The Delicate Art Of Magical Realism: How To Balance Great Characters With Fantastical Ideas 

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Author Dan PowellToday we welcome Dan Powell to the Mash Blog.

Dan’s short story collection Looking Out Of Broken Windows was shortlisted for the 2013 Scott Prize and was published by Salt Publishing in 2014. His short stories have appeared in Carve Magazine, Praxis, Ether Books and The Best British Short Stories 2012.

We caught up with Dan to talk to him about his story “Storm In A Teacup”, a fantastical tale that examines the complex emotional turmoil of its characters through the literal use of an idiom.

“Storm In A Teacup” was awarded the 2013 Carve Magazine Esoteric Prize and you can read it online over at Carve Magazine.

Jennifer Harvey: What inspired you to take an idiom and use it literally?

Dan Powell: I wasn’t playing around with idioms in general. I just saw a picture someone had made on the internet – I can’t remember where – of a cup with a storm inside it and it was seeing that picture that made me think “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you were sitting around somewhere and that actually happened? That would be brilliant.” It was literally just me wanting to make that happen in some small way.

Jen: Do you use images a lot, as a source of inspiration?

Dan: I have a little file on my computer that is full of photographs and pictures, so if I’m ever staring at a blank page I’ll try and do something based on one of those pictures. With the ‘Storm In A Teacup’ photo I immediately thought “Wow, if that was actually happening on your kitchen table or in a café that would be brilliant. There’s got to be a story in there somewhere.”

I also keep notebooks with lists of titles or phrases. For example, I saw one the other day – “Accidental Engines” – and I noted it down because it’s a really cool idea – these machines that get created by accident. I’ve literally got hundreds of these – little notebooks filled with ideas, images, phrases.

Jen: That’s interesting. Most people would walk down the street and miss these things – they’re not trained to see things or notice things.

Dan: For me, it just comes naturally. My wife and kids get quite frustrated because I’m always noticing things. So if I’m driving the kids to school, I’ll pull in at a lay-by because I’ve seen something and I have to write it down in a notebook before I forget it. Probably 99% of the things I write down never get used, but the good stuff will play on my mind until the point when I need to do something with it.

Jen: Would you recommend note taking? It’s not a habit I have cultivated and I know I have forgotten plenty of ideas and little inspirational flashes as a result.

Dan: Some writers say that’s a good thing. The ideas that you remember are the ones that are going to work. But I’ve got notebooks everywhere – in all of my coats, one in the side pocket of my car, one by the bed, one in my laptop bag –  it’s ridiculous really, I mean, I could just tap a note into my mobile phone but I like having a notebook. I can’t go anywhere without one.

Jen: The café in your story is called the Tea Cosy, not the kind of place where you expect emotional turmoil or supernatural events. That clash of ideas – the familiar and cosy with this fantastical event really helped me imagine the setting. Was it difficult to create?

Dan: It was tricky getting the details of the setting. I ended up having to draw a floor plan of the interior marking where the tables where, where the storm was, just so I could keep it straight in my head – who was sat at which table, who could see who from where they were sitting, just so I could work out, at certain parts of the story, where each character was – including the dog!  In that sense it was more difficult than pretty much anything else I’ve written before or since, in terms of having that many characters moving around and having to keep them moving around without bogging the story down was quite a challenge.

Jen: So how many drafts of “Storm In A Teacup” did you write before you achieved what you set out to achieve?

Dan: It’s one of my favourite stories and it came very close to achieving what I wanted when I set about writing it, but it was quite a tricky story to write. It went through at least nine drafts.

The real struggle was getting the character balance right. There are a couple of drafts with more characters in.

It took a long time to get the ending. That was one of the major reasons for the re-drafting. It was a case of letting the characters dictate, letting them do what they would do. I think that’s what writers mean when they say characters take on a life of their own.

Jen: The storm is very well described; it’s very technical and I loved how this fantastical thing is described in such a matter-of-fact way. How did you write that? Did you have to do a lot of research?

Dan: I did a fair bit of research, to try to get the balance of it right so there was just enough information. Anyone who studies such super-cell storms would probably say “Well, yeah, but it could never happen in that small a space.” But when I started researching storms I found this one line – that I think is still in the story – that mentioned super-cell thunderstorms can be any size, and as soon as I read that I thought “That’s it, that line gives me permission to write this as though it’s really happening.”

Jen: What I found interesting about “Storm In A Teacup” is that sometimes when you read slightly fantastical stories the plot lines and the ideas can dominate to the extent that you don’t get a feel for the characters. But this story has both – this supernatural event and fantastical idea and these interesting characters. Do you think the other types of stories you write have helped you accomplish that?

Dan: To a certain degree, yes. I tend to have two modes of writing and the stories tend to be either like this – they’re quite realistic in most other aspects but with an element of supernatural or something a little bit strange; there’s an element of magical realism going on. Then there are other stories I write that are very straight realist kind of stories. In my collection Looking Out Of Broken Windows there’s a story “Half Mown Lawn” and that story bridges the two styles. Nothing magical happens as such but it’s got that element of weighted imagery just as in “Storm In A Teacup”.dan-powell-book

But if I’m writing something with an unusual element in it then I try and make sure that everything else feels realistic, because I think it gives the magical element a bit more weight and stops the reader getting bogged down in the magical aspects which means, as a writer, you can also bring the characters to the fore.

With “Storm In A Teacup” what helped was having the teacup in the background. For a large part of the story it’s almost forgotten about.  The reader is aware of it but the characters aren’t at first.

Jen: Do you think fantastical and little surreal ideas are better suited to short stories?

Dan: They are generally, yes, because the reader doesn’t have time to disbelieve it.

A short story is just a collision with another person’s world and the reader is just there for a little while, so you only get a glimpse of the character at a particular moment in time. So it’s not the same as with a novel where you can get the full scope of a character. There are gaps, but as long as you provide those little telling details, then the reader can either ignore these details or create their own backstory. I think that helps a reader take ownership of the story, which is good because you want them to inhabit it and feel as though it’s real. The reader can create it along with you.

“Write the way I like to read.” Dan Powell

Jen: Having read your short story collection I would say your stories are very character-driven as well as ideas-driven. Do you have any tips for writers on how to approach character development?

Dan: I know some writers like to sketch out as much as they can first about a character but I tend to write and some of it may not be stuff I use in the end, so it’s very instinctive. I get a feel for the characters as I go along. My first draft tends to be who the characters are and what they want, and also what’s going to happen and later when I’m redrafting I go back and try and make those things work better together.

On one writing course we were given a sheet and asked to write down 5 things our characters would have in their cupboard and I can’t do things like that. I write the way I like to read. You start a story and you get slowly introduced to the character and meet them and I do that as I write.

Sometimes at the end the character can present differently to how they did at the beginning, so then I have to go back and edit it so the character feels right the whole way through and I think that helps keep things surprising for me. I hope if I can surprise myself and if I can care more about the characters and want to find out more about them, then hopefully that will filter into the story.

Jen: How important has it been to write short stories first in order to tackle the novel?

Dan: It’s given me the confidence and the ability to finish. Before I started writing short stories I started maybe four or five novels that I never managed to finish. I calculated if I compiled all the short stories I’d ever written the word count would be way above all I’d ever need for a novel and that helped psychologically, because I could think when writing the novel, “Well, I only need to write this 8,000 word section”.

Also with novels there’s the idea that each chapter has to have its own arc and each section has to have its own rise and fall in action and tension. Writing short fiction helps with that because, whatever the length, each story had to have those elements in it, so learning how to do that over varied word counts has helped with the novel, because in that sense it’s the same type of craft.

“Short stories have given me the confidence and the ability to finish.”

Jen: You just completed your MA. Would you recommend that for writers?

Dan: I would if you are like me and have had trouble finishing stuff, particularly if it’s an MA that requires you submit a novel at the end, as was my MA at Manchester Metropolitan University.

It was a real external motivation for something I have always wanted to do, so I would recommend it for that. You won’t necessarily learn anything that you couldn’t learn on your own just sending stuff out to agents and magazines and competitions, but with an MA you learn it so much quicker because you have directed tasks and it’s an accelerated learning environment. If I hadn’t had the pressure of the MA I’d probably still be writing the novel and it would probably have ended up in the same folder as all the other ones I didn’t finish.

Jen: I ask because I read a comment by Nicholas Royle defending writing schools and MAs. He noted that film schools or art schools don’t come in for the same criticism as writing schools – no one questions their reason for existing – and I had to agree with him.

Dan: Nick was my tutor at Manchester and he does say that you can’t teach someone to write but you can help them get better, quicker, and I think that’s what an MA does. They say that MAs are churning out all these homogenised books but in my MA course I read parts of all the novels that were written for the course and they’re all very different, so I think this idea that MAs produce homogenised styles of writing is simply not true. I think it’s probably more of a criticism of the publishing industry. I don’t think publishers are adventurous enough.

Jen: Do you have any top tips for writers to help them improve their craft?

Dan: For me, the key is – know what your character wants. They have to want something, otherwise there’s nothing for them to strive for, there’s no tension or conflict. It’s a piece of advice I think most writers would give, really.

And just read. Read really good short stories. For me, reading someone like Amy Hempel was a complete revelation, in terms of emotional intensity and how much she can convey about a character with minimal sentence structure and minimal imagery. Everything is really pared back in her writing.

There’s a story she wrote and the title is a set of knitting instructions (“BEG, SL TOG, INC, CONT, REP”). Ostensibly the story is about knitting, yet it’s so much more than this and it’s one of my favourite stories. It breaks my heart every time I read it. She’s so clever. She dresses the emotional life of the characters up behind these minimal descriptions but they’re so dense, they stay with you and bear re-reading.

Adam Marek’s “Tamagotchi” is another great example. So yeah, just read great stories.

Jen: Thank you Dan for taking the time to talk to Mash Stories. It’s been a very interesting discussion.

Thank you Dan for taking the time to talk to Mash Stories. It’s been a very interesting discussion.

So Mash readers why not take a read of “Storm In A Teacup” and let us know what you think.


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Jennifer is one of our judges at MASH. Her fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine and Stories For Homes anthology. Her radio drama won the 2001 European Regional Prize in the BBC World Service International Playwriting competition and a commendation in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in The Guardian as part of their poetry workshops series. Contact Jen via Twitter.

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