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Bookworm Festival Pulse: Short and to be Continued

Authors Colin Barrett and Shi Yifeng discuss their inspiration to keep writing

By Hatty Liu

“I think novels are less demanding of the reader than a short story,” said Irish author Colin Barrett, stunning the 50-something attendees of “Short and Complete: Stories Behind the Stories,” a short-story writing panel that convened at The 12th Bookwork Literary Festival on March 18, 2019.

“With a novel, you have chapters that you can read on your commute, dipping in an out of the story as you choose,” he explained. “With a short story what you see is all you get.”

In conversation with literary agent Peng Lun, founder of Archipel Press, Barrett and Beijing-born author Shi Yifeng discussed their motivation to write and the audience for short stories at the intimate 8 p.m. session. “You either love [the short story] or hate it,” said Barrett, whose debut story collection Young Skins, set in a small fictional Irish community similar to Barrett’s own hometown in County Mayo, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

Shi, who is a literary magazine editor and the author of award-winning novel Fruits Under the Red Flag and novella No Chen Jinfang Anymore, was even more to the point. “Being a writer is like laying eggs; how to sell the egg is the responsibility of the egg-seller,” he declared. “I just focus on laying the biggest, best, and most beautiful egg I can.”

Still, both writers acknowledged that their creative processes are fraught with anxiety over where they can continue finding material and how their work will be received. “I don’t really plan whether this is going to be a short story, or a novel, or do I fictionalize something or write something autobiographical,” said Barrett, “but work with whatever form works best for a certain narrative and makes me feel the most creative.”

Shi agreed. “Every writer has these worries—what to write next, what happens if you can’t, and can you still call yourself a writer if you can’t?”

Overcoming these anxieties requires the writer to look beyond themselves and at the world they inhabit—an ability Shi argued is ingrained in the Chinese literary tradition. “For Chinese novelists, writing has never been a way for the reader to escape reality, but provide them a way to access society, to record it, and change it,” he said. Thus, “being a writer isn’t about burying yourself among books, but go to work, buy food, argue with people, do whatever you’re supposed to do—don’t isolate yourself from life.”

“Secondly, pay attention to other people: what are their problems, what are their solutions. Have empathy, and you’ll always find something to write about,” Shi added. “The most important technique in writing a novel is creating a character who is alive in your heart—I can see their thoughts and feelings, and recognize this person if I met them on the street. If it’s only a concept, or a symbol, and not a living and breathing person, then I personally can’t write,”

For Barrett, the interplay between fiction and reality is where he finds motivation to continue writing. “I agree that it’s not an escape from reality, at least not in my genre of writing. However, I’m not a politician, and I’m not trying to change society, but just presenting people and situations as honestly as I can.” he explained.

This way, seeing these records published is its own reward. “Young Skins came out five years ago, and I still get to talk about it today. I’m very lucky to be able to do that,” Barrett said.

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