Unity of Vision in a Story Collection

Rhys Hughes, whose short story collection ‘Salty Kiss Island’ has recently been released by Immanion Press, shares his thoughts on creating a unity of vision in compiling a collection of short stories.

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My new collection of stories is my favourite among my books of stories, but I wasn’t fully aware of this fact until I actually held a published copy in my hands and took a deep breath. The sigh that came out was one of deep contentment and then I knew.

I have often said that such-and-such a book is my personal favourite and there have been many candidates for that distinction but Salty Kiss Island has a quality, I’m not sure what, that most others don’t have, an unplanned quality. Purity perhaps.

Not purity in the sense of lacking bite and darkness, but purity in the unity of the visions that the book assembles and disseminates. The stories just seem to fit together very nicely. They amplify each other. I feel great delight at the final sum of the parts.

We write stories over a long period of time, years, even decades, and when we collect them together into a book we can’t really know what the end result will be like. The stories weren’t written to be together, they are discrete pieces existing on their own.

And now they are suddenly required to appear with other stories, to dwell with neighbours between the covers of a book, and they are asked to do this because they have themes in common, or an approach or tone that categorizes them. They are allied.

How will they get along? This is impossible to predict accurately until the book is ready. Sometimes they will interfere with each other, quarrel, contradict, attenuate, decay. If they are juxtaposed like this, elements that weren’t weaknesses may become so.

For example, any repetition of ideas, moods, events and reactions will be plain to see. Such repetition may not be self-plagiarism on the part of the author, it may not be indolence, it might be convergent evolution, the same solution to utterly different texts.

But it won’t look that way to the reader, it will appear like a limitation or an obsession, unless the repetition has strong intertextual attributes and adds its pulsation to the bigger rhythm, to the heartbeat of the entire book, the general health of the fictive gestalt.

That is a difficult thing to engineer. It means that every time a story is being composed, the author responsible must take care not only with the aesthetic parameters of that particular work but also consider how it will unite with and complement every other story he or she has written or will write. This is surely too much to ask. The writer therefore must fall back on the emergency option of serendipity.

Happy chance can assemble a short story collection from many pieces that turns out to be harmonious, cohesive, synchronised. The stories may amplify each other in ways the author never imagined, reveal aspects that were hidden before the gathering. Such a story collection has the unity of a novel while remaining a true collection.

I never supposed that the majority of my fantastical love stories would appear in a single volume. It wasn’t planned at all. I didn’t even realise I was in thematic thrall while writing them. Each was just a new tale and a striving to express burning ideas, to get them out of my head and onto the page, where they would leave me alone.

But I truly believe it has turned out very well, better than I had hoped, and that Salty Kiss Island is an important stage of personal fulfillment on the somewhat rickety career ladder of my writing life. I am not especially successful in terms of sales, despite the critical acclaim my work garners, yet I am satisfied now. This book exists.

Every writer has a host of influences and inspirations. These might be situations and circumstances, remarkable people, abstractions, sensations, the desire to be different or to be the same. And other authors will always play a large part in the creation of a prose style, in the fundamentals of a writer’s vision and method. We attempt to imitate, then we rapidly go off on tangents, and our tangents collide and mesh with other tangents given off by other influences, and fly off again.

My fantastical love stories were influenced by my love of whimsy and invention, by certain individuals, by memories of (and yearnings for) the tropical life, by music from Brazil and Cape Verde, by the sea and stars, by the incredible writers Amado, Pessoa, Couto, Vian, Calvino, by hope and anticipation, and always by language.

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