Read our full-length interview with Zoe at the bottom of this page....
Zoe F Gilbert
Zoe Gilbert writes short stories. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester specialising in folk tales and the fantastic in contemporary short fiction. She lives in London, where she runs one critique group and attends others, as well as co-chairing a short story reading group at The Word Factory. Her stories have won prizes and been published in the US, UK and beyond in journals and anthologies.
Zoe F Gilbert in 60 seconds
When did you start writing?
What do you love about short stories?The challenge of precision writing, the breathtaking effect of so few words when well done.
Do you write in other forms?Wrote a novel, may do again one day.
What distracts you from writing?
Outside of writing, what are your other passions?Trees, fungi, folklore.
What is your favourite book?True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey, is a great.
Who are your favourite writers?Angela Carter, Ramona Ausubel and Margo Lanagan.
Where is your dream location?A treehouse.
What one item would you put into Room 101?All the litter in the world.
Do you have any advice for new writers?Write something every morning before life takes over - even if it is only half a sentence.
Work by Zoe F Gilbert:
Latest posts from Zoe F Gilbert...
How did you come to be a writer? Was there a key moment that sent you in this direction or do you think it’s something that has always been in you?
I think it was always there, but I was afraid of doing it badly! I started trying to write new folk tales and I got really interested in their structure and form. I think the moment that pushed me to keep going, was when I went on a writing course about rewriting old myths and folktales. I was incredibly nervous but I had one of those moments when someone told me that I could do it and that I should carry on. I’ll be forever grateful for that.
And what has led you to focus on short stories?
I have written a novel and bits of novels but I have ended up focusing on short stories because of the folk tale bent, that shape. Also, quite honestly, I started writing shorter because I was looking to write some stories that I might be able to get published individually. But I got addicted to it, and I’m now part of the way through a creative writing PhD on folk tales and the fantastic in the short story, so it’s become a full-on obsession.
What for you are the biggest challenges of writing?
Overcoming the fear of doing it badly is a big one. I imagine it’s a bit like how it is for a visual artist. You have a vision of what you want to represent, but when you execute it, it comes out very inferior to what you had imagined. Trying to find variation in voice is another issue. I’ve put strict constraints on myself with the collection of stories I’ve written as part of my PhD, around the kind of language I am prepared to use, so it’s tricky to create variety within that. Also, one of the hardest things I’ve learned and am still learning is choosing which points to ignore and which points to trust when my work is being critiqued. You have to overcome your own love or hate for your own work and choose what is most useful for improving it.
And the biggest joys....?
That first moment when you have a little idea for a story and that vision expands. And the feelings that come when that happens naturally… I think those are great moments. Another one is the feeling when someone responds positively to a story and talks about it in their own words and explains how they’ve interacted with it. That’s a great joy as well.
Do you write to music, silence, a personal soundtrack?
I usually write to silence as anything else seems to get in the way, but I do have some instrumental music I sometimes listen to. There’s a cellist called Zoe Keating who plays layered tracks, and there’s something in her music that for me evokes the world that I’ve been writing about in my collection. However, I find music adds so much atmosphere to my mind that I can imagine that it’s there in the writing even when it’s not.
Do you schedule time to write or is it more a spontaneous, as and when matter?
I can’t afford to wait and be spontaneous so I schedule time as much as I can. Usually every day. I’m currently balancing my PhD, other bits of creative writing and various teaching ventures as well, so I try and make sure that I go to my notebook and do some writing first thing. That moment, before you’ve had a conversation, before you’ve seen the news, it’s kind of a semi-dream state and you have a blank slate. If I start then, I have a much better chance of being creatively active for the rest of the day.
Do you know the ending before you start or does it reveal itself along the way?
I sometimes know the ending but it varies. I certainly didn’t know the ending when I wrote Salt Stain (which is available on the CUT site). That one just started with a line and I carried on. I have planned a few stories, when I know that they’re going to be complex. Generally, I try not to know the ending. It’s more fun that way.
Where do you go for feedback or constructive criticism? Why?
I run my own short story critique group, which I take my own work to sometimes. I also go to a novel writers’ group, and get a really useful perspective from people who normally read long form and so treat short stories differently from me. My supervisor on my PhD is Alison MacLeod and she gives the most amazing, line by line feedback on my stories. My other half is also a short story writer so he gets to read everything.
I think the best thing about getting feedback from people that you trust is that it’s a big shortcut. It saves you the time and agony of facing up to what you already know deep down. It would take so much longer to get the story into shape without that.
What is the bigger challenge for you, putting stuff in or leaving stuff out?
I’d say leaving out, but only just. I really enjoy writing and reading stories that drop clues and only offer an incomplete picture so that the reader has to do some work. But making that judgement call about whether I have left out enough to make it interesting, or too much, is a question I’m always trying to answer. I talk too much and I write too long and I tend to want to say everything twice! Paring down and trusting the reader to understand is a challenge.
Do you get distracted? Dispirited? What keeps you going during these moments?
All the time. Almost every time it doesn’t go perfectly I get angry or grumpy. I suppose if anything makes me carry on, it’s thinking that I’m really lucky to be able to spend any time at all writing fiction and if I weren’t to do it I would feel a whole lot grumpier. The pain of writing is far preferable to the pain of not writing at all. It also helps to remember that the more you write, even when you have days or weeks of writing rubbish, it means that you stay on your continuum of improvement – hopefully!
Your story Salt Stain is on the CUT website and is written from the point of view of somebody who lives in a lighthouse. The description of the lighthouse itself is very insightful and made us realise that we’ve never considered what it would be like to inhabit such a space. Does this insight come from research or imagination?
I wish I had lived in a lighthouse! I’ve never even been inside one, to my great regret. It probably came out of an unfulfilled desire and because I couldn’t do it I imagined it instead. I’ve always been obsessed with towers and turrets, places with round bases. I suppose I find them intriguing because we mostly all live in square boxes. So the opening line of “At first I missed corners” was me thinking about that.
And where did the idea come from?
The isolation of the lighthouse was a big driver in this story. They’re always at the furthest point out from the land and I was wondering what would make a person want to go and live in one. You’d be so isolated, so exposed to the sea. There is an image in the story, of moths, all plastered across the window. I loved that idea so much, a carpet of moths blocking the light out, and I wanted to use it. I guess the story came together with the idea of a mysterious visitor – especially one associated with the sea. I’m quite interested in selkie stories, even though it’s not clear who or what the visitor is in my story.
There is a deep sense of mystery regarding the visitor to the lighthouse in Salt Stain, an ambiguity as to whether their presence is welcomed or not by the narrator. Is this thematic in any other your other work? Is it something that you enjoy in the work of other writers?
I liked the idea that this person has taken themselves off to be isolated, and so a visitor is rather unwelcome, but they find themselves getting attached. They realise they were lonely even though they wanted to be alone.
As for enjoying ambiguity in the work of others, I love being made to do some work, as a reader. I love having to make up my own mind and I’m very comfortable with open endings. As long as it’s deliberate and I know that that’s what the writer intends. It’s part of feeling active, being respected as a reader. And also, a lot of what I like to write and read often involves the fantastical, the surreal, the non-real, and often the best way to do that is for the non-reality to be one of a few possible interpretations of what is happening. Dreaming, madness, delusion, a concretising of inner states, or something genuinely impossible, are all possible interpretations of something fantastical, and I like not being sure as to whether something is really there or someone has imagined it.
But it’s important that the ambiguity is earned, as otherwise it really undermines your trust in the writer. Once the thought that the author doesn’t really know why something is happening enters your mind, then it completely ruins your suspension of disbelief. I talk a lot about this with my critique group, the difference between good ambiguity and bad ambiguity. The good would be when it serves a purpose atmospherically in the story, or for the reader to make their own interpretation, but when it serves no purpose apart from obfuscation or wrong-footing just for the sake of being mysterious, then that’s definitely bad ambiguity.
What do you look for in the books and stories you read yourself? What makes you rate someone’s writing?
I do love the fantastical and I’m always interested to see what people are doing with folk tales and short stories, for example Lucy Wood, Kirsty Logan, and Sarah Maitland. I really love fundamentally imaginative writing, which isn’t necessarily fantasy, but is something that comes from a strong imaginative place. I’m not that interested in reading about the real world to be honest! I want something weird in there. Helen Oyeyemi does that really well. There’s a feel of otherworldliness in her writing, but when you look at it closely, much of what happens is perfectly possible. She just has this slightly off kilter world and voice that puts you in a very different space. That’s another thing that I love, when writers create a very distinctive voice in prose. One of my favourite books of all time is “The True History of the Kelly Gang” by Peter Carey, which has an incredibly strong voice which the author poached from Ned Kelly’s own letters and extended into a whole novel. You feel like you have Ned Kelly speaking in your ear and it’s really transporting. It feels completely real but also alters the inner reality of the book by having it written in such a strong voice. Another couple of books that do that really well are “Riddley Walker” by Russell Hoban, which is in a made-up pidgin English and “The Wake” by Paul Kingsnorth who has made up his own version of Old English. It looks like you won’t be able to read it on the page, but then you start reading it aloud and you realise that you can. And it feels like you’re reading something ancient; it’s like an atmospheric transportation trick and I’d really love to be able to do something like that, though I’m a bit scared to try!
It’s been lovely chatting to you Zoe. Thanks for your time.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.