Robert Graham: When You Were A Mod, I Was A Rocker

Robert Graham: When You Were A Mod, I Was A Rocker

When you were a mod...

It’s great to be a writer in Manchester at the moment. There are just so many talented people working in the area. The Manchester Literature Festival may be coming to an end, having showcased more local writers than ever, but all year you can find quality spoken word events around every corner.

Speaking of which, the ninth Chorlton Book Festival is about to kick off. With all the featured guests having Chorlton connections, this ‘makes the M21 arguably the City’s most literary suburb.’ Well, I’ll leave you to argue about that one. But, as a trailblazer event, this Saturday sees the launch of a new collection of short stories with a difference.

Robert Graham grew up in Belfast and now lives in Manchester. When You Were a Mod, I Was a Rocker comes as a boxed set of hand-printed stories, each tale produced as a standalone pamphlet and all beautifully illustrated by Hannah Dickinson. I’ve lately been coming across more short stories with extras, whether it’s being accompanied by music or light shows at live events, or given that extra dimension through art. Short stories are buzzing with a sense of new life, of exploring new dimensions.

Graham’s stories happen next door, to that guy round the corner, the girl you see on a bike everyday. And then, having drawn you in with the world of the everyday, they start to splinter, to open up to the sense of alternate reality. If you’re anything like me, you’ll read the opening stories, then go back to read them again, and then start to take more notice of the black and white title illustrations for the pleasure of noticing when they slip into the narrative, giving the words an extra twist. Then go back and read them again, and see how much more you will notice.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Robert before the launch. It’s always great to meet a writer who really engages with the questions, and has such wide-ranging experience to draw upon. Go to the launch, buy the stories. But first, read the interview.

Robert Graham

I’m always interested in routes into writing. What would you say have been the most significant milestones in your writing career?

I guess I think of every new publication as a milestone.  It’s always a major effort for any writer to get any work into print, so it always feels like an achievement when that happens.  Another way of looking at it is that doing something for the first time is a milestone. From that point of view, my most memorable projects have been Elvis – The Novel, the spoof biography I co-wrote with Keith Baty; If You Have Five Seconds To Spare, the play about fans of The Smiths that I wrote for Contact Theatre, Manchester; and Holy Joe, my first published novel.  In each case, the writing process was exhilarating and fulfilling and the pay-off was satisfying, because Elvis, Five Seconds and Holy Joe all reached relatively large numbers of people and went down well with critics.

Elvis was my first experience of being properly published.  It was with a major (Collins, as it was then), and it was in at the deep end.  It was a steep learning curve.  In those days (the 80s), a publisher promoted your book for about a week and then you were on your own.  Five Seconds was the first time I had anything to do with professional theatre, and it was a big step up from what I was used to working with: school drama productions.  (By that time I’d been writing and directing school shows for about 10 years.)  Holy Joe has probably been my most profound writing and publishing experience to date.  I spent 10 years writing and re-writing the novel and had it nearly accepted by a handful of majors before going with an independent.  Ha!  ’Going with.’  Rejection is so much part of a writer’s life that when anyone wants to publish you, you don’t have to think too hard.  Because it was a way of writing about a traumatic time in my family life (having a stillborn child), I put my heart and soul into not only producing it but also making sure Holy Joe was published and then promoting it, and I learned from all of that.  I think you also learn a lot from not succeeding to the extent that you want to.  It does make you much more critical of your own work.

A lot of what I do is almost invisible.  Since 1998, I’ve been writing and directing a play or a film a year for kids with Caterpillar, the drama group I help to run.  A typical Caterpillar audience is 50, while Elvis has by now sold close to 30,000 copies.  Elvis was 18 months of my life; Caterpillar is a weekly commitment, and we just had our 15th anniversary.  WYWAMIWAR is published by a small independent and won’t sell in big numbers.  It can’t go the way it might if, say, Random House were to publish it.  But it’s the culmination of a few years of writing and submitting and it means as much to me as any of my other publications.  They’re all milestones. 


Tell me something about the sense of place in your stories. The ones in the new collection seem very rooted in the NW; is this something that’s been a part of your previous work as well, or has it shifted at different times in your life?

Setting in fiction is important to me.  In a lot of great fiction, the sense of place is as important as any character.  Think about the marshes in Great Expectations, or Miss Havisham’s houseBecause I want to feature settings, I tend to write about the places I see year in year out: the North West and Northern Ireland.  I think all the stories in WYWAMIWAR are set in the North West, but in The Only Living Boy, my first collection, almost half the stories were set in and around Belfast, where I grew up.  I’m over there about six times a year, so I’m still hoovering up the beautiful countryside and the complex character of the city.  Writers do most of their writing away from the screen or page, and some of that writing is being out and about in the real world, looking and listening and taking notes.   I’ve spent 30 years living in South Manchester, and 40 years visiting Belfast, and part of the pleasure of that is observing life in these places, thinking about what I observe, what I experience, and absorbing some of that into my fiction.  Chorlton, where I live, is a gift to a writer.  It’s its own year round food and drink festival, it’s own green utopia.  It’s Guardianista Central.  And Manchester is so thrusting, acerbic, competent, creative and thriving, always changing.  There’s always plenty to soak up and try to do justice to right under my nose


Your stories have appeared in a whole spread of journals. What’s your advice to emerging writers about submitting to journals?

Persevere.  Most stories in this collection were successfully placed in literary magazines before they were collected here and nearly all of them were rejected up to 4 or 5 times before they were accepted.   Decca told Brian Epstein that beat groups were passé about a month before EMI signed them up.  I’m clearly not The Beatles, but it’s safe to assume that nobody knows anything – so keep submitting.  It’s just about landing on the right desk on the right day.


I love the illustrations in this new collection. How did the process of illustrating go? Do you think a picture can tilt the interpretation of a story in a particular direction? And do you think that we need more pictures in our books?

Hannah Dickinson had this great central idea that each illustration should incorporate the title and the author name into text that would normally be part of what she was drawing, and the subject in each case had to represent something significant in the story concerned.  For instance, including title and author name on a Metrolink sign for the cover of a story that features Manchester trams, or on a dog’s leather collar for a story that turns on the appearance of a dog, or on a parka and a leather jacket in the title story.  Producing these illustrations took her months, and each cover went through many drafts.  We knocked ideas back and forth by e-mail between September 12 and May 13 and I think Hannah’s industry and imagination has led to a beautifully unified set of cover images all of which are in a particular style that she developed for this project.  I’ve been very lucky to have been able to work with Hannah; she could not have worked harder and she could not have been a more professional collaborator.  Any writer who ends up teamed with an artist like that is very fortunate indeed.


Do you think short stories are gaining ground with the reading public? Who are your personal favourites as regards short story writers?

I think short stories are gaining ground with people who move in literary circles.  There are ever more graduates coming off Creative Writing degrees and English degrees, ever more people who want to write and be a part of the literary industries.  They’re the ones who are reading short stories – in lit mags, individual collections and anthologies.  The form has a higher profile now because there are more people working in those areas, moving in those circles.  That’s only my impression, obviously, not a certifiable fact.  I doubt that short story collections will ever be read or sell in anything like the numbers that novels are.  Most readers want to escape into the imagined world of a story and keep going there for the week or two that it takes to read a novel.  Not many readers are interested in visiting this kind of imagined world for one evening only.  Most want to keep coming back for multiple bedtime reads of a story they are enjoying.  Novels can offer that, but sadly short stories don’t, so the story is always going to be a tiny part of the publishing market.  But I like them!

With short stories as well as novels, I prefer American writers, although not exclusively so.  I’m especially fond of the stories of Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie and Junot Diaz, but also writers like Denis Johnson and Kevin Barry – plus the usual suspects: Salinger, MacLaverty, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pritchett.  I’ve enjoyed plenty of Alice Munro stories, but, as Nicholas Royle was saying after the news came out that she had won the Nobel Prize, she kind of writes short novels, not short stories.


What makes you want to get up in the morning and write?

Because I know it makes me unhappy when I’m not being creative.  As long as I‘m working on some fiction, or a play or a film with Caterpillar, I’m alive.  If I’m not making something new, I get depressed.  Any kind of admin is a drag.  Meetings are a drag.  The day job is what makes being a writer difficult – not the writing itself.  Les Murray, the Australian poet, was quoted somewhere recently saying that there’s no such thing as a job you can write on the side of.  He’s right, of course.  It’s taken me a long, long time to get that, though.

The one thing that rings my bell is writing something into existence, and some day I want to do a lot more of that and a lot less of everything else.  Everyone who’s discovered the joy of making feels like that.  Living in your head and heart and trawling your being for a story that will grow out of almost nothing is the most fun you can have. Best of all, for me is to be at work on a novel – which is masochistic, because most of the novel length fiction I’ve written is still buried in my hard drive.  At the moment, I’m at work on a novel I’ve had underway in one form or another since 2002.  I saw Donna Tartt on TV this week saying she had ditched a chunk of material for her new novel that she had produced (while writing full-time) over an 8-month period.  If I pull off the novel I’m talking about, it’s going to be short, less than 60,000 words, and leave a few hundred thousand words of drafts and excess baggage in its slipstream. This is an unbelievably wasteful methodology, but it seems to be that way for many writers. Maybe not quite as bad as the survival rate of salmon eggs, but it’s in that ballpark.



When You Were a Mod, I Was A Rocker is available from Like This Press

You can find out even more about Robert on his website


Robert will be reading from his collection this weekend, Saturday 19th October, at Chorlton Library. The event – Meet Your Local Manchester Authors – starts at 7pm, is free entry, and also showcases the talents of writers Socrates Adams (Everything’s Fine, A Modern Family) and Matt Hill (The Folded Man).


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