An A-Z of Possible Worlds

I was given the chance to read A.C. Tillyer’s extremely impressive début collection An A-Z of Possible Worlds a couple of months ago. This is what I wrote:

Bristling with intelligence and invention, often drily hilarious and occasionally chilling, this collection of interconnected stories is both a joy to read and the most appealing and effective primer of political thought I’ve come across for some time. AC Tillyer’s 26 possible worlds, arranged alphabetically from Archipelago to Zero Gravity Zone, insistently probe the meaning of power and its misuse, the rise of prejudice and authoritarianism, the role of capital, the lies we tell ourselves and each other in order to survive as societies – and they do so in an authoritative, highly readable fashion, with more insight and wit than many books ten times the size of this collection. Each small tale is both a parable and a perfectly realized world; taken together they turn into reflecting facets of a single world, that of Tillyer’s remarkable imagination, irreducible to mere allegory, a world that contains bog-people and multi-storey car parks without embarrassment. Echoes of writers as diverse as Swift and Tolkien, Borges and Magnus Mills, only reinforce the originality of Tillyer’s take on how we live – and fail to live – together. An impressive and thought-provoking collection by someone who deserves to be widely-read.

The book is now officially out, I’m more convinced than ever of its worth, and I’m delighted to have its author drop in on my blog to answer a few questions.

It’s a universal truth (or it feels like one) that publishers are wary of unpublished authors and first books, and this wariness increases exponentially if the first book is a collection of short stories, despite a recent revival of interest in the form. A-Z is a pretty high concept, but it still can’t have been easy to find someone both wise and adventurous enough to take it on. Can you tell us a little about the book’s pre-publication history and how you found Roast Books, or they found you?

You’re right, it wasn’t easy at all. In fact, I’d given up. I finished it nearly three years ago and sent it off to some agents because, I was told, nobody can be published without an agent. Several of them said they liked it but wanted a full-length piece from me first. Eventually, an agent did sign me up and took it to the publishers she knew but received pretty much the same response. They all wanted a ‘proper’ novel before they would consider publishing a short story collection. I kept trying to say that they were linked but, nope, they weren’t prepared to take the risk. It seemed a pity to leave it to rot, so I printed each story out as a separate booklet, put them in a box, gave some away and kept the rest. Then about a year ago, I saw an ad for a short fiction competition in the London Review of Books placed by Roast Books, a new publishing company that ‘specialized in short fiction’. The closing date was the next day and my A-Z didn’t really fit the brief but I thought it couldn’t do any harm to enter. So I dug out one of my story boxes and jumped on my bike to deliver it. Faye contacted me to say that my submission had ‘created excitement at Roast’. I remember that really well cos I was on the phone to my sister when I opened the email and I kept chanting it to her over and over. It wasn’t suitable for the first series of novellas she published but it became her first full-length publication. I’m full of gratitude to her for taking a chance on me and going where the big guys feared to tread. Actually, she’s just shown me the next book she’s publishing, which is also pretty unconventional: an illustrated journal that comes in a bag, with additional information such as useful facts, recipes and so on. I don’t know enough about the publishing world to make sweeping generalizations but it does seem to be an industry in a state of fear, so it’s brilliant to see somebody who’s prepared to take risks and be different. I salute her, I really do.

You mentioned on Nik’s blog, that you’re working on something longer. A-Z is such an original concept in so many ways – not only formally – that I imagine it’s a fairly hard act to follow. Assuming your new book is fiction (which is a big assumption) I was wondering if it was a novel, or a series of stories, interconnected or otherwise, and, if the former, whether you planned to abandon the societal, collective take on human behaviour that characterises A-Z for something that operates at a more individual, even psychological, level, which is what we now tend to expect from the novel form, although this isn’t always, or necessarily, so (vide Kafka, one of the literary antecedents that’s been mentioned in connection with your work). Can you give us some idea of what to expect?

It’s true, I did feel an enormous pressure to abandon the short story after the A-Z was rejected. Initially, I tried to write a historical fiction as that seemed to be the big thing at the time. But it just didn’t work out. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction and, after a couple of chapters, I realized I was writing a book I wouldn’t actually read myself. That was a turning point, to put it mildly. I don’t think you can write a book you don’t love and believe in. So that one hit the recycling and I’ve started on something much more up my street: capital punishment is back and it’s being broadcast live! It’s a full-length narrative and the characters have names this time, so it’s structurally more conventional, I suppose, but it still takes a sociological ‘what if’ as a starting point and runs with it. Your question about whether a full-length piece becomes, almost by necessity, more psychological is a tricky one. Does this have to be the case? Probably yes, though I would like to argue that the A-Z is a full-length piece, that we can’t go on a journey around the mind without visiting a series of disparate places. I guess I’m just not a particularly ‘psychological’ writer. That said, my new book does follow the effects that the changes within a society has on a group of individuals. The society’s still the main character, though.

I noticed that you particularly like stories that have what looks like a surprise ending, but is actually one that the story has been intent on preparing from the outset. So do I!

Good! I always feel somewhat cheated when there’s a big ‘Ta Darr” moment at the end that you had no chance of predicting. It’s the ones that, once you think about it, have endings that are built in from the very start that are so satisfying. They make you want to go back and read them again right away.

But I have the feeling that that kind of story is seen as slightly unfashionable these days, now that so much short fiction seems to work with the fleeting emotional moment, with ambiguity rather than closure, offering epiphanic fragments of experience that the reader is required to piece together. Any views on this?

Well, stuff fashion, is what I say!! These fleeting emotional moments are all very well but, when I read a story, I’m constantly asking why is he or she telling me this? It’s all very nice to know that somebody’s sorted out their relationship with their mother or whatever, but why should I care? Actually, I hate the idea of building a believable character by giving them a childhood, a couple of interesting hobbies and string of likes and dislikes. I just don’t think people work like that. And a lot of the time, I don’t want to know the intricacies of a character’s thought processes. If somebody reacts a certain way to a particular situation, I think it’s better to let the reader decide why they did so. Hearing a character’s thoughts is fine: we talk to ourselves all the time, but I honestly don’t believe we say things like ‘I want to win this so much because I need the approval that I never had as a child’ or whatever. I’m being deliberately crass, but you know what I mean! It’s too easy to slot in a few details about a character’s past and let the reader play psychologist, fitting them together until they have an ‘ah-ha’ moment and think they understand the motives behind a set of actions. You’re the author, get on with the story. Let’s start a resistance!

And how comfortable are you more generally with prescriptive notions of what makes a good story?

I went to a talk recently where the speaker declared that only the first-person or the third-person-subjective point of view is acceptable these days. According to her, the ‘authorial- omniscient’ narrator is dead. Well! I was so annoyed I could hardly speak. Maybe I just hate blanket statements like that and automatically want to sabotage them but I don’t agree. If I want togo into all my characters’ heads, or none at all, then I will. One of my favourite moments from The Leopard is when Chevalley and the Prince walk through the poverty-stricken village in the early morning. Chevalley wants to modernize Sicily and yet he’s sad when he thinks that: ‘”This state of things won’t last; our lively new modern administration will change it all.”‘ But the Prince is also depressed: ‘”All this shouldn’t last; but it will…”‘ They both think they’ll get what they want and yet they’re both unhappy at the prospect. Without an omniscient narrator, that poignancy would be lost. And, if you added the kind of cod-psychology to it that we were talking about before, they should both be happy they’re getting what they want. No surprise, no insight – all lost because of an utterly ridiculous rule. I could give you more examples but on this one alone, I rest my case. So, prescriptive notions: bad!

For details of the other dates on the blog tour, click here. The next stop is at Caroline Smailes In Search of Me on 4 November. You’ll find links to two of the stories on Nik Perring’s blog and to two more at East of the Web. For more information about the book itself, and its author, click here. And, perhaps most important, you can buy it from Amazon by clicking here. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

And yes, that’s Anne in the post below…

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6 Responses to An A-Z of Possible Worlds

  1. nmj says:

    This collection sounds refreshingly different, & I dig A. C. Tillyer's 'why should I care?' comments about characters in fiction. I will def be buying this.

  2. I think you'll love it!

  3. dan powell says:

    Preordered a copy of this after reading 'O is for Orbital.' Great concept and I am eagerly awaiting delivery of the whole package.

  4. You won't regret it, Dan!

  5. Anne says:

    I must get this! Many thanks for the post.

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