Being Dad is an upcoming anthology of short fiction about modern fatherhood by writers that include Toby Litt, Nikesh Shukla, Nicholas Royle, Dan Rhodes and Courttia Newland. Due out next year the anthology’s Editor, Dan Coxon, has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund its publication.
Dan says: ‘Being Dad started as a project when I began meeting writers within the short story community. I came to realise that many of us are fathers, but that fatherhood is something we don’t talk about very often. I’d read many stories about mothers, and motherhood, and the bonds between child and mother…but where were the fathers in this equation?’
I loved the humour in your story, but there’s pathos too. Did you deliberately set out to write about a divorcee and part-time dad, or did he emerge without you planning it?
I had originally written this as a poem, but it hadn’t worked in that format. I had stopped at a Little Chef a few years back, mainly as I have a strange attraction to them. Whether it’s the horror of the Daily Mail for 20p or the gap between how the food looks to what arrives. Also the people there are always interesting to a writer as it’s a transitional space, where anyone can rub shoulders. Anyway, that day I noticed a couple whose body language (folded arms, over-emphasised hand gestures) and the presence of two well suited men with paperwork suggested something more unusual. That started it off really.
There is a rich line of pathos in the English motorway system, whether it’s Alan Partridge at the Travelodge, or the Ted Hughes poem In the M5 restaurant. As a kid, we spent two weeks each summer on a caravan holiday, which I guess had given me a lifelong interest in the subject! I do think there is something more about the motorway, the way that it cuts through ancient landscape with an odd mix of bombast and kitsch. There is an inherent sadness in that – and I think children of divorced parents being dropped off and picked up in these non-places is one of the many unusual features of this system that the road planners could never have envisioned.
There’s a couple of observations in your story I found interesting, one about ‘model fathers’ and the other where your character castigates himself for not displaying more alpha male qualities. In terms of modern fathering, it feels like there’s an inherent tension between those two ‘ideals’. Is that what you intended?
I guess I am more interested in a tension between the seeming and the being. I am interested in cultural codes of masculinity and how men are somewhere between the myth and reality. As a kid I can remember my sisters telling me that as the only boy, the family name was on my then small shoulders. At the time it felt like a great weight being put on me, as if there were expectations I was only beginning to understand. I remember the emergence of ‘the New Man’ in the 90s and how that was a bit of a joke at the time, something like the metrosexual of the last decade. Labels are always inherently funny, but again it had serious intent. The alpha male is perhaps the most complex identity as it suggests a weird mix of strength, aggression and charisma. Redmond O’Hanlon’s book Trawler, alluded to in the story, has stayed in my mind over the years as it takes a really interesting look at what the alpha male is, whether it’s an uxorious captain of a trawler or one of the leading scientists at an Oxbridge college. In terms of writing, that complexity between character and myth is endless and adds to the pathos. Who is more alpha, the speaker or Doug the dentist? How visible is the fragility of these men? What is the gap between how they project themselves and their hidden insecurities?
I guess a man like the one in Breakfast by the Motorway is in a bad place trying to work out who he is, and all around him, like the business people in the advert, he doesn’t know where he fits, where the seeming to be ends and the being begins. I remember when my daughter was born I felt this strange disappointment that I didn’t feel like a father immediately, as if somehow you suddenly change, which is ridiculous now in hindsight, but in such an emotionally raw period of life these things are pronounced. I knew it was an idea to resist, but it’s hard when you have all these photos in free pregnancy envelopes etc. So the character in the story can label himself a divorcee and part-time Dad, but what does that label mean? Has he failed somehow as society might suggest by the particular semantic field associated with divorce such as break up etc?
You write poetry as well as short stories – do you have a preference for one over the other? And when you sit down to write do you decide which form it will be in, or do they tend to decide themselves?
I enjoy writing in both forms; ideas come to me and then they tend to either work or not work as a poem or short story. It’s a case of finding the right pair of shoes for it to walk off in.
That said, I have only recently begun to write short fiction with an eye to publication. I have been working creatively with poetry over the last fifteen years and it wasn’t until I started Lighthouse with others that I began to appreciate new ways of looking at the form. I also think something exciting is happening with short fiction, there seems to be a community growing, thanks to social media and the like, as well as many more prizes and journals springing up. It echoes the poetry world in that respect, with much more collaboration happening.
I would stick my neck out a little here and say that there is a real start up ethic happening in literature that is similar to punk in the late 70s. People are finding new ways to publish in print and to communicate and there is a real range of quality small and independent presses that are at the cutting edge.
You also work in adult education. As well as writing, editing and being a dad, how do you fit it all in?
Recently my family went off to Greece to visit family, leaving me behind. Apart from missing them, I also found it hard to feel as motivated as when they are here. I had realised since the birth of my daughter that I was more productive, and that the Larkin attributed thing of the pushchair in the hall was really not true in my experience. There’s no better memento mori than a child to remind you to get on with your work. Financially it can be a bit of a nightmare and there is juggling to be mastered, but that’s life; it wouldn’t be fun without a few challenges.
Did you write this story specifically for the anthology, in response to the theme, or was it already written when the call-out came?
So it was this short-ish poem about 20 lines or so, and it was so nearly there. I had workshopped it, got good feedback, and then nothing. It still wouldn’t work. When Dan’s call came I wanted to work fast – I find that if I think too much the first draft becomes cluttered, so I like to just free write and not pause with the first draft. I realised that I wanted to say more with Breakfast by the Motorway and this was an opportunity to explore the voice. It’s funny sometimes, it feels as if you have given these voices life and they will keep whispering to you from the sidelines. I don’t mean in a supernatural way, or even a sense of magic, but I think there is a duty to the character to let them say as much as they want.