‘I find it very difficult to distinguish between life and fiction’
It is a very exciting moment when you realise that the opportunity has come to read the innermost thoughts of an author whose work you so admire, perfectly nestled amongst the finest examples of their writing.
‘Let Me Tell You’ is a collection of forty of Shirley Jackson’s short stories (many of which are previously unpublished or uncollected – one, the title of this collection, is actually unfinished! It will make you scream as its ending leaves you dangling on the Everest of all cliff hangers), and Shirley Jackson’s lectures about writing, and essays and reviews.
Shirley Jackson explains candidly about the difficulty of her work-life balance: ‘I am a writer who, due to a series of innocent and ignorant faults of judgement, finds herself with a family of four children and a husband, an eighteen-room house and no help, two Great Danes and four cats, and – if he has survived this long – a hamster. There may also be a goldfish somewhere.’ Although living in such a colourful and lively house must have provided a deep pool of sources from which to pluck a story. One might assume, for instance, her short story: ‘Questions I Wish I’d Never Asked’ (‘“Why did you need a frying pan to wash the car?” “For the soap” [my son] said, sighing. “I suppose,” I said carefully, “it was the omlet pan?” “We figured you didn’t use that one as much as the others”’) was written during one of the moments of silence she mentions in one of her Lectures on the Craft of Writing: ‘If you’re a writer, the only good thing about adolescent children is that they’re so easily offended. You can drive one of them out of the room with any kind of simple word or phrase […] They go storming upstairs and don’t come down again until dinner, which usually gives me plenty of time in which to write a short story.’ Happily, this good humour is prevalent throughout her stories too.
We can even see the development of Jackson’s writing style, as an entire section of the paperback is dedicated to her early short stories, primarily concerned with life in post-war America. Some of the stories were published in magazines like The New Yorker and Good Housekeeping; some were found scattered around her desk and about the house (the Afterword is penned by her children who recall ‘coming home from school and finding our mother typing away upstairs or at a folding table in the dining room, or sitting on her kitchen stool while baking brownies’). Often their father, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, would offer his suggestions for her stories and novels.
You may be forgiven for racing to the end to the enticingly titled ‘How I Write’ lecture, but then you’d miss her thoughts on her novel The Sundial, ‘Nothing I have written has ever given me so much pleasure.’ And so it zooms to the top of my To Be Read stash.
I thoroughly enjoyed spending a good week reading this wonderful collection. You would not want to rush this gem of a book, let me tell you.
Let Me Tell You was published by Penguin Modern Classics in September 2016, £9.99.
My copy of ‘Let Me Tell You’ was kindly sent to me (on my request) by the publisher to review.
May I suggest something to read for Halloween tomorrow? ‘We Have Always Lived In The Castle’ is Shirley Jackson’s most ghostly novel… and an absolute favourite of mine!