The Book of Sheffield: Interview with Catherine Taylor
A selection of fictional short stories from some of the city’s most celebrated writers, The Book of Sheffield was launched at Off the Shelf Festival last month. Prior to the event Exposed’s Rebecca Finlay spoke to Catherine Taylor, who was tasked with editing a collection of work that delves into the complex, multi-faceted identity of her hometown.
It’s interesting how you can delve into Sheffield’s multi-layeredness, because it’s also very much a city of protest and resistance.
How was the idea of the book originally conceived?
Comma Press is based in Manchester and it deals only with short fiction. It’s been running this city series, I believe, for over a decade now. They’ve gone all over the world with short stories from places like Tokyo, Gaza and others closer to home. Last year they put out the Book of Birmingham, and they’ve also done ones for Leeds and Newcastle.
I grew up in Sheffield and I’m a critic, writer and an editor. I’ve written a few articles about the city that have been published in the Guardian and the Time Literary Supplement. These were kind of forming the basis of a memoir that I’m writing about the city called The Stirrings. While I was working on that I was thinking about why Comma hadn’t done one on Sheffield yet. I knew the press, having written about their books in the past, so I sort of nagged them!
The remit from Comma I was given was very loose: any genre, from Sheffield’s past, present or future, or even an imagined past, present or future. This meant that there was a huge amount of scope for all the writers.
How did you go about choosing the contributors?
Some of them I knew already just because I’ve worked in the publishing world for a long time. As it was a collaboration with Comma, we just went through a list of people and threw around some ideas. There were other people we would have loved to contribute, but they couldn’t because the timing was quite limited. We only had a brief window in terms of commissioning and putting the book out by the time we’d agreed it was going to happen.
What sort of themes and ideas are explored in the book?
With Margaret Drabble, for example, we’d already found an existing story that would have worked well. But she said that she actually wanted to write a new story. Hers is very interesting because it touches on the #MeToo movement. She’s writing it from the perspective of someone who was an actress in the seventies, and there was an incident at the Crucible theatre that she looks back on and thinks whether it was a #MeToo moment. It sets something that’s very current in a different context. Gregory writes about migrancy and alludes to the refugee crisis. Naomi writes about being in a band and breaking up, but she’s written it retrospectively so it begins with the split and ends with the beginning. Carl has written a story set in a factory during the 80s about a pair of petty thieves.
What do you it is about Sheffield that makes it a special setting for storytelling?
I think because it’s a very urban city that is surrounded by this extraordinary countryside. I also see it as a city of two halves. I grew up in middle-class Sheffield in Broomhill, but I was always aware that there was another side to the city with all the high-rise brutalist estates. It was a really divided place in that sense. It’s interesting how you can delve into Sheffield’s multi-layeredness, because it’s also very much a city of protest and resistance. Not just drawing on the more recent save the trees campaigns but also the miners’ strike. There’s just a huge amount of stuff going on here.
I think it’s also a place with lots of history that you can really tap into. Désirée Reynolds has written a fascinating story about an African child that came to Sheffield in the 1900s with a troop of performers. The grave of the child can actually be found in the General Cemetery. It is based on a true story, but it’s just so unknown.
What is so appealing about having multiple writers contributing to the book?
I think because it really shows breadth. If you just write one story, it’s only going to be from one person’s perspective. Ten different writers provide ten different lookout points, looking down onto this city and expressing what it means to them. I think Comma thought a collection of short stories would represent all the different facets that make up a city today. I believe that you can’t really express that as well with factual writing or journalistic pieces – it has to come from the imagination. I think that’s what makes it relevant, not just to people living in Sheffield, but also to people who just want to read a really good story.
The Book of Sheffield is out now at commapress.co.uk