Gurnaik Johal, University of Manchester and The Mancunion alumni, is now an award-winning short story writer. We Move, a collection of short stories, is Johal’s first book and was released in April 2022.
We Move is set in Southall in West London, and maps the movement of multiple generations of immigrants. The stories show how our lives cross in surprising ways, revealing moments of human connection.
I spoke to Johal about his new book, his experience at UoM, and how it helped to shape his writing.
You studied at the University of Manchester – when and what did you study?
I did English Literature with Creative Writing as an undergrad and graduated in 2019. Some of the oldest stories in the book were written in my second year of uni. I think there are two or three that went through the workshops in the creative writing course. One of them changed a lot so it is almost unrecognisable from when I workshopped it, but yeah, three stories from my time as a student ended up in the final product.
So do you think that doing a creative writing degree and that ‘workshop’ experience was beneficial to your writing?
I think so. Being in a workshop allows you to meet other writers – I didn’t know anyone who wrote or was into short stories before joining the course. And that experience of having your work edited and read is really important. I think a lot of people think writing is a very solitary thing, but it’s quite collaborative, at least for me, and so that was helpful.
What was your favourite thing about being a student in Manchester? Do you think it helped shape your stories?
Yeah, I think Manchester has got a thriving literary scene. I remember there were lots of events and stuff that you could get into for free as a student. So that was helpful for me to find new material. But interestingly, when I did start writing in Manchester, everything I wrote was just naturally set in London. I don’t know if it’s just that distance made it easier to see London as material for fiction. With Manchester, maybe I didn’t know the city well enough to feel like I could properly do it justice.
The whole collection is set in London, though in the title story ‘We Move’ the protagonist Lata is doing a PhD in Manchester and is from London. Is the collection mostly set where you grew up?
Yeah in West London, so it’s kind of writing about home, it especially was when I was in Manchester. Then I had the weird experience of returning home and doing the second half of the book in West London. I think having those two different experiences helped.
Obviously, I do have to ask about your experience at The Mancunion! So you were the Books Editor of The Mancunion during your time as a student? Do you think reading and reviewing books was also something that was valuable or inspiring when writing?
Yes I was doing your role! So this is a nice full circle moment! I think it’s super helpful because you’re reading with a close critical eye. Obviously as a reviewer you’re trying to condense the key parts of the book for a reader, and I think doing that process makes you realise how books work in a different way. You’re kind of looking under the car bonnet and seeing how the machinery of it works, and seeing what stands out to you when you’ve got however many books you could review and you’re not going to review all of them. Asking ‘what makes a book stand out to you?’ can feed in the other way around when you’re thinking ‘how can I make my writing exciting and engaging?’. It’s definitely helpful.
You were shortlisted for the 2018 Guardian 4th Estate BAME Short Story Prize while still a student – can you tell me about that?
It was at the end of second year, start of third year. It was fun! One of my creative writing teachers told me to enter it. We’d sort of workshopped the story in that term, and he said ‘this is actually, you know, good, you should consider sending it out to this thing’. So I thought that since he’s told me to, and it was free to enter, I might as well. I sent it out and didn’t think much of it and then a few months later, got that email back and was like ‘whattt!?’ It was super helpful not just in terms of the positive feedback but on a practical level, there was a ceremony at the end of it, which puts you in a room full of agents and editors and then slowly those doors start opening. It was where the writing career kind of started.
The first story in We Move, ‘Arrival’, recently won the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize – congratulations! Can you give a brief synopsis of that story? I read it this morning and I very much enjoyed it, but I’ll let you explain it in your own words.
Thank you! Ooh brief synopsis, okay, so it’s about a couple who’ve been together for long enough that their daily routine feels slightly like a rut. They live close to an airport, close to Heathrow airport, and often their front drive gets used by family and friends for parking when they go on holiday. But one day a distant family friend leaves the car but doesn’t return after her holiday, she disappears, and during the next few weeks the couple start using the car and they find that that slight change shifts something in their relationship. It’s quite a simple story, a sort of classic setup of a catalyst for change coming into their life and disrupting the rhythm ever so slightly. But I think it’s quite a good opening story for the collection I think, because what a lot of the stories are trying to get to is interpersonal relationships shifting. Yeah, and it’s a rare happy ending too, I think…
Has it always been short stories that you write? And why short stories in particular?
I’m actually writing a novel now, which is essentially a collection of novellas, almost. I think, for me, writing short stories allowed me a lot of breadth, rather than sticking to one idea for one narrative. I could do smaller ones and build up a kind of patchwork narrative of the community, so that’s what We Move is essentially. And I just think they’re more fun to write. You can hold a whole short story in your head at once, and you can tinker with it that way, whereas the novel feels like a long slog. But also they were the thing that I would love reading because you just instantly slip into someone else’s mind and then you can slip out so quickly at the end of it, and you can cover a lot more ground reading ten short stories than you would reading a whole novel. We Move is 17 stories and there’s a whole bunch of characters, it offers breadth. That’s what drew me to writing them.
So you like reading short stories – do you have any particular recommendations or a favourite collection or author?
One author I normally recommend is Yiyun Li, she does really brilliant short stories. She’s written a book called 1000 Years of Good Prayers, which is very good. I read her story ‘Extra’ when I was a student actually and that was a real eye opener for me. After that I just devoured different short stories. The great thing about short stories too is, especially coming from the perspective of a student, there’s so many available for free online, you don’t have to be buying book after book. You can just find them online and on different magazine websites and also on podcasts as well.
As a student I also especially love short stories when it’s the deadline and exam season, because I can finish one and put the book down again, and it makes the perfect study break. Whereas sometimes when reading a novel you just don’t want to stop reading!
Yeah, definitely. I’m bad at finishing short story collections just because I kind of dip in and out of different books at once, which I think is quite fun. It’s always the way I listen to music; with Spotify, you end up listening to playlists or random songs rather than a whole album all the way through. So I think short story collections suit that kind of consumption.
If you imagine people reading We Move, is that how you imagine them reading – dipping into one story and then coming back? Or do you think you’d like readers to sit and read it start to finish?
It’s interesting, I think it really is the reader’s object now. I do imagine people almost reading it on shuffle, you don’t have to read it in the order we’ve ended up putting it in. A lot of work went into finding an order that would have a nice rhythm and stuff but really, I wasn’t seeing it as a narrative with one big narrative arc, it’s more of a web. You can navigate it in your own way, in the same way you might walk around the neighbourhood. It’s the reader’s book to read however you like to read. If you are someone who likes to sit down for a few hours and completely finish a book, then I hope it works that way. I’ve read it from start to finish many times when editing it! But also, if you’re the type of reader who will dip in and out of stories or maybe you only have time for some of the stories for a while, and then the other ones at another point, I hope it can be enjoyed that way too. I think it should hold up to all different types of reading.
I’m glad you said that because I’ve already read it out of order! When did you begin writing?
When I was a teenager, I actually really wanted to do visual art. I thought that was going to be my creative outlet and I wanted to do Art at university, but I didn’t get good enough grades to get where I wanted to go. So I ended up applying to English with Creative Writing as a way to get that creative aspect in some way, and I was good at English at school. For the application to the University of Manchester you had to write a short story and a poem I think. So that was the first short story I wrote. I don’t remember anything about it apart from this one scene where it opens with someone watching someone dip a biscuit in a cup of tea and they’re hoping that it’s going to break and fall into the cup, I don’t know why. But that has ended up in the book. No bit of writing is wasted as far as I see it, it all gets recycled in some way.
Do you juggle your writing with working full time? What is your writing process like?
I’m an editor in children’s publishing, working with books for 7 to 9 year olds mainly. I work four days a week and then I write. Now I mainly write on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but I’ve only recently gone part time, so before then I was doing a lot of evenings. I kind of fit my writing around my work, because you gotta pay the bills!
There’s so much more to children’s books than people necessarily expect, and they can be really refreshing to read. I wonder if reading work for children has influenced your writing too?
I’m sure it has in ways I don’t really know. With children’s writing you have to be so attentive to the reader, you have to keep short attention spans hooked in certain ways, especially when you think of the younger stuff like picture books. They are almost these crystalline perfect things in some cases where every word has to count. They’re in that sense short stories where the form is a kind of constraint. I think the way working in publishing has helped is also that I can see the practical processes. A book is only this many pages, it’s only this many words – you can break it down in ways that are helpful I think, rather than just sitting there thinking ‘I have to create this amazing work of genius’.
I imagine it helps with seeing writing a book as a process and not about a finished product. A book doesn’t leave an author finished, it’s still got so many steps to go through.
100%. I think I finished my first draft, well, not first draft, but a proper draft I was happy with, in the summer of 2020. Then it went through so many revisions all the way up to September 2021. So over a year worth of more revisions, to then come out in April 2022. It’s a long process.
Does the published version look similar to that year when you had finished your first completed draft or does it look completely unrecognisable?
It was a lot bigger. There were maybe 21 stories or something ridiculous. I do try and give the reader value for money! And at that point it stretched as far back in the past as it did into the future, so there was some almost speculative fiction as well as historical fiction and contemporary fiction. They were all still set in this one neighbourhood, but I had these grand visions. Thankfully my editor was like, ‘yeah, no. Why? Bring it into the present.’ So at the moment there’s historical and present day stuff.
And the future is another collection yet to come!
Maybe, when I can figure out how to write sci-fi!
You’re still very young – what is next for you?
I would love to write full time. That would be a dreamy scenario. Working towards it slowly I guess. I just want to keep writing books, that’s what I see for my future. I’m working on a novel now and I’m quite a long way through it and it’s really fun. I think trying not to lose sight of what a crazy privilege it is to kind of be able to do this kind of work and to carry on enjoying it. The book only came out two weeks ago, so especially right now I’m just trying to enjoy it. I feel very lucky.
I did have one more question. Do you see yourself staying in London and see London as where the fiction would stay?
Well, the novel I’m currently writing is actually set globally. A lot of the narrative happens in India, but there are characters from different Punjabi diasporas around the world. So there’s characters from Birmingham in the UK as well as Canada, Singapore, Kenya. So that feels like the kind of polar opposite to We Move, which is so locally focused. I can see myself swaying to and from those two extremes I think. In terms of where I live, I feel like London will be for the foreseeable future, and I’m sure I’ll be writing more about London, soon enough. Maybe one day about Manchester!
We Move can be bought at Blackwell’s here.