Neil Butler Interview: Writing and Cheap Carbohydrates
Neil Butler's first book 'The Roost', a collection of connected short stories, has been gathering praise since it was published in August. Neil talks to us about his writing journey so far, the knack of writing short stories and banishing the demons of self-doubt.
Your short story collection The Roost, is causing quite a stir just now. How did it feel to be longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award?
Weirded out. You think, you mean if I'd tried harder I could have been in the shortlist? THAT WAS A POSSIBILITY? But no, really it's great. Because you realise that this thing you've made, this thing that you've laboured over till it makes no sense to you anymore, actually is a BOOK. People can read it and it hangs together and – apparently – provides enjoyment. This is a useful thing to remember on a wet Tuesday afternoon.
Tell us about the journey you had to writing The Roost in the first place – how did it come into being?
I'd been writing these stories in university. There was no plan. It was just one story and then another, and then another. They became something like The Roost because, when you're writing a second story about, say, a guy in love, why not use the same guy? And then after about five stories, you realise you've got a world, you realise you're starting to say something. I don't know if it would have come to anything because I'm nothing if not wishy-washy and indecisive. But then Todd McEwen, one of my tutors at university, recommended me to Thirsty Books and they agreed to foster me. I say 'foster' rather than 'publish' because there was no contract signed. The agreement was I'd keep writing and we'd see if I managed to draw it together.
It is quite unusual to get a collection of short stories published at the moment, especially as a first book. What feedback did you get from the publisher?
A lot, rather more than most writers do, I think. The agreement was I'd send each story as I completed it – mostly, I suspect, because my editor wanted to keep tabs on me. He wanted to make sure I didn't wander off somewhere.
How did you prepare yourself to write from a teenage perspective? Did you find it difficult?
To be honest, I am a damn teenager! Well, I am in fact 27, but – what is a teenager? A teenager is someone with few responsibilities and little control over their own life. So they get frustrated. They're also experiencing a lot of things for the first time. This creates tasty melodrama and humour. They are also people to whom (usually) nothing really awful has happened. Which is why they're so annoying to sit near on the bus.
What current projects are you working on?
The next one's going to be a novel. If it KILLS ME. It might well. See, The Roost was hard, and it presented problems that a novel doesn't. But at the same time, you're building it one story at a time. The overall story just forms. But a novel … that's scary, that's sailing to the New World. A big undertaking, a long voyage – probably a year of my life – and am I going the right direction? It'll be about Shetland, but it's not going to be The Roost. I want to try something different – for my own sake. I've been thinking about life as a journey. You've got to keep moving.
Has becoming published changed the way you go about your writing?
Yeah, now I'm terrified. Now, everything I put down isn't just mucking about – I don't have that blankie. Now everything I write is the Next Step. And, like I say, is it the right one? Having said all that, you've got to rid your head of that nonsense or you'll never write anything. Or you'll write but it'll be pandering crap. Like Coldplay.
How much of The Roost did you draw from personal experience?
A lot of it, I suppose. Which isn't to say I modelled characters off people I know, whatever people I know keep telling me. But you take bits from this person, bobs from that thing that happened. Really what's happening is you're mining your own brain, nicking the bits that sparkle and beating them into new shapes.
What was your day job before you got published and are you still doing it?
This is my job. Hence, my diet is almost exclusively cheap carbohydrates.
Did you have a favourite tale and, if so, what made it your favourite?
I like Shitmonster, simply because I think it's the best one I've written so far.
What advice would you give aspiring writers of the short story?
You've got to think of a GOOD IDEA. One that, to your knowledge, hasn't been done too often before. If your idea is overdone, twist it till it's interesting. Not TOO interesting. Think of your writing not as a Work Of Art, but as a single part of the conversation that began when the first proto-humans dropped off the branch. You're trying to make your contribution meaningful, but you're not trying to be so clever no one understands what you're trying to say. You are, in fact, lighting a Creative Fire up your arse, one that will power you through the story and keep those little Self-Consciousness demons at bay. Then you write it as fast as you can.