Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Frances Donnelly’s fiction piece, Gas
John: One of the things that I admire about this story is how economically it shows us the murky and complex currents underneath all of these relationships: Jasmine and Amy, Amy and her mother, Amy’s mother and the rest of the world. How did you manage to pack all of this in so densely?
Frances: Thank you! Hm. I experience the world and specifically people in a very rich way, because I’m autistic. When there are enough constraints on input to stop it all becoming meaningless noise, life is incredibly vivid for me. This is true for everyone, but for autistic minds and bodies there is generally a narrower range and greater depth. For Gas, I used the space of the house as the constraint, so that I could let the energies act and react fully without excess noise. Without being disturbed. Also, of course, a short story inherently brings constraint.
In terms of writing in an economic style, part of my day job is copywriting and editing. I have trained myself to simplify the complex whilst retaining whatever is vital, and am used to doing it on the clock. I’m a ruthless editor, and once I understand what a story needs I am kind of gleeful about killing my darlings to get it there. I think it can actually be a good boost to a writer’s self esteem when we trust ourselves to direct the overall vision, to cut fruitfully.
Your sentences have a lovely sense of style and rhythm. There are exceptions, of course, but I feel that the current fashion in literary toward flat, declarative prose. Do you ever feel like you’re swimming against the current, writing as you do?
I agree with you about the fashion. I have so much to say on this! It’s funny that there is a lot of talk about inclusivity and welcoming minority submissions to journals at the moment, when the acceptable voice is so prescriptive and narrow. I do have that nuts’n’bolts style of institutional speech in my toolkit. It’s relatively easy to learn in terms of the range of writing skills. Copywriters use that voice to sell washing machines. In fiction, it seems bizarre that it’s equated with superior intellect and even profundity.
I find it useful for certain kinds of precision or authority, but that’s such a small part of what text can offer. It’s not a breathing voice, it’s like a voice that doesn’t have any bodily functions or trains of thought, any complex rhythms or surges of energy or failings or forgetting or breaking or responsiveness. Importantly, the reader’s challenge ends at comfortably filling in the neat minimalist sketches with colour, which gets talked of as “making the reader work.” Nobody’s breaking a sweat. I find it very alluring as a reader to just be spoon fed, and have to remind myself that it’s OK for things to be more difficult!
My background as a musician, and my incredibly sensitive hearing and experience of rhythms, probably help me avoid the style trend somewhat. I also tend to swim against the current regardless of whether I try to conform, because of the way I process things. But I do actually feel my writing is currently too flat, too declarative, too conforming. It comes from years of toning down my natural self, normalising. That can get you in the door with writing. But it can also make for fearful writers. Relying on that mask, that borrowed power, makes me too timid.
I’m working hard towards the day when I’m sophisticated and open enough to have a fully colourful, musical, muscular, vulnerable, cracked, wet, lively writing voice. People are so embarrassed by that kind of style at the moment, it’s fascinating. You can talk about sex or revolution or equality or death so long as you use clean copy. I think in part it’s following the move towards film and TV, visual culture and digital soundbites, making writing less about language. It’s also indicative of the schism between truly meaningful human difference and the mass mediated versions we’re all consuming.
I don’t think that I would want Amy to be my enemy. Should we be concerned for Jasmine?
Ah this is a funny question, because I specifically rewrote the story to be more compassionate towards Jasmine (and Amy’s mum). The first draft depicted Amy as the meek victim, but then I decided I wanted to step back from that and more gently observe the breakage of direct connections, how the breakage doesn’t benefit anyone unless they are very intentionally malicious.
Amy is a victim with limited power in her crappy home life, desperate for love she can’t get. But it’s even more tragic that she is starting to experiment with her mother’s impotent, misplaced fury. A glimpse of how that may spoil her chances of intimacy as she approaches adulthood shows why her childhood home situation matters so much.
I definitely don’t think Jasmine has anything to worry about ongoing in terms of Amy, other than some awkwardness and worry. She got briefly mixed up in something knotted inside this house, then made a hasty exit. Even inside the house, she had some superiority. Outside, she has the solidity and social life that Amy and her mum don’t.
You say that you are proudly autistic. How do you think your autism benefits your writing? Are there some aspects of Gas that you think explicitly display that influence?
I feel I’ve talked a bit about this in terms of the content and style of Gas. In terms of my general writing and art practice, autism means I am passionate and highly self-directed. I started writing fiction just over a year ago at the same time I discovered I’m autistic, because I finally understood what I’d been grappling with in my written voice. It’s been going really well, and has been a very wholehearted commitment. It’s part of having been an artist and writer since I was little, of needing to synthesise what I’m experiencing and learning and feeling. It helps me pull forms out of the noise and turn them around and understand their beauty. Unsurprisingly, a lot of writers and artists are autistic or otherwise neurodiverse. It can be one of the most rewarding parts of being so sensitive to the world around us, which in other ways can be extremely painful and exhausting in the modern world.