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Jacob Ross: An Interview

Passionate elucidations of publishing, intelligent insights, and handy tips and advice for budding writers.

For those who don’t know who you are, could you give a brief introduction as to who you are and what you do?

I’m presently Associate Editor for Fiction at Peepal Tree Press which is the leading independent publisher of Caribbean, African and Asian related fiction in the United Kingdom. I am also a reader and tutor for The Literary Consultancy and run numerous creative writing workshops in the UK and abroad.

For several years I was a judge for the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize as well as the VS Pritchett and Tom Gallon prizes. My first novel, Pynter Bender, was published in 2008 and before that I published two collections of short stories. I have been a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 2006.

I now live in Leicester.

What would you say is the significance of the work that you are involved in?

The writing from other communities - i.e., the social and cultural spaces outside of the ‘mainstream’ - is just as critical for a full, honest understanding of the complex creative endeavours of this nation. Unfortunately, the risk of being ignored and/or remaining unacknowledged is still very real.

This is not only the case with fiction. I was paging through the 2005 Free Verse survey examining why British poetry is still very much closed to culturally diverse writers, despite the high profile achieved by many of these poets. Publishers’ most common stated reason for rejecting work was that it did not fit their lists or the subject matter was not suitable!

The fact is that there are many powerful decision makers out there who, in deciding what is suitable or not for publication, almost always turn a blind eye to the kind of writers we are targeting here.

It seems to me that, while the scenario is better for novelists, the short story faces the same or, I suspect, a worse situation. Yet the short story is the most prolific form of literary expression amongst Black and Asian writers.

The forthcoming anthology Closure is therefore both useful and strategic. It will give many writers of shorter narratives an opportunity to have their work published for the first time, while confirming what we all should know: that there is notable and abundant work produced by these writers.

The program is part of the developmental arm of Peepal Tree Press, Inscribe, which I have been working with off and on, regarding this project, for some years, and have seen really good writers emerge. Some of them are now attaining national and international profiles.

In terms of Peepal Tree Press, I couldn’t wish for a more suitable place to work. The editorial values are very high indeed 

it is perhaps the only Press in the UK – as far as I know – that actually offer workshops and mentorships to its writers. In other words, it cares for its writers in a practical and very beneficial way, but doesn’t compromise on quality.

The work has to be of high standard before it gets published. And I subscribe wholly to that approach.

What do you think the future of the short story is?

The short narrative is the most natural and ancient form of telling; it is fundamental to what it means to be socially engaged and adjusted humans. E-books, e-literary magazines, and the like are merely containers.

What we write may have to take a slightly different shape in order to fit into these containers but it will still be what it has always been: stories.

Those stories will be read or rejected, rated or berated, in the same way, with the same passion as they have always been in traditional publications. The short story will never become irrelevant.

Why the theme of closure?

The interpretation of the word is broad enough and yet specific enough to give writers something to sink their teeth into. There is a multiplicity of themes and ideas that can be harvested from that single word. Closure also ties in with ‘the enterprise’ of writing a piece of fiction itself. Which character in any of our stories does not strive for some sort of closure or resolution to the problems and challenges she or he is facing? Whether they achieve this or not is another story.

What is your vision for the new anthology Closure?

I would like this to be a very strong collection – at the same level of what some of the smaller independent presses like Comma have been doing. I wouldn’t want it to be just a ‘gesture’ –

a collection that means something only to the writers, their friends and families.There are spaces, imaginative and real, that our target contributors can draw from, that can add to the shape and feel of the modern short story.

I am very much looking forward to that.

What tips that you can give to people who are submitting to the anthology?

My first general advice is, if you are not already doing so, read widely (you still have time) and don’t make your reading just ‘ethnic-specific’. That would be silly. Begin to navigate your writing world by knowing what other strong writers of the short story are doing so that you have a sense of what’s expected of you, and perhaps more importantly, what you’re capable of. The Guardian and The Times publish, on a regular basis, very contemporary stories by a range of writers from all over the world. These can often be accessed for free online. To begin with, I recommend the short stories of Leone Ross, Olive Senior, Tariq Hussain, Alison McLeod, Sarah Hall … and that’s just to begin with. There are numerous excellent collections out there – The BBC Annual short Competition (2011, 2012), The Brace Collections, ad infinitum.

  1. Write, rethink and rewrite. A completed first draft is rarely ever a completed story. And be prepared to co-operate with your editor in further refining your piece if necessary.
  2. Check the rules of entry on Inscribe website and make sure you adhere to them. They are important.
  3. Try to make this the best story you’ve ever written.
  4. Submit on time.

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