Brian George is the author of Blindfold, a new collection of short stories, published in December by Stonebridge Press. His first collection Walking the Labyrinth was published in 2005. I bought a copy of Blindfold at Brian’s launch party. Since then I have been dipping in and out of it regularly.
Brian specialises in flash fiction, stories which are even shorter than short stories. Each one is different, a snapshot of a time and place. They draw the reader in immediately, you become hooked by the strength of the characters Brian creates.
How long have you been writing? How did you start?
When I was in my teens and early twenties I wrote a lot of very bad poetry and slightly less bad songs. For reasons I still don’t fully understand I then stopped writing anything creative for about fifteen years.
Starting to write again wasn’t a rational, conscious decision. I was working as a teacher in a local comprehensive school and one day I found myself with some spare time, during a lunch hour. Who knows why, but I sat down at my desk and started scribbling.
Memories and scraps of narrative came tumbling out. By the time the lunch hour was over I had the skeleton of what later became ‘Shaky’, the first story in my first collection. Once I’d started I couldn’t stop – writing short fiction seemed to fill some long-buried need in me. It became the way I tried to make sense of the world and my place in it. That was over twenty years ago, and I’m still at it!
You write flash fiction. Why do you choose to write in this way?
One of my favourite writers is the American author Jayne Anne Phillips. Reading her first collection The Black Tickets had a huge influence on me. There’s a story in that collection, called Under the Boardwalk, which remains possibly the best piece of flash fiction that I’ve ever read.
There’s something about extreme compression, the ability to evoke a whole life, a whole world, through a few selected details. The concentration of emotion which Phillips achieves is quite overwhelming. Good flash fiction forces the reader to fill in a lot of the gaps themselves, to make connections and provide their own interpretation.
In very short pieces it’s possible to experiment with a range of new forms. One of the pieces in Blindfold is what’s known as a ‘Fibonacci Sonnet’. Each sentence contains a precise number of words in accordance with the Fibonacci sequence, rising and then falling back to a single word sentence. I found that working within that sort of ‘cage’ helped to discipline and intensify the very raw emotional content of the story in question.
Finally, I think you can get away with surrealism in very short pieces, whereas it can be very difficult to sustain in longer stories.
Where do your characters come from? How do you make a character seem real?
I do observe people, not in a self-conscious I-might-get-a-good-character out of this kind of way, but just because I find people endlessly fascinating, sometimes inspiring, sometimes bewildering or even depressing. I also have quite a good memory for little features or tics from people I might have known years ago. These might find their way into a story. Above all else a writer needs to be a good listener, to capture the essence of people’s voices. That’s possibly the most fundamental thing about fiction, in my view.
What I’m not trying to do is to faithfully reproduce people I know in my characters. Whether a character is based on a ‘real’ person is ultimately unimportant – what matters is that the reader should believe they might exist.
Are there places in Wales which have been a source of inspiration for you?
I was born and grew up in the Rhondda. Most of the stories in my first collection are set in the Rhondda, or the Gwent valleys, where I now live. Visiting the Rhondda now can still produce a visceral reaction in me. It’s certainly not uncomplicated nostalgia – many of those stories which are set in the Rhondda have a dark, even grim aspect – but I found that those settings could provide a suitable mirror for the bleak internal landscapes inhabited by some of the characters I was dreaming up.
Strangely, only a few of the stories in Blindfold are set in the valleys. More of them are set in Cardiff, where I lived in the late seventies and eighties. I suppose there must be some kind of time lag for me between living in a place and exploring it in fiction. Although many of the stories in Blindfold have settings which are non-specific, often surreal in some way.
Do you think the collection reflects some of your own personality?
I’m certainly not trying to dramatise my own life in my stories – I don’t think I’ve lived such a fascinating life that people would want to read a blow-by-blow account of it, to be honest.
Having said that, it’s also true that every one of the stories is concerned with something that interests me, haunts me, even. Often it’s something out there in the world that interests or bothers me.
In the title story, for example, I’m trying to explore some of the effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by looking at the relationship between two brothers. I also realised after I’d written it that the central image of the ‘blindfold’ game in the story can be seen as a metaphor for the way we as a country were led into some of these conflicts by certain politicians. On the whole, though, I prefer to let the readers draw their own conclusions.
A few of the stories obviously have their roots in my health problems – I’ve been living with cancer for nearly four years now – but even these are essentially fictions, not slices of autobiography.
Do you have some favourite stories in the collection?
I’m quite fond of Madame Ofsted and the fluttering hands because (I hope) it has a fair bit of humour in it, while still having a serious theme at its heart. Of the shorter pieces Show me stars means a lot to me and I got absorbed in the character I created in Control Alt Delete. I often find my female characters more interesting than the men.
If I had to name one piece in the whole collection it would have to be Sweet healer, guide my footsteps. The piece had its roots in the chaotic thoughts swirling round my head, as I lay in the Royal Gwent Hospital, after major surgery three years ago. I wanted to create something out of that experience that would reflect the darkness of those days, but also provide something a tiny bit uplifting. A lot of the people who’ve read the story think it works, that means more to me than anything.
Brian has his own blog, which you can find by clicking here. To order a copy of Blindfold contact Brian for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org
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