Behind the Words: AJ Kirby

Posted by on May 18, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: AJ Kirby

A. J. Kirby is the award-winning published author of several novels – including most recently the crime-thriller The Lost Boys of Prometheus City – and over 100 short stories. He is also a sports writer, with four best-selling titles under his belt, and a reviewer for The New York Journal of Books. Here, we discuss his piece in Issue 3 of Spry, “The Siege.”

Cathy Ulrich: “The Siege” is such a tense, understated piece. The hints of destruction outside the restaurant really up the intensity — both for the reader and the characters. What was your impetus for writing this piece?

AJ Kirby: I’d wanted to write a story based on the chaos of the riots which bubbled up across the UK in 2011 for some time and I did write several other stories which touched upon the violence, but never the one I really wanted to, which was this one. I wanted to write about the simple heroism of some people in protecting what was theirs, and for the longest time I couldn’t find a locus for the action nor the right characters to populate the story. In the end, I decided the action would take place in a takeaway restaurant and the real action — the violence — would take place in the margins. The characters would take centre stage… That way I wouldn’t feel as though I had to go too overboard in describing the manic destruction and I could truly focus on capturing the characters of my protagonists as they prepared to face down their fate.

The main focus of the story is on the trio of men: the narrator, his uncle and his father. But there are two unseen (and for the most part, unheard) characters: the brother, Umit, and the mother. Was your intent always for those two roles to develop “offscreen,” so to speak, or does a draft of “The Siege” exist wherein they played more prominent parts?

An interesting and insightful question. You’re right, the two offscreen characters did play more prominent parts in an earlier draft of the story. That draft was around 10,000 words and I could probably have stretched it even longer, but I felt that the central idea of the story became diluted the more I wrote, and I wanted to regain some clarity. At 10,000 words the story was too flabby and the character list too unwieldy. And I wanted to write a short, snappy story, not a novella. So, I rewrote the whole thing, as it were, sacrificing the two additional characters. Writing the whole thing again was a tough decision, but in the end, stripping the story right back to the kernel of the idea made it better, so it was worth it. Also, I like the fact these offscreen characters are still present, upstairs in the shop, and hinting at a wider world outside the story. Stories do not happen in vacuums after all. 

It’s the little things that really bring this piece to life, like the detail of the narrator feeling guilt over dumping the takeaway menus in a building that ends up burning. The reader understands he’s not really to blame, and, logically, he probably understands too, but that feeling of guilt is such a natural, human reaction that it makes the narrator seem like a fully realized person. Can you describe your process in creating these details?

At first, I wanted my protagonist to feel attracted to the destruction outside; to feel the urge to join them on their rampage. But then I decided the story would work better if he was threatened by the action. Yet it still didn’t quite seem to ring true. And then I decided the protagonist must feel close to the violence and mayhem — he must feel he has done something to provoke it, even if it is obvious he hasn’t — in order for his character to be fully realized. He had to be a little conflicted about events. After all, that’s what most of us are like all the time. I think this is the hardest part of writing; getting the characters to ring true. Getting these details right is what every redraft is about (and all the other drafts burn like takeaway menus). Getting these details right in a short story, in which there isn’t anything like as much scope for exploration of character as there is in a novel, is key to producing a good story.   

The story has an open ending with the three men (although the narrator is a very young man) standing outside the restaurant to face the rioters. What do you think becomes of them? Or does it matter?

I don’t think it does matter really, but I think the story gives enough clues. I suppose violence is inevitable, but the heroism of going out to meet that fate makes for a better climax than a terrible beating. I think of this as my Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ending….

You’re a novelist, sports writer and reviewer who has won several writing awards. In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned your first award was a yearlong pass to a local swimming pool. I’m curious — did you go there to swim laps or just splash around?

That award was way back, when I was still a kid. But it is still probably the most useful prize I’ve ever won. The swimming pool was at the end of our road where we grew up and I went there practically every day, sometimes to splash around, other times to train. I was a pretty good swimmer back then. Captain of the school team (helped having the pool so near). But I didn’t love swimming as much as I loved other sports and other pursuits, especially writing. So I let it slide. I’ve recently started swimming again though, as I’m keen to lose some weight. I do laps religiously now, never just splash around. The best thing about swimming – other than the fitness of course – is that swimming lap after lap has a kind of hypnotic quality to it and I often find that if I go into a swim thinking at the back of my mind about some kind of a problem in one of my stories, usually when the time I’ve finished my allotted 50 lengths, I’ve come up with some kind of an answer.

Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work can be found in a variety of journals, including Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Former Cactus, and Spry.