The International Conference on the Short Story in English is a biannual conference where, to quote Robert Olen Butler, ‘the birds and the ornithologists flock together.’ For almost a week, short story authors and academics engage in a series of academic panels, readings, plenary sessions and workshops devoted to the art of the short story. This year, the conference descended upon Lisbon and I was fortunate enough to be able to deliver a paper on my PhD research, my trip to Lisbon fully funded by the brilliant Midlands3Cities, who also generously fund my doctoral studies.
Attending the 2018 event at the end of the first year of my PhD studies has provided a timely opportunity for gaining experience in the delivery of academic papers at what is a major conference in my field. Academics working in the field of the short story and writers of short stories from all over the globe will be in attendance and the five day programme consisted of a series of academic panels, author readings, plenary discussion sessions and workshops. The conference also provided extensive opportunities for networking.
I arrived in Lisbon late on the evening of Monday 25th June and promptly ate and retired to my hotel. I had the following morning to myself and filled it with a flying visit to the city’s beautiful cultural district of Belém. First stop was the world famous Pastéis de Belém. The delicious Pastel de Belém were well worth the trip, not just the tram across town, but the trains and flight from the UK. I even managed to get a glimpse of the production process as I left.
Following that all too brief stop, I walked across Belém, taking in the sites:
Following a quick lunch, grabbed on the go as I navigated the trams and metro to Universidade de Lisboa, I attended the pre-conference writing workshop run by the wonderful Nuala O’Connor, the author of four novels, including the hugely successful Miss Emily. Nuala is also a fantastic short story, one of my favourite contemporary writers in the form. Her collections Nude and To the World of Men, welcome were particularly inspiring when I was making my first tentative steps into writing in the short form. Hearing Nuala speak on what she feels makes a great short story and her practical advice on how to craft quality work was illuminating; also the discussion with my fellow attendees was lively and engaging. Having been friends via social media for some years now, it was fantastic to finally meet Nuala in the real world.
The evening following the workshop, I took a walk through town with one of my fellow workshop attendees. we took in the sites of the old town before finding a local restaurant on a side street, away from the tourist traps, enjoying a great meal and great conversation. I was dues to give my paper the following morning, during the conferences first panel session, so this saved me from overthinking the paper that was fully prepared. Had I been eating alone I am sure I would have returned to my hotel and set about needlessly reworking it.
In preparation for delivery of my paper (titled: ‘Shaping Contemporary Storyness: developing a preclosural methodology for writing contemporary short fiction’) I received extensive support from my supervisors, and Midlands3Cities/University of Leicester training. I delivered the paper as part of a panel titled ‘Composition, Closure, Conceptual Metaphor: Methodological Frameworks.’ The feedback from fellow academics and the short story authors in attendance was extremely positive. I fielded a number of probing questions and, following the panel, and over the course of the week received two invitations to deliver visiting lectures, one at a university in the UK, another from a university in China. Presenting this paper is a key milestone on the road to completing my thesis and has helped improve the impact and awareness of my research amongst both academics and writers of short fiction. The high degree of interest and positive feedback my paper garnered is encouraging and has, since arriving home, proved excellent motivation for diving deeply back into my research.
Over the course of the conference, a large number of the academic panels featured papers with relevance to my own research area. Marta Silvera’s paper, ‘Living a short story: Conceptual Metaphors in the short story ‘Entropy’ by Thomas Pynchon’, spoke clearly to the sentence level lexical aspect of my own closural analysis work; on Thursday, Luke Connelly’s paper ‘Beyond the short Story:A Unified Prose Fiction Model’ provided me with insight into the relations between the short story and the novel, particular as regards temporality and the use of preclosure in the novel form; most notably, on Friday, Leah McCormack’s ‘Flash Fiction: A Study in Temporality’ has provided another thread of analysis for my preclosural study of the British short story – the methodology of temporal analysis she models in this paper will have direct impact on my work moving forward. I spoke with each of these academics following their panels and the resultant discussions provided me with a greater insight into my own research, as well as avenues for elaborating and developing my work in hopefully fruitful directions. I also took copious notes while attending those papers with relevance to my own, however tangential, and these ideas have already begun to interact with my own research.
The final panel of the first day, Short Story Sequences, proved particularly engaging for me as a reader. On a pruely personal level, as a big fan of Han Kang’s writing, I really enjoyed hearing Kerry Myler present on ‘Han Kang’s translated works and the future of the short form,’ while Robert Luscher’s paper, ‘Yearning/Learning to be Human: The Embedded Stories in Robert Olen Butler’s Mr Spacemean’, was intriguing enough to drive me to order a copy of the novel online at the end of the session. This excellent first day of the conference proper was topped of with a buzzing wine reception in the grounds of the historic Monastery of São Vicente de Fora.
On the second day of the conference, I attended the opening panel on Challenging Genre Boundaries, with Luke Connolly’s and Dominique Hecq’s papers proving particularly engaging. Then, as the following plenary was of little relevance to my research, I used that time and the lunch break to slip back to Belém and pay a visit to the Museu Colecção Berardo. There I spent a blissful couple of hours walking through the extensive collection of modern art. I was surprised to find that a temporary exhibition of short stories and narrative photography was also present in the space: Photo-Scripts, by João Miguel Barros. This collection of fourteen short-short stories and attendent black and white photography was compelling and, at times, deeply moving.This exhibition proved inspiring and the writing and imagery of the attendant art book will, I am sure, fuel my creativity in the coming weeks, perhaps providing a spark from which my own writing might leap. I at least hope to post at greater length on this work. For now, here are a collection of images. snapped while walking the beautiful spaces of the gallery, that have already generated a fictive response. The images of works by Kline, Peine and Almeida have already provided inspiration for a short story set in Lisbon, one I have been writing since my return.
I returned to the conference in time for the afternoon panel on Violence and Trauma in Short Fiction, a compelling series of papers, with Ashma Shamail’s paper, ‘Re-looking at History: Narrating Partition Pains in Saadat Manto’s Short Fiction’, introdcuing me to an important writer of stories of whom I was previously unaware. To round up Thursday, I met up with a friend and fellow M3C student who was in Lisbon accessing archives their. We shared a meal and spent a great evening walking and talking across the city, bumping into Fernando Pessoa on the way.
I spent the whole of Friday immersed in the panels and readings, attending a panel of papers on philosophy and time in the short story. As mentioned above, Leah MacCormack’s paper was particularly relevent to my work (and I am currently plowing through her suggested reading), and Bernardo Palmeirim’s paper, ‘Keeping it Real: From Death in George Saunders to Short Story Theory in Charles E. May, ticked all my boxes, being about my favourite Saunders short story, Tenth of December, and the link between the short form and death, something which is fast becoming a sidebar of my research. I attended the morning reading featuring Nuala O’Connor, Rebekah Clarkson and Afonso Cruz. I was thrilled to find Nuala was reading ‘Storks’, a beautifully crafted tale, one of my favourites of hers and she read it beautifully. The other authors were new to me but their readings proved a fine introduction to their work. I would very much like to read more of Afonso Cruz’s work, but sadly cannot find any in English translation.
The post-lunch panel, ‘Writers on their Work’, was a fascinating discussion in places and introduced me to a number of authors I was prreviously unfamiliar with. I was pleased to hear Helia Correia and Rui Zink speak so candidly about the writing process. Their descriptions of following the key image or opening event of the story to see where it goes really resonated with my own process. It was also wonderful to hear Mary Morrisey read her essay on the sometimes bitter realites of the writing life; I really need to track down and savour that piece again. The final speaker, Xu Xi was another who spoke plainly and honestly about her writing process. Her descriptions of building stories from things she glimpses while out walking, or from lines of conversation, poetry or song, heard or read, again resonated deeply with me. So much so I ordered a copy of her latest collection at the end of the panel discussion. I ended the day by attending the readings by Katherine Vaz, Helia Correia and Carmelinda Scian, then heading into town for dinner with a number of my fellow delegates, before attending a late night reading at Livraria Ferin, a beautiful bookshop in the heart of the city, and topping of the night with a final glass of wine in the Cafe a Brasileira, a bar once frequented by Fernando Pessoa (the statue of Pessoa I passed on my walk the previous night is right outside).
The final day passed in a blur. I attended the final panel on ‘The Norwegian Short Story: Past and Present.’ As a massive fan of Scandinavian literature, and Norwegian fiction particularly, this was easily my favourite panel of the week from a purely readerly (rather than scholarly) perspective. Hearing Laila Stein read her wonderful story ‘Matches’ was a high point of the conference for me: such a beautiful little story, a slight moment expanded through delicate shaping of sentence and story, a moment that becomes weighted with expectation and that bears an ending both surprising and inevitable. It was also great to have time to speak with Jakob Lothe and Mikkel Bigge following the panel. Since comeing home, I have saught out the edition of McSweeny’s featuring a collection of Norwegian short stories co-edited by Mikkel Bugge, and the Slaves of Love, a collection of Norwegian fiction in English translation that has been long out of print. That’s my summer reading for pleasure sorted. At lunch, I took a quick jaunt into Baix-Chado to take in the book market, then raced back to the conference for the afternoon session. A second high point of the day was hearing Paul McVeigh read in the afternoon. His story was a powerful and compelling piece and afterwards he spoke with such frankness about his writing process in particular and the short story in general.
Afterthat there was just time to dash back to the hotel to change for the conference dinner, which itself passed in a blur of conversation with lots of wonderful people.In no time at all it seemed all over and the following morning arrived and I was on my way to the airport. I did have the great pleasure of travelling on the Metro to Lisbon airport with Nuala O’Connor, whose flight was leaving just prior to my own. Always nice to be able to grab a chat with a friend over coffee in the otherwise anonymous space of an airport.
All in all, a thrilling, intellectually engaging andpleasurable five days in Lisbon. Can’t wait for Cork 2020 and the 16th International Conference on the Short Story in English.