Sam and Charlie: Questions for the talented Mr Fish
/by Sam Kandej and Rachel Marsh/
Our very own Sam got in touch with Mr Fish at Fiction on the Web to ask about his take on writing and the short story. Charlie Fish is a popular short story writer and screenwriter. His short stories have been published in several countries and inspired dozens of short film adaptations. Since 1996, he has edited Fiction on the Web, the longest-running short story site on the web. Every single story on Fiction on the Web is hand-picked and carefully edited by Charlie Fish. He was born in Mount Kisco, New York in 1980; and now lives in south London with his wife and daughters.
Sam Kandej: Nothing in this world is more enjoyable than having a few words with the writer whom you love and admire. Today, I have got the honor of spending a few minutes with Mr. Charlie Fish. How do you do Mr. Fish?
Charlie Fish: Very well, thank you.
Sam: Let us start with the short story itself. Are you in love with writing short stories?
Charlie: Actually, I often find the process of writing laborious and frustrating, especially when starting something new. What ends up on the page seems to fall short of the images in my head. I have to persist and write myself into the story until I reach that golden territory where the ideas and characters take on a life of their own. Not all stories get there, but when they do – that’s when I fall in love.
The great thing about short stories is that if I write one that’s no good, I can discard it and write a new one. Each time I have to discard a story I learn something new. Writing a novel is considerably more challenging – persisting past the doubt and frustration is a much longer slog.
Sam: Do you remember the very first time you told yourself “I must become a writer”? What made you say that?
Charlie: I’ve written stories all my life, but for many years it never occurred to me to think of myself as a writer. I assumed I had to get a desk job with a decent salary. But then it occurred to me the only difference between being a rat-racer who dabbled with writing – and a writer – was declaring myself as such. I didn’t have to make money, or win awards, I just had to write, and put myself out there and tell people I was a writer until they started believing me.
As soon as I started calling myself a writer, I paid more attention to my craft and my writing has been getting better ever since.
Sam: And do you remember the first short story you read?
Charlie: The first? No. But there are several short stories I read in my youth that left a lasting impression – some of which I am revisiting now as I read them again to my three-year-old daughter. Like The Sneetches by Dr Seuss or The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
Sam: How many short stories have you written?
Charlie: More than 50, of which there are maybe 15 that I consider worthy of general consumption.
Sam: Which one is the most popular?
Charlie: “Death by Scrabble”. It was first published in 2005, and since then I get at least an email a week from someone asking to reprint it, or adapt it into a film, or use it for a speech competition. It’s been translated into French, Spanish, Dutch, Polish, Flemish, Hebrew, Turkish, Chinese, Telugu, Gurani – and that’s just the ones I can remember. If you search “Death by Scrabble” on YouTube you’ll find nearly 100 short films inspired by the story. It features in standard textbooks for English comprehension in three countries.
There is no way I could have predicted how much of a chord that story would strike with people – and probably no way I’ll match its success again. But that won’t stop me from trying!
Sam: Is it your own favorite story too?
Charlie: I’m immensely proud of “Death by Scrabble”, but my latest favourite story is probably “Remission”, which I wrote last year for a horror anthology called BLEED, published to raise money for The Children’s Cancer Society. I poured a lot of raw emotional honesty into the story – it’s a science fiction space tale, but also a metaphor for the loneliness of dealing with a serious illness. My baby daughter was very ill when I wrote it, and I think the story was infused with some of the trauma and desperate hopefulness I was feeling.
(She’s happy and well now!)
Sam: Typically, How much time do you spend on reading short stories, and how much time do you spend on writing?
Charlie: Not enough time writing! Never enough time. But I read a lot of short stories – I usually get about a dozen submissions a week for my website, Fiction on the Web. I read them all during my lunch breaks at work, and choose the ones I want to publish. At home, at the moment, I’m reading Gardner Dozois’ Best of the Best anthology of science fiction short stories, which is thoroughly enlightening.
Sam: I’m really interested to know more about your writing habits. Do you have any unusual habits for writing short stories?
Charlie: My favourite writing environment is sitting in the bar of the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton with my laptop and a beer. No kids, no “To Do” list, and a very poor Internet connection. Perfect.
Sam: What do you do in your free time when you don’t feel like writing and reading?
Charlie: For the last couple of years I’ve been pretty obsessed with board games. Not the old school ones I grew up with, but the new wave that’s sparked a growing subculture. I recently attended the world’s largest board gaming convention in Essen, Germany, along with 150,000 other people. I had a blast. If “board games” to you means Monopoly, Risk and Scrabble, you’re missing out. Try Carcassonne, or Ticket to Ride, or King of Tokyo, or any of the other thousands of amazing games published in the last twenty years.
Sam: Have you ever been jealous of a writer?
Charlie: Envious, yes. One of my heroes is Terry Rossio, the screenwriter responsible for Aladdin, Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean. I wrote to him once to thank him for an inspiring series of columns he’s published online (at wordplayer.com), and he invited me to a house party. I dropped everything and flew to LA to go. It wasn’t his palatial house that I was envious of, or his two hot tubs, but the fact that this man had the ear of Hollywood. He could write a screenplay and it would get taken seriously, get made for millions of dollars, and get shown to a packed audience at my local cinema 5000 miles away. I want that!
Sam: I have noticed that you are a humorous writer. You even mix horror and humor together. Is it a way to attract more readers? Or do you do that because you love humorous stories?
Charlie: I don’t really think of myself as a humorous writer. I’m no Douglas Adams. But humour is an excellent tool to charm readers and get their defences down. The louder they’re laughing, the more open and vulnerable they are when you hit them with the real emotion of the piece.
Sam: In your opinion, what would life be like if all politicians, presidents, kings, and prime ministers were short story writers?
Charlie: A lot of politicians are writers, which makes sense because they spend most of their lives making stuff up and manipulating people anyway. Perhaps if they all wrote fiction they’d have a keener sense of the ironies inherent in their day jobs, which could only be a good thing.
Sam: If I were a Short Story Genie, what three wishes would you make?
Charlie: Discipline, flair and courage.
Sam: You have a great website called Fiction on the Web. Why did you create it? And how many writers cooperate with you in order to keep this website up?
Charlie: Fiction on the Web gives me an opportunity to showcase amazing short stories, encourage fledgling authors, and contribute to the wider community of writers. No-one helps me with the site, it’s a labour of love.
Sam: What are your plans for the future? Are you going to write more short stories? Are you going to publish any new books?
Charlie: I’m intending to self-publish a collection of my best short stories from the last 15 years. Keep an eye out at fictionontheweb.co.uk for the announcement.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing – working on the collection for the next 15 years.
Sam: Thank you so much dear Mr. Fish for taking the time and answering my questions. I look forward to reading more of your short stories.
Charlie: Thank you Sam for such interesting questions!
If you follow an author online or in print and would like to interview him/her for ShortbreadStories, get in touch with Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll try to get you that interview.