Although better known as a novelist and, more recently, young adult author, Ilkley-based writer Martyn Bedford began his creative writing career with short fiction.
A former journalist in regional newspapers, he was employed as a features sub-editor on The Oxford Times in 1993 when one of his short stories made it in to print.
“As it was in the newspaper I was working for, maybe it doesn’t really count,” he laughs. “At the time I saw short stories as a bit of a warm-up exercise for tackling a novel, but as a writer and a reader of short stories, I now see it as a legitimate form in its own right.”
Even after he began writing novels – since 1996 and he has written four for adults and three for young adults, all critically acclaimed – he continued to write short stories in the breaks between books or drafts. “It allowed me to experiment with form, character and subject matter to build up my writing skills,” he says. His first collection of short stories, Letters Home published by Comma Press last month, is an engaging, diverse, thoughtful and thought-provoking read in which he explores aspects of modern society and relationships that resonate in a variety of ways. It covers around 20 years of his career. Some of the stories have been previously published in newspapers, magazines or anthologies, others have been in his bottom drawer, and a few have been written especially for the collection. “I think of short stories like a conversation you might have with someone on a train; you know you will never see that person again but they have left a lasting impression on you.”
These certainly do. If the collection has a unifying theme, it is the notion of home and identity. The title story, although written in 2003, is still incredibly resonant today. It concerns an asylum seeker in Leeds who writes letters home that shield his family from the sad reality of his life which is blighted by hostility and violence.
“At the time I was running a writing workshop for a group of asylum seekers at Beeston Library and was very moved by some of the experiences they shared with me,” says Bedford. “Dismayingly the story seems as pertinent as ever in these post-referendum, pre-Brexit days, and with the refugee crisis far worse than it was 14 years ago.” Another story which stands out and which, like Letters Home, also has a Yorkshire connection, is Withen which examines the legacy of the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the lasting effect on one family. It, too, looks at what home means through one particular character, a journalist, who has left behind his working class roots. It feels very authentic. And here is a slyly comic story about the nature of celebrity, The Beckhams are in Betty’s, inspired by a real-life almost encounter in the famous Ilkley cafe at the time of the 2014 Tour de France.
Short fiction has sometimes been seen as a poor relation to the novel in this country but it’s recently had a bit of a renaissance and Bedford is optimistic about its future. “There are a lot of outlets online and with the smaller presses,” he says. “That is beginning to breathe new life into the short story and I hope it continues.”
Letters Home by Martyn Bedford
published by comma press, £9.99
The quote from Jacob Ross on the book’s front cover says it all, really – this truly is “a luminous collection”. It is a display of creative virtuosity, with Bedford presenting a huge range of diverse voices and scenarios; each story is so different – in subject matter, style, characterisation – from the next. His obvious joy in experimenting with form also comes across. The risks are worth taking: he suceeds every time.
Unsaid, for example, the story of an elderly parent’s death, is told entirely in dialogue and ellipses and has a reverse narrative chronology. Trying something like that can sometimes trip a writer up or at the very least diminish a story’s power, but it is testament to Bedford’s skill that it is one of the most moving in the collection. In Sayer of Sooth, a futuristic riff on truth, lies and ethics, there are sections with no apostrophes to create a subtle comic effect. But it is not just in form where Bedford is trying out new things – some of the plots are engagingly left-field. One of the most intriguing stories is Because of Olsen in which an unemployed actor creates a site-specific performance that teeters alarmingly on the brink between reality and imagination.
Elsewhere Bedford tackles, with great sensitivity and insight, the miners’ strike, sleep disorders, identity, grief and loss. It is a dazzling read that reveals a writer at the very top of his game.