James Lasdun

James Lasdun’s latest collection of short stories It’s Beginning To Hurt contains 16 intricate tales, each one thought-provoking and rich with linguistic brilliance.

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James Lasdun. © Nina Subin

James Lasdun’s latest collection of short stories It’s Beginning To Hurt contains 16 intricate tales, each one thought-provoking and rich with linguistic brilliance. The son of an architect, his stories are meticulously constructed. His protagonist’s emotional lives are examined closely, exposing their delusions and desires. There is a strong focus on the aesthetic—”Peter Kahn’s Third Wife” deals with the feeling just a look evokes—but this is not “studiedly ‘poetic’ prose,” as Lasdun describes it. He manages to incorporate real emotional tenderness into these stories, from love to hate and many shades between.

Jack Palmer In “An Anxious Man” you write “How wearying, how humiliating it was to have so little faith in anything.” What do you think It’s Beginning to Hurt offers as faith against the misanthropy that a character like Craig in “Caterpillars” feels?

James Lasdun That’s a pairing I hadn’t thought of—one story about a man who basically believes in nothing and consequently falls apart whenever anything goes wrong, and one about a man so rigid with convictions everything falls apart around him. But both men, as you suggest, in dire need of some guiding principle to help them live in the real world of real human beings… I can’t say I really deal in that kind of guidance though, so in that sense I don’t have much to offer. But I suppose in every writer who also happens to be a bit of a skeptic, there’s a sense, or a hope, that the very act of writing—i.e. trying to articulate the world in all its strangeness, horror, beauty—is itself some kind of affirmation, and that if you do it truthfully and passionately enough, joy might possibly ensue.

JP The theme of adultery runs strongly throughout these stories. Did you intend for this pattern to emerge, or do you see it as characteristic of the subjects you write about?

JL I didn’t intend that, and in fact I was going to dispute that it’s even the case, but then I checked and you’re right—it’s touched on in at least ten of the sixteen stories. Even so, it’s not a theme I was deliberately pursuing (the stories were written over many years, and I wasn’t consciously trying to link them thematically). Obviously there’s a rich history of adultery in the short story, and it may be that the form has some intrinsic affinity for the subject.

JP In the story “Cranley Meadows,” Bryony is “almost painfully dear to” Lev, her husband. Are these stories suggesting that even in the happier of relationships there is an element of pain?

JL Again, I don’t have any overarching message about life, love, or anything else—just individual stories with, I hope, the maximum possible feeling, truth, narrative pleasure, and so on, that they can possibly yield. But then, yes, you look back and see certain motifs recurring, and the closeness of pain to happiness does seem to be one of them. I like stories that feel their way into complex emotions without getting murky, and I try to write them myself.

JP The descriptions of your characters are very precise, almost surgical in the way they dissect physical appearance. A face is described as “a salver on which certain curious, unrelated objects were being offered up for inspection.” Do you think the fact you write poetry as well as short stories and novels makes it difficult to be imprecise in description, that you need to describe something as accurately as possible?

JL Maybe. Writing poetry does force you to weigh every word, which can be inhibiting when you’re trying to make headway with long or longish prose narrative. I don’t like studiedly “poetic” prose; but I do like accuracy, and I don’t have much tolerance for vagueness in my own or other people’s writing. That said, I’ve come to see that some really great novelists are pretty sloppy with their prose, and some exemplary users of language have absolutely nothing to say.

JP “Annals of the Honorary Secretary” is a strange and amusing story, about a society who becomes infatuated with a girl, Lucille, who does nothing but is seemingly blessed with magical powers. Where did the idea for the story originate from? Would it be right to say it is an allegorical tale about the power of writing?

JL Well, she does sort of have magic powers—it’s just that they’re entirely negative. She can make objects disappear, and she can induce feelings of suicidal gloom in other people. To me it’s a story about depression, which I regard as a state of inverted creativity. In that respect it definitely does have to do with writing—or with my relationship to writing, which is problematic to say the least.

JP There is a wide variety of settings in It’s Beginning to Hurt, from Cape Cod, Upstate New York, and the city itself to London, France, and Greece. Do you see location as essential or incidental to these stories? And how do you feel as a writer who lives in a foreign country?

JL I think living abroad for a long time is a risk for a writer—you can lose touch with what you know without ever getting to know the place you’ve moved to, or not in the kind of depth required, say, for writing a character who’s lived there all their life. I don’t know if this describes my situation, but I do feel a bit rootless and shiftless, though I also quite enjoy feeling this way. And it’s possible that what you lose in terms of deep, cumulative knowledge of one culture, you make up for by feeling at ease with a certain transience, maybe even gaining an ability to work with relatively slight, glancing experience of the places you pass through. Anyway that’s what I aspire to. I like variety. And yes, I do think that if you make a point of using a particular location in a story, it should be essential in some way, not merely incidental. I don’t think my Cape Cod story would work in France, or the Greek one in London. I hope not!

It’s Beginning to Hurt is out now from FSG.

Jack Palmer is a writer currently based in Devon, England.