Whenever Steeleye Span bring out a new album, there is often a piece somewhere near the end entitled “Jigs and Reels.” It’s usually a medley of unnamed pieces, not important enough to be given a real title, a cheery addendum to the main act. That’s how most people think of short stories; as a kind of literary sandwich-filling, and as such many people don’t read them at all. That’s a pity, because short stories at their best can be more of a challenge, more arresting, more intense, more memorable than any novel. (Try forgetting Ray Bradbury’s The Smile, or Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, or Conan Doyle’s The Mystery of the Speckled Band, or Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, or Jerome Bixby’s It’s a Good Life. Go on. Try it.) And with today’s lifestyles becoming increasingly frenetic, and with more and more people who just don’t have the time or the energy to read novels, it seems to me that there is a greater need now for the short story than there has ever been. How better to fill those fifteen minutes before bedtime, or the half-hour in the bath, or that ten-minute Tube journey?
My own short stories differ in so many ways to my novels. For a start, I write in different circumstances – the majority of these tales started life on hotel notepaper or in one of my innumerable little notebooks – and it may be because of this that so many of them are so dark in tone. A novel takes a long time to plan, to settle; like a dish that has to simmer for hours for the flavours to come out. A short story is a quick hit; a carbohydrate fix; something to be taken on the run. I find a lot of them come to me when I am travelling; in planes; on trains; in airport terminals. I love those places, and I am never bored as long as there are people to watch. The people in Jigs & Reels are often bizarre, funny, even freakish; but I have met them all in one place or another, and they all have two things in common.
One, they all think of themselves as perfectly normal, however unconventional their lifestyle. My suburban witches choose Bella Pasta for their high-school reunion and agonize about their weight; my dolphin woman falls in love with a man who is bad for her, just like any other woman, and my Ugly Sister, after three hundred years of being the villain of the piece, still only wants her prince… Secondly, all my characters have chosen to swim against the current in some way, to express themselves as individuals rather than go with the flow. This sometimes leads to disastrous consequences, but it makes them understandable; it makes them human, even when they are not.
I wrote Jigs & Reels as a means of expressing those things that can’t be expressed in a full-length novel; the thoughts that come to you when you’re lying awake at three in the morning in some foreign time-zone; scraps of gossip overheard on a bus; a squib in a local newspaper, too strange to make the nationals; a glimpse of someone heading who knows where, absorbed in their own little world.
Little worlds. Is there such a thing? It’s all a question of perspective. If I choose to write most of my stories in the first person, it is because I try to enter the world of my characters, to feel what they feel; even if it’s wrong, or terrible, or sad, or strange. The more I travel the more I realize that nothing is ever normal; the world is full of extreme possibilities, extreme lives, and even in the most mundane of surroundings, there are things beneath the surface that would astonish us, if only we knew. In this collection, I have tried to scratch the surface.
Listen to Joanne reading ‘Faith and Hope go Shopping’ from Jigs and Reels.
Articles and Reviews
- Life is a box of chocolat
Link to a review of Jigs and Reels and interview by Tze Ming Mok of the New Zealand Listener
- Jigs and Reels Review
Link to a review of Jigs and Reels by Serena Trowbridge on The Agony Column website.
Articles in Hungarian
- Review of Jigs and Reels
Information about Jigs and Reels for Hungarian readers on the ekultura website, dated 28 November 2008. The site has information on several other of Joanne’s books – there are links near the bottom of the Jigs and Reels page.