Meet Sam Reese - short story fanatic, award winning author and creative writing mentor.
Ever since reading Sam’s book-length short story collection Come The Tide, I'd been looking forward to interviewing him. The man has a unique gift with words, and an affinity for crafting rich environments and scene settings. Come The Tide is one of those spellbinding books that kidnaps the reader, sucking them inexorably into the pages until they are utterly absorbed and unwittingly playing the role of the main character.
Sam is a bonafide globetrotter. Born and raised in New Zealand, Sam acquired his PhD in Australia before travelling the world (collecting places and characters for his books) before eventually settling in the UK. He’s currently using his considerable talents to nurture a new generation of writers at York St John University in the North of England whilst putting the finishing touches on his next two books.
Sam has published titles in both fiction and non-fiction. His work has earned him the Arthur Miller Centre First Book Prize, the Lazuli Literary Prize, first place in the Brittle Star Short Fiction Contest and finalist status for the Glimmer Train Short New Writer Award.
Q. So, you’re a self confessed short story nerd (“Yes!”), you enjoy reading essays and you’re an award winning critical writer. What is it about short form fiction and creative nonfiction essay that particularly captures your heart and attention?
So, for me it’s really about the poetry of language. I only really became interested in short stories at the end of high school. The few short stories I’d read really didn’t engage me, until one of my teachers gave me Catherine Mansfield’s short stories to read and that was a kind of revelation. Her stories used language in such a kind of poetic way and they don’t have a forced meaning, in the way that lots of the short stories I was ‘taught’ did - they were kind of like fables or they had a very clear moral at the end, whereas this was a way of writing that was very open, felt very free.
Also, I just like the fact that they’re easier to write than novels! I’ve tried writing longer fiction and every time I’ve tried writing a longer piece or I’ve had an idea that seemed like it was crying out to be a novel or a novella, I’ve got to about the thirty or forty thousand word mark and realised that actually, the idea was just a kind of short story idea. So in, I think, three cases now, I’ve written about between thirty and forty thousand words and ended up cutting it down to five or six thousand. I don’t recommend that as a process for composition. I don’t think you need to write eight times as much and then cut it down, but I do find that my particular way of imagining stories and imagining characters lends itself to shorter pieces that are more about a moment of insight or a moment of recognition rather than longer stories about progressive growth, or change over time.
Q. Are you an advocate of sticking with one project at a time or is it okay to bounce between a few different projects?
It’s definitely okay to bounce between projects! Definitely. For me, that’s one of the reasons why I like writing essays and nonfiction criticism at the same time that I’m writing short fiction because for me, I think it’s really important to be able to give ideas space. I always conceptualise it as kind of the back part of your brain - I don’t actually know scientifically whether that’s where your subconscious sits and does work when you’re not consciously thinking about things but that’s always where I imagine sending ideas when I’m not working on them. I always find that my subconscious will process them and build on them or make connections, so that when I come back to that project or I switch tracks, I’ve always got the next step or at least can see more clearly how I can get to the next step.
Q. Most of Come the Tide is written in the first person and there’s this delightfully compelling and inviting “I” which makes it easy for the reader to slip into the narrative and the narrating characters. What brought you to that style & method of writing? Was it a natural or was it a deliberate choice to write that way?
It was a deliberate choice for me and it was something that went against the way I naturally wrote. My own Instinct was to write in post third person, almost like you're looking over the shoulder of characters and that was, in part, because for a long time I found other people very mysterious. I think one of the reasons I'm very drawn to writing is that I like being able to understand how people work. What I found was that I was writing stories that were kind of empty, they were too impenetrable, it was too hard to get inside the characters. Because you couldn't get inside the character’s mindset, you couldn't get into the story.
Switching to writing in the first person was a way to start trying to look inside the story and get underneath the surface; it was a deliberate strategy to try and pull the reader in. You can do really interesting things by creating distance between the reader and a piece of writing but I think it’s hard to be successful with writing which is too alienating because it takes a lot of effort for a reader to persevere with a piece like that. If you can find a way to engage the reader with a character’s point of view and the way they see the world then I think half the battle is won.
Q. The short stories in Come the Tide feel very inside the moment & very intimate, and they often give a sense of the lines between fiction & nonfiction being ever-so slightly blurred. In places it almost feels like surreal memoir. How much of Come the Tide is semi-autobiographical or inspired by your own identity and experiences?
The entry point to a lot of these stories was actually a place. I was writing about somewhere that had a strong meaning or impact on me, in fact I think every story in Come The Tide is based on a place that has some close connection to me. In that sense, in terms of being in a space and the way you respond to it, in the way you remember it - it's probably very autobiographical!
Lots of the events are invented and quite a few of the characters are people I've imagined based on things I've overheard or observed. I'm a very big believer in being a magpie, in collecting ideas from things that you see, engage with and things you remember from being a child. Childhood memories are really great moments to build a story around. Come The Tide is a collection that definitely brings together imagination with memory.
Q. You’re not a fan of writing conventionally styled dialogue and you’ve turned that into a strength. Do you ever poke the bear and have a go at writing conventional dialogue just to see where it goes, in drafts?
I do. A couple of stories in this collection had slightly more conventional dialogue when I first put the manuscript together. For me though, and you’ve really hit the nail on the head, I find conventional dialogue quite difficult. It's probably the hardest thing for me to write, it's one of the reasons why I think it's good for me to practice it, it’s good to try doing things that you find uncomfortable; but it's also one of the reasons I've ended up developing a very distinctive and unconventional dialogue style.
As a writer you've got two options with something that you think is a weakness: you can either spend a lot of time working very hard to bring that weakness up to the level of everybody else and do the thing, dialogue in this case, the way that everybody else does it or you can find a way to make that weakness part of your strength, make it part of your distinctive style. Dialogue was the thing I felt was my greatest weakness and is also the thing I think is now most distinctive about my style. I've turned that weakness into something that makes my writing a bit different.
Q. In Overgrown (the second story in Come the Tide) your character talks about going through a deep creative block. Have you ever had writer's block, and if so, what did you do with it?
I've never had writer’s block in the sense that I haven't been able to write, fullstop, but what I have found is that there are certain ideas or stories that I've hit a wall with, where I’ve come to a place where I either don't know what comes next or I can't find a way to write what I feel comes next.
This is one of the reasons why I really advocate having a couple of projects on the go at the same time because I think, first of all, that changing projects can actually help you solve the problems that are blocking you - there's a kind of interesting cross-pollination that happens. But also because writer’s block often comes from places where we've got an emotional connection to what we're writing. It's a bit like a kind of Gothic scene where you both want to see and don't want to see, like the fairytale of Bluebeard and the wife, opening the door both wanting to and not wanting to see the bodies of all the previous wives.
Recently I read a book called From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler and his biggest piece of advice in the book is don't look away. When you're writing, feel the fear. Let yourself be aware of whatever emotion is causing the block and then lean into it. I found that difficult at first. Switching project gave me the space to be able to work out what the emotional block was and then come back and solve it. I found, over time, that by doing that, I've got better at not looking away. I've got better at working out what's stopping me with a story and finding ways to keep going.
Q. Stepping away from Come The Tide, you’ve also published a number of nonfiction critical works, including the award winning Short Story in Midcentury America. How do you get started with nonfiction?
It always comes from something I have a bit of an obsession with. Something that I find personally interesting, that I want to look up things about on the internet or go to the library and read more about. I remember there was a certain point in my English degree as an undergraduate where I stopped having to write essays on topics and books that had been set for me and started getting more freedom to write whatever I wanted. Realising that I could legitimately write nonfiction about almost anything to do with literature was this kind of huge opening up for me in the way that I thought about my own interests. They were no longer something I was just curious about, they were something I could run with.
The Short Story in Midcentury America really just started because I loved reading these short story writers; these people who are writing really strange unsettling short stories in the middle of the 20th century, some of whom knew each other, some of whom didn't, but all seemed to be interested in the same kind of thing.
I think there's a bit of detective work involved in writing most nonfiction, in the sense of having a hunch about something. There's a lot of excitement and energy you can build once you start learning how to get into that mindset of following lead and untangling a thread, seeing where your instincts can lead you.
Q. Can anyone write nonfiction?
Yes. Absolutely! I'm a very big believer in people writing about things that interest them and also the validity of writing from any point of view. I think that one of the biggest barriers to our connection with one another in the world, and also as readers, are people's beliefs that they are missing some kind of qualification to write about something or to tell their own story or to pursue a topic that they are really curious about or feel like they have an interesting point of view about.
I think that often the most interesting stories and the most interesting essays come from people who don't, on paper, have 'this qualification' or 'this expertise' beforehand. That process of discovery and of bringing your own life to something that is a bit different or that maybe you're not an expert in just yet, that's actually really enriching and can lead to really interesting writing.
Q. In both nonfiction and fiction, do you deliberately try to write publishable material or do you write exactly what you want? How do you get the balance?
I really start by thinking about myself. First of all, what do I want to say? And second of all, as a reader, what interests me? What do I care about? I think focusing on the product which will come out at the end of the writing process can be a really big block to any writer, but particularly to somebody just starting out. I always advise students to focus on the process, not the product. In other words think about what gives you pleasure in writing, what ideas matter to you. Think about how you want to tell the story or how you want to approach this topic. Once you’ve finished it there's always space to make changes or to get advice on the final shape but I think you shouldn't worry about questions like ‘who's going to publish it and where’ until you’ve actually finished telling the story.
I know there are some writers of short stories who are very strategic. They might go and look at particular magazines and write trying to fit a particular magazine’s style. You can definitely do that, there's nothing invalid about that as an approach. But I think writing is more satisfying and generally more successful when you understand what you want to say as a writer and when you know what you like when you read. Use those to guide you and worry about where it goes afterwards.
Q. You mentioned you’d been writing fiction for over ten years and working on Come The Tide for four before you approached Platypus Press. How did you know you’d reached the point of going to knock on a publisher’s door and that you were ready to publish?
There was one thing that was a turning point for me: New Writing North started a Northern Writers Award. I had been working on short stories for a while and I knew I wanted to put together a collection but I was living in the North and I thought this is a particular competition I could enter a book with, so I used the deadline for that as my impetus to finish the stories I hadn't finished yet and decide on what would actually make up the collection.
After I submitted it to the contest I looked over what I had written and thought - actually this is not just a draft that I'm sending off to a competition, I actually feel like this makes sense; there's a coherence and energy here that I hadn't quite seen. So before I'd heard anything back from the competition, I sent a proposal off to Platypus Press, who I’d wanted to send the book to for a while, and they wrote back within a week asking to read the full manuscript. And so I ended up withdrawing my entry to the competition because I'd gone further than I thought I would.
I think that's a story you hear quite often actually. Yes, it can be tough finding a publisher. Yes, it can be tough getting lots of rejections. But when you get your writing to the right place and once you've found the right people for your work, it can happen very quickly. I think the best thing is just to get your writing out there.
Q. How did you choose the piece you sent to the publishers?
I had had some of the stories published already and so that was my first guideline. I thought okay, I know these pieces are of publishable quality because they’ve been published - one print and a couple of online magazines. From that point on I just had to pick two more stories and I just chose ones I liked. I didn’t think too much about what the press were looking for - for better or worse - I just tried to trust my own gut, what I thought I would like to read in their shoes.
Q. How would you advise first time writers to go about becoming an attractive prospect for a publisher and then to go about looking for a publisher.
One thing that really helps is to get a couple of pieces published online and I think in the past publishers used to be more interested in finding writers who had print publications to their name but I think today, being published in an online magazine is just as valid and there’s no status differential. Getting your name in a magazine that publishes things you’re interested in, that aligns a little bit with you, is really helpful.
The other thing that makes you really attractive as a writer is having a clear narrative about who you are and understanding what it is about your experiences, your point of view, your personality that make you a bit different. For me, I spent a long time trying to get the blurb about myself right - the 'bioblurb' people talk about online - and actually that’s something that, once you get it right, makes a great deal of difference in getting people’s interest. Because publishers will see so many different people, having something that makes you stand out as a writer will be really helpful.
There are two ways you can go about looking for a publisher. The first, if you think you want to be published through an independent publisher, is simply to find writers you like reading and see who’s published them. Look at who the publisher is on the books you keep coming back to while you’re working on your own project or look at which names are recurring on your own bookshelf.
A really useful guide is the MSLexia Indie Press Guide; this is published every year or two, they’re up to the third edition. This is particularly useful if you’re based in the UK, it lists all the independent publishers based in the UK. That’s how I discovered my publisher! I basically just read through anybody who was publishing short fiction or was open to publishing short fiction and started researching them. I took a couple of days and when I discovered Platypus I realised they had absolutely beautiful books and they were interested in telling the same kind of stories that I was; until that point, until my book, they hadn’t actually published any fiction - they’d only been publishing poetry and memoir but I felt some kind of affinity with them.
If you want to be published with a commercial press, I think the same rule applies. Look at the writers you read most often, look at the people who’s writing shares the most with your own and then find out who represents them and approach them. That information is actually very easy to find out. Find out who represents that person and what kinds of things they look for in submissions.
Q. In your opinion, what is the most important skill or ability all professional writers need?
Their own voice!
Q. What advice or top tips would you give to aspiring or brand new writers?
Write often. Experiment and try new things out. Read and learn what things you like reading as well as what things you find satisfying to write. Practice thinking about what’s underneath the surface; what is driving your story? What is driving your character? That heart is what makes writing really exciting.
Q. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Good question… I’m just trying to think what it is! Aside from being told to use fewer semicolons, which I was told often as an undergraduate.
I think the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever been given is: follow the brush. This was a piece of advice I was given by a writer whose work I really liked and who I really didn’t like in person. I met this writer and something about our personalities which really didn’t gel but I still really liked their writing and this piece of advice, maybe because it came from someone who I at least knew wasn’t trying to flatter me or fob me off. This advice was to let the pen guide you, follow the brushes; an idea of writing as the pen itself guides you, letting a story lead you on and I think that sense of openness and being prepared to follow an idea wherever it takes you is where my best ideas have come from.
Q. Last question! What is the title of your favourite book and who is your favourite author?
The title of my favourite book is The Diving Pool. It’s a collection of three long short stories by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa; I bought it because I liked the cover, I saw it in a bookshop and I read it in a single sitting and have come back to it probably more than any other single book.
My favourite writer is probably the Argentinian short story writer Julio Cortázar. I think Cortázar understood the short story as a form better than anybody else. When I read his writing, however many times I’ve read it, I still find something that I can learn or something that surprises me or something that makes me approach my own writing in a new way.
Come The Tide is an eerily beautiful window into transitional moments, masterfully manoeuvring the reader into a whistle-stop tour of the world &, like the Ghost of Christmas Present, letting us glimpse just enough to be profoundly moved before sweeping us along to a new destination.
Did you enjoy the interview? This is actually a shortened version of my interview with Sam Reese. Read the full interview on Medium now.
Cover image: Tim Hill from Pixabay