The Book of Sheffield is the latest in Comma Press’ A City in Short Fiction series. Edited by Catherine Taylor, the anthology brings together new short stories from some of the city’s most celebrated writers. The stories within the collection describe the city’s complex landscape from both sides of the economic dividing line. From the aspirations of young creatives, ultimately driven to leave, to the more immediate demands of refugees, scrap metal collectors, and student radicals, these stories offer ten different look-out points from which to gaze down on the ever-changing face of the ‘Steel City’.
Contributors to The Book of Sheffield include Margaret Drabble, Tim Etchells, Naomi Frisby, Helen Mort and Gregory Norminton.
What aspects of Sheffield did you want to capture with this anthology?
The sense of Sheffield’s history as a place of radical politics and uprising from the early Chartist movement to the miners’ strike, its centuries’ long steel industry and post-industrial decline, the fact that it is very urban but is surrounded by the extraordinary landscape of the Peak District; its geographical and political divisions, that it is a place to which people come to and settle.
What’s your own connection to Sheffield, and how has it influenced your work?
I grew up in Sheffield from the age of three. My family moved to the city in the early 1970s when my father took up a university teaching position. So I grew up during a time of social unrest and mass recession, which had a big impact on me. I believe that the places which are formative to writers are heavily influential throughout their lives and carry a reckoning that is hard to dismiss or shake off. As Neil Young wrote in his song ‘Helpless’ : ‘All my changes were there.’
There’s a great mix of new and established writers in the collection – how did you go about putting the Book of Sheffield together?
I’m thrilled we have such a mix and it really does show that there is no single perspective on Sheffield! I knew quite a few of the writers already and pooled ideas with Comma Press – then some writers we approached suggested others, so it was a rather organic and wholly positive process.
Although it’s probably been better known for music in the past, Sheffield is becoming a hub for independent publishing, with the likes of And Other Stories, Longbarrow Press and others – what do you think has been the spark for this vibrant literary scene?
it’s very important to distinguish publishers who have recently relocated to Sheffield (such as And Other Stories in 2017) and those such as Longbarrow or Vertebrate Press who are, so to speak, indigenous and have been around for ages. I really balk at the view of any one publisher coming from ‘outside’ to ‘save’ literature in the city… The rise in small presses generally is one important factor in the ‘spark’ effect – it’s a tremendously exciting time for them, and the incursions they are making into traditional publishing monoliths such as major literary prizes. Arts Council England has also made it possible through its concentration of grants for publishers and writers outside London and the South East, and that can only be a good thing. New Writing North has many wonderful schemes and opportunities. And of course, Comma Press has spearheaded the Northern Fiction Alliance, and consortiums tend to be very good at acting as pressure groups for change. Off the Shelf literary festival is also brilliant at attracting great writers to the city.
What are the key locations for literature in Sheffield – venues, meeting places, writing spots etc?
The best place for me in the past was always the steps of the General Cemetery in Sharrow, and Forge Dam cafe when I played truant from school, the Crucible Theatre cafe and the cafe at the Mappin Art Gallery (now closed.) But I have heard good things about Cafe 9 In Nether Edge from Helen Mort, and Waterstones in Orchard Square from Désirée Reynolds and Gregory Norminton! There’s also Dina Arts on Cambridge Street, Site Gallery on Brown Street, Sheffield Central Library, still in its beautiful 1934 Art Deco building. La Biblioteka on Pinstone Street in the city centre and I love the Porter Brook secondhand bookshop on Sharrow Vale Road. My mother ran a bookshop in Sheffield in the 70s and 80s, and I’m always looking for one as good as that.
But my absolute favourite Sheffield place for any kind of writing or meeting is the Botanical Gardens off Ecclesall Road.
Margaret Drabble had previously said that she was never going to write fiction again – how did you manage to get her on board for this project?
She did tell me that she doesn’t write much fiction these days, but the Sheffield pull was a strong one, and she came up with a very beautiful, elegiac story, as elegantly written as ever, which also places an ambiguous #MeToo moment at the Crucible Theatre in the 1970s. It’s a gorgeous piece of writing, and Drabble was born in Sheffield 80 years ago this year so it’s wonderful to have her in the collection.
Outside of this anthology, what’s your favourite piece of writing about Sheffield?
Two, really. One is Linda Hoy’s 1983 novel The Damned which I read as a teenager and which perfectly captures the anxieties and fears of growing up in the 1980s under the threat of nuclear war – and it’s also about feminism and empowerment, too. The other is Helen Mort’s novel Black Car Burning which was published earlier this year. It’s a deeply poetic work, and very emotional, about the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster and its continuing aftermath.
If you could one thing to sum up Sheffield, what would it be (could be a place, a person, an event, a piece of art, anything)?
These lyrics from The Human League’s Open Your Heart: ‘And so you stand here with the years ahead/Potentially calling’ – it gets me every time.
Read more about The Book of Sheffield here.
Catherine Taylor was born in New Zealand, and grew up in Sheffield from the age of 3. She is a freelance writer, editor and critic for The Guardian, FT Life and Arts, TLS and the New Statesman among other publications, and commercial director of the Brixton Review of Books. Catherine was publisher at The Folio Society for over a decade and deputy director of freedom of expression charity English PEN from 2014-2016. She has judged several literary prizes including the Jewish-Quarterly Wingate, Guardian First Book Award, European Union Prize for Literature and most recently the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Catherine is currently writing The Stirrings, a cultural memoir of Sheffield.