Book review and interview: Minigrooves by Riccardo Mori
This article was originally published on pinnacleeditorial.co.uk. Since I have merged that domain with alexroddie.com, I am gradually republishing significant articles from the Pinnacle Blog.
In 2014, I reviewed an innovative serialised novel called Low Fidelity. In my review I concluded that ‘The overall result is startlingly immediate, rhythmic prose that plunges the reader directly into the story without hand-holding or unnecessary decoration.’ Today I’d like to introduce you to another book that fits this description: Minigrooves Volume 1, an anthology of short stories.
The author was kind enough to send me a review copy. The genre is literary fiction. With anthologies it’s often customary to state that there’s ‘something for everyone’, but in this case I think it’s fair to say that the reader looking for a mindless, easy read will be disappointed. They’re quick stories, but you can’t read them with your brain switched off — and that’s a good thing.
The imagery is powerful and the writing is vibrant, immediate, with an intense focus on a character or a situation, sometimes a theme – sometimes all three within a single story. The ‘minigrooves’ are concentrated and efficient. There’s a sense that the precise language was very carefully selected, and I loved how the word choice and the story often depended on each other to create a specific effect. It sits on the edge of poetry.
The car, inside, smelt of cold smoke and flashbacks. I closed my eyes and I saw the face of my headache.
Where appropriate, the language is completely transparent and the story permeates directly into the reader’s mind, but sometimes it prompts slower reading and more thoughtful interpretation. This is always for a reason. Again there’s that sense of meticulously crafted writing, of deliberateness and enormous skill in painting these short sketches of language and narrative.
So what are the stories actually about? The subjects vary: amnesia, nostalgia, photographs found discarded, writing; sometimes just a meaningful moment or a reflection on an incident. My favourite story is ‘The adventure of the time-trap’, which features Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and Mrs Hudson. It’s beautiful and ingenious, and every fan of Sherlock Holmes will love it.
My only criticism of Minigrooves is that it is not currently available on the Kindle platform. However, the author is currently working on publishing the volume on Amazon, in addition to Minigrooves Volume 2, which I am looking forward to enormously – I have no doubt it’ll be just as good as the first collection. Update 02/07/16: Minigrooves is now available on Kindle, and the second volume has also been published on both platforms.
If you enjoy reading stories that will mean something to you and challenge you, I can heartily recommend this volume of Minigrooves. It’s currently available to purchase on the Apple iBooks platform for $1.99, or on Amazon Kindle for the same price. You can also read more of Riccardo Mori’s stories for free online here.
Interview with Riccardo Mori
When I reviewed Low Fidelity I got in touch with the author and posed a few questions to him, so I have adopted the same format for this review too. I found Riccardo’s answers very interesting. In this interview you’ll find views on the writing process, on language, and on the future of self-publishing.
The stories in Minigrooves are varied in theme, subject and tone, but would you say there is any thread that binds them together, consciously or unconsciously?
Discovery is the first thing coming to mind. Discovery in many senses. There are stories in which a character discovers — i.e. unveils — something. There are stories in which the element of discovery is what gives sense to the whole narration. In stories such as “Interior Designs” there is both discovery as exploration of a space, and at the same time the whole story can be seen as the preparation for what one of the characters will discover later. Other stories are small trips of internal discovery. In some, the discovery is what makes the original mystery even more baffling or bewildering (Poe and Lovecraft are a subtle inspiration, in this case, with regard to delivery more than themes). And speaking of mystery, this is another recurring theme, coming up in most of the stories with different shapes, roles, strength. Sometimes the mystery is what gives a story the classical suspense, the typical tension until the final revelation, the final discovery. Other times the reader is confronted with the presence of something that is not quite explicable and either remains inexplicable, or it’s open to interpretation: it may be an object, a phenomenon, a situation, a place, or even a person — such as Trent Havoc, Esquire, the only character appearing in more than one story.
To what extent would you say your background in poetry has influenced your prose? The language in many of the stories is very rich and poetic, and reads like music for the mind, yet appears to be tightly woven with the story material itself. Does the story come first, or the language?
My background in poetry has always had a great influence over my prose. I remember a conversation with a friend during the university years. Imagine the classic conversation between two passionate literature students, taking place in a café in the dead of winter, after drinking a generous amount of tea and a few shots of single malt whisky. We’re talking about narrative devices, poetics, that sort of thing, and my friend says something along the lines of “Prose serves to relay facts, tell stories, explain connections. Poetry to relay impressions, tell what can only be suggested, explain feelings and subjectivity.” This is the kind of generalisation, the kind of reduction, which could ignite an even lengthier conversation, but somehow I keep remembering my friend’s words, and think of the differences between the language of prose and the language of poetry, and as I told him all those years ago, I think the two languages have a different weight, a different density. And I’ve always found that mixing the two, if you know what you’re doing, can yield terrific results.
Now, I’m making this sound a bit cerebral and premeditated, but in truth it’s never been so with me. It has always come naturally: sometimes you’re telling a story from one character’s point of view, and what that character is perceiving isn’t always plain and simple to explain, and for this the language of poetry is extremely powerful and helpful. When I read stories in which a character’s state of mind is quickly described with a couple of adjectives and maybe an adverb, such as “Henry felt trapped and frightened”, I find that to be quite lazy on the author’s part if there’s no further exploration involved. Why does Henry feel trapped, or frightened? Sure, there may be some kind of close threat, but as a reader I can’t feel it very well. Where does the dread come from? Sometimes the short story format doesn’t allow for lengthy descriptions of inner landscapes or psychological explorations, and my way of avoiding superficial solutions, like the one I’ve mentioned, is to deliver such descriptions by using a richer, poetic imagery that is capable of delivering depth in confined spaces. I’ve had friends telling me that every now and then my stories have cryptic parts that are a bit difficult to follow, but I guess it’s just a reflection of the dimension we live in: we simply cannot explain everything all the time.
Does the story come first, or the language? — Usually the story has precedence. I must first have an idea of what I’m going to write about, and immediately after comes the how. But it hasn’t always been the case. There have been times when the how took precedence, especially when I wanted to explore more original ways to deliver a story. “Egress” may be an example. When I started writing it, I thought about trying to alter the relationship between characters and narrator, and what the narrator actually knows about the characters, and so on. “The last voices” is another example where language came first. “The Adventure of the Time-Trap,” being a homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is an example where story and language came intertwined from the very start. There are cases in which a story is born of images and even blurred remnants of dreams: so we have first a language that details and expands on those images and glimpses, then the ‘connective tissue’ comes at a later moment, and finally a story is formed. “Loose ends” is an example of a story that is presented as a sequence of images, a sort of storyboard if you like, and the reader is tacitly invited to provide the connective tissue.
Historically, short stories have often been used to showcase the talent and writing style of a given writer, but are usually secondary in importance to lengthier works. What do short stories mean to you, and what do you think the future holds for the short story format?
When I turned to prose, back in 1990, the short story was a format that felt natural to develop the ideas I wanted to explore at the time. I didn’t start writing fiction after a specific idea that could be turned into a novel. I wasn’t ‘thinking big’, so to speak. At the time, there was also a deep awareness of my limits. I felt I simply wasn’t experienced enough to write a novel. So the short story, at the beginning, was a sort of training ground for me, like learning to work and take control of something smaller first, to then dare write something longer and more intricate.
And over the years, what happened has been quite interesting. When I started writing my first novel, “Richard Martyn,” in 1992, I genuinely thought that I would keep writing novels after that. I felt I was getting ready to ‘play in the big leagues’. So, if someone had interviewed me at the time, I would have said that after a couple of years intensely spent writing short stories (I think I wrote more than eighty between 1990 and 1992), after “Richard Martyn” I would write another novel, and then another, etc. What happened, instead, is that I returned to the shorter format bringing all the lessons I’d been learning while developing that first novel and the second one, called “The Dead Has Tears”, written in 1994. What happened is that I basically got better at mastering the short story format instead of moving on to novels. I think that it also happened because “Richard Martyn” ended up being a huge energy drain, creatively speaking. So my natural reaction was to seek refuge in the short story.
So yes, short stories are very important to me. From a technical viewpoint, they’re sometimes challenging. You have to create a plot, and generally do a similar work as when you’re writing a novel, but on a smaller scale. Characters do not have the same breathing room to develop. When you write a novel, you can take detours, you can describe in greater detail, you can potentially create entire new worlds. A novel’s length is a marvellous double-edged sword: it can contribute to the novel’s strength, it can be used to create a powerful work; but it can also be its weakest point (think of interminable tomes crowded with characters and subplots which ultimately just dilute an otherwise powerful impact). The short story format makes you stop and think about your priorities: okay, I have this finite space, which ingredients shall I focus on? With a short story, it’s easy to lose your balance: you may write too much dialogue, sacrificing movement; or too many descriptive passages, and unless you write really engrossing descriptions, the reader will soon grow impatient and have the feeling the story isn’t going anywhere. After all these years, I think I’ve become skilled at playing with this balance, therefore creating stories whose interestingness derives from the calculated imbalance. I’ve experimented with stories that are all dialogue, or all descriptions, or without characters, or happening entirely in someone’s mind, and so forth.
As for the future of the short story format, I believe things are looking great. People are getting busier and busier, and while they still buy and read a lot of novels, I think the short story is the perfect format for when you want to read some fiction but don’t have the time to invest in keeping up with a novel. The short story is also great (I think) considering today’s decreasing attention span: you feed your readers more easily digestible bits. The whole Minigrooves project started as a way to offer a temporary, quick escape from the busy day-to-day that comes with today’s ‘always-on’ lifestyle. Tired of reading technology-oriented articles? Tired of working at that massive Excel spreadsheet? Take a ten-minute break, read this story, divert yourself from whatever boring activity you’re carrying out. Or: do you have some time to spare because you’re in a waiting room, or you’re travelling and don’t feel like working on the train or on the plane? Pick one or more ‘minigrooves’ and relax.
To discover more about the fascinating Minigrooves project, head over to minigroov.es where the author regularly posts new stories to read for free online. Riccardo Mori also maintains two excellent blogs: Morrick.me (commentary on culture, technology, and photography) and System Folder (for vintage Mac enthusiasts). Both are well worth bookmarking.