Marian Matta, author of Danny Boy
Although Danny is a composite character and his situation and actions arose from my imagination, I was moved to write his story because of the personal circumstances of a friend of mine. It’s an unusual story for me in that I started writing with a specific aim in mind: I wanted readers to see the world through Danny’s eyes rather than bringing their preconceived ideas to bear.
What do you like about the long story form?
I think one of the special charms of a long story is the opportunity to maintain a concentrated gaze on a particular aspect while having enough space to flesh out characters. I can work within the boundaries of a single metaphor and hope a reader will make connections over the whole story. And if it turns out unsatisfactorily, it’s short enough to be completely reworked. As a reader I love the myriad snapshots which such stories provide.
The Carmel Bird Long Story Award was open to women writers only – how does the fact that you are a woman writing in contemporary Australia impact on you and your writing?
I cut my story-writing teeth in the Brokeback Mountain fandom where I was mostly writing under a non-gender-specific pseudonym and from a western American male perspective, so it’s now interesting to see how much the Australian woman is emerging in these later stories. However, I do enjoy confounding reader expectations about gender, so occasionally I adopt a less obviously female style. When reading a story I try to ignore the gender of the writer but inevitably I reach a point where I want to know, a thing which annoys me! So I guess the short answer is that being a woman writing in contemporary Australia doesn’t impact on my writing – I simply write the way I want to – but I think it impacts on the way a story is received by a reader.
How does your usual writing process work? Where do the ideas for your stories come from?
My house is littered with scribblings on the backs of envelopes which I’ve made when something caught my fancy. It might be the way a person’s expression makes me feel, or the memory evoked by, say, the shape and colour of a fence, or an abstract idea, or just a pleasing combination of words. I frequently start with an opening line and then follow it to see where it takes me. In the case of one story, I had the opening line for a few years without having any idea what came next or even who the person was in that line. Then I hit upon the structure this story could follow – a boy climbing a tree – and by the time he reached the top I realised what it was about. The revelation surprised me as I had thought it was a relatively cheerful tale but it wound up being very grim and dark! Once I know where I’m going, I usually write everything I can think of, then fill in the gaps, then start paring back until it all fits within the mood or theme I’ve eventually decided upon. That final stage is where I tend to lose most of the humour.
What writers do you turn to when you’re feeling uninspired? Do you have any tricks for getting motivated?
I don’t turn to anyone in particular but I’ll occasionally read through short story anthologies to remind myself of the breadth of subject material and approaches. If I’m feeling unmotivated I’ll read through my back-of-envelope scribblings a few times then wait to see which one my brain starts focusing on. And if that doesn’t work I pick whichever idea seems most promising, force myself to write a few hundred words – usually dreadful – and then let my subconscious mull over it for a while. Deadlines also help the motivation!
After decades of writing whatever was needed from medical articles to film scripts, Marian Matta – grandmother, history tragic and circus student – is finally tackling the short story format. She lives in the hills outside Melbourne and she was the winner of 2012 Hal Porter Short Story Prize.
Book available at Tomely