In December, Ringwood announced the winner of our 2023 Short Story Competition, ‘A Sex Manual for the Over Sixties’ by Thomas Malloch, and a few weeks later Intern Annika Dahlman spoke with Thomas, and asked him some questions about himself and his writing.
First things first, could you tell me what kind of books and stories you like to read? What are your tastes in literature?
I suppose they’re more literary than anything else. I do read genre books, but I don’t tend to seek them out. Some examples of what I’ve been reading recently are the two Cormac McCarthy books Passenger and Stella Maris, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, and, most recently, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
Is there anything you don’t read? Anything you don’t like?
I don’t think you can pick it out by genre, because there are great examples of writing in any genre. If it’s good writing, I’ll read it, and if it’s bad writing… well, if I bought the book, I’ll probably still read it!
Will you tell me a little bit about your background and your experience with writing?
I was a GP by profession. Before I stopped working though, I’d already started a writing course at the Open University, and after retirement I returned to the OU and did their Masters in Creative Writing. So that’s the kind of background from an educational point of view. Simultaneously, I would go online to look for anything to do with submissions. It was just a case of trying to keep the habit of writing.
So, writing is something you’ve picked up in recent years?
Yes, pre-retirement I didn’t do any writing. In fact, pre-retirement I didn’t read much fiction, as there wasn’t much time.
Do you think your background as a GP has had any influence on your writing at all, or are they separate parts of your life?
I don’t think there’s much of a relationship, but ‘A Sex Manual for the Over Sixties’ of course has a lot of medical aspects to it, fairly naturally because of my background. I also think there’s a discomfort that other people might have about writing about sexual matters, but you have to discuss these in an open way with patients, so I’ve kind of bypassed that awkwardness.
Your winning story opens with a reference to Lucia Berlin’s ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’. Could you tell me about the influence that other people’s work has, or doesn’t have, on your own writing?
I think other people’s work is fundamental to your own writing. In ‘A Sex Manual for the Over Sixties’, there are two clear lines of connection with other people’s stories. Firstly, the one that you mentioned, ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’. It wasn’t so much the story itself as the title that gave me a way in to writing my story. So, the title came first, which is quite unusual. The word “manual”, in particular, was a godsend. The other book, or the other writer that had an influence over my story, was Kent Haruf. He’s written a book called Our Souls at Night, and it’s a beautiful story about two older people coming together in a relationship. It’s told very well in all aspects, except that when it comes to sexual intercourse, he just says they kind of “found a way” and I thought that was kind of a cop-out. I’ve thought since then about writing about sex because it’s a big subject. I wanted to do something that was not salacious in any way, but that gave something of the emotional impact of the act as well as the physical side of it.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I don’t think there’s any specific place or book you get it from, the important thing is to be alive, things like just sitting at the dinner table talking to your partner and your family about what happened to you during the day. Sometimes they’re just anecdotes, but sometimes those little stories stay with you.
What does your writing process normally look like?
That’s kind of difficult to answer definitively. A lot of what I write comes from prompts, and sometimes something happens in life. When I sit down to write, I don’t have an idea of where the story is going, and unlike a lot of people’s advice, I edit as I go. One of the first things I do the next day is read over what I’ve written the previous day, and then I’ll usually spend a bit of the morning adjusting it. At the end of the story, it means I’ve not got much editing to do.
One thing that the judges panel really appreciated about A Sex Manual for the Over Sixties is the way it balances humour and grief. Could you tell us a little bit about your understanding of the balance between these two, and your approach to striking said balance in a story?
I don’t really know how to answer this! I didn’t seek a balance. It goes with what I was saying earlier about how I don’t know where the story is going. I don’t believe that any story is off limits for humour though. If it’s a sensitive subject, you have to do it tastefully, the quality of writing will have to be good, and the timing will have to be excellent. I wouldn’t know whether I got it right or not, that’s up to other people.
What do you think makes a good short story?
Something has to change over the course of the story. It doesn’t need to have much action in it, but something has to change. And the characters have to be believable. You don’t need to like the characters, but you need to have some kind of understanding of them.
Would you say that your writing is more character-driven, then?
Yes, I would even say that I don’t even think about plot. Stephen King’s book, On Writing, is a good read, and I don’t read Stephen King, so that tells you something. Essentially, what he says is that he doesn’t bother with plot. What he does instead is put his characters in a situation and ask ’what’s going to happen next?’ The plot laid out in front of you is not important to him. Another formula he puts forth is “character plus conflict equals plot.”
Do you write anything other than short stories?
I have written poetry. I’ve been shortlisted in some competitions, but I’ve never been published. I’ve also had a go at dramatic monologue and some non-fiction stuff.
What advice would you have for someone who’s trying to get into short story writing, and maybe trying to win a short story competition?
If you’re entering competitions you need to know what has won in the past. If you’re lucky, the site will have published online the previous winning stories, and that’s a good guide to the kind of thing that’s likely to win. If you know who the judges are you can try and work out what their style is like. You can do a bit of homework there. As far as writing short stories is concerned, if you can cut off a bit at the beginning and bit at the end, you probably should, because most of the story is already contained in the middle. Lastly, I’d say beginnings are important, but endings even more so. Especially if it’s short. You need something to make the whole thing resonate.
Isn’t that quite unusual advice? I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it’s not something I’ve heard a short story writer say before.
I mean, you have to get the short story up and running, but you also need to make the reader think about the story after you finish. Otherwise, you’ve failed.
For our last question, tell me, what’s your favourite short story?
I have a new grand-daughter called Esmé, so at the moment it’s ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’ by J.D. Salinger, but the one I come back to and which is probably more important is Joyce’s The Dead.
Thank you for your time, Thomas, and congratulations again!
Click here to read Thomas’ winning story ‘A Sex Manual for the Over Sixties’.