Melanie Jones speaks to authors Dan Powell, Toby Litt, Nikesh Shukla, and Courttia Newland  about Being Dad and the effects fatherhood has had on their writing

Being Dad is a collection of short stories exploring fatherhood, edited by Dan Coxon. The collection is now available from Tangent Books. All of the authors are fathers and together the stories provide an insight into what it means to be a dad in the modern world. Being Dad has been shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards and you can vote for the collection here.

 

Dan Powell

dan-powell_headshot

MJ: Can you tell us a little about your story and how the inspiration for it came about?

DP: When first asked to write something for Being Dad, I struggled for a good while trying to get to something that felt right. I did a fair amount of process writing, exercises, writing in various points of view, trying on various situations. I knew I wanted to hit on as many aspects of fatherhood as I could, which in turn led me to develop scenes from across the ten years or more of my life as a stay-at-home dad.  I wrote a large number of scenes that didn’t make the cut but did help me get closer to what the story needed, kind of the unseen body of the iceberg, with the story the visible tip. While this is one of the most autobiographical short stories I’ve ever written, not every part is a reflection of my life, some of it comes from the lives of friends and family, all stitched together to create a kind of collective truth, an emotional truth, I hope.

As for the unusual non-chronological structure, it was when I hit on the present tense and what became the opening scene, the one in which the narrator takes his daughter for her immunisations, that I had an idea of how to build this story. I’m a firm believer that every story teaches you how it needs to be written, the process is always different. This first scene wasn’t the first scene I wrote but, when I had assembled the scenes I needed to unwrap the story it became clear that a non-chronological sequence was what the story needed. Having children forces you to be very much in the here and now, so the continuous present tense in the story was born from that. If this story was directly inspired by any one thing, it is the continuous present experience of being a parent, of being a father in my case specifically.

MJ: How do you think fatherhood has changed you as a writer?

DP: On a practical level, becoming a father made me a more efficient writer. Before the birth of my first child, I procrastinated a lot, certain that I would have lots of time to write later. As soon as I had a baby to take care of, my writing time was limited to when he was sleeping and, later, in nursery for an few hours. Writing had to happen then or not at all. I am very disciplined now, when I have time to write, I write, and I rarely suffer from writers block. In between writing sessions, I use time completing chores like washing and ironing to think through the problems with my work in progress.

In terms of the themes and subject matter of my work, fatherhood and parenthood pop up pretty regularly. My father died two years before I became a dad for the first time and loss is also a key theme for me. My Being Dad story is probably the most explicit examination of these two themes, as the narrator struggles to make sense of being a father in the modern world while trying to process the loss of his own. This story, like many I have written, would likely not have emerged at all had I not become a father. Being a dad is one of a small number of primary filters through which I see the world and as such it has an impact on everything I write.

MJ: Lots of the stories in this anthology come from a place of frustration, is this a societal frustration? Has the position of the Father in society changed?

DP: Having been a stay-at-home dad for over ten years, I think there are definite frustrations unique to fathers. The most obvious, and a key one for me, is the often patronising attitude you get from some people, usually women, regarding your ability to care for your child. I think the frustrations men face as fathers are many and varied though. Ask any father who has gone through a divorce, or any father struggling to balance a demanding job with finding adequate time for his family, they will surely have a story to tell about the attitudes and assumptions they have to struggle against. The role of the father has changed, but then so has the role of the mother. Families are having to be more plastic, more malleable, to cope with the changes in society over the last few decades. It’s rare now that a family can afford to have a parent stay home with the children, and mums who have to leave their children at home with their partners or in the care of others, they surely have a story to tell and so it certainly isn’t only men having to cope with frustrations about their parental role. It’s been mentioned on Twitter that a Being Mum anthology would make a great companion to Being Dad and I would have to agree. I’d love to read the other side of the story.

MJ: The father in your story feels like he has to justify his role as a carer when his children are sick or injured. Do you think people still expect mothers, rather than fathers, to take this role?

DP: I think there are more people than you’d expect still holding onto that traditional view of gender roles. My wife has always been happy to leave the children in my care, even when they were very young, but I’ve lost count of the number of female medical professionals, health visitors, primary school teachers who have assumed I’m just some clueless dad. At some levels it’s not surprising some folks see stay-at-home dads in this way, when you look at the way the media, particularly advertising, presents men caring for young children as hapless idiots. I’ve definitely had my share of problems caused by other people’s assumptions and judgements about my fitness for the role of caregiver, judgements and assumptions made solely in response to my gender.

When I first took on the role of being main carer for my children I thought it was going to be other men that I’d get stick from, but I’ve never had any difficulties in that respect, in fact, most men I talked to about my role with the kids said they’d have loved to have the chance to be the one at home with them. I actually feel really lucky to have had such a block of time with my children when they were so young, watching them grow. I hope that both my sons and my daughter have seen that a man is just as capable of caring for his children as a woman, that a woman can be main earner in a family, that neither of these roles are tied to gender but rather to who best fits which role at a given time. That said though, our kids don’t see their upbringing as anything unusual, it’s just what our family is like. To them it’s normal.

Dan Powell is a full time father, part-time teacher and a prize winning author of short fiction whose stories have appeared in the pages of The Lonely Crowd, Carve, New Short Stories, Unthology, and The Best British Short Stories. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows (Salt, 2014), was shortlisted for the Scott Prize and longlisted for both the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Prize. He is a First Story writer-in-residence. Dan’s Website: danpowellfiction.com. Dan’s Twitter: @danpowfiction. Photo: Mac Mclean

 

Toby Litt

toby-littkatie-cookeMJ: You revisit characters from Life Like in your story. Can you tell us a little about these characters and why you wanted to develop their stories further?

TL: Paddy is one of the couple from which the stories in Life-Like spread out, a bit like a tennis tournament in reverse. Each story has two characters who each goes off, in their next story, and meets or engages with another character. Two becomes four, four becomes eight… But Paddy and Agatha had already appeared in parts of Ghost Story. Although he’s not me, Paddy – like Clap from the book I play the drums in a band called okay – is an occasional alter ego. Some of the things I live through turn up in stories about Paddy and lots of things I don’t live through turn up in stories about Clap. I realized, with both books, that sometimes you don’t need to plot events that happen to characters, you just need to rejoin them when they’ve grown up a little bit more. Or when their children have grown up. Paddy and Agatha have a son called Max and a daughter, Rose, who was stillborn.

MJ: Can you tell us a little about your story and how the inspiration for it came about?

TL: The story is about Paddy, who is an academic, getting in trouble because some of Max’s old plastic figurines – which he’s had on a shelf in his office at the university – have been rearranged so it looks as if they’re having sex with one another. A student complains that Paddy has done this rearrangement deliberately, in advance of her tutorials, in order to perhaps upset or harass her. Paddy remembers leaving Max and a friend of Max, K’Den, alone in his room a few weeks before this. Paddy blames K’Den. The story is about what happens to Paddy. Paddy’s accuser is young a Muslim woman. K’Den is mixed race.

MJ: How do you think fatherhood has changed you as a writer?

TL: Without willing it, becoming a father makes you – for at least one other person – responsible for the world as it exists. The accusation is always there: You brought me into this bloody place, why is it such a mess? Up until this, one can usually take the victim’s position (and I mean, you can take the victim’s position in your writing). It’s you that’s had the world inflicted on you (by your parents). When you become a father, all the fingerpointing that might have gone on before turns back on itself. All the bad things you’ve said and thought about fathers are now things said and thought about you. So I’d say it’s not so much the responsibility itself, that tends to come out in physical actions, as finding a way to deal with the sense of responsibility. The writing has to be about the sense of responsibility, which is often a false sense.

MJ: Lots of the stories in this anthology come from a place of frustration, is this a societal frustration? Has the position of the Father in society changed?

TL: The position of the father is, and has always been, one of frustration. I think there is a big change in that fathers are expected no longer to express that frustration entirely through disciplining and punishing. (Mum as good cop, Dad as bad – coming out from behind the newspaper to bring down the law.) They also have to find ways to acknowledge their lack of control, without petrifying their children. That isn’t at all easy. I think that means there is lots of scope for new fiction about fatherhood.

Toby Litt grew up in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. He is the author of four collections of stories, eight novels and, most recently, a book of selected literary essays, Mutants. His latest book of stories,Life-Like, published by Seagull Press, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. Life Like contains more stories about Paddy and Agatha., who first appeared in Ghost Story. Toby teaches creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London. His website is at www.tobylitt.comToby Litt’s Mutants: Selected Essays is out now from Seagull Books. Photo: Katie Cooke

 

Nikesh Shukla

Nikesh ShuklaMJ: Can you tell us a little about your story and how the inspiration for it came about?

NS: I think raising a mixed race child is a complex thing and one that challenges me every single day. Because any impetus about one half of my daughter’s culture has to be my responsibility. So I spend a lot of time trying to work out how to ensure that part of her stays intact. Plus my work does explore family and the low bar for men, which having just become a dad I think about a lot. We’re just a terrible gender. We’ve messed up historically so much, that just turning up earns us points. Which is depressing.

 MJ: How do you think fatherhood has changed you as a writer?

NS: It hasn’t really. I probably will do less toilet humour going forward because now I have a young person who might read my work in the future.

MJ: Lots of the stories in this anthology come from a place of frustration, is this a societal frustration? Has the position of the Father in society changed?

NS: I think it has. But mostly because things like the internet and twitter have shown men that what they think is enough just isn’t. Whatever we do, however much we show up, it’s never as hard for us as it is for mothers. And it’s mostly thanks to open conversations happening in spaces like Mumsnet and Everyday Sexism and so many other places, that the low bar we have is being put back in the school hut, and we have to start again.

MJ: Your story looks at the position of the father across cultures, is this something that becomes more of an issue with parenthood?

NS: I think, as a person of colour, whatever I do has race politics, cross-cultural confusion and code-switching embedded into it.

Nikesh Shukla is the acclaimed author of Coconut Unlimited(shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2010 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2011), The Time Machine (winner of Best Novella at the Sabotage Awards) and Meatspace. His short stories have been featured in the Best British Short Stories 2013, The Sunday Times and BBC Radio 4. He has written for the Guardian, Esquire, Buzzfeed, Vice and BBC 2. In 2014 he co-write Two Dosas, an award-winning short film starring Himesh Patel, and his comedy has aired on E4 and Channel 4.

 

Courttia Newland

Courttia Newland

MJ: Can you tell us a little about your story and how the inspiration for it came about?

CN: I wrote this story in response to a theme of Dub Music for the launch of a book by Richard Skinner. It was a night of readings and music and I was pretty excited about writing something special, as I didn’t have anything pre-written that would suit. I started with a scene that I’d cut from a previous novel and then continued on when that scene didn’t make coherent sense anymore. I wasn’t that sure where I was going but I had one of those magical moments when the world of the story just took over, and I actually had to just try to keep pace with the story! While I wrote I listened to a lot of sound tapes, recordings of sound systems from the 80’s which helped me to get into the mood.

MJ: How do you think fatherhood has changed you as a writer?

CN: It’s made me more disciplined for sure, but also deeply aware of the importance of my memories for my children. I am lucky enough to have live through a number of very special times, and so as well as writing about the here and now, I find myself writing about the past a lot more than before I was a father, when I took those things for granted somewhat.

MJ: Lots of the stories in this anthology come from a place of frustration, is this a societal frustration? Has the position of the Father in society changed?

CN: I don’t think so. My story was a celebration of fatherhood as well as a means of capturing that moment in every boy’s life when you realise that your father is human. Before that he’s a God-like figure, infallible. Then one day you look at him and think ‘You’re just a man.’ I think that’s a very important time in a boy’s life, and I’ve always wanted to write about it. This story became the perfect vehicle to illustrate that theme, but unlike a story like John Cheever’s Reunion (which I love) I wanted the experience to heighten the boy’s love for his father, rather than hinder it.

 MJ: Can you tell us about the use of music in your story? It seems like this shared interest is the Father’s way of showing love and acceptance.

CN: I think the music was an extension of a Black British identity that was maturing and coming of age alongside the boy. It formed a bridge between the culture of the land the boy lived in, London England, and the culture that his parents originated from, Kingston Jamaica. The music grew up in a particular way because of circumstance and the accident of being in that city, at that particular time in history, just like the boy and his father. In a way it was as if the father was trying to say, ‘this is where you came from’, but without meaning to ended up saying, ‘this is who we are.’ Although it probably was a little bit of both at the same time. The music was a way to cement a cultural identity both of, and foreign to the Caribbean and Britain simultaneously. It belonged and didn’t, just like the father and son. It was a means of sharing that experience, and passing the understanding of what that meant from one generation to the other.

Courttia Newland is the author of seven works of fiction including his debut, The Scholar. His latest novel, The Gospel According to Cane, was published in 2013 and has been optioned by Cowboy Films. He was nominated for the Impac Dublin Literary Award, The Frank O’ Conner award, The CWA Dagger in the Library Award, and The Theatre 503 Award for playwriting as well as numerous others. His short stories have appeared in many anthologies and broadcast on Radio 4. A forthcoming story, Reversible, is included in the Faber Anthology Sex and Death. He is associate lecturer in creative writing at the University of Westminster and is completing a PhD in creative writing. His latest work, Cosmogramma, a collection of speculative fiction short stories, will be published by Jacaranda in 2017.

 


Melanie

 

Melanie Jones graduated from the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck in 2015. From September 2016 she will be returning to the college to carry out a PhD on time management and spoilers in short stories. She was shortlisted for the 2014 Poetic Republic Short Story Competition and her submission “Silence” is published in their anthology Kissing Him Goodbye and Other Stories. Her work can also be found in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Issue 11. Melanie is the Managing Editor of MIROnline.

 

 

 

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Melanie Jones speaks to authors Dan Powell, Toby Litt, Nikesh Shukla, and Courttia Newland  about Being Dad and the effects fatherhood has had on their writing
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