A chat with Giselle Leeb about her short story collection, 'Mammals, I Think We Are Called' (Salt Publishing, 2022)
This is such a fascinating, eclectic, beautifully written collection of stories. Can you tell us how it came about? Were they written at a similar time or over a long period?
The stories in the collection were written between 2012 to 2022. ‘Thin’, the oldest story in the book, was published by Mslexia in 2012, and was my fourth published story.
I started writing in 2009. I had no idea how to write a story but kept going, learning craft as I went along—things like how to end a story, deal with time and switch from one scene to another. I put in the writing time but was never in a hurry. I just kept writing stories and sending them out for publication. By the time I put my collection together, I had about fifty to choose from. Many of my stories have a fantastical element in an otherwise realist story and this was one of the main criteria I used to select them. I made the decision to go with a variety of themes instead of one main theme.
If you had to describe your collection in one sentence, how would you do it?
I’m going to cheat and quote from the blurb on the back of the book:
'Ambitious and playful, darkly humourous and imaginative, these strikingly original stories move effortlessly between the realistic and the fantastical as their outsider characters explore what it’s like to be human in the twenty-first century.'
In the second of the stories, the protagonist recalls a writing tutor saying: “To write well, you must loose yourself from your moorings, forget who you are”. It’s a tongue-in-cheek comment in the story but nevertheless an interesting idea and I wonder what you think about this yourself? Can we ever forget who we are? Does a writer need to do so?
I was able to finally start writing after reading a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Golberg, an author who advocates free writing, which is basically writing whatever comes into your head, sometimes in response to a prompt. I needed this to short-circuit my analytical side. I think in this sense of forgetting who you are, i.e. writing directly from the unconscious, you paradoxically connect with who you really are, without even knowing it yourself! Perhaps we can occasionally forget who we are but I think everything comes in the end from who the writer is, at least in the sense of being filtered through your mind, although often at a slant: sometimes you start with an aspect of self but it transforms into something else once the character gets going.
In a similar vein, have you ever had a really good bit of advice from a writing tutor or mentor? And do you feel you have ever given anyone else some good advice?
The advice I give when teaching creative writing is to keep going whatever happens, and to free write and not judge what results. I in turn got this from reading books about writing, while teaching myself how to write. After a year and a half of writing, I joined a feedback group. I didn’t get advice as such from them, but specific and helpful responses to my work, something I recommend. But later on, while doing a Word Factory apprenticeship, my mentor, Leone Ross, taught me to push things a little further, even after extensive editing.
I loved the image of the hare in the title story of the collection. I wondered if it represents unbridled creativity, the kind of writing that can’t be censored or pigeon-holed? Much like the writing in this collection…?
I’m not sure exactly what the hare represents but I really loved the cover when I first saw it. I think it represents the collection brilliantly: the hare looks a little startled, apprehensive, defiant and hopeful, with that odd twenty-first century feeling we all have. And unbridled creativity, yes!
I know that you grew up in South Africa and now live in the UK. Do you feel living in such different places has influenced your writing and how if so?
I also lived in Argentina for a year when I was eighteen and learnt Spanish. Stepping into a different world and seeing it from the outside has definitely influenced my writing. Many of my stories are about outsiders and belonging, something which is both harder and easier in a new country. In some ways it feels like a clean slate: people don’t know where to place you and the normal rules don’t apply. In other ways, you lack a commonality and shared background, which makes it harder to take root, at least at first. My story, ‘Drowning’, is set in the Karoo semi-desert in the Cape in South Africa, and I have another story, ‘Mr Brahms’, not in this collection, that contrasts living in the UK with South Africa. My latest published story, ‘The Little Ghost’, is also set in South Africa. A lot of my stories, e.g. ‘When Death Is Over’, aren’t anchored to a particular place and I think I sometimes aim for a kind of universality. I’m especially interested in what all humans have in common.
Many of the stories contain elements of fantasy mixed with reality. It feels as though the fantasy amplifies the reality in a way that I think of as magic realism, although this isn’t a genre that’s talked about as much nowadays. I wonder what your thoughts on magic realism are?
One of my favourite short story writers, Kelly Link, talks about the fantastical as an intensifier of reality. There is currently a strong trend in the USA of contemporary, literary, genre-bending stories that blend sci-fi, fantasy, horror and realism. Authors like Kelly Link, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Carmen Maria Machado, and many others. Another of my favourite writers is Mariana Enriquez, who uses horror to write about the Argentinian military dictatorship. This trend is catching on a little in the UK with writers like Daisy Johnson.
However, the fantastical has been present in literature all over the world for a long time. One of my favourite books is Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature, edited by Alberto Manguel. It includes seventy-two stories that span a broad range of writers, many of whom would not be considered writers of the fantastic, from D.H. Lawrence and Edith Wharton to Julio Cortázar and Ray Bradbury.
There are many terms for these types of stories and a lot of debate about what type of writing qualifies for each of them. Some argue magic realism belongs to a South American tradition with specific rules. Some use magic realism as an umbrella term for anything that isn’t realist.
I wrote an essay about this for the Word Factory a few years ago called ‘The fantastical, fabulist, surreal, slipstream, literary mode of writing.’ (https://thewordfactory.tv/the-fantastical-fabulist-surreal-slipstream-literary-mode-of-writing/)
I particularly love the term ‘slipstream’ which means: feeling very strange in the twenty-first century. I describe the stories in my collection as ‘literary-fantastical’.
I’ve written a book list for this type of fiction on shepherd.com
One of the themes of the collection seems to be how man interacts with nature, not usually in a positive way. Could you say a little about this?
Like many people, I’m very concerned about the climate crisis and have written quite a few stories about it. I never set out to write them; they came about spontaneously. They often deal with more than one theme. For example, ‘The Goldfinch is Fine’ is about climate change but also a love story.
For the collection, I chose four stories with the climate as the main theme, but from different angles: ‘Grow Your Gorilla’ is very hopeful; ‘The Goldfinch is Fine’ is uncertain about the future; in Barleycorn there is a place for positive change, albeit with a bit of dark sacrifice; and ‘Wolphinia’ ends on a strong note of hope, but definitely not for humans.
I don’t think stories necessarily need positive endings to be hopeful. Writing about the state of things can set off thoughts in the reader that can go in many directions, or offer the odd comfort of being in company.
I was very taken by your use of a ghost (I think he’s a ghost, at least!) as a protagonist in ‘Everybody Knows That Place’. Do you know of any other literary ghost-protagonists?
The odd thing about my cyborg ghost, as a reader pointed out to me, is that he inverts the usual ghost story: instead of being someone from the past haunting humans, he is someone who haunts the past from the future, who also happens to think the ghosts are the humans. In the end, I’m not sure who is the actual ghost!
I don’t know any literary ghost-protagonists offhand. I admit to just googling it and came across quite a few, but none who are the main character.
I’m always interested in how writers structure collections. Was it easy to structure this one? There does seem a very natural flow to yours (literally in the case of ‘As You Follow’ and ‘Drowning’ which both concern water.
Very glad to hear this! Choosing which stories to include in the collection was an almost impossible task and I left out some of my favourites. In the end, I got an idea from Writing Short Stories: A Writers' and Artists' Companion by Courttia Newland and Tania Hershman.
I created a card for each story with the length, theme and a few other criteria. I spent a lot of time rearranging these and adding and taking them out, trying to see what worked best. It’s never a perfect art!
Similarly, how did you decide on the title for the collection?
The title comes from a line in a story in the collection, spoken by a hare. (The story also shares the title of the book) I really loved it as, like the hare on the cover, it encapsulates some of the main themes in the book: a questioning of who we are in the technological age, and our connection to other animals, especially mammals. Are we beyond the natural world, changed beyond recognition by the cultures we have created, or do we still belong to it?
Two of the most powerful stories in the collection (for me), ‘Thin’ and ‘Mammals, I Think We are Called’ are written in the first-person voice. As a short story writer myself, it can feel like a difficult choice – and yet such an important one – to choose which voice to use. How does it happen for you, and do you ever write from one voice and then shift to another (i.e. from first to third)?
A friend was recently mentioning how Damon Galgut shifts from first to third person in The Promise. I’ve alternated points of view in alternating sections of a story but haven’t done this throughout one. I’m now eager to try it. I used to write a lot in close third as it gave me room for an almost first person voice, but with the extended view third allows. Sometimes, I find that emotion can, paradoxically, come across stronger with a little distance. Most of the time, the voice is not a conscious decision, e.g. in ‘As You Follow’, which came out fully formed in second person. Occasionally, I have switched between third and first to see which works better. I definitely use first person a lot more than I used to. I think it can be very effective in certain stories, like in ‘Thin’, where I think it emphasises the main character’s terribly lonely, trapped situation.
There are lots of animals in the collection. Apes, in particular, feature prominently (in ‘Are you Cold, Monkey, are you Cold’ and ‘Grow your Gorilla’, and in ‘Wolphinia’ the narrator’s childhood nickname is ‘Monkey’) – I wonder if you could talk about animals / simians as a theme?
For some unknown reason, apes come up a lot in my stories. When I was small, I was obsessed with elephants and collected them for years until I got older and wished people would stop giving them to me as presents. I don’t recall a particular fascination with monkeys or apes. I did see a lot of monkeys growing up, including at the bottom of the garden. There was a place in Durban (where my dad lived) called Berman Bush that you could drive through to look at monkeys.
Perhaps my interest comes from apes being our nearest relative. I’m very interested in dreams and recently came across one I’d written down years ago about an ape and a little girl, so perhaps the ape was lurking somewhere in my subconscious. Since I started writing stories about apes, I’ve read some fascinating non-fiction about gorillas. They have complex societies and shifting social status in their troops.
It seems as though many of the stories carry implicit warnings about what we are doing to our world – and to each other. Do you think stories should have a moral purpose?
I don’t think I would ever write a story with an explicit purpose. My stories never turn out how I expect, and not imposing a specific direction on them makes me love writing them. I think a kind of honesty in letting the story go where it wants to infuses it with life and energy. The most effective stories don’t tell you what to do, they open up possibilities and reflect the complexities of life.
To be honest, at times I have felt very doubtful that writing changes anything, but recently, during a discussion with some fellow writers, I suddenly had this very strong feeling that it’s vital. I know I’ve learnt so much from reading.
Quite a few people have said my stories make them think...
What has been your favourite reaction to ‘Mammals, I Think We Are Called?’
I can’t think of a specific one. It’s always the best feeling when a reader tells you they are enjoying your book. Recently, at my first reading group appearance, somebody told me they were giving me a ten out of ten for their later book scoring (after I’d gracefully left of course).
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a hybrid memoir, learning new techniques for longer-form work as I go. But I love writing short stories and keep sneaking them in.
Buy 'Mammals, I Think We Are Called' from the following outlets:
Salt Publishing shop