A woman granted a superpower discovers it’s more trouble than it’s worth. A neighbourhood forum becomes the setting for a bizarre ghost story. A children’s entertainer wrestles with problems that are nothing to joke about. A harassed dad attempts to meet the challenge of the primary school cake competition. 

By turns tender and satirical, witty and bizarre, the stories in this debut collection cast a fresh eye on first-world problems. Funny and humane, they zoom in on the absurdities and poignancies in work, family, love and loss in our frenetic modern lives.

Dan Brotzel’s stories have been published widely online and in magazines. He won the 2018 Riptide Journal short story competition and was runner-up in the 2019 Leicester Writes competition. Dan’s debut collection, Hotel du Jack and Other Stories, was published this month by Sandstone Press. Philipa Coughlan reviewed Hotel du Jack for nbmagazine.co.uk and found the collected stories to have “a slight edge”, “some unexpected twists” and “a good pace that catches your reading attention almost immediately”. She was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask Dan some questions about his work:

Philipa Coughlan: I was delighted to review your forthcoming short story collection, Hotel du Jack and Other Stories, and wondered how you decided which stories to include?

Dan Brotzel: I whittled the selection down from about double the number of stories, most of which were written over the last 4-5 years. My editor at Sandstone played a big part in the selection too. Some stories weren’t strong enough to make the cut, some were too similar to each other as an idea or theme, and some weren’t really of a piece with the feel of the collection as a whole (not surprising as back in the day I’d never dare dream they’d be collected like this!). Towards the end, a few were written specifically for the collection.

PC: I often get ideas by just sitting (in cafes or on trains) listening to snippets of conversation by people. Where do you get your starting points for stories?

DB: Yes! Often it’s just the feel of a place I come across (‘The Beach Shop’ in Hotel du Jack was one of these) or an incident I see that triggers something. I like to base things on something real (a conversation, an incident, the atmosphere of a specific place) and then make something up from there. I find as long as I can capture the idea in some way (perhaps with some notes or pics), I can come back and write it up even a long time later.

PC: Short stories don’t tend to get as much publicity or book sales as novels. Why do you think that is?

DB: Historically there’s been a bit of snobbery about stories I think, compared to novels. I think some people prefer novels because they like the idea of getting immersed in one big world and seeing how a complex narrative plays out through the eyes of a developing character. A short story is more like a poem or a piece of flash in that it can deliver its impact in a much more compressed, elliptical way. But they can be just as powerful. I think there is a real interest in short stories at the moment because our lives are so busy and fragmented – several people have said to me that this collection is ideal for reading on a Tube journey…

PC: You have won awards and competitions with your short stories. Is it a good way for aspiring writers to start out and test the responses of potential readers?

DB: Absolutely. There is a whole world of litmags and competitions out there, and the people who edit and organise them are incredibly welcoming and supportive. Most of them are aspiring writers too, so they understand the agonies of rejection first hand! Getting things published or making a competition longlist gives you a real sense of validation, and a first audience. Deadlines help to concentrate the mind too.

PC: Your publisher, Sandstone Press, is a smaller house. Do you think they are more flexible about trying out newer writers and different styles of work?

DB: My sense is that with a smaller publisher like Sandstone, you work with a group of people who are really passionate about their books and only take on things they really believe in. The decision-making process is more direct, and they can be eclectic in their selections when they find something they really like. It’s a great time for indie publishers at the moment, in terms of awards and TV adaptations and so on, and Sandstone are right in the heart of that.

PC: You have worked with two other writers (Alex Woolf and Martin Jenkins) on a comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg. Two questions really – Where on earth did the title come from?! And what was it like working with two other writers?

DB: Ah. Well, Kitten on a Fatberg is the story of a group of eccentric would-be writers who come together every few weeks to critique each other’s work. They are all desperate to get published and all, in their different ways, slightly odd. One of them, Blue, is a Sylvia Plath and Goth fan who writes very moody poems with very downbeat titles. ‘Kitten on a Fatberg’ is one of hers.

Alex and Martin are buddies of mine in a real-life (and slightly more normal) writers’ group. We had great fun working together, though of course it is quite different from writing as a one. In practical terms you have to come up with a process that allows each of you to write when you can – we solved this by writing the novel as a series of emails, with each one of us running a couple of characters. We set up an email account for the book, and fired our messages into that. But there are so many benefits of collaboration: you can motivate each other when the going gets tough, and spark ideas off each other too.

PC: There are some strange characters with crazy ideas for stories in the novel who meet in a writing group. What are your thoughts on writing groups, and did you come across such eccentric people yourself?

DB: Between us we’ve been in quite a few different groups, and I think our characters are exaggerations or parodies of people you might meet in writers’ groups – ourselves especially! It’s really a very affectionate look at that world.

Personally, I love our real-life writers’ group and would be lost without it. It’s a sort of safe space where you can try stuff out and get really useful feedback. For any writer looking to develop, at any level, I’d recommend finding a group.

PC: The novel is not yet available because you and the publisher, Unbound, are using an innovative way of producing it through crowd funding. Why was it done this way? And have you reached the financial target to get it out for everyone to read?

DB: All Unbound books are crowdfunded. It’s an interesting approach because you cover the costs of production ahead of publication through pre-orders, so there’s no advance to work off. It does mean you have to be prepared to do quite a bit of hustle! Once the book is funded, it switches to the usual publishing model in terms of production, distribution and so on.

At the time of writing, the book is 96% funded!

PC: Apart from writing, what else fills your days?

DB: I work for a marketing agency by day, and my partner Eve and I have three young children who keep us very busy!

PC: Are there any other ideas floating around just waiting to appear in your next book or second set of short stories?

DB: Yes! I always have a few stories on the go. I seem to have started several at the moment but can’t work out how to finish any of them yet! The great thing about short stories is that you can jot an idea down and come back to it later, years later in some cases. I also have a novel at draft stage, called The Wolf in the Woods.

Our thanks to Philipa and to Dan for this excellent Q&A.

Hotel Du Jack and Other Stories by Dan Brotzel
Sandstone Press Ltd 9781912240876 pbk Jan 2020