We talk to Gregory Cartwright (whose story appeared in issue forty-two) about sex, death and surreal endings.
Sex and death are often said to be closely linked – but nowhere more so than in your story “With Blood”. Would you call it a horror story, a love story, or something in between?
I guess it depends which character you ask! From an authorial perspective I’d pitch it somewhere between the two. For the narrator, it’s a love story, and I think there is a certain sense of romance on his part. But from the female student’s point of view, it’s a bit of a horror show. In a nutshell that’s exactly what unrequited love is: one-sided, intense; a totally different experience for the recipient as it is for the lover. In Hollywood we usually see the efforts of the lover rewarded in the end and we know those films as romances, perhaps romantic comedies. In “With Blood” this isn’t the case, and the lover takes his commitment to a near psychotic level, resulting in an extreme, pretty horrific finale.
The idea for the story came from some song lyrics about two medical students, after my girlfriend said that there might be something worth using there. But I was inclined to make it darker, to bring jealousy and one-sided love into the equation. What Neon described as “a mortuary romance” is the result.
The setting of the anatomy lab is particularly well-rendered. Did you do any research to get the atmosphere and workings of the lab right?
Lots of research went into the setting; I knew that I had to get it right for the story to be successful. Not just the setting, but the anatomical elements and the emotions of the students, too. I’ve never stepped inside an anatomy lab and I didn’t study medicine, so I wanted to make sure things were as accurate as they could be. Articles, news stories, and first-hand accounts from medical students were all incredibly useful, as were the images I found on Google.
Many details discovered through research made it into the story: the students’ loss of appetite, the fainting, the stench of embalming fluid, the types of tools used. The final scene was also something I researched carefully: what kind of incision would be made? Could a person survive something like that, and if so, how long for?
The end of your story was surreal, but also perfectly possible. In writing it, did you decide one way or the other whether events were happening as described, or whether the narrator was exaggerating?
I’ve often read from other authors that it’s their character, rather than them, who writes the story. I always thought that was a bit of a literary cliché – probably because I favour detailed plotting and like to have the ending planned out – but with this story I think I came closer to understanding what those authors mean. Looking back, it’s hard to know whether it was my idea to have the narrator cut up the body or whether he decided that himself. It’s a pretty grotesque scene, but it isn’t gratuitous; it’s necessary to the story and completely in character.
As to whether the narrator is exaggerating, I’m not too sure – I guess that’s up to the reader to decide. I think he is certainly prone to a little romantic embellishment – even as his sternum is being sliced open – but towards the end he also begins to see things as they really are. He realises his own mortality while simultaneously recognising the human qualities and emotions of the nameless female doctor. The shallowness of objectification – of perceived perfection (the exaggerated) – is contrasted with the depth of human imperfection (the reality), and that’s probably what gives the ending that sense of surrealism.
I’m intrigued by the title “With Blood”. If anything the narrator seems curiously bloodless, and there’s no blood left in the bodies that he and his fellow students dissect. How did you choose the title? And which of the many different symbolic meanings there are to blood do you think is most significant for your story?
I usually work with a title in mind but for this story I didn’t. Once it was written I toyed with a few different ideas and in the end “With Blood” seemed like the perfect fit. You’re right that there is a distinct lack of blood, until towards the end, at least. But on a less literal level I think the title works to represent the narrator’s sincerity and commitment, despite his flaws. In our society blood is often representative of sacrifice – whether it’s the idea of a blood pact, a piece of art created using the artist’s own blood, or the musician Richie Edwards carving the words “4 Real” into his arm. In all of these examples, and in my story, the presence of blood suggests sincerity, sacrifice and “realness”.
I’m interested in the aesthetics of the title, too: those two simple words suit the cold, clinical prose style while also capturing the grandiosity of the narrator. It’s also fun to think of “With Blood” as a darkly playful disclaimer for the story’s content…
What, in your opinion, makes a good short story? What elements are important, and how does a short story differ from a longer work?
Well, these are questions that I ask myself often. The answers – or what I think are the answers – tend to change a lot because I’m still developing my style. It also depends on which authors I’m reading at the time – at the moment I’m just trying to pick up tips from the best. If I had to say what the most important element was then I’d say that a good short story makes you question something in your own life; or, to paraphrase Raymond Carver, makes you sit there for a minute afterwards and feel different, changed, even if only slightly. He spoke about the intensity and beauty of the short story, which are both important elements, but I also enjoy short works by Irvine Welsh and Ian McEwan for their ugliness.
As for the difference between longer and shorter works, I think it comes down to the intensity and brevity. In a short story the characters have the element of surprise because the reader hasn’t spent as much time with them. Before the reader knows it something unthinkable has unfolded; the protagonist has shocked them in some way. It’s that mystery, the anticipation of encountering the unthinkable, that has me hooked on short stories.
Gregory Cartwright is a writer based in Lancashire. His work has previously appeared in the online publication Pandora’s Box and the Dead Beats Literary Blog. Currently he works as an editorial assistant.