“Apparently the shortest story ever written is six words long,” says Racha Mourtada.
“That story was supposedly written by Hemingway – but then they debunked that. I think the story is: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ It’s like a novel in a sentence.”
Mourtada has spent a lot of time thinking about how a story can be distilled down to its essence. The Lebanese author and founder of Beirut publishing house Luqoom has just released her first book of illustrated short stories – stories so short that she describes them as "literary canapes". Each story in 55 Slightly Sinister Stories is only 55 words long.
Distant spouses, jilted lovers, narcoleptic drivers, murderous art collectors and frustrated writers come to life in a few meticulously structured sentences, playing out grandiose dramas that are over in a flash, leaving the reader to imagine the aftermath. Mourtada’s stories are quirky and infused with a delicious dark humour, inspired by some of her favourite authors, including Edward Gorey and Tim Burton.
The author first started experimenting with microfiction – a subset of flash fiction in which stories must be written in fewer than 300 words – back in 2011, when she was living in the UAE.
"I was working on a novel at the time – which I'm still working on now – and I kept complaining to people that I could never find time to write," she says.
“There’s the full-time job and the gym and friends – how are you supposed to find time to write every day? Then I heard about this 55-word story contest and I was like, ‘OK, I like that idea. How about I write one 55-word story a day, starting New Year’s Day of 2011, for as long as I can?’”
For almost five months, Mourtada wrote a story every day. “It made me realise that you really can find time to work. I’d scribble stuff before going to work, on my lunch break, on the way to the gym,” she says. “Even though they’re 55 words, it does take a while to write them because they start out bigger and you edit them down. You have to really look at each word and whether it’s needed or not, which is a great writing exercise.”
Over the years, Mourtada has written 180 of these microstories, and her favourite 55 appear in the book. The opening tale, The Best Laid Plans, delves deep into the human capacity for selfishness and complacency: "He was sweet, quirky and smitten. She could tell him anything. They laughed at the same idiotic things and planned wildly unfeasible trips. He was like family, that's all. He was her backup, her Plan B. She eyed the wedding invite warily. It hadn't occurred to her that he might be someone else's Plan A."
In seven short sentences, without revealing the characters’ names, locations or backgrounds, Mourtada manages to convey the dynamic of an entire relationship and the moment someone is faced with an uncomfortable truth about themselves. The guilty thrill of recognition a lot of readers will feel about taking something – or someone – for granted strikes an emotional chord, despite the succinctness of the story.
"I think with these types of really short stories – and short stories in general – you have to get at the action immediately, so I just zoom in at that moment that's crucial, as opposed to starting somewhere and working towards it," she says. "I remember one of my writing instructors was like, 'Start your story as close to the end as possible', and I think that's a good point. What I've learnt is that what you leave out of the story is just as important as what you put in.
“You don’t have to point the reader to every single thing. You don’t have to hold their hand,” she adds.
Many of the stories are about relationships – often less than perfect ones. Mourtada says her focus on love, death and revenge was unconscious. Ideas were often triggered by observing people as she went about her day-to-day life, snippets of overheard conversations, fragments of radio or television shows and news articles. The resulting stories are thematically diverse, but the thread of black comedy that runs throughout the collection helps to tie them together.
“I didn’t set out for them to be dark – to be honest, I just tend towards a dark sense of humour. There are a couple of deaths and murders – and a suicide in there, too,” Mourtada says. “And there are a handful of ones that are actually quite sweet – they’re not dark at all.”
The writer is not afraid to leave her stories ambiguous, allowing her readers to come up with their own interpretations.
For example, Artistic Appreciation could be read as a sweet story about a first date – but those who have read John Fowles's novel The Collector may have a far more sinister interpretation. "He was painfully beautiful up close," it reads. "She wanted to drink in his lines as though he were one of her favourite roped-off paintings. There was a bare wall in her new apartment that needed adornment. She invited him for drinks, admiring the way the rust-coloured paint brought out the flecks of gold in his eyes."
Lynn Atme, who illustrated the book, added a new element to each story through her delicate ink drawings. "I would read the story and usually an idea would come into my head and I'd build on that original idea, but sometimes I'd get stuck," says Atme. "I'd try to converse with Racha about what image makes most sense to show. We'd usually agree on the more sinister interpretation, so that was fun."
55 Slightly Sinister Stories is the first adult book released by Mourtada's publishing house, which she launched in 2017.
It is released under a new imprint called Rose Luqoom, which will specialise in adult fiction. “The name Luqoom came from the sweets,” she explains. “So the idea is that books and stories are these sweet little treats, like rich desserts. So even for the grown-up books I wouldn’t do novels,” she adds. “Maybe short stories, essays, everything in that short-and-sweet genre, with everything illustrated.”
Slightly Sinister Stories is available on Amazon and will be stocked by Kinokuniya in Dubai