Nine questions for... author and poet David Constantine

Nine questions for... author and poet David Constantine

Salford-born David Constantine has won the BBC National Short Story Award and the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize. His tale “In Another Country” was adapted into “45 Years”, an Oscar-nominated film starring Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling. He discusses his work, and hopes for his forthcoming collection.

You’ve been with Comma Press for quite a while; how did you come to work together? 

[Comma Press founder] Ra Page invited me to contribute to his early anthologies Manchester Stories 3 (2002), comma (2002) and hyphen (2003) and then published me in a volume of my own, Under the Dam (2005).

Ra set out to promote the short story when most publishers wanted nothing to do with it, and encouraged a great variety of writing in that form. He is always on the look-out for new needs and possibilities. And he has always had around him people who are as engaged as he is in this good work.

Have you been approached by any other publishers? 

Not since I became a Comma Press author, no. And nor would I be interested. I know where I belong. 

I have the same feelings about Comma Press as I do about Bloodaxe Books (for my poetry): loyalty, mine to them, theirs to me. Couldn’t be better.

You’ve written poems, short stories and novels. Do you have a favourite form?

I work in all three with equal commitment, as the subject demands. They are differently difficult and each has its own ways of proceeding—ways of succeeding and failing—which a writer must learn and attend to.

How does your background influence your writing?

Most of my writing derives more or less directly from particular localities and circumstances. I draw continually on places I have lived and travelled in. Many, perhaps most, of my poems and stories have come, so to speak, physically out of the ground I have walked over again and again in, for example, the North of England, Wales, Scilly and Greece. I am equally indebted to the lives of other people, loved ones, friends and strangers.

What do you think about the Arts Council’s attempts to make the arts and arts funding less London-centric?

I’m very glad of such attempts. The arts are necessary throughout the UK and need and deserve encouragement and funding by the Arts Council wherever they have their being—but in the so-called provinces especially, to make up for past neglect.

Have you seen “45 Years”? What do you think of it?

I’ve seen it four or five times! I had to give talks on it and my story in the UK and in Germany.

It’s a wonderful film. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are extraordinary actors. Watching it, I understood how differently film and fiction work. I don’t use naturalistic dialogue. The film script does. The characters in the film are middle-class and a good bit more articulate than mine. I have a narrative voice that exceeds what my Mr and Mrs Mercer wish to say or could say. Charlotte Rampling’s face does that as the film ends.

What elements of the story do you think lend themselves best to film?

The image itself: the young woman in the ice, the past breaking into the present with unbearable force. Husband and wife at the mercy of unuttered sufferings. How unfair it all is! I think there was more of that—the unfairness—in my story than in the film.

What were you trying to explore when you wrote “In Another Country”?

The vulnerability of people, what they stand to lose. The force of the past in the present—really, there is only a present tense: the past intrudes and affects us now. And how it is not the job of fiction to be fair, but to try to show the truth, which is often very unfair.

Can you tell us about your forthcoming collection The Dressing-up Box?

The chief concern is, I’d say, children: loved, abused, in danger, they are the threatened hope for a better future. They are there more or less centrally in 11 of the 16 stories. Otherwise, my usual interest in characters on the margins, on the edge. And the lovely Earth that homo-so-called-sapiens are busily ruining.

David Constantine’s fifth collection, The Dressing-up Box, will be published in hardback in September by Manchester-based publisher Comma Press, priced at £12.99.

This was written as part of The Bookseller's focus on publishing in the north of England; for more content from this focus, head here.