David Gaffney and Nicholas Royle: Head to Head

Authors David Gaffney and Nicholas Royle appear at Didsbury Arts Festival this month. Gaffney's sometime collaborator Sarah-Clare Conlon chairs a discussion between the two as they debate long versus micro fiction, and the influence of place on writing

Feature by Sarah-Clare Conlon | 06 Jun 2013
  • Didsbury Arts Festival

It seems you can't step out of your front door these days without tripping over some kind of multi-arts shindig, and this month, south Manchester's Didsbury Arts Festival (22-30 Jun) offers a strong literary strand, with Simon Armitage (Didsbury Baptist Church, 30 Jun), Rosie Garland (The Albert Club, 27 Jun) and Jackie Kay (Emmanuel Church, 29 Jun) appearing alongside emerging writers, including newly crowned winner of the Chorlton Arts Festival FlashTag 'short-short story' writing competition Michael Conley (The Parsonage, 26 Jun), and up-and-coming poet Andrew Beswick (Didsbury Library, 29 Jun).

Also on the bill are Manchester-based authors David Gaffney – whose work flies the flag for micro fiction – and Nicholas Royle, commissioning editor of Salt Publishing's Best British Short Stories series and head of Nightjar Press, a short story imprint and the focus of his festival event. Gaffney has just issued his fourth collection, More Sawn-Off Tales, through Salt, and has recently finished drafting his second novel; Royle's seventh, rather confusingly entitled First Novel, was published by Jonathan Cape in January. So what better to get them debating over a glass of Chimay and a massive cheeseboard – y'know, just to put some writerly stereotypes to bed – than the subject of short versus long form fiction?

Gaffney tells how, when he was reading at an event at Essex Book Festival that was celebrating flash fiction (incidentally, both agree they hate the term, which makes the act of writing it sound as transitory as the experience of reading it), none of the audience members raised their hands when asked who read short-short stories. “Novels are easier to sell, with one subject,” he surmises, “whereas short stories are about all kinds of things. If I applied the same amount of time to a novel as I do to stories, it'd take 10 years.”

“Well, you always get a story with your stories,” comments Royle, on Gaffney's work. “It's not just observational writing; not just a vignette.”

“Novels are easier to sell, with one subject, whereas short stories are about all kinds of things. If I applied the same amount of time to a novel as I do to stories, it'd take 10 years” – David Gaffney

Gaffney claims that he “never liked” his first novel, Never Never, which was the first thing he ever wrote – though his stories were published first. Royle picks this up: “I'm interested in authors who don't like their first novels,” he says. “People like Philip Pullman, who won't have his reprinted and won't even discuss it.” Gaffney wonders whether novelists, as musicians, experience 'first album syndrome', and the pair discuss the idea that, often, someone's so-called first novel actually isn't – they might have a drawer full of previously written ones. “My favourite novel is Les Gommes by Alain Robbe-Grillet, supposedly his first,” says Royle. “The next one, A Regicide, was published in 1978, but it was written in 1949, so Les Gommes is technically not his first novel – but it was the first novel to be published.”

At the festival, both authors will be presenting their work in a live setting. Gaffney is quite used to performing, but questions whether live literature is beneficial to the medium or not. “Well, if you read for five minutes and it's good, then that's a good thing,” replies Royle. “But if you read for 35 minutes…”

“The problem for me,” says Gaffney, “is that writers can start writing for performance, especially in Manchester, because there are so many spoken word nights.” Royle agrees, adding that getting into this habit can give rise to a form of literature that is more suitable for “reading on stage than reading on page”. He does stress, however, that reading work aloud is important to the writing process. “Nothing is finished until you've read it out loud,” he insists. “You spot stuff, unnecessary repetition... I always make my creative writing students read out loud.”

This is a commitment that could prove tricky for the two writers themselves, since both like to sit in cafes and bars to work. Does their environment affect what ends up on paper? “I can't help but write about where I am,” says Royle. “First Novel is set very specifically in Didsbury, where I live, and in a university, where I work.” Royle is interested in urban exploration, while Gaffney is into psychogeography, and they wonder whether places do, somehow, mean something that bit extra to writers. “Maybe the writer reads more into it,” offers Royle. “The writer has a professional responsibility to make something out of it.” It's an idea worth thinking about; in the meantime, at this month's festival, it'll be the turn of Didsbury to make something out of their writing.

David Gaffney and Sarah-Clare Conlon: Sawn-Off Tales, Pizza Express (upstairs), Didsbury, Manchester, 25 Jun, 7.30pm, free

Nicholas Royle and Nightjar Press: Nightjars & First Novels, Pizza Express (upstairs), Didsbury, Manchester, 27 Jun, 7pm, free


David Gaffney launches More Sawn-Off Tales at Takk, Tariff Street, Manchester, 13 Jun, 6pm