Feeding the soul, encouraging fresh perspectives, and summoning the occasional headscratch in wonder – meet writer and publisher, Tom Conaghan, curator of standout short story collections that elicit all three. His independent press Scratch Books champions the short story in all its glory, with collections that include BBC Radio 4-inspired The Poet and the Echo, and Reverse Engineering, which shines a light on its short stories’ inner workings, as revealed by the authors themselves. Bold and imaginative, Scratch is constantly looking to innovate and subvert what a short story collection can be, to powerful effect.
Carving out some quiet in inner London after being ousted from the house by his cat, we caught up with Conaghan to find out why, how and where he thinks and writes, as well as the tracks he lives and creates by.
Where has your passion for the short story come from and what is it about that medium that you’re so drawn to?
I think the short story can be the highest literary art form. As gossamer and subtle as poetry but with the beating heart of a narrative. I have listened to the New Yorker fiction podcast for many years in absolute wonder at the effects the writers were having, often without noticing any explicit intention on us. It’s the atavistic alchemy of story – a bunch of words crunched up by the left side of the brain, creating a moving emotional response in its right side (to borrow a largely discredited theory of mind).
What’s your process with projects? Where do the ideas come from and what’s involved in bringing them to life?
The ideas come from everywhere. The only thing a good idea has in common with another is they’re so ‘loud’ I can’t really hear anything else for an hour or two. Similarly, there’s no one repeatable way to make them happen. Each involves working with different people in lots of different ways – which is really exciting.
It’s the start of your creative working day. What do you do first?
I was a London Library Emerging Writer last year and I’m running down my membership there. It’s a magnificent place to write but it doesn’t open till 9.30am so I usually sit in a popular cafe franchise on Haymarket for an hour beforehand, where I drink tea and write. I don’t know if the tea helps the writing but it definitely makes it all feel less alien. When I drink coffee I find I just worry at one sentence all morning. I used to sit on a bean bag in our bay window but then we got a cat who thought it was her toilet. A café before the library suddenly became far more appealing. When my membership at the London Library runs out…I hear good things about the Linnean Society.
At what point in your day do you turn to music?
I used to listen to music a lot when I wrote emotive things that I knew so well, they felt almost wordless: David Bowie, Stax Volt, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison. But I found I was too inspired by them, and instead of attending to the life of my story, Van and I were wailing about gypsy souls. Even instrumental music evokes a clumsier atmosphere than the one I might want. My writing practice has changed a lot in the last few years. Now I type on a laptop in as much quiet as I can summon around me. However, I’m listening to music as I write this and wonder if I’ve become overly precious. It’s very companionable writing to music.
How do you listen? Headphones or out loud? Online or old school?
Everyone in our household listens out loud, which is less annoying than you’d imagine: I know a lot more Olivia Rodrigo and Gorillaz than I would otherwise. I’m keen to stay open to new things as I get older and wonder if embracing others’ taste in pop music might be an important discipline. I mostly listen to CDs (hmm, though I see now that’s not really staying open to new things – maybe I’m choosing my battles?).
What one song or album can you rely on to get you creating?
It might be a bit of a cliché but you can’t go wrong with Bryter Later by Nick Drake.
‘Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – Mendelssohn
‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ – Death Cab for Cutie
‘Bryter Later’ – Nick Drake
‘The Last Time I saw Richard’ – Joni Mitchell
‘Travelling Light’ – Tindersticks
‘Fly’ – Nick Drake
‘Dance for You’ – Dirty Projectors
‘Stoned and Starving’ – Parquet Courts
‘Super Sharp Shooter’ – DJ Zinc
‘Daytona 500’ – Ghostface Killah
‘Take California’ – Propellerheads
‘Brown Paper Bag’ – Reprazent
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