and-white newspaper image of a foetus. The collage was entitled The Kielius Fish.
Lilia knew that beauty could vanish at any moment. For this reason, she stored up beauty in her head. If she saw, on the way to work, a particularly green leaf splashed with water droplets which the sun was knifing into crystals, she would slow to look at the sight, taking a mental photograph. Changes in the light would make her pause as she breathed in the beauty, trying to store it somewhere within. Beauty, much like happiness, was an inconstant, she felt. It came and went. She walked as close to the painting as she dared, and stared at it unblinkingly until her eyes ran with tears. […]
The following day, in the little house she had rented near an artificial lake a few minutes from the centre of Kiel, Lilia bent to wrap a towel around her wet hair when she saw a flash of lemon-yellow in the toilet bowl. She peered closer and saw a little fish down there, as bright as a butterfly, with feathery fins. She caught her breath and watched its big silver eye as it flashed around in the water. Should she flush it to the sea? She imagined it swimming down the Kiel Canal with joyous flicks of its tail. But she knew it would die on the way, be eaten by drain rats or battered in the U-bend pipe, its glowing yellow scales corroded by chemicals. She couldn’t flush it away. […]
Excerpt from The Sandhopper Lover
Copyright Clare Jay 2009
[…] A man in black with a pale face, crouching in the bendy uppermost branches, is staring down through the leaves towards Maurice. There is something implacable about his gaze, and Maurice feels apprehensive, an easy target in the centre of his bright lawn. What if the man is armed? Unsteadily, he gets to his feet, trying not to make any sudden movements which might cause the man to shoot. Now that he is upright, the sun no longer interrupts his vision, and Maurice sees to his astonishment that the man in the oak tree is himself. Himself, in the suit he wore to the beach yesterday, himself with an unsmiling mouth and something odd about the eyes. He looks up and down the street in bewilderment, but the sun shines benignly, cars glide past adhering to the 30mph restriction.
Maurice knows that he must get himself out of that tree before the thin branches snap and he tumbles face-first to the ground, his suit jacket billowing. He can quite clearly imagine the snap of bone as his face crashes into the pavement, the slowly oozing pool of blood. And what would happen to him, the Maurice standing on this green lawn, if his tree-self were to fall? Maurice hurries to the gate and goes out onto the pavement. He stands under the tree, tilts his head fully back, and calls, ‘please come down.’ The man in the tree peers down at him and now Maurice can see his eyes. They are lustrous black, quite unlike Maurice’s own hazel eyes. They are, he sees, with a sense of defeat, made of gleaming stone; black onyx.
As he stares at these eyes, Maurice suddenly wishes Onyx were dead. How much easier it would be to mourn her death than live every day with the anguish of her abandonment! […]
The Sandhopper Lover & Other Stories and Poems
Anthology Jan Fortune-Wood (Ed), Cinnamon Press.
With a title story from Clare Jay, whose novel, Breathing in Colour, comes out in March 2009, as part of a two-book deal with Little, Brown, The Sandhopper Lover is packed full of award winning stories and poetry. Abegail Morley’s pared down poetry about depression and sanity; Clare Best’s poignant verse exploring breast cancer, Miceal Kearney’s lyrical prose fragments that weave into a strange and beautiful story and Cassandra Passarelli’s haunting story set in Guatemala are amongst the literary treats to be savoured in this wide ranging, sometimes unsettling and always absorbing anthology.
Mint Sauce & Other Stories and Poems
Anthology Jan Fortune-Wood (Ed), Cinnamon Press.
This anthology of the best stories and poems from the Cinnamon Press Writing Awards showcases a range of talented voices, from the new to the more established. From Shelagh Weeks’ winning story to the visually precise poetry of Rhys Trimble, from Clare Jay’s surreal world to Jan Villarrubia’s lyrical evocations of picking up the threads of life after the devastation of hurricane Katrina, the anthology provides a feast of words crafted to allow the reader to engage with life more fully.
Click on The New Writer cover image to read Clare Jay’s poem Trapdoor, Second Prize-Winner in the Single Poem category of The New Writer’s Annual Prose & Poetry Prizes. Published in The New Writer’s ‘The Collection’, August 2008.
I wrote my first ‘proper’ poem when I was about eight or nine. All I can remember of it now is that it began with a far from flattering description of my granny:
her pale face is ash-grey.
It went on in this less than charming way, mentioning her varicose veins, skin-coloured tights, and the fug of smoke that hung around her. I loved my granny, and I didn’t intend to insult her by writing the poem. It just came to me as I sat at her feet studying her as she talked to my mother. I was so proud of my poem that I wanted to show it to her but luckily my father read it first, chuckled a little, and advised me to keep it to myself. For years after that, I never showed my poems to anyone (no doubt a very good thing), and eventually stopped writing them.
Then two things happened: I started teaching an Open University creative writing course which included a poetry element, and one of my oldest friends, the poet and Black History writer Louisa Adjoa Parker, published her first poetry collection. Practising the poetry exercises I was setting my students, and encouraged by Louisa’s success, I started writing poems again. When poems come in the middle of a novel, writing them is such a short, sharp relief, like biting into a lemon after eating baked potatoes all day.
Poems in anthologies
The Ground Beneath her Feet
Anthology Jan Fortune-Wood (Ed), Cinnamon Press.
Life lived on shifting ground, in the extraordinary moments when something cracks and something new happens is the underlying thread that unites the stories and poems in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. From Alice Keys’ award winning title story in which the cracks in the wall become the metaphor for both breaking and healing to beautifully crafted poems of Sue Wood, in which a comb burning foreshadows death with surprising grace and white becomes a metamorphosis; from Harrison Solow’s hypnotic, fable-like prose to Clare Jay’s precise, assured poetry, the writing in this anthology engages and surprises, discomforts and delights.
Clare Jay’s single poems My Future Daughter and Paper Girl will appear in the 2009 anthology, details below.
Awards, Prizes & Publications
First Prize in the Cinnamon Press Short Story Award 2008: The Sandhopper Lover. Title story of the 2009 anthology, The Sandhopper Lover & other Stories and Poems.
Second Prize in the Single Poem category of The New Writer’s Annual Prose & Poetry Prizes: Trapdoor, published in The New Writer’s ‘The Collection’, August 2008.
Cinnamon Press Short Story Award 2007: The Kielius Fish. Published in the winners’ anthology: Mint Sauce & other stories & poems, March 2008.
Second Prize: HISSAC Annual Short Story Competition 2007: The Kielius Fish.
Cinnamon Press Poetry Award – Single poems: Walking on the Backs of Elephants; I wish you’d never been born; All I know of her; The demands of a yellow aquarium fish. Published in the anthology The Ground Beneath her Feet: Stories and Poems, August/September 2008.
Collection of poems Where Wings Sprout short-listed for the 2008 Cinnamon Press Poetry Collection. Single poems My Future Daughter and Paper Girl will appear in the 2009 anthology.
Poem Blue shortlisted for 2010 Plough prize. Lean into the Wind longlisted.