Paying Attention:
A Conversation with David Hayden
David Hayden is an Irish writer, born in Dublin, now living and working in Norwich. He’s best known for his disorientating short stories which have appeared in Granta, A Public Space, and A Stinging Fly, as well as his debut collection, Darker With the Lights On.

We sat down for a chat about Chekhov, writing real places, and the ubiquity of storytelling.

Interview by Nathan Sharp
How did you arrive at the short story as your chosen form?

I suppose there’s two answers to that. One is that, as a reader, I’ve always liked short stories. When I started to read seriously as a mid-teen, a lot of the things that seemed to be close to hand were short stories. I’d read Edgar Allen Poe, and then I started to read Kafka, particularly ‘Metamorphosis,’ ‘In the Penal Colony,’ and the ‘Great Wall of China.’ They had a huge impact on me. Also Dubliners, and a collection of short stories by Virginia Woolf called A Haunted House. Coming across those gave me a sense of the power, and range, and possibility of the short story.

The other aspect is the storytelling tradition which is part of my Irish heritage. My mum especially would tell me stories about growing up in the country in west Cork, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I’ve always been compelled by people who can just shape a story on their feet. And stories are ubiquitous, you can tap into them everywhere. So, someone says, ‘How was your day today?’, and you say, ‘Well this funny thing happened to me,’ and you start to tell the story. With anybody, regardless of what they’ve read, there’ll be some shaping of that story, not just in the story that they tell, but how they tell it. And that’s fascinating.
I have to admit, I’m an eavesdropper, and one of the things I’ve missed about the pandemic era is being able to sit there and listen to little pieces of what people are saying, and how they’re saying it. Some of that is really difficult to get across in writing, things like diction and emphasis. You can’t do musical notation of a conversation. I don’t really like the idea that there is a form called the short story, because when you read widely across it, and you also include the oral tradition in your own life – stories that you hear in the pub or the café or whatever – then you see that things are not always shaped in that conventional way.

People also talk about the ‘classic’ short story, and the Chekhovian short story, but when you actually go back to Chekhov, they aren’t as Chekhovian as you think they are. He’s got certain aesthetic interests which he laid out very clearly in his own writing, but they are enormously original every time. They are not cut from a pattern book. He’s taking the material and working with it, with enormous insight, clarity, and just a general literary ability. And then after the event, as a bit of a second order construct, you could talk about it as the Chekhovian short story, but it doesn’t really help you as a writer, to say, ‘Well, these are the things that one needs to do.’
Because the thing you’d need to do is be Chekhov...

Well, in your own way, in your own life, in the limitations of your own talent. And you need to be able to inhabit what you see, and hear, and think, and what you overhear, and what you mishear, and to shape them in ways that work for you as a writer, whether you’re thinking about a specific audience or no audience at all. And you can do that in an almost limitless number of ways. I don’t much like the expression ‘flash fiction’, but some stories can be incredibly short. Lydia Davis, for instance: one of her stories might take up very little space, but as with many short stories, though they might be brief, they’re incredibly deep. So, there’s an odd temporal distortion that happens there. You read a Lydia Davis story, and it’s taken you 20 seconds to read it, but it completely occupies your mind for the entire rest of the day.
When you’re putting together a collection of short stories, are you writing with a theme in mind, or are you going through the stories you already have and choosing your favourites?
I’ve written another book of stories called Six Cities, which is not published yet, and they are all stories that are explicitly set in individual cities. I started out writing them and then I had an idea for how they might fit together thematically. The thematic space for the whole book suggested itself, then I wrote stories into that.
And are they real cities?
Yeah, it’s not like a Calvino thing with imagined cities. I love Calvino, but it’s cities that I’ve lived in. There’s a story set in Dublin, and there are a couple of stories set in London, also Chicago where I lived briefly. A story set in Sydney, a couple of stories set in Norwich where I live now. There is a risk of writing about a specific place, that you just point people towards their own rag bag of references. You set a story in Paris, and you make a couple of Parisian type gestures, and before you know it, you’re in a third-rate version of a Wes Anderson film. And so, what I try and do is to make you feel very much that you’re in that place, but described through specificities, not just by saying, ‘He was walking down Charing Cross Road’!

When I’m writing a story, I’m there, so I’m describing what I see. The story space that I’m in is incredibly rich, and I could describe all sorts of things, but I want to describe enough so that the reader can inhabit it. Some of the descriptions do have further meanings, but it’s not necessary for you to know what those might be, although they’re there if you want to think about them. It’s about paying attention. Pay attention if you want to write, perhaps before you do anything else.
David Hayden is the author of the short story collection, Darker With the Lights On, published in 2017. He has also written two forthcoming story collections: Six Cities, discussed above, and the tentatively titled Unstories, as well as a novel.
David wears: Kennedy Overshirt, Kennedy Trouser and Ribbed Crew
Shop new season arrivals