INTERVIEW: Gregory Norminton on world-building, Le Guin and ‘The Ghost Who Bled’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Gregory Norminton on the research process behind his collection The Ghost Who Bled (Comma Press, 2017).

I’d like to start off with a general question about the relationship between short fiction and research. For novelists, it feels as though research is often taken for granted as a necessary step towards composition, but for short story writers there appears to be more ambiguity. As someone who has worked in both forms, how do you think the relationship between research and short fiction might differ from that between research and longer fiction? Why are the research processes behind short fiction (it seems to me) less strongly emphasised as a part of the craft?

In this instance, my hunch is that the only difference is one of scale. The short story tends to have a narrower scope than the novel, so the range of research you do will be smaller. Of course, everything depends on the specifics. Many short stories tend to work as vignettes, moments of heightened drama or revelation in the life of one or a few characters, and in such instances, especially if the setting is contemporary and already familiar to the writer, there is little, if any, research to do. My stories usually require more contextual ambition than this. Many are set abroad, in another period in history, or in the near-future, and my research forms an intrinsic part of my discovering the conditions in which the premise is to be realised. By this, I mean that much of what ends up integral to my writing emerges from the process of reading and thinking about the material. For me, research is a matter not simply of avoiding factual errors, but of creative discovery. The only difference with the research that I have done for novels is that, when it comes to amassing material for a short story, I actively avoid digression. I want, say, to know about the condition of Orthodox monks on Mount Athos in the C14th, but I don’t need to get to grips, as I might in a novel set in late Byzantium, with every aspect of Mediterranean politics, culture, warfare and ecology. Indeed, it would be to my disadvantage to do too much research, as it could blur my focus, tempting me to encumber my story with digressions and details that are inessential to it.

Yes, again that feels like a question of scope and circumscription, though as a collection The Ghost Who Bled feels extremely wide in scope. I wonder if this range of physical and temporal settings, as well as themes and styles, is something that came from your wider reading, perhaps from international fiction or non-fiction, or whether your research supported narrative motifs that came first from your imagination. Is there an interplay there between input and output?

History has always fascinated me, and I nearly studied the subject at university, so it’s not surprising that my fiction tends to wander about in space and time. Facts and documents limit the historian, but the fiction writer can indulge in guesswork and surmise, all while plundering the hard work of academics and archaeologists. I also used to travel more than I do now that parenthood and Covid and climate considerations have grounded me. Some of the stories in The Ghost Who Bled were inspired by my experiences in the American Midwest, in Cambodia and Malaysia (where I did conservation work), but others take place in countries I have visited only in books (Japan, Mount Athos, Iraq and the Caucasus). I never aim for exoticism: the narrative conceit dictates the location of the story, not the other way around. So, my storytelling antennae twitched when I read about Saddam Hussein’s body doubles, and about kamikaze pilots whose planes failed to take off, leaving them alive yet officially dead. The cultural specificity of these premises dictated the content of the stories. Generally, however, a human predicament interests me, and I look for the best fit.  If I can’t find it a contextual setting in my own time and place, I permit myself to look elsewhere, even if that means inventing a country, as I do for the poet protagonist of my story ‘Writer’s Retreat’.

If we could explore that a little further, I feel as though whilst international history obviously supports the process of looking back that underlies many of the various temporal locations in the collection, there are moments when the prose leaps forwards into an imagined future. I wonder if you could share your perspective on researching possible futures, and how that might differ from researching and sketching imaginaries of the past.

The practice of world-building in fiction doesn’t vary as much across the genres as one might imagine. Whether you’re writing historical or science fiction, contemporary naturalism, or high fantasy, you need to root your narrative in topographical and ecological and cultural conditions. Everything must feel grounded and subject to laws that, though they may vary from those that govern our existence, must nonetheless be consistently worked out and applied. When you read the best high fantasy, you find that the rules of those worlds have been precisely constructed, usually with reference to human cultures that, through reading or experience, are familiar to the author. Tolkien turned to Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic culture, obsessively creating societies via their languages. Mervyn Peake dreamt up a variation on late imperial China, where he spent his childhood, to create Gormenghast. George R. R. Martin makes no secret of his use of medieval history – notably the War of the Roses and the Mongol invasions – to conjure up Westeros and Essos. And Le Guin, whose Earthsea books I consider superior to those of all the men I’ve just mentioned, travels from the Middle East to the Pacific islands to invent a non-Eurocentric fantasy universe. It’s no surprise that Le Guin was the daughter of antropologists. She brings that discipline to her fantasies, culminating in her anthropological collection of texts from a future Californian civilisation, Always Coming Home.

I use these examples because I find them exemplary. Now I don’t write high fantasy, but I do stray into speculative fiction, where the same rules apply. You must build that world and tether its characters to its physical and socio-political laws. If you’re working with documented history, you have, of course, a body of literature to consult. If you’re anticipating the near or distant future, the best thing you can do is turn to history and current affairs. The odds are that something akin to the contexts you’re inventing have existed, or are taking place currently, somewhere on Earth. In my novel The Devil’s Highway (4th Estate, 2018), I try to conjure a Surrey of the future, one profoundly altered by climate change, and to do so convincingly, I turned to Stalin’s gulags and to the conflict in Darfur. My short story, ‘The Modification of Eugene Berenger’, is set in a dystopian future San Francisco, in an order of body modifying monks, but the science of what might be possible was brought to me by a scientist, Dr Nihal Engin Vrana, who works in the field of medical prostheses. He told me what could or might be done, and I, the story guy, imagined cultural responses to these new technological possibilities. Finally, the story ‘Bottleneck’, about a composer heavily pregnant at a time of ecological breakdown, developed from my own trepidation about the birth of my daughter and the state of the world into which we were bringing her. By researching human experience that is cognate to what you are inventing, you have a better chance of creating something complex and, as it were, imaginatively viable. Speculative fiction extrapolates from the known. At its best – some of the episodes of Black Mirror, for instance – it creates a deep feeling of unease, because we recognise our world, and ourselves, in the fiction, just a few steps beyond where we currently stand.

We’ve spoken a lot about setting, but I think it would be remiss not to emphasise how character-driven these stories are. Each of the constructed narratives of The Ghost Who Bled finds a foundation in the behaviours of people as authentic responses to the action, not simply as functionaries of the story. In that sense I was intrigued when I re-read the first line: ‘This is a story my neighbours told me.’ I wondered to what extent (even through the often wildly-imagined scenarios) real people worked their way into the characters. To what extent does the collection lean on your observations of human behaviour?

I don’t think it’s possible to write fiction without leaning on your observations. It would be like expecting a composer to write music without reference to any known chords. We write out of what we have seen and experienced, which in turn informs what we can imagine. Fiction writing is extrapolative: someone you meet, or something that happens to you, plants a seed of an idea. You cultivate it in your mind, on the page, and what you end up with may be at a great remove from its origins, so much so that sometimes you forget its origins.

Most of my characters are invented, but many have antecedents, named or anonymous, in history or current events. Saddam really did have body doubles; suicide pilots really did fail to take off in their aircraft in the final days of the war. The specifics of my characters in these predicaments are my invention, but the predicaments are not. At the same time, some of the stories evolved from my life experiences. ‘In Refugium’ grew from my time in a writers’ colony in the American Midwest; I share a childhood landscape with the protagonist in ‘The Time Traveller’s Breakdown’; the leeches in ‘The Poison Tree’ fed on me in the Malaysian jungle.

There is, in The Ghost Who Bled, one story inspired by a real person. My aunt, who lives in France, is Cambodian, and survived the horrors of the Killing Fields. I have heard her speak about her experiences, but I only dared to approach them obliquely, by keeping the, to me, almost unimaginable experience of survival, physical and psychological, at a distance from the narration. I’m a western man; I didn’t want to appropriate a Cambodian woman’s story. So ‘Zero + 30’ (the story takes place thirty years after Pol Pot’s murderous ‘Year Zero’) is told from the point of view of the survivor’s American husband. He is hopelessly out of his depth, but he is trying – which is all that any of us can do – to accompany his loved one in her suffering.

Finally I’d like to ask your thoughts, both as a writer and Creative Writing educator, on the idea of writing fiction as a form of research in and of itself. Do you feel that The Ghost Who Bled functions as a form of research into our world, or perhaps into the possibilities of literary form? Is there a question at the centre of the collection, whether that question be answered or open? Is there a thread tying these stories to an ambiguity within the world?

Ramming my university lecturer hat on – yes, absolutely, fiction is a form of research. But I prefer to think of it as a zone of conjecture, a space in which reader and writer meet and agree to play a game of Imagine.

I don’t set out to experiment for experimentation’s sake. The form should be dictated by the content, rather than the other way around. Dennis Potter didn’t have characters lip-synching to cheap songs because he wanted to expand the form of television drama; he did it because it was the most effective way of telling the story he wanted to tell.

You ask if there’s a question at the centre of my collection. I really don’t know, unless it’s the questions that are latent in all fiction: whose story is this, can we enter it, and what effect does it have on us? Is there a thread tying these stories? There may have been, but I lost it long ago.

Gregory Norminton is the author of five novels, including Serious Things (Sceptre, 2008) and The Devil’s Highway (4th Estate, 2018), and two collections of short stories, most recently The Ghost Who Bled (Comma Press, 2017). He has been the recipient of writing awards from both the Arts Council of England and Creative Scotland. He teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and lives in Sheffield.


Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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