Commas’ renowned short story course will land in Leeds this April. Let’s catch up with the past course participant to see what the fuss is about.
Comma Press is a small indie publisher based in Manchester. As well as publishing short stories and fiction in translation, Comma have grown their writer development opportunities, from the National Creative Writing Industry Day to Manchester in Translation. Their short story courses are continuing to flourish after a decade of running in cities across the UK, from Newcastle to Liverpool and Middlesbrough to Hull. The Comma Short Story Course finds and nurtures talented short story writers from across the country.
Having held courses in neighbouring cities Manchester and Sheffield, Comma Press have now brought the course to Leeds Hyde Park Book Club where local author Emily Devane will be guiding up to 15 writers on a 6-month short story course.
To celebrate the Leeds launch, Comma Press’s Nia Thomas had a chat with past course participant, Molly Aitken, who took part in Emily Devane’s course in Sheffield back in 2019. The two sat down to find out what Molly has been up to since the course, and what advice she would give to anyone thinking of signing up for the Leeds iteration.
N: Molly, thank you for taking the time to talk about your experience of the course. So you joined our Short Story Course in 2019 in Sheffield with Emily Devane, could you tell us a bit about your writing experience up until that point and what prompted you to sign up?
M: It was an impulse decision but I’m so glad I made it. I’d just spent the last two years writing my first novel, The Island Child, and hadn’t left its world in all that time to write anything else. I also really wanted to write something that I could draft in a few hours and possibly finish in a week. The course prompts seemed like a great way to write fast and come up with lots of ideas.
N: Since graduating from our course in 2019 you have been pretty busy. You released your debut novel The Island Child (Canongate) which was Named 20 best books of 2020 by the Independent and featured on author Alice Hoffman’s recommended reads list for Elle magazine. How did your approach to writing your novel differ from the approach you took to writing your first short stories?
M: The stakes are so low with short fiction in comparison to writing a novel. When I write short stories I can play around with voice, subject matter and even genre and I’m not tied to sustaining that for a whole novel. The story I wrote that I loved the most during the course was actually a horror, a genre I never could have imagined myself writing before.
N: Our courses are specifically designed to help writers craft short stories. What kind of specific demands or creative opportunities do you think this art form offers writers?
M: Short stories demand a writer be incredibly concise. Each word has to pull its weight. This is daunting but it also allows you to experiment. Each week we focused on a different element of the craft and how it related to short stories. Focusing just on setting or trying to write a story with mostly dialogue was incredibly fun and led my stories in stylistic directions I would never have followed before. Fun is actually a great way to describe short story writing. What I took away from the course is that you can be incredibly playful in this form. I now write short stories when I need a break from the novel I’m currently writing. They’re a source of escapism.
N: As part of the course, participants are given a reading list before the course starts. If you were in charge, which short stories would you include and why?
M: This is such an interesting question as immediately I just want to recommend stories I love, but what Emily did so well was set stories that were doing a specific thing really well.
I love Jean Rhys. ‘I Used to Live Here Once’ is a great example of how just describing a setting is all you need to do to create tension. A more contemporary story that I am obsessed with is ‘Agata’s Machine’ by Camilla Grudova. The descriptions are so eerie and specific it’s impossible to forget. I still think about it and I read it several years ago. And a third is ‘Cold’ by A. S. Byatt. I’m obsessed with fairy tales. To me they feel like the original short stories and this story by Byatt really leans into that.
N: Where do you draw inspiration from for your writing?
M: From so many places. Often fairy tales and myths find their way into my writing. I usually get inspired while walking in nature. It’s the time when I think through ideas and the escape from technology definitely helps the ideas arrive.
N: Can you share anything exciting you have coming up?
M: I have a short story coming out with Banshee in the summer. Also, this month BBC Radio 4 is replaying a short story they commissioned from me last year. That was a huge thing for me. It was on my writing bucket list.
N: And finally, can you share some parting advice for anyone thinking of signing up for one of our short story courses?
M: Yes, don’t be afraid to try out your strangest ideas. Often those ideas are what make the best stories and there’s nothing like having fellow writers (and a writing teacher) to help you hone that idea into a brilliant story.