Interview: Ruth Brandt

Ruth Brandt - Author of "Happy Ever After"

We speak to Ruth Brandt (whose story “Happy Ever After” appeared in issue forty of Neon) about fairytales, social media and the teaching of writing.

I noticed that your story started and ended like a fairytale, but the wrong way around. The final line begins with “once upon a time” and the title is “Happy Ever After”. The story itself, however, is anything but a fairytale – so where did this association come from?

I have had a nagging question in my mind for a while that if the ready access youngsters have to pornography nowadays sets unrealistic expectations of relationships, what is the effect of the “happy ever after” stories we feed them, and were ourselves fed, from birth?

In this story, these “all will be well” tales have subconsciously influenced Alfie’s mother to believe that Alfie, who has a mild disability, will live happily ever after once he has found his princess. The title of the piece reflects her expectations, and perhaps the views of wider society, that those who have a disability will be compensated in some way by life; that inevitably all must come good for them.

With this in mind, I wrote the story using a fairytale-style omniscient narrator. This enabled me to write the events in the order either that they became known to Alfie’s mother or as and when she remembered them. The result is that the story is not told chronologically.

The closing paragraph – “Once upon a time there was a boy” – takes us back to the start of Alfie’s life. I hoped to leave the reader wondering which of all the influences in his life turned him from a child into the person he became.

It was interesting to see the use of some unusual formatting in your story, with Facebook posts and text messages spotted throughout the text. This technology has been around for more than a decade now, but it all-too-rarely shows up in stories. Why do you think this is? Do you think that communication technology (like mobile phones, the internet, etc) makes storytelling more difficult or more interesting?

There are a few reasons why I find social media and text messages difficult to incorporate into my writing. Firstly, there is the problem with written correspondence of how to convey information which is crucial to the story but is already known to both sender and receiver. I have written short stories in the past which took the form of letters (one way) and emails  (two way). These were challenging to write since there was so much common knowledge between sender and receiver – backstory, understanding of character, etc – that could not be written if I were to represent a realistic exchange. These stories began to pivot around what was not written and therefore had to be provided by the reader’s imagination and understanding. I think this issue of representing reality without being trite or expostionary applies equally to text messages and Facebook postings.

Secondly, and more importantly for me with this story, in a conventional narrative the inclusion of a piece of written correspondence can break the flow and feel like, and often is, an information dump by the writer. The patchwork nature of this story, where time is not linear, allowed me to insert texts and Facebook posts without jarring the reader since the story was already fragmented.

A final possible reason that texts, emails and so on are not frequently included in stories could be reader and writer expectations. As we are not used to reading stories which include them, perhaps we don’t write them?

What’s the story behind this story? Where did the idea come from? Did it take you long to write? The subject matter is fairly dark – did you find it an upsetting thing to create?

I started writing this story in the same way that I start most of my short stories, I sat and wrote without any planning. The first sentence came out pretty much as it is, except in the past tense, and I saw immediately that this was going to be an exceedingly dull story about a missing child if I didn’t do something. The idea of whether porn or fairytale was more damaging in terms of relationship expectations had been buzzing in my head for a while, so I decided to explore that.

At the time I wrote it I was studying critical theory with Dr James Miller as part of my MFA. The module included concepts such as intertextuality and postmodernism, which influenced the writing of this story, in particular the fragmentation and references to other works, including fairytale form.

Once I had a feel for the story’s theme, the story took itself where it did. I didn’t feel uncomfortable writing it as in everyday life we try to make sense of people who carry out horrific, nonsensical acts, and this is something a writer can explore through characters.  Indeed, as I had so many things I was playing with, I was more intrigued as to whether I could get my story to work.

I have no idea how long it took to write in terms of hours, but as with most of my short stories, the first draft was written in a few days. As ever, it was rather a baggy mess at that stage. The editing then took place over a couple of months after which I submitted it as part of my MFA assignment. I returned to it over six months later when the distance of time meant I could be brutal and edit it to the version which you so kindly published.

Can you tell us a bit about the novel that you’re currently working on? If we wanted to know as and when it was published, what would be the best way to keep abreast of your work?

My novel is based on the story of Mileva Marić, a Serbian woman who became Einstein’s first wife. She studied mathematics and physics alongside him at the Zurich Polytechnic, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when few universities in Europe admitted women students, and intended to gain a PhD.

I have a BSc in maths and physics, so I understand both her passion for her subjects and, to a lesser extent, the difficulties she encountered studying in a male-dominated environment. I hadn’t intended to write a historical novel, but Mileva’s story grabbed me and, with two years of researching and writing behind me, it still grabs me.

Of course, there is so much more to her story, – including an illegitimate child – but more of that as and when the novel is completed! I’d be delighted if you’d like to keep abreast of my work either through Twitter or my website: @RuthABrandt or www.RuthBrandt.co.uk.

You’re studying on the MFA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. How is that going? Do you think studying writing in this formal fashion has shaped what you write – and if so, how?

I am studying the MFA at Kingston University part-time, finishing in September 2016, and as I have already mentioned, “Happy Ever After” would not have been written had I not been on the course.

Before I enrolled, I had been writing for twelve years, had had a number of short stories published and had written three novels, each of which had failed. I knew I had come to the point where I was unable to improve on my own.

The tutors at Kingston University are all published writers and who set a high standard for my work and keep me up to that standard. The guidance they have given me with handling the big picture issues of novel writing – structure, premise, time – has been invaluable. I now have some hope that I will be able to do Mileva’s story justice.

Along with specific guidance on novel writing, I have learned a huge amount about other forms; met agents, writers and publishers; had the opportunity to teach at higher education level; and of course met some fabulous people.

I know there is a debate as to whether writing can be taught and whether university creative writing courses actually produce good writers. I believe that the craft of writing can be taught – why should we each sit in isolation and waste time reinventing the literary wheel when someone has already done so and can advise us? Studying the MFA has enabled me to move through a barrier with my writing in a way I could never have achieved alone.

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Ruth Brandt was raised in Bristol, England, and now lives in Surrey with her two sons. She is studying the MFA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies including Take Tea With Turing, Bristol Short Story Prize Four, Leaf Books, Ripple 2013 & 2014; have been performed by Liars’ League; and published in magazines including Litro, Gold Dust, Candis, Yours, and Ireland’s Own. She is currently working on a novel.