Bangor-based author Ian Sansom on his new book December Stories I
David Roy speaks to Bangor-based author Ian Sansom about his new book December Stories I, a collection of short tales fuelled by the familiar joys and angst of the festive season
"DOESN'T everyone have a slightly ambivalent relationship with the festive season?," muses Ian Sansom when we inquire whether the seasonally subversive sub-jolly tone of December Stories I accurately reflects his own feelings on 'the most wonderful time of the year'.
The second offering from Belfast's No Alibis Press, December Stories I comprises 'short stories, vignettes, axioms, the odd recipe [emphasis on 'odd'], art criticism, meditations and literary curiosities relating to all things festive'.
In fact, there's something for every day of the titular month, each of the 31 entries offering a very different slant on the Christmas experience; a 1979 Floridian barbecue soundtracked by The Clash, a heart-warming Christmas housebreaking, terrible Christmas poetry, Kylie Minogue in a can-can outfit crawling across a piano and the inpenetrable initialisations of Mumsnet.com.
Readers will also encounter redundancies, airport chaos, dementia, sudden death, Jewish deli delights, a recipe for The Author's Christmas Pudding ("Drench in irony or satire – or self-pity if preferred – and set alight") and the kind of unflinching guide to hosting Christmas dinner you won't find in the 'women's magazines' ("Do not have a little cry. Under no circumstances have a little cry").
"Everyone has a different relationship with Christmas," explains Bangor-based Sansom (51), the creator of the Northern Ireland-set Mobile Library Mysteries series whose most recent novel was last year's Essex Poison, the latest instalment of his acclaimed County Guides To Murder.
"Sometimes we think that everybody's Christmas is the same – but there is not 'one' Christmas, there are multiple Christmases.
"I was trying to get across that kind of multiplicity, of traditions and stories and symbols. I'm trying to give people a glint of other people's Christmases and what they might look like."
While Sansom says that the stories in the new book are fictional and the ones furthest from his own festive experiences were the most fun to create, it seems that there are kernels of autobiographical truth sprinkled throughout.
For example, the chucklesome Two Words takes the form of a school 'letter home' to pupils containing rather pointed advice on selecting that all important end of term Christmas gift for teacher.
As the educator in question patiently explains, Yankee Candles are verboten ("In case you hadn't noticed at the parents' evening, I am a man"), handmade gifts are a definite no-no ("unless you or your son/daughter are in fact a professional jeweller, baker or potter – or Kirsty Allsop") and novelty mugs are destined for landfill.
"I must admit that when I was teaching some years ago, a very kind student gave me a gift," reveals the Oxford and Cambridge University educated Sansom, who is currently Professor of Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University Belfast.
"I can remember thinking 'God, how wonderful' – then I unwrapped the gift and it was a Yankee Candle!
"So, on the one hand I was delighted to receive it and on the other hand I was absolutely appalled. It's the kind of gift that can sometimes circulate within a family for years, a bit like those Belgian shell chocolates which you get and immediately think 'who can we re-gift these to next Christmas?'"
With stories like these, readers may be surprised to learn that the Essex-born author is not in fact a terminal cynic when it comes to the much vaunted 'Christmas spirit'.
He says: "Everybody likes to complain about Christmas and yet, every year, we all subject ourselves to its demands. And quite rightly so – because, for all of the problems associated with it, it's also a period of time when we we attempt to suppress our self-interest.
"Everyone likes to think that we can be jovial and generous and jolly, don't we?"
Indeed, as Sansom explains, he has little time for the 'bah humbug' set, regardless of credentials:
"Philip Larkin said Christmas is a 'slavering Niagara of nonsense' and George Bernard Shaw also liked to complain about it. That tells you all you need to know about them, I think.
"People who grumble about Christmas too much are not to be trusted."
As you may have already gathered from the nakedly suggestive title of what is surely an ideal stocking stuffer for those you love/hate, December Stories I is intended as the first instalment in what may become an ongoing series of Yuletide-themed volumes.
"I do in fact have many many more December/festive stories," reveals Sansom, who is currently readying the next County Guide mystery, Flaming Sussex, for publication, along with a long-gestating non-fiction work about WH Auden.
"We're hoping that if this one does OK then next year, look-out – it'll be December Stories II."
Finally, it would be remiss to let the author away without asking him one last all-important question: what would his 'perfect Christmas' look like?
"Ha! My perfect Christmas would be like the end of It's a Wonderful Life without having to go through the pain of the first part," Sansom tells me.
"But I suppose you can't have one without the other."
:: Ian Sansom's December Stories I is available from No Alibis in Belfast and via Noalibispress.com. Ian will launch the book with readings at No Alibis (November 15, tickets via Tinyurl.com/ianatnoalibis), The Gutter Bookshop in Dublin (November 21, Tinyurl.com/ianinthegutter) and Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Derry (December 6, Tinyurl.com/ianathome). Visit Iansansom.net