Talking it over with Genghis Khan
The colour of '33
Do kittens dream in primrose?
A grandmother's green should be reseda
Terrible tales of time and tide
One magenta sock
Kant's day off
'Say "Hello" to the fairies, Karl'
Nietzsche, my darling
Pictures for an exhibition
Looking for Little Miss Universe
Mr Davidsbündler comes to call (or 'If on an autumn morn a traveller')
The Big 'D' Gang (or 'The Case of the Double Quincunx')
I liked my Bible because it had a lilac cover
Where did you put my khaki shorts?
The meaning of geranium
In the bruise-coloured night
Come back, lapis lazuli, all is forgiven
The hidden life of carmine
The shock of pink grapefruit
The lavender bride
Campaign for more topaz
But is it periwinkle?
A moth-coloured nap
Reasons to be purple
Many of Heather Reyes's short stories share a connection with paintings (and painting titles) by Paul Klee, Matisse and Kandinsky. Full of verve, wit and intimacy, her superbly quirky, mischievous and colour-filled stories show how our daily lives are richer, stranger and more dangerous than we know.
Why is Genghis Khan on little Eva's bed? Who painted 'Only connect' on the Ritz? What does a gargoyle have to say about the world? Did Mr Davidsbundler really come to call? In the world of Heather Reyes Talking it over with Genghis Khan the answers are as unexpected as the questions.
Her short stories have appeared in many UK and US literary magazines including Fiction International, Ambit, Philosophy Now and Mslexia.
'Moves, amuses and provokes' Independent on Sunday on Zade
'Rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender' Maggie Gee on Miranda Road
'Brilliant ... I love Heather's passion for reading' Helen Dunmore on An Everywhere: a little book about reading
An interview with the author
The first thing that stands out about the collection is that it's flooded with colour. There are only a handful of stories that don't feature colour in an important way and many of them use colour in the title.
The stories are hugely varied in form and length, but colour provides a unifying element. The few that don't use colour directly are nevertheless linked to the colour element and what it stands for in the other stories. For example, 'Looking for Little Miss Universe' pits joy and humour against the sadness of human mortality, and that's very much in line with some of what I'm trying to do elsewhere in the more obviously 'colour-full' stories.
Quite a number of the colours you use aren't what I'd call 'straightforward' ones. They're very specific tones - like 'reseda', 'magenta', 'saffron', 'periwinkle'.
I've always been fascinated by the names of colours. It must go back to seeing the names on my grandfather's the oil paints when I was a child. I use this detail very directly in 'After uranium' where they're in contrast to the stories the old man tells the little girl about war. Thematically, it's part of my attempt to foreground the different, the rich, and the unexpected, and making the tales visually interesting, too - and more precise than, say, 'red' or 'green' or 'blue', which would be a bit boring. And, of course, in 'A grandmother's green should be reseda', the contrast between the two different shades of green is very significant - the granddaughter wanting her to be a dignified 'reseda' while the grandmother's real character and her hidden past is expressed through her preference for 'emerald' - which the girl comes to understand in the course of the story. The colour names are also linked with my love of playing with the sounds of words.
Perhaps we can talk about the 'playing with the sounds of words' in a minute. But I wonder if you'd like to say a bit more about the way colour - and even individual colours - function in the stories.
For me, colour - along with music - is one of the greatest sources of joy in life and, even in sad or serious stories, I usually try to retrieve or create something positive: I hope the foregrounding of colour helps to achieve this. In 'The colour of '33' we go with the narrator and the man she loves to an exhibition of Kandinsky's work. Among all the wonderfully coloured paintings, there's one small, uncoloured one called 'Grim situation' - which only makes sense when you read the date, 1933, and know it was the year Hitler became Chancellor. His regime persecuted the Bauhaus artists, of which Kandinsky was one. This stands for the whole history of that ghastly period, and the narrator can only escape it by 'entering' a painting that's full of healing colour. In 'One magenta sock' the colour becomes an enrichment of life and is associated with a creative and unusual person. In some stories, colour is set against 'no colour': in 'Come back, Lapis Lazuli, all is forgiven', that rich blue is set against 'maggot-colour'; saffron is set against grey in 'Remembering saffron'; lavender against conventional white in 'The lavender bride', and so on.
Do you have a favourite colour?
Don't laugh - it's actually pale grey ... But maybe partly because against it you can put just about any of the glorious colours that exist and they are both enhanced. In terms of the sound of a particular colour, I think maybe 'lapis lazuli' - it has those gentle, lapping 'els' and the zippy, energetic 'z' near the middle.
The collection ends with a string of little stories that hardly seem stories at all, in the conventional sense.
Ah, but what the reader has to do is construct or be aware of the 'big' stories behind them! 'The lavender bride' isn't just a few lines about a young woman who wears a lavender wedding dress. It suggests the whole history of women being made to conform to certain ideas of 'purity' etc. The young woman in the story defies convention - and in doing so sets a valuable example to others, freeing their imagination to be themselves and not cow-tow to others' ideas of what she should be. These small stories are exercises in 'condensation', if you like, and the reader does sometimes have to work a bit harder at them.
Religion crops up in various stories. The title story actually starts with the sentence, 'When Eva first learned about wars and things, she thought she'd better start going to church - just in case.' She's heard that God is supposed to answer prayers. Yet you're not really a 'believer' in the conventional sense.
No, but I was educated at a wonderful convent school so religion is part of my 'imaginative universe'. What I've tried to do in various stories is recuperate some of the richness of religious imagery and put it to use in a new way, but still with an 'altruistic' intent - a route to a more worldly salvation, if you like. Of course, in the title story the girl's naivety is partly a critique of certain religious attitudes in the face of the overwhelming suffering inflicted by powerful war-mongers, here represented by Genghis Khan and Hitler. At the end of the story, the girl engages the help of two religious statues - man-made 'art works', even if rather 'plastery-looking' ones. They appear to come to life, throw aside the trappings of religious iconography and follow the girl out of the church and into the world - as statues. It's tied up with the girl's attempt to start a fashion for replacing the word 'rebirth' with 'Renaissance' - which evokes a blossoming of Humanism and interest in the products of Man's cultural life, as well as 'nicer clothes' than the other option, 'Resurrection', which, as the girl muses, only suggests dusty old blood-stained sheets.
In 'Campaign for more topaz', the speaker takes the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins and proposes seven new ones to replace them. Then, in 'I liked my Bible because it had a lilac cover', I take biblical words out of their original context and turn them into something pleasurable - 'new words to embroider the tongue with' - and finish with a string of them which suggest that a certain approach to life can contribute to social and personal fulfilment. And above all the loveliness of 'otherness'. But I don't want to analyse it to death!
I guess that leads nicely on to your pleasure in playing with the sounds of words.
Even before I could read, my mother used to read poetry to me. One of my favourite poems was John Masefield's 'Cargoes'. It begins, 'Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir...'. I hadn't the faintest idea what it was about but it was full of the most beautiful-sounding, mysterious words. Then, of course, I studied Anglo-Saxon poetry at university, and I think that also raised my awareness of word-sound. I taught poetry for years, too, and, like many young people with literary ambitions, I started by writing poetry - which focuses the mind like nothing else on the sound qualities of words.
You have to enjoy what you're writing, and, for me, one of the pleasures is 'playing' - if that's the right expression - with words. Thematically, 'playfulness' is important to the collection as it's one of the things - along with colour - that I try to set against the darkness which can so easily overwhelm us. 'The colour of '33' starts by turning the name of the painter Kandinsky into 'sky-candy man', for example. As I said before, the narrator escapes from his one colourless work, and all it stands for, into a 'healing' colour - a sweetness plucked from the sky! And then there's the fun of the gargoyle names in 'Speak, gargoyle'.
As you mentioned, the stories are very varied in form and voice.
I think variety and surprise are important in keeping the reader's interest - and are also a source of pleasure in themselves. As well as conventional first and third person narratives, I also use second person in a couple of stories, which is less usual. It kind of 'implicates' the reader in the story: it's a very direct address. Italo Calvino makes use of it in his novel If on a winter's night a traveller, which I use as a reference point for the story 'Mr Davidsbündler comes to call' (hence the story's subtitle). And the odd name of the 'visitor' I've pinched from the composer Robert Schumann's imaginary 'Band of David' - people who would slay the cultural Philistines. But one doesn't have to know that to enjoy the story - I hope!
Other forms I use include a letter ('Say "Hello" to the fairies, Karl'), a monologue (spoken by a gargoyle), a parody detective story, an obituary, a couple of dialogues, one side of an implied dialogue, and I end with something that could be described as a weird kind of little secular sermon. Sometimes I am asking the reader to make a big adjustment from one story to the next. But I hope that's part of the fun!
In many of the stories it feels as if the actual endings are not that important in terms of what the story is really 'about'. Is that a fair comment?
Oh, yes. But then I think that's often the case with short stories as well as novels - apart from some detective fiction where the whole point seems to be to find out, at the end 'who done it' - though I undermine this in my spoof detective story. Yes, I think it's very much what happens in the course of the stories that really counts ... though there are a few exceptions - including two where the whole point comes in the last few words (but I'm not going to tell you which ones!) and which may just catch the reader out ...
It's always interesting to know how much a writer has taken directly from their own life. You've already mentioned your grandfather's paints, but are there any other significant incidents or characters you've lifted straight from life?
Oh, definitely - though sometimes the unexpected things, like the oldish woman in 'The meaning of geranium' - she's a 'local character' and I've described her exactly as she is. The incident at the centre of 'A grandmother's green should be reseda' is an adapted version of something that happened in my childhood (I still have some of the postcards referred to). Despite the 'fantasy' element of 'Pictures for an exhibition', the kernel comes from the fact that my grandfather - who, while still a teenager, fought in the First World War - would only ever copy other people's paintings. 'Looking for Little Miss Universe' was triggered by an old photo I found of my grandmother soon after she died, in her nineties: she was just a little girl in a fancy-dress costume of stars and moons. 'One magenta sock' stems from the fascination my children had for the lurex socks worn by a visiting friend - a poet. 'The colour of '33' came from a visit to an actual Kandinsky exhibition - though the two young Americans are invented - I think! Sometimes, when you've been involved with writing an incident for longer than you took to experience it, the edges begin to blur between what actually happened and one's own shaping of it into a story. That's happened to me more than once! Then there are little details, like the Bible with the lilac cover - which I still have. There are some images from 'In the bruise-coloured night' that originate from the opening exhibition at Tate Modern. The conversations in 'The shock of pink grapefruit' I did actually experience and 'The lavender bride' is my beautiful daughter-in-law. The starting point for 'Campaign for more topaz' was a local demonstration against a proposed new road that would have cut through the best part of the nearby town - including the convent school where I'd been a pupil and where I was teaching at the time. Even the nuns were out there demonstrating, yelling for all they were worth. And so was I. Then I caught sight of my neighbour, a devout Catholic - on the pavement, just watching. I called to her to come and join in but she 'didn't like to' ... as if it were something against her religion! Anyway, that was the feeling behind 'Topaz' - though for some reason I hear it in a slightly African-American voice. And when I was eleven or twelve I had a school friend with whom I used to discuss whether or not animals had souls - used in 'After uranium' ... along with the three-legged dog I remember from a Cornish holiday when I was six.
But, then, of course, there is obviously lots of material in the collection that cannot possibly be taken directly from life - though one cannot write about anything that's not 'in your own head' in some form or other, even when it emerges as extreme fantasy - as in 'Pink' or 'Speak, gargoyle'. I must say, I do have a great affection for my gargoyle - and its wish to say everything before it's too late. In essence, you might say he's an aging writer ...
The title. Why did you choose that particular story to be the title of the whole collection?
Actually I did consider one or two others, including 'Speak, gargoyle' - which is a reference to Nabokov's autobiographical Speak, Memory - a book a I love. But in the end I decided that 'Talking it over with Genghis Khan' did several useful jobs at once - which, ideally, you want from a title. I think - hope - it's intriguing because a bit unusual, and it suggests the coming together of two totally opposite 'things' ... a sort of resolving of an impossibility. The idea of 'talking it over' is of civilised, personal dialogue undertaken to sort out some fairly small problem, whereas the association of Genghis Khan is with large-scale, unstoppable violence and cruelty. In the face of such awfulness, literary creation can only be on the scale of 'talking it over'. But I think the title does alert the reader to the fact that the stories, though light-hearted in many ways, do engage with our darker, more destructive side as well as our puzzlement over our own natures as sentient beings in a vast, detached universe. In one sense, the whole collection is 'talking it over' with ... yes, Genghis Khan!
Even though a number of the stories deal with very dark subjects, you've also spoken a lot about fun and pleasure.
If there is no delight in either the writing or the reading of stories, why bother with them? But at the same time, I don't think you can be a worthwhile or useful writer unless you tackle the darkest or most troubling sides of human life - even if you're doing it in quite miniature works. You don't have to write a War and Peace in order to make people think. And you can wrest some joy and beauty from the terror and strangeness of existence on a small scale and maybe bring about some little transformations in the process ... perhaps.
Talking it over with Genghis Khan by Heather Reyes is published by Oxygen Books, £8.99, on 8 October 2015.