Monday 20 March 2017

The Little Gift, by Stephen Volk (book review with Q&A)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved, which I think adds to the genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.

THE NOCTURNAL SCAMPERING invariably signals death. I try to shut it out. The cat might be chasing a scrap of paper or a ball of silver foil across the bare floorboards downstairs, say a discarded chocolate wrapper courtesy of my wife, who likes providing it with impromptu playthings. I tell myself it isn’t necessarily toying with something living, but my stomach tightens.

The Little Gift never does quite what you expect of it.  It opens with comfortable domestic life - a married couple hear the family cat bring a bird into the kitchen - that quietly sours, setting the scene for what comes later.  Superbly structured, it’s very difficult to discuss the plot without giving too much away and this is far too clever (and powerful) a story to do that.

Reflecting on his past, the narrator recalls an event that had the potential to change a lot of lives and then explores the way his decision - and those made by other people - ripple through time and his family.  Volk pulls off a very clever trick, where one of the key plot points doesn’t even happen to the narrator - he’s not there, he has nothing to do with it - but the devastating effects, which he can’t discuss with his wife or anyone else, are beautifully reflected in his thinking.  Carefully paced, with some wonderfully understated dialogue, there’s a kind of stark beauty to the writing that makes certain lines and phrases sing off the page.  Of the narrators new friend, Ghislaine, she is described with “parallel lines corrugated her forehead, which I found inexplicably sexy.  In contrast to her dingy tan, her hair was grubby blonde, in big strands she’d tuck behind her ears every few seconds, a side effect of shyness I’d come to learn.”  On surveying the carnage in the kitchen, “dark commas are strewn over every inch of the room” while a furtive affair is seen “in the vast, featureless but immaculately landscaped car park”.  And the promise of a new romance, the excitement of lust to come which still remains just out of your grasp is perfectly captured - “She kissed me, this time on the lips.  I was thrown when it lasted long, sweet seconds before we separated.”

The Little Gift is a dark novella, both in the way it describes a shared life beginning to unravel as well as the incident that happens “off-stage”, that never reads as less than realistic, but which also pushes at the limits of what the reader might expect, introducing doubt and tension into apparently throwaway sentences.  Filled with tension, love for the family and the promise of what might have been, as well as the cold tug of grief and shock, this is an excellent novella that I highly recommend.

At World Fantasy Brighton, November 2013 
(from left) - Charles Prepolec, Stephen Volk and me
I've known Stephen Volk for a few years now and like him a great deal - a fan of the horror genre, he's smart and witty and good company.  He's also a terrific writer, very supportive of the small press, who not only agreed to appear in my own anthology Anatomy Of Death (with The Arse-Licker), but also beat me to the BFS Best Novella Award in 2015 with Newspaper Heart (and if you have to lose, you might as well do so to Stephen Volk).

I thought it'd be fun to ask him some questions about the novella and here's what he had to say.

MW:  Where did The Little Gift come from?
SV:  It came simply from the image of the dead bird. Our cat often brings in dead birds and mice. It has the pure animal instinct to kill, and I wanted to riff off that into the wider idea of predators and, down the grey scale, the so-called normal relationships between men and women.

MW:  The novella seems to be a preferred length of yours, what do you like so much about it?
SV:  It didn’t start out as a novella, it grew from a short story into a longer one (same with many of my novellas, in fact). Generally, I just see how the story evolves, length-wise. Nobody is asking me to write these and nobody is giving me a deadline or word count. Yes, I could have written this as a 80,000 word novel but I don’t think I would have gained anything. Pitching and structuring a novel is entirely different, bulkier, more substantial in terms of the market and visibility, but in creative terms I like to think a good novella has everything a good novel has. Like it’s a novel shrunk down, condensed, but the intensity remains and nothing is wasted.  

MW:  Do you partition your working day, to differentiate between screenwriting, novellas and short stories?
SV:  No. I have a “To Do” list in order of priorities which I revise every month. I get on with the thing that’s due (or overdue!) or, if nothing is urgent, the thing that most takes my fancy. I don’t work on two things in the same day. I’d rather do a week or couple of weeks on one thing, like a script, get to the end, then a few days on something else, like a short story, before getting back into my revisions, afresh. I try never to leave something when I’m stuck, though. Salman Rushdie advised to always finish the day with a sentence you want to come back to, because if you down tools on a problem it’s horrible, you don’t want to face it and the whole prospect becomes negative.

MW:  Any thoughts on the third in your “film” series, following on from the wonderful Whitstable and  Leystonstone ?
SV:  Yes. Thank you...

But no, I’m not going to tell you who the subject is!

I’ve been thinking about it and planning it ever since Leytonstone was published. The structure is worked out, I’ve done the research and I’m tremendously excited about it. I just have to write it - and put the dread feeling that it has to be “as good as” to one side. I feel the three novellas will definitely make a thematic whole, which I’m calling “The Dark Masters Trilogy”. I’ve talked to a publisher about bringing out all three together in one volume, which will be very exciting. Touch wood.

MW:  What’s next for Stephen Volk?
SV:  Well, film news always hovers, ungraspable as a phantom. I’m working on one with our mutual good friend Tim Lebbon. I’ve just finished a stage play, I’m writing a new screenplay, and I have several TV projects in various stages of development. But if nothing kick-starts in the near future I’ll be concentrating on that third novella. I definitely need to get it out of my system and it’s just coming to the boil, creatively. And you have to listen to your juices.

The Little Gift is available from PS Publishing for £12.00 (in hardback)

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