A few months ago, I had the chance of hosting the book Always Never, Rarely Sometimes on its blog tour. I loved the varied tales and their assortment of memorable characters and imaginative dialogue. On reaching out to Welsh-Mexican writer Alexander Raphael, I was thrilled when he agreed to do an interview feature for Tomes and Tales.
INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER RAPHAEL
1. From journalism to poetry and short stories, your writing career spans the spectrum of genres and forms. How do you navigate the different styles? Do you have any preferences for a particular form?
I think it all starts with a love of language. I’ve always loved the way different words can set a scene or describe a person, whether that’s in fiction or non-fiction, news or creative. And then it all comes down to audience really. In journalism it’s about being informative, accurate and succinct. Whereas when I write my stories it’s about entertaining and being imaginative. There’s no set deadline, word limit or fact check. Instead, it’s all about ensuring each story has two things: flow and crunch. I’m drawn to writing short stories in particular. It’s a genre that fully allows sharp openings and twist endings and tight dialogue.
2. You have Welsh and Mexican heritage, have grown up in London, and have studied American literature at university. How have these different cultural experiences influenced your writing?
I know, quite the mix. It’s been everything really. I learnt Spanish at a young age and regularly visited Mexico growing up, so always had those influences. And living in London and being only a few hours drive from Wales meant another set too. Having such different backgrounds has meant I’ve always had an inquisitive nature and an interest in the world outside of my daily life. I like to think that comes across in my writing.
But influences come in unusual ways. Growing up, I had plenty of bookshops and libraries near me and more books than you could imagine at home, but the one that ultimately inspired me most was given to me by my friend Jorge in Mexico. I discuss it more in my piece “Before the Embryo”, but it was a book that made me want to write. I wanted people to read my work and have the same response I was having to the stories I’d just read. And it was a book I’d never have found at home.
3. Always Never, Rarely Sometimes is your third book, and second collection of short stories. How do you go about compiling stories for collections? Are these stories written over the years and then published together, or do you write them specifically for the book?
I was a huge fan of anthologies growing up, and reading the best works by the best writers in once place was wonderful. That included ones grouped by genre, era or often just the favourites of a group of editors. I would tend to read them out of order, usually choosing by title. Titles have always been important. They’re the first thing you notice about a story and should intrigue you without giving anything away.
When writing my own collection, I do try and have a theme or an overall concept. I think of short story collections like albums. Often, they reflect where you are at that moment in time, the artwork on the front is a part of the work, and you wonder which stories would be “the singles”. Curiously though, it’s never been as simple as a story being written after the previous one was released. One project often overlaps into another, so I was writing some stories for this latest collection when working on my second book Illusions, Delusions. Two of the stories were written at college and “There, Unthere” was the first thing I wrote after my first book The Summer of Madness. And that was before what I’d even thought about what to release next. I believe that gives you more variety and more flexibility. It means only the strongest stories are included, each one has a distinct tone and style and a wide array of characters are covered.
4. The themes and genres are diverse within the collection. What kind of readership did you envision while creating the book?
I never write with a particular person in mind. In fact, it usually takes me a while to think of myself as a reader. When reading back my own work, I read it first as a writer, then an editor and then later on as a reader. What’s been fascinating, and something I take as a big compliment, is that people’s favourite of the seven stories have been different. There’s never been a pattern of certain group of people liking one story and another group dynamic preferring others. It all comes down to their individual preferences and experiences. Stories like “That Beautiful Girl” and “Lies and Secrets” take place within one scene whereas “The Prankster” and “Lucky/Unlucky” take place over a period of time. That same mix applies within Always Never, Rarely Sometimes. Whether a person prefers romantic or dark, funny or sad, hopeful or cynical, I wanted there to be something for every reader.
5. Your writing is known for its blend of powerful dialogue, humor and imagination, ranging from the mundane to the magical. What influences you to decide between prose and poetry, considering you’re adept at both forms?
I started off writing poetry before really getting into short stories and have written a few poems since. My poetry is so different as it’s the only form I still write by hand and the only one where I’ll start writing without a title in mind. I never begin writing a story unless I have a title and it’s extremely rare that I change it.
With my short stories, people that know me well can recognize little parts of me within the text, whereas in my poetry I tend to write in a more distant style. So whereas in my stories there are characters and motives, in my poetry it tends to focus completely on the beauty of language, inspired by something like a sunset, the changing of the seasons or my response to an artwork.
But like with so many creative forms, there can be overlaps. I had this idea of an old man meeting his romantic match at a cemetery. The idea had flow but not enough crunch. I didn’t really know how to run with it, so I decided to make it into a poem. Rather than being a flat story it became “Death = New Life”, a poem full of vibrant energy.
6. The cover of Always Never, Rarely Sometimes is a collage, which doesn’t reveal anything in itself, except that it’s a collection of different ideas. What’s the story behind the cover? Was it intentional not to have it reveal too much about the book?
My first job was in a library so I know all about the power of a strong title and a striking cover in people’s first impressions. And like with music, the artwork should be part of its identity whilst still being symbolic. With The Summer of Madness, the pink sunset worked. It was a gorgeous skyline reflecting the beauty and joy that can be found in summer life where the days are longer and people are more free spirited.
For Illusions, Delusions one image worked too. The story “After Life” was the first one written and that’s what led to the whole book. I’d written this metaphorical story about four old men playing cards whilst reflecting on their lives and I had written nothing else like it. I knew I had to get into that same mindset and write others. It didn’t happen overnight but I was able to get there. A writer talking to his protagonist, a person looking back over their life like a questionnaire, and a story made up entirely of puns were ideas that were encouraged because I wanted to have that same creative energy in other directions.
Whereas with Always Never, Rarely Sometimes, there was never that pivotal story. As mentioned earlier, they were written at different times and at different points in my life. That’s why my initial idea for the cover was far simpler. It was merely going to be the book’s title in purple lettering with a black background. I didn’t want to reveal anything, I wanted readers to be intrigued enough to find out more. But having a very talented (and very patient) designer who was always pushing for more creativity meant a breakthrough was inevitable. When she sent over some images, I noticed the possibility for a montage and from there we both collaborated as to which image to use for each story. Hope did a great job.
7. The collection has a wide range of characters. Are these traits based on people you know? How do you sketch your characters?
There’s a quote by Horace Walpole. “Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those that think”. It’s a quote I take into my writing. Human beings are so flawed and complicated and that’s why they are so entertaining.
When I write, there’s no fixed way of sketching a protagonist. Sometimes it starts with the character itself, other time it starts with the premise and then the character follows. The main thing is whether they have portrayed enough so that the dialogue helps build the character. Whether you like or agree with the beliefs of the character you’re writing, you have to convey the concept that they think a certain way and their words and actions follow on from that.
And no, I don’t use traits on people I know. The world is so big and full of history that’s what interests me more. That’s why I’ve often included a character reading a newspaper or a magazine. There’s a huge world outside of their own filled with all kinds of things going on.
8. Unlike novels and novellas that are extended forms of one story idea, short story collections require the writer to churn out myriad ideas for each story. How has your experience been writing both your books – switching genres, being innovative and impactful within a limited word count?
I’ve never seen a short story as a word count as such. I’ve always said that writing a story is like driving a car. You can have the keys, be at the wheel and know where you’re going, but it’s your passengers who will dictate the flow and the route of your journey.
When I first envisaged The Summer of Madness, it was only going to be a few pages. But the more I wrote the more I had to write. More things had to be explained and more voices of the supporting characters had to be heard. What helps is that I rarely change the beginning or the ending of a story. Even if you take a few scenic routes, if you know where the story is going, you feel you can trust the characters and plot lines.
As for writing itself, I write stories I would want to read, which makes them more fun to write. I know exactly what I’m looking for and what I need to avoid. Switching genres is one of the best bits. It means you get to use a whole different set of words, characters, styles and storylines.
9. Any favorite short story writers or story collections you would recommend we read?
Roald Dahl was probably my favourite. In fact, “Motive, Murder, Method” is the story I would have submitted to him for his TV show Tales of the Unexpected. His writing was so consistent and so funny. He had such a macabre sense of humour and a dark sense of morality. The good guys (usually) win out and the bad guys tend to have all kinds of twisted punishments. Pretty much all his work is worth reading.
I am a big fan of the original series of The Twilight Zone, so any of the writers featured in there (or on Alfred Hitchcock Presents) such as John Collier, Ray Bradbury and Charles Beaumont. They wrote of such fantastic premises, often filled with imagination and paranoia and foreboding.
Dorothy L Sayers and Dorothy Parker have quite the collection and their work lingers long after you read them. I liked the playfulness that often features in Saki, O Henry and James Thurber’s work. I don’t tend to read collections as such, as I was often introduced to their work though reading them in anthologies or recommended specific stories, so I wouldn’t set one collection as such. And I can’t forget the gothic brilliance of Shirley Jackson.
For more information on Alex Raphael and his works, my book feature on Always Never, Rarely Sometimes can be found here.