Bold, gritty and blackly comic, Michael Stewart’s new collection of short fiction, Four Letter Words, explores twin contemporary urban dystopias: work and home.
Stylish and unsettling with a seam of black comedy running throughout the collection,Four Letter Words is a baker’s dozen of modern urban noir that offers responses to a number of contemporary concerns such as homelessness, addiction and sexual exploitation.
We asked Michael to tell us more about the collection, which is published by Wrecking Ball Press this week.
It’s a short story collection. How about ‘for many people, home and work are the dominant spaces in their lives, this book looks deep into the darkest corners of these worlds’
How do you feel about the publication of this collection of short stories?
It’s my second collection of short fiction. Much grittier and darker than the first. I think it contains some of my best writing.
What prompted you to write this collection and how long has it been in the making?
I’ve been writing short fiction for a very long time. These stories are a culmination of work gestating over a twenty-year period. The collection started to form as a coherent unifying project, as soon as I realised it was a book in two halves, and that this would be the overarching organising principle. We go to work. Then we come home. For some people, there isn’t much else in their lives. What if neither experience bring solace or satisfaction?
Tell us about the themes of the collection?
Work and home, and within that: loneliness, alienation, exploitation, dependency and desperation.
Who is the book for?
For the lost and the lonely. For anyone who loves a good story.
What experience do you want your readers to have?
I want to immerse my reader in precisely imagined worlds where they will see through the eyes of my characters, hear their thoughts and feel their fears and vulnerabilities. I want my reader to empathise with my characters. I want to engage them emotionally, to make them laugh and cry, and look deep into the recesses of the human experience.
What is the importance of short stories?
A short story can be more experimental than a novel. It is a snapshot. It is a unified artform. We can experience a short story in one sitting. There is a totality of experience that is missing from longer narratives. It is not interrupted or compromised by episodic events. Like a painting, we can see it in its entirety. Characters in short stories are mysterious, and enigmatic, we don’t need to feed into the narrative elaborate backstories. They are strangers that we meet in one fleeting moment. But that fleeting moment can have a profound impact on the reader.
Some consider that short story collections are something that authors move through on their way to their next novel. What would you say to that?
The status of the short story has changed significantly over the years. It wasn’t that long ago that writers wrote short stories to make money and pay the bills. Novels were something they wrote out of love, knowing they would make no money from it. Now it is the other way round. Why this has happened is quite specific to our culture. Other cultures value the short story over the novel. The short story has much more status in Ireland and China for example.
What is the importance of place to you as a writer and in the stories gathered together here?
This is very much a northern collection. I write about the north. I don’t know anywhere else. It was where I was born and where I grew up. I am a product of this landscape, and these stories are the products of this northern landscape. Setting is crucial. A story in a forest is very different to a story in a desert for example. Setting is character and character is setting. A good setting is a metaphor for the central themes of the story.
What was your route into writing?
Long story. I was forceable removed by two security guards from the factory where I was working in 1992. I found a typewriter in a skip, taught myself to touch type and wrote a novel called Leeches.
Was there a significant person in your life that encouraged you to write?
Lots of people discouraged me. Mainly my teachers.
Could you tell us something about your creative process?
I try and write every day. Sometimes for an hour, sometimes for three or four hours. I consider it to be a vocation.
Who are your favourite writers? And which writers are you influenced by?
My first influence: Edgar Allen Poe. Others: George Orwell, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Emily Bronte, Kafka, Knut Hamsun, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, William Blake, Samuel Beckett, Cormac McCarthy, Angela Carter…
What is your favourite novel?
I have to say Wuthering Heights, but Nineteen Eighty-Four is a close second. As is Kafka’s The Trial, as is McCarthy’s Road, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger.
Why this collection, now?
During lockdown home and work merged. We became prisoners in our own domiciles. Post-lockdown we are reconfiguring those spaces. Redefining them somehow. This book is part of that re-examination.
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
My first four books were all published by independent publishers. I have a deep respect and love of independent publishing. I am editor-in-chief of an indie (Grist Books). I think what indies have achieved over the last ten years is remarkable. I liken it to the indie music scene of the 80s. The world of independent publishing is a very vibrant place.
What else are you working on and what does the future hold for you?
I have a poetry book called The Dogs which is being published by Smokestack in June 2023. I have a new novel called The Last Wolf which is under consideration with a publisher. I am working on two new books, one a new novel called Surrounded By My Enemies, and a hybrid memoir called Walking in the Shadows.
Tell us more about your work teaching creative writing?
I’ve been teaching creative writing for over 20 years. First in the community, then for the Open University, then for Leeds and Bradford Unis, and for the last 15 years, Huddersfield Uni. I run the CW department there. Grist, which I edit, allows us to publish our own students’ work alongside some of the biggest names in the industry.
What would you say to someone who was keen to write, and would like to see their words published?
Learn your craft.
What are your hopes and dreams for the book?
I set a low bar. Sadly, short fiction does not get the attention it deserves in this country. I wish it were otherwise. If people read it and enjoy it, I’ll be happy with that.
The publication of Four Letter Words was made possible by Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grants funding. Buy Four Letter Words direct from Wrecking Ball Press at https://wreckingballpress.com/product/four-letter-words/