The short stories collected in David Constantine’s In Another Country deal with isolation in an array of moving, memorable ways. Some characters are geographically separated from others; others are cut off from the people they care about because of circumstances or the weight of history. Reading “An Island,” one of the book’s most memorable stories, one is left with an powerful sense of both the narrator’s mind and of the space that he occupies. I talked with Constantine via email about the collection itself, and about the forthcoming film 45 Years, adapted from the title story.
How did you go about selecting the stories that make up In Another Country?
Mostly I left the selection to Dan Wells at Biblioasis and Ra Page at Comma Press, trusting them to know what would serve best. I was consulted throughout, also about the order of the stories, and I’m pleased with the published volume.
As you organized them, were you grouping them more along thematic or chronological lines?
The ordering had more to do with variety. I’m not sure that many people do actually read through a volume of short stories as they are listed in the Contents, but still I didn’t want the longest (or gloomiest) all coming together.
“An Island” was one of the most powerful stories in the book for me. Where did it begin: with the voice, with the setting, or with something else?
I had just completed a translation of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the structure of which is, effectively, a one-sided correspondence. I radicalized that structure. My hero really does seem to be writing into a void. I also wanted to try to understand how a man as full of life, as capable of enjoying life and enriching the lives of others as Werther is, could in the end kill himself and, by doing so, grievously harm his friends. I wanted my man to be at least as attentive to human life and to the natural world as Werther. The location is, quite precisely, Bryher, Isles of Scilly, a very small island on which we lease a house. I had the man’s voice in my head and I knew his locality as closely as I know anywhere on earth. That enabled me to write in the first person with many first-hand particulars. It felt possible.
What part does realism play in your writing? Many of the stories here seem very close to life, but “Goat” seems more stylized.
My aim is always to reveal a figurative life in the details of how human beings really live in the real world. So in ‘Goat’ I can vouch for the reality of the setting and the characters. And the story itself, in its outcome, is a very possible reality in that context – a context I knew intimately in Durham, in the North East of England, 40 years ago, when I had a lot to do with homeless men sleeping rough (and sometimes dying) in squalid and cold conditions. Goat himself is a figurative or, if you like, a clarified, version of a man I saw a great deal of back then, talked to very often, and whose poems I still have. I think I could indicate the same dynamic – real, closely observed lives and a wish to reveal the figurative in them – at work in all my stories. I can’t begin a story, and certainly I could never go and finish one, unless it came to me as a subject having in it that potential.
A number of your stories deal with the long and complex histories between characters. How much of this do you work out before sitting down to write, and how much of it comes up as you’re writing a particular story?
Stories, in my experience, are no more biddable than poems are. Both occur to me (and neither very often) as an intimation of something I must try to show the nature, interest and value of, by writing. For poems and for stories, all I am given at the outset is an image or configuration of images (most often very concrete in a definite – even if imagined – locality), with also, if I’m lucky, a tone of voice and, in the case of stories, perhaps a scrap of dialogue. The sense of the whole project – a fiction or a poem – becomes clearer to me, I realize it, sentence by sentence, line by line, as I write. In that understanding, it is the writing itself which makes sense. So, to answer your question more exactly: I know very little in advance, I find out what’s in the story, what it wants, as I write.
Have there been any particular settings that you’d like to work into a story but haven’t been able to as of yet?
I suppose there must be scores of such settings – but I could never sit down and say: Now I will write a story out of one of them. I don’t want this to sound more mysterious than it is. Quite simply, I wait to be prompted. I love many localities on earth, owe them a very great deal, and the last thing I’d want to do is exploit any of them idly. In a way, the more congenial a setting and a subject are to me, the more reluctant I would be merely to use them.
How did 45 Years, the adaptation of the book’s title story, come about?
The director Andrew Haigh read the story and approached Comma Press for permission to make a screenplay and film of it. I was very pleased, but I had nothing at all to do with the making of the film apart from writing the story itself 11 or 12 years ago. I’m glad I wasn’t asked. I’ve seen the film, admired it greatly and was very moved by it. And I understood better than I have before how different are the workings of film and fiction.