Sarah-Clare Conlon and David Gaffney: Les Nouveaux Collaborateurs

Sarah-Clare Conlon and David Gaffney: Les Nouveaux Collaborateurs

At times, in the rare heat of midsummer, Manchester can achieve a breath of Paris. I meet Sarah-Clare Conlon and David Gaffney at the Cornerhouse, that most long-lived of arty, intellectual hangouts. It’s far from summer today, even with the sunshine, but inside, with the posters for French films and the feeling all around of intellectual discussion, Clare and David come across as the de Beauvoir and Sartre of Oxford Road. I stop as I write that and give it some thought: a bit pretentious, perhaps? I check with my other half: if you had to give Parisian designations to Manchester, where would you place Oxford Road? We agree that the Northern Quarter is Montmartre. But Oxford Road? The Latin Quarter, perhaps, known for ‘its student life, lively atmosphere and bistros.’ Sounds close.

Then I realise that I don’t actually know where Sartre and de Beauvoir hung out, or even what they looked like. A quick Google check shows me that, in many senses, Clare and David might not be too flattered with the comparison. I think about dropping it altogether, but then I see a photo of them on Facebook. I’m sorry, but with absolutely no reference to the appearance of the originals, their favoured cafes or even what they wrote: Clare and David will remain the Sartre and de Beauvoir of Manchester. And Clare always, always has perfect lipstick. Clincher.

We start off with accents. Clare retains some native Scouse and you can hear that David comes from Cumbria, although there’s also a touch of Brum, maybe from his association with the Tindal Street Press, publishers of his novel Never Never. I’m recording the interview, and trying to make sure the microphone bit of my iPad is pointing the right way. David suggests that I podcast my interviews, leaving out the answers, so that listeners can fill in the gaps. This might say more about his own ambivalence at speaking aloud than anything else. Les Malheureux (their spoken word and music performance collaboration) came about when David was booked as a headline act at one of the Bad Language evenings at The Castle but didn’t want to read. The answer? Clare reads (fittingly, from a micro fiction point of view) from an iPhone, whilst David plays originally composed music on keyboards.

Image: Zoe Hodson

Image: Zoe Hodson

And Les Malheureux is keeping them busy, with gigs played as far afield as Oxford and Nottingham, Kendal and Crewe, Edinburgh and London. Enough venues for a tour T-shirt? “We do everything on trains,” says David, “dragging the keyboard, all the gear, loads of bags, and we perform in front of a projector, so we’re taking it all up to Edinburgh and wherever. It’s madness. And you never get paid, you know what literature’s like.”

Voices overlap, as they fill in each other’s pauses. It is, I say, good to have a literary partner, to be with someone who understands what it’s all about. It is handy, David agrees, “when you have to go off to write something down, which can be annoying for a partner who doesn’t write. Especially when everything that happens becomes material.” “It’s who gets in the first with us,” interrupts Clare. So do you try to steal each other’s notebooks? “No, it’s not got to that. Though I have stolen some of Clare’s ideas.” “Yes, I tell an anecdote and then it’s in a story. In the new book there’s one with something like three or four of my anecdotes, in a 150 word story.” So he just had to add a few ‘ands’? “Yeah,” she turns to him. “I’m never going to tell you anything anymore.”

I think it’s no chance happening that the two of them are both of the micro-fiction world: it is, after all, a form that is inherently collaborative and innovative. They both collaborate and innovate like nobody’s business. Projects all over the place. If you don’t believe me, go and check out their websites (links at the end). But, I have to ask, what is it? Flash? Micro? Short short story? I’ve just come across a nice one: in China, it’s known as a Smoke Long story, because you should be able to read it in the time it takes to finish a cigarette. You could have a whole fringe of fringe thing, maybe, where the smokers go and read stories out by the side door. Clare doesn’t like the way ‘flash’ gives the impression of speed. “It’s just that they’re short, not that you’ve not taken a lot of time over it.” David agrees: “I prefer micro fiction: there’s precision, like poetry.” It always makes me think of the line about poetry being the best words in the best order, I say. “Yes,” says Clare, “you take out the boring bits.” David chips in: “You take away the scaffolding. They’re enigmatic, you have to work to understand.”

More Sawn Off Tales

David has three collections to his name, with another – More Sawn Off Tales – coming out in May. Clare is one fifth of the Flashtag collective, and earlier this year was a winner in the Salt Flash Fiction Prize. “The trouble is,” says Clare,”is that people are only just getting to know about it so, in a branding sense, it’s better to stick with the name flash fiction.” “I was at a reading in Colchester,” David says, “so people were there because it was a flash fiction event. The organiser did an audience poll. How many read flash fiction? None. How many read short stories? 2 or 3. Novels? Everyone. The only people reading flash fiction are other writers, people studying on creative writing courses.” I have to admit to falling into that myself. I went looking for David’s books and which one did I buy? The novel. Which is really good, by the way.

In terms of style, what does flash fiction, micro fiction offer? The discussion that follows is to brainstorming what those huge outdoor pictures on SMart and VisionOn were to A4 sketches. Language, for a start. “I’m an editor,” says Clare, “my job for years was to squeeze a story into a caption, so with creative writing I automatically go for a chiselled, immaculate form, nothing wasted. And words shouldn’t be repeated.” Or names. David points out that in his latest collection, there are 68 stories, each with two or three characters, and each one needs a different name: “It’s mental.” “Yeah,” Clare interjects, “and you always want to use Howard or George.” But is the point that you need to be more aware, that there’s nowhere to hide? D: “In a novel, you’re looking for repetition, things to sustain through it. In short fiction, it’s more of a challenge, you can’t have the symbol of a deer in that because you’ve used a deer in another one.”

Is there something of a crossover with poetry, in that the tightness of form, the constraints, lead you to approach the words in a different way? Clare says that she often gets called a poet “even though I’ve only ever had two poems published. And someone like Simon Armitage, it’s not poetry at all, it’s fiction.” D: “He’s calling it prose poetry.” C: “Well, he’s calling it prose poetry, but really…” D: “Yeah, it’s fiction really. In my next collection, I might lay it out as poetry.” And flash fiction imposes limits, which force you to sweat over the words. Some go further than an upper word count, like Tom Mason’s 330 Words, “and Benjamin Judge had Fifty Stories About Sting, the first one had fifty words, then forty-nine and so on.” David says that novelists don’t use constraints. How about genre, though, or those novels where they don’t use an ‘e’? I’m taken with the idea of writing a story about someone translating a story where the ‘e’ is missing. Maybe it would even make a novel. A short one. Clare is thinking of doing an MA, and will have to adapt the flash fiction form into a novel, because “universities are not so good with the idea of flash fiction.”

If the literature world is a huge wall, I see myself as perched on a tiny outcrop, scraping away at my own little patch. Clare and David are  way further up. There’s David, practically out of sight, with a novel, three short story collections and a host of projects with any number of festivals under his belt . He writes for Prospect, for goodness’ sake. If he lived in New York, he’d be writing for the New Yorker, you just know it. Clare is now “a freelance writer, editor and press officer, digital marketeer for Manchester Literature Festival, PR & social media manager of The Literateur and head of press for Chorlton Arts Festival.” And a Salt Prize winner. I find it oddly reassuring that she’s thinking of doing an MA “for legitimacy.”

Image: Emma Farrar

Image: Emma Farrar

I’m always interested in the route towards writing, so I ask, how did you get here? Clare says she’s an accidental writer. “I came North with the,” she leans in and whispers, “the Express, and Kate Feld came to work as a freelancer, and she set up Rainy City Stories and asked for a contribution. And then I did the press for Chorlton Arts Festival, started up a blog and won the best new blog for 2009 at the Blog North Awards.” And that was Kate Feld as well? “Yes, and I met people through that, and got asked to do more. And then was asked to read at the next Chorlton Festival along with the group that became the Flashtag collective. And we just egg each other on.”

Image: Kezia Tan

Image: Kezia Tan

David was working as a debt counsellor and playing in a band and songwriting when he wrote his first novel. “And then I was writing for a site called Don’tbook.com, 150 words stories, and I had about 100 of them, got some published. So I sent them to Ian McMillan who suggested Salt Press, so they ended up getting published before the novel.” So there was Sawn-Off Tales in 2006, another collection, Aromabingo, in 2007 and then the novel, Never Never with Tindal Street, in 2008. So, I ask, it seems like you just went in and got publishing contracts straight off. Is that as unusual as it sounds? “No, there was a longer run of it than that. I was published in a lot of magazines first, Stand, Ambit, skateboarding magazines, art magazines. So I had confidence in Sawn-Off Tales because they’d already been out there. And I touted the novel to every agent in the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, read every book about how to write, how to do a synopsis, what goes in an approach letter.” We stop to get another beer. “There’s a lot of work in novels. I wrote the first line of Never Never in 1997 and it was published in 2008.” Clare leans in. “The good thing is, yesterday, David finished a novel.” “Yeah, got it printed out.” “He came in and said, I’ve just typed the words The End. And I said, are you an author, are you a cliche?” “It’s a good feeling.”

 

The launch of David’s new collection, More Sawn-Off Tales, is in Manchester on Thursday 13th June at 6.30. Details here. It’s going to be an astounding evening. David will be joined by Gregory Norminton, who’ll be reading from his new collection Thumbnails, and Monkeys in Love will be providing a spoken word DJ set. Who could ask for more?

 

David’s website is here and you can find Sarah-Clare here

 

 

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