“Walking about in London in flip flops you get these little curds of mud between your toes, tickling your bare feet. It’s a form of sexual bliss!” declares Michèle Roberts, introducing her recently published collection of short stories, Mud, to the Book Festival audience. Indeed it is a very muddy collection, from the “turned, buttery earth” in the title story, to the “stinking mud caking the cobbles” that signifies to Polly a backwards slip in time. For some characters mud is a source of nourishment and growth, for others it is associated with secret hiding places and private magical worlds; some, like Polly, are made dirty by it.
Mud is also a very sensual collection, full of smells and colours and tastes. The book is subtitled Stories of Sex and Love and Roberts says, “Sex and love are often connected to food and eating in my fiction. They are difficult to write about because the language available to us is not good enough, for me anyway. It’s a language of lying.” She points to pornographic langauge about throbbing members and wave-crashing orgasms as an example.
Roberts reads to the audience from the humorous story A Vegetarian in France. I must be a very serious reader because I always find fiction funnier when it is read aloud. Poor Larry with his omelettes!
Afterwards Helen Simpson reads the short story Diary of an Interesting Year from her collection, In Flight Entertainment. It switches rapidly between moments of hilarity and devastation, the brief one line entires proving that sometimes what is left unsaid can be more revealing than what is put into words.
Simpson sees the short story as a “zoom lens. Sometimes it’s criticised for being small, but it’s not small; it’s just not panoramic. It’s a close up.” She describes herself as “a coral reef type of writer. There’s a little bit added each year. Short stories are wasteful in terms of money and time to write but you’re never bored. That’s why I write. Your only duty as a writer is to write about what stimulates your imagination.” Five of the stories in In Flight Entertainment feature climate change, a topic that is “hard to know how to dramatise without moralising. There are lots of statistics, it’s a depressing and boring subject unless you are a physicist. I’m just a layperson. I’m not very good at science.” So why did Simpson choose to write about climate change? “I like a challenge I suppose.”
In each of the five stories Simpson tried to find a different route into the subject. “One is a sales pitch and that was meant to be a comedy. She’s a carbon coach but that’s almost not satire; people are doing that now. One is an apocalyptic love story and one is about a death on an aeroplane where people are getting annoyed about the delay.” According to Simpson, deaths on aeroplanes occur quite frequently but not to worry, it’s usually in first class. Something to do with the age of the population who can afford to fly in comfort. “I think they store bodies in the overhead lockers,” Simpson says. “Or else stretch them across three seats in first class, even if you die in economy. Apparently the first class passengers get quite shirty about that.”