Real Imagined Things: Adam Marek on The Stone Thrower
Prize-winning author Adam Marek talks about The Stone Thrower, exploring parenthood and childhood through a series of dystopian, near-future worlds
Like fellow Comma Press author Hassan Blasim, Adam Marek's short stories conjure vivid, often frightening, dystopian visions of the near future. While Blasim's surreal, often nightmarish work explores post-war Iraq, Marek's characters are dealing with the fear and moral uncertainty which goes along with becoming a parent.
“When I had my first child, it felt like whatever armour I’d built up during my lifetime to cope with the outside world was made redundant,” Marek confesses. “The most tender, sensitive, inner part of myself was now outside of my body and vulnerable to the worst of the world.” Caring for his eldest son, who suffers from epilepsy, and has severe learning difficulties along with autistic tendencies, has taught him about the fragility of children, the fierceness of the parental instinct, and the often painful experience of dealing with other peoples' preconceptions. As Marek says, “People who have kids with disabilities or medical problems get to experience parenthood at the sharp end.”
This “sharp end” is pictured with heart-breaking emotional honesty in A Thousand Seams, which features a child with a physiognomy so delicate he must be protected at all times; and Tamagotchi, where a child with autistic tendencies befriends a digital pet only for it to contract a hideous virus, leading to both he and his father being ostracised. Some tales are told from the perspective of a child, most are from the point of view of an anxious and protective parent. “As my kids grow up, I’m continuously re-experiencing the world in a highly sensitised state,” says Marek. “It makes for high levels of anxiety, but it’s also great fuel for the creative process. All of the stories in The Stone Thrower are projections in one way or another of what it feels like for me to be a parent.”
“No one wants to read about fully functioning utopias. We read to see characters in conflict with themselves and their environments” – Adam Marek
Marek has previously described short stories as “an incredibly plastic form” – what is it about the smaller frame that appeals to him? They offer “a huge amount of creative freedom,” he says. “You can play with form, with perspectives, and bend all the rules of narrative. You can experiment and be bold, try out absurd or outrageous ideas that might be impossible to sustain throughout the length of a novel.” It's a question of taking creative risks: “You can afford to fail in short stories. You have to be much more cautious with a novel, pack all your bags carefully before setting out. With a short story, you can just run outside in your pants.”
Marek believes that short stories and novels are read and remembered in completely different ways, because “the whole of a short story can be held in the mind at once.” By comparison, novels can be read over a much longer period, so only fleeting impressions and scattered details are recalled. “When you can see the whole of a short story in vivid detail, every word counts. You can afford to be subtle, make the whole story turn on a word.” Marek does this masterfully in The Stone Thrower, offering several concluding sentences which completely change the story that has gone before.
Marek's technical and artistic accomplishments were recognised when he was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor Prize for his first collection, Instruction Manual for Swallowing. The Stone Thrower also received a nomination for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize this year. Perhaps one reason for his critical success is his ability to combine intensely-researched world-building – predicting a myriad of apocalypses, declines and falls of civilisation – with such intensely emotional subject matter. Which is more important to him – prose, or theme?
“The two are inseparable,” he believes. “Stories aren’t composed in the imagination in words. They’re real, imagined people doing real, imagined things. To make a world realistic, you have to look at your imagined scenario closely enough that you get enough specific details to make it solid and believable. At this stage it’s still invisible to your reader. You have to coat the story in words, like wrapping all its pieces in newspaper papier-mâché, until it becomes visible. The more accurately you describe your imagined world, the more faithfully is the world rendered in your reader’s mind.” The terrifying superhero-ruled dystopia of The Captain is as vividly and realistically depicted as the rocky, possibly post-eco-catastrophe seascape of Fewer Things.
The secret of his success at world-building is “research and redrafting,” he says. He avoids the classic speculative fiction error of excessive infodump by rejecting “a huge amount of supporting material” from early drafts, which “tend to have way too much exposition in them, lots of unnecessary details built up. The editing process – my favourite part – is about cutting out everything that doesn’t serve the point of the story, and trying to approach the heart of the story as obliquely as possible.”
This allows his stories to “take up enormous brain space in the reader while utilising as few words as possible.” The challenge, he says, is “getting as much in the tiny suitcase as possible.” Asked why his visions of the near future are so bleak, he responds: “No one wants to read about fully functioning utopias. We read to see characters in conflict with themselves and their environments.”
Marek wanted to be a writer since the age of 11, and praises his wife for her patience and encouragement as he refined his work, entering competitions and submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers. “When I was 19, I first decided that I was going to write something that I would try to get published. I got my first short story published 10 years later. I wrote almost every day during those 10 years.”
Eventually he met Ra Page, editor and publisher at Comma. “There was a big moment in my writing life when we met up at the Tate Modern to talk over the rough manuscript of my first story collection,” he says. Page told him in detail what worked, and what didn't: “Until that point I’d just been producing as much as possible, trying out everything in every possible direction. Ra helped prune away all the weak branches so I could concentrate growth in the fruit-bearing ones.” He laughs. “I don’t know much about gardening. I hope that metaphor holds up.”
It was the beginning of a fruitful relationship with Comma, to appropriate Marek's metaphor. He describes them as “brilliant to work with,” praising them because “they specialise in the short story and so they really know the form and what it can do.” A small list means they can focus on high production values, and “they’re very hands on during the editing process,” he says. “If you look at the writers they’ve published in anthologies or single author collections, you’ll see those names coming up again and again in the big story awards.”
Marek namechecks fellow Comma authors including Blasim, David Constantine, Toby Litt, Sarah Hall, and Kate Clanchy, among others. He also praises Comma's “inventive briefs” for their anthologies: “Through Comma commissions I’ve spent time with a nano-scientist, a genetic engineer and someone who studies exploding stars and then written a story inspired by their work. Right now I’m working on a new story commission for Comma which involves attending an artificial intelligence conference in Sicily.”
Marek, like so many of the new generation of young writers, still has to do other work to pay the bills. He works as a copywriter, but this gives him “full creative freedom... you can write whatever you want to write until you tether the need to make a living from it.” He has begun work on a novel, traditionally a slightly more financially rewarding market than the short story one. At the recent Festival of the European Short Story, he met graphic novelist Karrie Fransman: “Chatting with her about graphic novels reawakened the part of me that loves to draw and paint and make marks, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently,” he reveals. “I feel hungry to do something graphic. It’s just a case of finding the right idea and getting over the hurdle of self-consciousness about being a clumsy beginner again in a new field.”
One thing is certain – in the field of short stories, Marek has become a modern master in the space of two collections. Combining thrilling speculative fiction tropes that recall Philip K. Dick or J.G. Ballard with a gut-wrenching emotional intensity, they mark him out as one of the UK's most promising young writers. Speaking about his novel again, he shows precisely why his stories are so effective. He has integrity. “In an ideal world,” he says, “the idea chooses the form, not the writer’s inner marketing team.” An admirable statement from a writer who has chosen to depict worlds that are far from ideal.
The Stone Thrower is out now, published by Comma Press.