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20 Questions with... Wayne Connolly

Wayne Connolly is a short story writer living in the Derwent Valley in the North East of England. His work has been published by The Common Breath, thi wurd, Acid Bath Publishing, Product Magazine and Hickathrift Press. In 2022 he was shortlisted for the Short Fiction/University of Essex International Short Story Prize, and longlisted for the Galley Beggar Press Prize. His first collection, The Gift, was published by Pontburn Press in 2023.

Find him on Twitter: @KeeperOfPybus

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1. Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?

My father was in the Navy when I was born, so for the first few years of my life we moved around a lot, from Cornwall to Northern Ireland, Malta and Wales. Then I spent the rest of my formative years at school in Plymouth. I’d say my life from the age of seven until I left home for university was uneventful. As a teenager I discovered music, films and books, through which I escaped what seemed to me a very dull place.

2. Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?

I worked in academic libraries for 30 years until I retired due to ill health in 2017 and, although I spent my life amongst books, it had never occurred to me to write or even to think of being a writer. It all came about by chance. Three years ago I saw a call from the the Glasgow publisher, The Common Breath, for short prose pieces for a new anthology. I just thought, “I wonder if I could do that?” and sat down with my laptop and wrote about my illness and cancer treatment. To my amazement my contribution was accepted and published in the book The Middle of a Sentence. The anthology includes work by some of my favourite writers - David Keenan, Wendy Erskine, Janice Galloway. I still can’t believe it happened.

3. Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.

After writing short stories for two years, I realised that I had enough for a book of my own, so at the beginning of 2023 I published my collection, The Gift, just to see if I could do it really - again I thought, “I wonder if I could do that?”

4. What are you working on right now?

Another short story - something to do with postmen, old-style social clubs, illness, love between men. I can’t tell you exactly what it’s about because I won’t know until it has resolved itself, and even then I might not be sure.

5. Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?

I write little and infrequently, with long gaps between stories. Each one usually starts with a clear mental image, a picture of someone that intrigues me. Then I have to watch and wait for something to happen. Sometimes it takes months before I can move on from that initial impression as the story starts to reveal itself. I’ve found that I can’t force it, and if I try to do so it never works.

6. Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?

I usually write on a laptop while lying in bed or in a big comfy armchair, with as few distractions as possible. Rewriting and editing is a different experience. That can happen anywhere. I always use google docs, so I can access files easily on any device I have to hand. Quite often I’ve been out on a walk, thinking of what I’ve written, then pulled out my phone to change a word or two as I go.

7. What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?

I don’t think I’m in a position to offer advice, but I’ve learned to write out of curiosity and to expect rejection. Then anything that turns up is a bonus.

8. Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?

I’ve only done a few live readings, but I’ve really enjoyed them. I like the responsibility to try make them enjoyable for the audience as well. That makes you think about your work in different ways, and to look at it from new perspectives. I’ve found that what you think of as your best writing might not work as well in a live setting, and pieces that are weaker on the page might fly when read aloud. So every reading is an opportunity to refresh your understanding of what you have written.

9. Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?

I didn’t think there were any consistent themes in my work until another writer (a very perceptive writer) asked me some questions in an interview and made me aware of things I hadn’t noticed before. I can now see that there is a recurrent theme in the stories I’ve written, which is the need that people have to make connections with others and the difficulty they often find in doing so. Many of my characters can only communicate indirectly, through gestures, objects, gifts - often with books, letters and other forms of writing. I can only assume that these things come from a place deep inside myself, and about which I have little understanding or control.

10. Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?

If writers have a moral purpose, it’s just to write and tell their stories. There are few things more important than that. The exchange of stories in itself has a moral force - by helping others to explore the world imaginatively and understand it more fully. I wouldn’t presume to prescribe the sort of stories writers should or shouldn’t tell. They can be as transgressive, shocking or upsetting as they like as long as they respect their characters and their readers. In my view that precludes writing that embodies racism, misogyny and other forms of hate, as that immediately transgresses the fundamental principle of respect.

11. Do you write between genres or not?

I’ve tried writing poetry as well as short stories, but poems are very difficult. I find that when a story is working well, it flows easily of its own accord. Writing poetry feels like hard labour, mining at the coal face of language and meaning.

12. Which living writers do you most admire?

I have a few favourites that I’m always happy to tell everyone about - David Keenan, Olga Tokarczuk, Aleksandar Hemon. I admire their craft and their stories, but mostly their fearlessness. I wish I could write with such courage.

13. Which dead writers do you most admire?

I studied English Literature at university forty years ago, and my reading consisted entirely of dead writers - and there are far too many to choose from. But I discovered Jean Rhys only recently and was astonished by what I had missed.

14. What’s the book you wish you’d written?

When I was fifteen years old I read Leonard Cohen’s novel The Favourite Game. It was the first book that really caught my imagination and took me somewhere new and exciting. Instead of moping in my council house bedroom and hiding behind my fringe, I wanted to be the clever, confident Jewish kid that Cohen wrote about, growing up in Montreal with his dark suits and keen poetry. I wanted to be the guy who met a beautiful girl named Shell and then lost her carelessly and tragically. I reread The Favourite Game often and whenever I did I felt ten feet tall, confident and full of optimism. I’m not sure now whether I wish I’d written the book or lived in it. Probably both.

15. What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?

Music and art have always been a big part of my life, but I can’t say they have influenced my writing. But place is very important to me. The first story I wrote, the one which was published in The Middle of a Sentence, is about Pontburn Wood, an area of ancient woodland close to my home in the Derwent Valley. Other stories come from places nearby - Hexham, Corbridge, Newcastle - or places where I’ve lived in the past. While I like to think I write from my imagination, everything I’ve produced is grounded in the places I know.

16. Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?

I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced “block”, but I often feel lacking - a lack of ideas, words, motivation. If I don’t have anything to write about, I know I just have to wait for that initial image to form, then I watch until something happens and the story starts to tell itself. I’m not in a hurry. After all, I never expected to be doing this at all.

17. What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?

I love it when people I don’t know come across something I’ve written and take the trouble to let me know they’ve enjoyed it. And there’s one story of mine, the title story in The Gift, which a few people have said made them cry. It’s very strange to think that I could do that.

18. How do your family and friends feel about your writing?

They have been very supportive and kind, and probably a bit surprised that I have written and published anything at all. One friend wrote to me after I showed them one of my first stories, “Wowee! You’re really good at this, aren’t you?”

19. Do you have a favourite bookshop?

My favourite bookshop is Forum Books in Corbridge. They always have excellent stock, and they display and promote it so well. Lovely people too. The most gratifying experience after I produced my book was seeing it for sale on their shelves.

20. How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?

Amazon seems to be unstoppable. It sucks everything into itself like a black hole. I just hope that there will still be enough deep space around for independent publishers and booksellers to constellate and provide a home for new and bold writing.

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