TSR: Who are you and where did the idea for Underwood come from?
ND: My name is Nathan Dunne.I live in London. I studied art history at Cambridge University and completed a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. My non-fiction book Tarkovsky (Black Dog Publishing), about the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, came out in 2008. About a year ago I was stranded in Bangkok airport on a flight-delay and I saw a man carrying a portable gramophone. He had a bag full of old records and would dust each one off meticulously before playing it. On seeing this I was reminded of what we've lost in the digital age - a love for the object. Rather than something that you hold in your hands, packaging has been reduced to just another image. There's nothing physical left.
I've always loved short stories and avidly listen to writers reading their work on podcasts. But somehow podcasts always leave me cold. So I had the idea of writers reading short stories onto records as a way of preserving them, as a way of creating a different way to experience stories and remember them. Records are all about the experience: you've got to lay them down on the turntable, drop the needle and then change the side when it’s done. This attention to detail is what I'd love to see happen to the short story. Sitting around in a group and listening to the perfect crisp-crackle of a record simply doesn't compare to a CD or mp3.
TSR: Why short stories? What, to you, makes a great short story?
ND: Short stories create an entirely different world to a novel or novella. They offer up unique opportunities for narrative and constrain character development within a limited setting or wordcount. This is extremely exciting because it is so hard to get right. However, when the writer does succeed in creating a powerful story the experience brings a tide of pleasure so rarely felt. Short stories are also perfect for the medium of vinyl. When read aloud they are short enough to fit on a single side of a record and having a physical object creates a sense of occasion when listening rather than an audiobook simply popping up amid the shuffle on your iPod. The point of a record is that it is a combination of unique sound and beautiful packaging. It makes you slow down, sit back and pay attention to the words. Writers deserve that and the short story as a form deserves that. For me a great short story is one that reveals how surreal and absurd everyday life can be.
TSR: In this age of iPods and digital everything vinyl records are beautiful but are you really expecting people to be able to play them? Is it easy to get them made these days?
ND: While the world is digital there are more records being produced now than ever before. Major record companies have begun to re-release classic albums on vinyl and new bands are increasingly producing vinyl records in addition to CDs. If you don't believe me go into any HMV and look at the large vinyl section on offer. This is only a recent development which has grown up in the last couple of years. The reason for this, as I understand it, is that with the ease of downloading people are hungry to broaden the way music relates to their lives. In the past bands were always associated with their album artwork and much of that identity has been weakened with digital. Although you may be able to download an image of an album cover the experience of leafing through liner notes and squinting at blurry photographs just isn't the same without the physical object. It is very easy to get records made today. In the UK more than half a dozen production plants produce records while in Europe there are many more.
TSR: You are planning 2 records a year, will you be open to submissions?
ND: Yes we are open to submissions. We are looking to pair writers up together with one on each side of the record. This way both stories will make sense together and we can commission artwork that reflects this.
TSR: What are the last three short story collections you read?
ND: Walk the Blue Fields by Claire KeeganTales of Belkin by PushkinOn the Edge of the Cliff by V.S. Pritchett
Thanks, Nathan. Underwood Books is launching its first issue on May 19th in London, featuring stories by Toby Litt and Short Review author Clare Wigfall. Much luck to the vinyl-peddlers and the iPhone app!