As someone whose short stories always end up somewhat on the dark side, it’s great to read writers who can craft a story with nuance and depth that still has a hopeful feeling overall. I featured Deborah Jenkins’ wonderful novel Braver last year (which has deservedly gone on to get all sorts of fabulous attention) which did something similar – showed us the difficulties that the differences between us can create, but how they can also be overcome by human connection. In her short story collection, Winter Lights, she similarly draws on a whole host of characters from all walks of life – a homeless cellist, an older woman in her detached mansion and a stressed young carer. In all of her stories, she uses a deft hand to create truly human characters who have real sense of depth and history.
What’s very clever here is that she centres them all around a particular location, at a particular time. Each story very much stands alone, and they are all very different, but united by these common threads. At the end of the collection, we see that the characters she has created are even more closely connected than we might have suspected. She manages to create a glow of Christmas-light positivity and hope without ever being twee or glib. A wonderful read.
I wanted to find out how she chose her location, and why winter was the time of year she chose to set her stories in. Read on to find out more.
One thing I loved about your collection was the array of different characters. You have an old lady in a mansion, a young man annoyed with his Dad for lack of ambition and a homeless man with a cello, to name but a few. Where did all of these disparate characters come from and how did you make them so real?
Ah thank you. It’s funny – I’ve been asked that question several times about my first book, and if I’m honest I don’t really know the answer. Possibly one reason is because I’m curious, a question-asker. Most people like to talk about themselves, and I don’t particularly, so that makes it easy. And I suppose when you’ve been doing that for years, you build up an understanding of what people are like, what makes them tick and of their basic needs and motivations. Another thing, both a weakness and a strength, is that I tend to over-empathise and dwell on something someone’s told me afterwards, agonising over what it must be like, how it made them feel. I read a lot too which is key, I think. None of my friends are homeless, for example, but I’ve read people’s stories online and in the Big Issue. And somehow, they stay with me.
The other thing that’s great is how the wintery theme unites all the characters. I’m a sucker for Christmas, so it was lovely to have that sense of anticipation throughout. Why did you decide to set your stories at this time of year?
Well, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Christmas. I enjoy the time of year, for faith reasons and it’s also such a great opportunity to bring people together, see family, unite around a meal or special event. The older I get, the more I love the traditions I was brought up with – carol singing, making special food, decorating the house, the choosing and giving of presents. For me, these symbolise the things that matter most in life and lighten the darkest time of year. But the festive season can also be stressful and sad. When life is hard and we’re experiencing challenge and loss, it can feel worse when everyone else seems to be having fun. It’s at times like this that a small kindness/a smile from a stranger/a chance meeting, can bring a speck of light and hope. These are the things I’ve written about in Winter Lights. I aways seem to come back to the themes of friendship and community in my books, and they are especially poignant, I think, at Christmas.
It was very clever the way you wove so many different stories that are centred on the same location and then that you bring together at the end. How did you sort out the way all of these characters connected and why did you want to organise the collection in this way?
Well, initially, I didn’t plan to do that, but a few characters were beginning to pop up in subsequent stories, almost without asking. I thought I’d better take them out but then it occurred to me that I could continue doing this and then bring them together near the end. I liked the idea, but it was tricky. I’m not really a spreadsheet person but I kept a notebook and outlined each character so I could link them up later (by outlining I mean ‘Duncan – single – works for the council’). Then some of those ideas didn’t quite work so I had to tweak them. It was challenging but I knew it would strengthen the community/friendship themes if I could pull it off. With the help of my lovely editor, Sarah Shaw, I think it all came together well in the end and I’m pleased with the results.
What was your route to publication?
Well, it was a long-term campaign! With two rejected novels, I self-published a novella in 2014 to hopefully garner good reviews with which to woo publishers. I also started a blog. And I took every writing opportunity I could find, initially using my teaching experience. I wrote textbooks for Macmillan, pieces for the Times Educational Supplement and short stories/inspirational articles. I finished my debut, Braver, during the first lockdown and eventually it was accepted by Fairlight Books, going on (incredibly) to be shortlisted for the Writers’ Guild Best First Novel Award and the Society of Authors’ ADCI Literary Prize. When I mooted the idea of a book of festive short stories, Fairlight asked for some samples, liked them, and went on to accept the whole collection.
What writing advice would you give to others?
Read a lot.
Watch people and imagine what it’s like to live their lives. I do this on long car journeys (when not driving, obviously).
Be curious about everyone and everything.
Seize every writing opportunity that comes your way, however humble, and make it the best it can be even if time-consuming. These pieces are your portfolio and potentially great adverts for what you can do.
Never give up.
Deborah Jenkins is a freelance writer and teacher. She is the author of The Evenness of Things, (2014) and Braver (2022). She writes a blog at stillwonderinghere.net
Winter Lights, a book of short stories for the festive season, is published on 9th November 2023 and can be pre-ordered from a local bookshop, Waterstones, Amazon or elsewhere online.