Interview with Richard Smyth shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award 2021

Richard Smyth has been a freelance writer since 2008. His journalism appears regularly in the Guardian, TLS, New Statesman, Literary Review, and New Humanist. He has published six books of non-fiction the most recent, An Indifference of Birds, by Uniform Books in 2020. His first novel Wild Ink was published by Dead Ink in 2014 and his most recent novel The Woodcock was published by Fairlight in 2021. In 2017 he was awarded a Northern Writers’ Award for fiction. He has been longlisted for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize and shortlisted for the Richard Jefferies Prize for nature writing and the Historical Writers’ Association Short Story Award.

His short story Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast has been shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award and he will be appearing on the 16th October alongside Georgina Harding, another shortlisted writer, in a partnership event with the Northern Short Story Festival (NSSF) and Comma Press.

Northern Short Story Festival: Firstly, congratulations on your BBC National Short Story Award shortlisting. You’re a nature writer and a journalist by background, and the natural world is deeply interwoven in all your work, so I suppose my first question then is threefold: how did you first develop a love of nature, how did you first develop a love of writing, and how did those things become connected?

Richard Smyth: I got into nature generally as a kid, as lots of kids do. My grandad probably partly got me into it, but I read a lot of bird books and a lot of my interest was book based. My mum would take me out, but she was never an enthusiast and she didn’t drive, and my dad was working, so a lot of my early knowledge came from bird books. When I became a teenager I realized it’s not what the cool kids do, not that I was ever a cool kid, and so I sort of drifted away from it a bit. In 2008 I took redundancy and went freelance, and I started looking around for things to write. Nature and birds particularly were something I knew about, that was still in there from all that time ago. So I pitched a few articles to Birdwatching Magazine and they went well so that basically forced me to start getting interested in it again and it started to inform everything else I did. I think most writers, one way or another, need to find something to think with, something that can be a framework and also an inspiration. For some people that might be politics or personal memoire but nature really fulfils a big part of that role for me. And history is the same, the story in The Woodcock is an historical story as well as a nature themed one and that is another facet that I draw on a lot, history and nature and particularly when those two things combine. It’s just so rich and so evocative.

NSSF: It’s really interesting that you say that because your short story ‘Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast’ is set in 1949 in the Soviet Union and when I read it I was thinking about this idea of nature as a kind of universal and unchanging human experience, as a through line through human history, something that we’ve all always experienced and related to. But actually, it is historical, and it can be historicized, and your story in particular is set in a very particular moment when human history has significant impact on the natural world and I thought that tension was really interesting.

RS: Absolutely, it’s something I’m slightly obsessed with, over that last five years or so it’s been a really strong theme in both my fiction and my nonfiction. My last nonfiction book was called An Indifference of Birds and that was an attempt to write a history of birds and humans on earth from the earliest times. I think to some extent I succeeded in getting across this idea that the history of nature is the history of change; change is the one constant. Politically the idea that nature is an unchanging thing can be dangerous – that there is an idyll or an arcadia somewhere that we can somehow get back to. I also don’t think it’s a very exciting way of looking at it personally – when I wrote An Indifference of Birds I found it quite genuinely powerful and moving to think of everything in a state of flux – to me that’s so much more exciting. So yeah, this story is set in a period where human endeavor and nature are closely interlocked.

NSSF: That space between human influence on nature and then nature’s influence on human activity and human life seems like it’s a particularly rich area for story. What do you think that you can both discover and also represent about ourselves, humanity, humans from this kind of push pull relationship?

RS: I’m quite wary of learning from nature because it’s so infinitely diverse that you can take any lesson you like. What I do think it that it brings things out of us; the way we respond to nature is the interesting thing for me. The idea for this short story came from reading a paper on the great Stalin plan for the transformation of nature in a journal called Environmental History. It is genuinely one of the most inspiring and exciting academic journals I think I’ve ever read which might be damning with faint praise but every paper in it is a story, an unheard story from history – this incredibly diverse range of historical and geographical locations and humans interacting with nature, and I could read it all day. And it’s under-studied, it’s stories are unfamiliar which is why it’s a mad thing to write about!

NSSF: The voice and the narration in the story is this kind of quite rigid security report, did that idea come partly from having seen this in an academic journal – they’re not the most emotional publications.

RS: I hadn’t even though of that, maybe it did! It was a funny one for me because the form of the story came to me at the same time as the story itself – that’s not normally how it works. But with this one it came ready made in my head and I knew it would be a report before I really knew all the details of the story I wanted to tell. But it was interesting to try to find a voice, because voice is really important in my fiction and everything else follows from that – so to find a voice that works and that flows with me naturally while not departing too far from the format of this severe, austere intelligence report was a challenge. But it allows you to do interesting things, that kind of restriction can be quite freeing – in that stale environment a small thing can have a bigger impact which is good fun to do.

NSSF: I saw an article once about really niche journal articles that have been published and you do wonder what the human story behind them is – like how has this been published!? But I think one of the things that appeals to me about the short story as a form is that it’s quite agile because you can take creative risks that you might not be able to sustain for a novel-length piece of writing.

RS: I agree, sometimes you have a voice, a scene or a fragment that you can’t think practically how it would sustain a novel. But when it can work for three or four thousand words then good things can happen.

NSSF: I was going to ask you how you get your ideas for short stories?

RS: I read a lot for my work; I have to. There’s a metaphor that I keep trotting out, but it’s an analogy that I like and it’s compost.  We have a compost bin in our garden, and it fascinates me. You put a load of stuff in the top and then a few weeks later you open the bottom, and you have lovely soft brown mulch and that’s how it feels for me most of the time when I’m doing creative writing. I’ll shovel a load of stuff in, and I’ll let whatever part of my brain is equivalent to the worms do the work. I’m quite a careful writer I think – the craft is really important to me and what I consider my job, but the creativity bit just sort of happens as a back-office operation.

NSSF: Your work seems quite precise to me – there’s a lot of stuff about nature and history that we were talking about, and you know all the names and dates and places.  Are you writing surrounded my loads of books and papers or does most of the research happen beforehand?

RS: Whenever I do interviews, I always have answers that I think are not going to reflect well on me as a writer and this is one of them. I’m not going to say I’m cavalier, but I’ve done a couple of creative writing workshops before and one of the things I really try to get across to people is that you can’t be cowed by the research – by the volume of material you feel you have to master, you can write what you want. What you put in a story can suggest that you know more than you do but what matters is that the story feels authentic and right and that it serves the purpose of the art.

NSSF: No, I agree, and fastidiousness gets in the way of creativity sometimes. If you want that kind of historical information, you’re not going to be reading a short story to get it right.

RS: Absolutely, because the fact is that we’re all making stuff up. There’s an old line I think by Groucho Marx which is that ‘the key to success is sincerity’ and if you can fake that you’ve got it made, and that’s how I feel about authenticity. I think people forget that literature is about manipulation – and it doesn’t have to be tricksy postmodern playing games with the reader sort of stuff, even the sincerest down to earth stripped back fiction is manipulative – that’s what it does and that’s what it’s for. All the other stuff is there for you to use!

NSSF: The last question I have for you is do you have any short story recommendations?

RS: Of the writers that I’ve enjoyed in the last few years Eley Williams is an obvious one. There’s a guy called Owen Booth who has published two novels – the first one is a collection of short stories pretending to be a novel and the second one is an actual novel. But he won the Moth Prize last year with a story called Frankenstein’s Monster is Drunk, and the Sheep Have All Jumped the Fences and it’s a brilliant example of an idea that couldn’t be a novel but is so perfectly rendered in a few thousand words. Carys Davies I’ve enjoyed recently as well. And then going further back into the classic stuff I’d probably say the same thing that most people would say, except I wouldn’t say Raymond Carver. Checkov, Gogol, the Russians are always going to play a part in my thinking. Tolstoy’s short stuff, which tends to be quite long short stuff. There’s a guy called Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky who is a slightly absurdist early 20th century Russian writer.

NSSF: Richard, thank you so much!

Listen to Richard’s BBC Short Story Award shortlisted story Maykopsky District, Adyghe Oblast here.

Buy tickets to hear Richard in conversation with Georgina Harding, another shortlisted writer here.

Buy Richard’s new novel The Woodcock here.