Losing It, published in 2010, was an acclaimed collection of short stories by authors including Patrick Ness, Anne Fine, Melvin Burgess and Mary Hooper on the subject of losing your virginity. It was edited by their fellow author Keith Gray.
Andersen Press are now publishing a new collection of short stories also edited by Keith Gray, this time on the subject of life after death.
Keith Gray talked to Books for Keeps about the thinking behind Next and his approach as editor.
Why do you think young readers will be interested in stories about life after death?
I think a discussion of what might happen after death appeals to us all; we are all of us trying to find a way to deal with death. I think that young readers will be interested in stories about life after death for different reasons. It’s feasible that by the time you reach your teenage years it’s more likely that someone you know will have died but the teenage years too are when you’re likely to be genuinely finding a faith, or deciding not to have one.
A cleverer writer than me said too, that all stories are about sex or death, so Next was the logical follow up to Losing It!
Is the death of someone important something you have experienced?
I haven’t really experienced the death of someone important. I lost my grandparents but my both parents are very much alive for example. But somehow death is a subject I am personally fascinated by, and it crops up again and again in my own books: Creepers is about a boy coming to terms with the death of his best friend. Ostrich Boys is about a suicide. I find people’s beliefs fascinating, where they come from, how their beliefs make them behave. In Ostrich Boys there’s a scene in which the characters have an argument about life after death. I remember thinking when I wrote that, “there’s a novel there!”
How did you decide which authors to approach?
I picked authors I genuinely admire, authors whose books I’ve enjoyed. I tried too to choose authors who would bring something to the collection that I wouldn’t. For example, I knew that Sally Nicholls is a Quaker and that she would do something interesting. But the others authors – Malorie Blackman for example, or Jonathan Stroud - I had no idea where they stand. In fact, nobody sent me anything that I was expecting: Frank Cottrell Boyce’s story ‘Can’t You Sleep’ for example is way out there, whereas I was expecting more realism, something much closer to Millions. That’s one of the fascinating things I’ve learned as an editor, just how surprising authors can be. I’m really pleased with the juxtaposition of the stories, and the enormous variety that’s in the book.
A taboo subject?
I was surprised at the number of authors who turned down the invitation. For Losing It only one person said no, but it was more difficult this time to convince authors to get involved. I think the fact that the afterlife and faith are so linked made this quite a hot button: a couple of authors I approached were quite wary about admitting to a faith, or lack of one. There was a real reluctance to stick their head above the parapet.
In both anthologies I left writing my story to the end, and tried to write something that would bring it all together, so it’s almost a story about the preceding stories. What emerged, which came as a surprise, is that if you are going to write about death, you first have to write about life, and the people left behind, so that’s the starting point for my story.
How much have you enjoyed the role of editor?
I have learned lots from Andersen Press editor Charlie Sheppard, who was also the editor of my earlier books. It’s a pleasure to work with Charlie, and I’m really impressed by the way she allows writers their head. What she taught me is to step back – my inclination at first was to say, “I would do it this way”, but good editing isn’t telling authors how to write, but being supportive.
Will there be a third anthology?
That will all depend on how successful this one is! But I do have an idea. I do think short stories are a great format for teenagers too – they have so much time taken away from them, these are perfect bus journey reads!
Next edited by Keith Gray is published by Andersen Press at £6.99 pbk.