Erica Buist is a freelance writer and journalist, formerly a staffer at The Guardian, and she lectures at universities across the UK about features writing.
She travelled to seven death festivals (in Mexico, Nepal, Sicily, Thailand, Madagascar, Japan and Indonesia) and wrote a book about it called This Party’s Dead, which will be published February 18th 2021.
Kristina Marie Darling: Tell me about the larger project these short stories are from.
Erica Buist: For various family reasons I’ve spent the past four years outside London; in 2016 I moved to Paris, then to a small town in the English countryside. I missed London so much I could barely see straight, and when I got back I was so profoundly relieved and grateful I decided to start writing short stories that are all set here, a kind of honest, almost grudging love letter to the exhausting, addictive, exasperatingly-easy-to-miss place I can’t not call home. The working title of the collection is Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics, which is from an Oscar Wilde quote (“I love London society! I think it has immensely improved. It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what Society should be.”) So far, I’ve used London as a backdrop in stories exploring identity, legacy, inequality, love, mental illness, social media – in Sadberg we even go into the sewers.
KMD: In light of your achievements in nonfiction writing, which include a staff position at The Guardian and a memoir forthcoming from Unbound, what drew you to the short story as a literary form?
EB: I have an embarrassingly short attention span, so have always been drawn to short stories over novels (and series over movies, in fact. Gosh. Do I have a problem?!), and I like exploring stories and characters even if they don’t warrant the length and depth of a novel or movie. A good short story is utterly magical, a little snapshot, and my favourite ones have marked me more profoundly than any novel, precisely because of the impact they can have in so few pages. But also, as a nonfiction writer, fiction just seemed magical to me. I remember wondering how on earth it was done, how someone could sit in front of a blank page and think, “Right, what could happen next? Oh, anything? Literally anything?! *head explodes*” I used to write short plays when I was at university, and the dialogue would play in my head like a movie and I would just write it as it happened. When I stopped bleating about how impossible it was, I realised stories were still playing in my head in the same way. So instead of just brushing them off as daydreams, I let them play again and again, and started writing them down. One of the only thing I prefer about nonfiction is that there’s no pressure to make it plausible; all I have to do is keep the transcripts.
KMD: You and I have discussed the artistic possibilities of autofiction at length, and you’ve mentioned that many of your short stories have some element of autobiography. Do you find that fiction and nonfiction have vastly different possibilities for presenting lived experience?
EB: The constraint of nonfiction is telling the truth, but in a story arc that the brain responds to. In fiction, you get to explore versions of the truth, play out thought experiments – but I’m careful to never use fiction as a way to cackhandedly settle scores. I feel it’s often horribly obvious when a story is a reimagining of an argument the writer has had, only with the thinly-veiled ‘Them Character’ winning it. It reminds me of the British comedy character Alan Partridge and how all his stories ended with, “Needless to say, I had the last laugh”. I like to present lived experience through completely absurd situations. The idea for The Londoner had two roots in my brain: the ‘lived experience’ part came from my astonishment at how London kept pulling me back to it – I tried so hard to live elsewhere (Mexico, France, the English countryside) and every time my train pulled into London, something inside me relaxed. The absurd element of the story took root years ago when I was travelling; I used to play a game in my head, imagining I had been suddenly transported there: how I would work out where I was, and how long it would take? For the opening scene of The Londoner I went to Clissold Park, hit record on a video and physically took the steps I imagined I would take if I woke up there naked, narrating what the character would be thinking and feeling – and god bless London, no one batted an eye.
The idea for Hashtag began with me wondering what I would do if I had run out on my wedding and had no wallet or phone on me. That situation in a strange city would be utterly nightmarish, but in London I found the concept weirdly fun, almost gamelike (I even considered trying it out, but really didn’t want to go viral as Ellie does in the story). And on top of that simple concept, I swirled in what I know to be true about London, technology, social media – and how romance and comedy still happen to people who hate Love Actually. And though I didn’t run out on my wedding, there is some autobiography in this story. I have been the person whose relationship is picture-perfect, who isn’t allowed to express any doubt about it because “no, you guys are great together!”. I’ve been with someone who’s perfectly lovely while slowly realising I’m inescapably in love with someone else. And I really, really hate Love Actually.
KMD: How much of this difference has to do with readerly expectations and the preconceived notions of what each genre is supposedly for? And to what extent can writers use those readerly expectations as material to surprise them, and to deliver something that nobody expects?
EB: The brain recognises so few plots – what are there, seven basic plots? – which exist in nonfiction too. So of course readers have expectations, and that means the writer must walk the line between avoiding cliché and giving readers the payoff they expect. If I’m going to surprise readers, it’s usually by making them laugh. I have a hard time staying serious for long; I used to do stand-up, and my serious stories are always the shortest. And it’s not something I even set out to do; more than once I’ve workshopped a piece only to be informed I’d written a satire.
In terms of departing from readerly expectations, they say the job of the writer is to get a character into a tree, throw rocks at them, then get them down – but I like to hurl rocks from the very start. By which I mean I tend to open a story with the character already in an absolute bloody nightmare situation, such as waking up naked in a park, running out on a wedding, or being eaten by their landlady. I really do throw a lot of rocks.
KMD: Not surprisingly, you have developed a substantial following on social media, with many tweets and articles going viral. What advice do you have for emerging writers who aspire to build an audience for their writing?
EB: The strangest thing about going viral is the number of people who immediately contact you to ask how you did it. Whatever the secret is, it’s a secret from me too. I think it’s a combination of capturing a feeling and then sending it out at the right time – that second one is important, otherwise all the people who stole my tweets word for word would have gone viral too – though this is not something I have ever done on purpose. I think I just happened to be feeling something at the same time as everyone else and managed to word it well.
My first piece of advice if your aim is to engage an audience is to find an underreported community and speak directly to them. For me, it was when I graduated into a job crisis. I started an anonymous blog called How to Be Jobless and wrote in the character of an unemployed oddball, in order to write about the absolute hellscape of unemployment in a funny way. The blog got a following – because while there was plenty being written about the UK’s million unemployed young people, absolutely no one seemed to be writing for them – and the result was that when I blogged about doing a job interview at the Guardian, the piece went viral and HUNDREDS of strangers were tweeting at the Guardian demanding they hire me. Because I’d made myself into a character, and the payoff – a job at the Guardian – would complete the story arc. And it did. My mentions were flooded for days with congratulations from total strangers. Find an underreported community and speak to them; they will respond.
My second piece of advice, conversely, is to forget about the audience while you’re writing, in terms of how they’ll respond, how shareable it is. Audiences aren’t single globulous masses; they’re made up of individuals who are just looking to be spoken to, moved, amused, informed, entertained, have their feelings and conditions expressed in original ways. It’s really important, I think, to see popularity as a by-product of good work, never the express aim – if your aim is popularity, you’ll be sitting down to write with the chattering voices of imaginary onlookers in your head, and your own voice will surely get drowned out. And I just couldn’t work with that kind of noise. Whoever you are, be that. Let the work speak, put it into the world, then let the audience find you.
KMD: What’s next? What can readers look forward to?
EB: My new book, This Party’s Dead, is coming out in February 2021. It’s a hybrid of memoir and journalism in which my husband and I found his father dead after a week and I subsequently visited seven death festivals to see how people all over the world deal with death anxiety. And I’m planning, extremely tentatively, to do a book tour next year in the US, if we can just get this bat plague under control. Meanwhile, I’ll keep building this collection of short stories about London. And if you follow me on Twitter or Instagram it’s extremely likely you’ll see pictures of my dog, cat and homemade bread, so look forward to that.