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Cockfosters by Helen Simpson
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Cockfosters by Helen Simpson
Paperback $16.00
Sep 04, 2018 | ISBN 9780525563624

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  • Sep 04, 2018 | ISBN 9780525563624

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“Memorable characters, comic timing, originality, economy and poignancy. . . . The reader thanks Simpson’s eye and ear for such generosity.” —The New York Times Book Review

“England’s best living short-story writer.” —The Boston Globe

“Powerful. . . . The warmth and humour of Simpson’s writing is coupled with a sharp-eyed clarity and a steady gift for the descriptive detail.” —Financial Times
“Tenderly measured, and entirely human. It’s this tightrope balance between our outer lives and inner expanses that continues to make her writing sing.” —The Guardian

“Wonderful. . . . A vital (and pleasurable) voice. . . . Her understated yet insightful conjuring of characters’ pains and fears strikes to the icy core of universal truths.” —The Independent on Sunday

“Elegant fable-like pieces. . . . Truthful, funny and sharp. . . . Gently ground-breaking.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“Reading Simpson’s stories makes you feel less alone in the world.” —Literary Review

“Remarkable. . . . Joy and its flipside, pain, are frequently glimpsed together . . . Simpson has a fine ear for the cadence of everyday speech and for the truths that may lie behind the most mundane of expressions.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“Witty, hilarious and deeply discomfiting.” —The Spectator

“Uplifting and sensitive tales. . . . Examines the preoccupations of middle-age—jobs, ageing, friendship—with warmth, wit and breathtaking artistry.” —Daily Mail

“Witty, incandescent. . . . Invigorating and inspiring.” —New York Journal of Books

“Far-reaching and timeless, addressing matters of loyalty and mortality that are universal and deeply human. Simpson’s stories pack a quiet emotional power that extends beyond their pages.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Universal insights arise out of the ordinary. . . . With wit and keen perception, [Simpson] tackles the cultural assumptions, versus true experience, of middle age in everyday situations.” —Booklist

Author Q&A

Q: You have written six collections of short stories but no novels. Why?
A: I have always found the short story form to be flexible and satisfyingly anti-boredom (from the point of view of both writer and reader). It’s quick and light and adrenalised; like a London black cab, it can turn on a sixpence. It means I can do something new every time.

Sometimes you get novels so full of padding you want to say,”C’mon, c’mon, move it.” Usually at the end of a novel I think, I liked that, I enjoyed that, but I wish it had been shorter. Maybe the short story writer lacks the novelist’s courage to be boring. Writing stories rather than novels, though, the obvious loss is that you don’t hold your reader over hours and hours of real time. Reading a novel is a longer, more involving experience. Not necessarily better, though. Often far less memorable. I keep talking to myself about this…

Q: A short story simply hasn’t got the breadth of a novel; do you ever find the form limiting?
A: I think a good short story can be like a core sample. Think how much a geologist can learn from a core sample—it’s the same!  If it’s a good one, you’ve got absolutely everything you need to know about the history and geography and inhabitants and social conditions of the area, in wonderfully concise form. 

Q: How autobiographical are the characters or story lines in your work?  Quite often you write them in the first person? 
A: If you write a story in the first person and it appears to be a thinly disguised confessional or memoir many readers will assume that it’s ‘really’ you. In one of my earlier first-person stories there is a detailed portrait of the narrator’s grandfather unravelling through Alzheimer’s in his final decade.  When I rang in with proof corrections to the sympathetic well-read editor of the magazine where it was to be published, he asked me whether I had been very close to my grandfather. But both my grandfathers were dead before I was old enough to remember them, and I’ve never known anybody with Alzheimer’s.  (That’s not to say I made it all up out of thin air, though.) The eleven stories in “Cockfosters” include four in the first person; two of these—“Torremolinos” and “Cheapside”—are told by men, and I would be surprised if any reader coming to them unattributed would guess they were written by a woman. The other two, “Kythera” and “Moscow”, are told by women, but those women are not “me” either. I was writing from imagination.

Q: Many of your stories involve people living meaningful but ordinary lives.  Do you think there’s something important or even profound that is revealed about humanity through a closer look at the everyday? 
A: Leading on from your last question, in a way I imagine stories are less likely to be autobiographical than novels as, by their very nature, they are likely to draw more heavily on generic experience and less on the idiosyncrasies of individual characters. (More than a very little character exploration in a short story and you’re edging towards a grotesque.) The stories I’ve been interested in writing recently have been those where the experience is common or typical—as in a song; that way you can cut down on names and status details, particularly if the story is very short.

As to whether the ‘ordinary’ life is as much worth reading about as the exceptional, best turn to the last line of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Q: Which story in the book are you most proud of or perhaps was the most challenging to write?
A: “Berlin.” I wanted to write a music-based four-part story that went round and round as well as up and down, like music and long marriages; it also had to deal with the history of its setting, the city of Berlin, and with themes of betrayal and atonement. At 14,000 words it’s the longest story I’ve ever written. It’s something new I’d not done before and, yes, I am pleased with it.. 

Q: Is there a particular short story writer that inspires you? 
A: Alice Munro. Her handling of time and fictional structures is breathtaking in stories which show how we change (and continue to change) until the day we die. Terrible things can and do happen; life is not about kindness but justice; everything has to be paid for: the air is Euripidean. Her stories are hard and deep and surprising; also, often, funny. 

Q: Can you describe one of your favourite short stories?
A: In Chekhov’s “Oysters”, a man is begging—incompetently—on a Moscow street corner with his famished eight-year-old son at his side. Only three or four lines are given to why they are begging. A novelist would need to describe when and where and how this is happening, but Chekhov is governed by no such gossip imperative. More than half this story is spent, well away from cause and effect, on the child-narrator’s hunger-induced surreal imaginings. (Look out for the monster toothy frogs.)  It’s piercingly sad and outlandishly funny. No conclusion is reached, the story ends in the air, yet—nothing more needs to be said.

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