Dave Pescod answers questions about his book All Embracing and Other Stories
Q. What was the inspiration for ‘All Embracing’?
A few years back I’d ended a relationship and was waiting in Liverpool Street Station watching people meet and greet, hugging each other affectionately. It was Christmas and there were large groups gathering and embracing and I was suddenly struck by a huge wave of envy. What would it be like to never hug or hold somebody again? I wondered what would you do if that was true and I saw two groups of friends meeting and exchanging hugs and cuddles and wondered if I could sneak in and get one. Of course I didn’t, but I did the next best thing and wrote about it. By the time my train journey home ended I had got the first draft down. I read it to a writers group I went to, and afterwards there was a long silence, almost shock and sense it was a bit spooky. I could tell it was quite powerful so I worked on it.
Andy Love, a filmmaker friend of mine, was keen to direct a short. I showed him the story and a few months later, there I was with Andy and twenty other people re-enacting the hugs in Liverpool Street Station. It took a lot of takes and after an hour and nearly a hundred hugs or more everybody was a bit high and nobody wanted to go home. They just stood there grinning, wanting more. It made me laugh. And just at that time St Pancras was being refurbished and had unveiled the embrace sculpture – it’s huge near the Eurostar platform. Well, we went and filmed that and sneaked it into the film.
It’s been in a few festivals and it always gets people talking – is it sad or silly, impossible or tragic? It’s up to the viewer and reader. That’s lovely, that a small piece of my writing gets a response like that, and I never thought it might become a film. Oh, and by the way we got back together again, so that’s really good.
Q. Does ‘All Embracing’ set the tone for the stories that follow in the book?
Yes, it probably is a theme of the collection. People struggling to find love, or understand it better. Some of the stories explore the loss of love and how we cope and come to terms with things. I think that that human need underpins the collection.
‘All Embracing’ is a strong easily identified story, and when it was suggested as the title story it helped to bring some focus and it’s important to keep that in a collection – a bit like an album of music. There’s nothing more sickening than hearing a great single and getting the album to discover inconsistency and disappointment.
Q. What would you like readers to take from the collection?
Hope – that’s all. A little bit of hope. I know the stories can be a bit melancholic but I generally try and put a curl on the end, a little glimmer. I think it works in ‘Wishbone Duty’, which was commended in The Manchester Prize and Bridport; sorry for plug but it suggests that I’m not alone in this view, perhaps. Well, in that story, after the terrible strain and despair between the father and his daughter at the annual grim fest, he still puts the plant in the window for light – his present to her that she forgot to take with her. Humans are good at surviving and hope is a vital part of that ability.
I wrote jokes for radio when I was a student, partly because I thought it might attract women to me at the time. Jokes have a strict brief, yabber yabber yabber – punchline. Endings are always important, and never more so than in jokes. And maybe they bring hope, through an ability to laugh at predicament. This has probably influenced my prose, and it’s obviously dealt with in ‘Rising Laughter’.
Q. Do you think that there are areas where writing a story allows you to grapple with a subject better than any other form? In other words, when do you think writing stories is the best fit?
I went to art college for about eight years and developed a visual vocabulary, which was probably more succinct than my written one, and I worked in, and taught, visual communication. I wasn’t very interested in decoration, or eye candy, I always wanted to get the point – the message. So when I started writing that was very important for me.
I remember discussing with some writers after James Lasdun won the National Short Story prize with his excellent story ‘An Anxious Man’. There’s a section of the story where the main character is swimming across a huge lake anxiously thinking about his investments and the whereabouts of his daughter and wife, with poetic description of the water and scenery. One writer was enthusing about the multilayered complexity of the story and how it could only work in the written form – and there is some truth in that. For me good writing often tells a story in a way that may appear simple but will also have different layers if you wish to read them, but wouldn’t be necessary to get the story.
Writing short stories is a good way for me to find out what the hell it is I’m trying to say or finding out what a story might be about. This may be triggered by a curiosity, or an investigation of an emotional concern. I’ll often write in longhand and let it flow. Not till I think I know what the story’s about can I begin to build it, throw away the debris and start to write it in the full sense. So writing is a good fit for me to find what I want to communicate. But the story really matters, and writing is about revealing it to yourself and then the reader. Then it might become a performed piece, a film or whatever.
I remember at primary school in assembly, stories were read out and sometimes a teacher had recorded them on tape with simple sound effects. They were magical and would provide me with dream stimulus that could last till lunchtime. And at that age we would write stories everyday, and of course we might muddle our realities. Maybe, writing as adults helps us sort these out as well.
Q. Did any of the stories in the collection come as a surprise when they revealed themselves to you?
Yes, some did much more than others. ‘Wishbone Duty’ was interesting as it started out as an entry for a 25th Anniversary competition for some company, and the story had to have 25 in it. I started out with the thought of a bedside digital alarm clock moving from 24 to 25 at midnight on Christmas Eve, with a character desperate to be in bed before that moment. A dread of Christmas I suppose. Well, that wasn’t enough, and slowly I wrote it and the father revealed himself. Several things surprised me in the story, the line when the Father ‘threw the ball as far as he’d ever wanted to throw anything.’ No metaphor, no simile just how it was and I found it very powerful. Sometimes metaphor masks feeling I think. I was also surprised by how the story tidied itself, the presents got rejected, the amaryllis got the window shelf, the dog came back. It really is quite hopeful. I never entered it, I didn’t finish it in time. No surprise there.
Another one was ‘Rising Laughter’. I think when you’re stuck it can be refreshing to give yourself a challenge. I set myself the task of writing a story about someone telling a joke and we never know the joke. I’d often watched people telling weak or bad jokes, but it didn’t seem to matter because – them telling or trying to tell the joke was much more entertaining. Endearing and quite beautiful sometimes. Anyway, I had no joke in mind and just wrote the story fairly quickly, but there were many redrafts. It surprised me that it worked so well without the joke, and it was moving. But we’ve all told jokes, understand the emotional games we play with them. I sent it into BBC Scotland as a short story and they said that they quite liked it, but why wasn’t the joke revealed. Well, apart from that being the whole point of the story, I didn’t know what the joke was. Luckily, BBC in London loved it and took it, and then your good self published it – that was surprising.
Details: All Embracing and Other Stories by Dave Pescod