What inspired you to write this story?
“Shooting Star” was inspired by a word and a pact. The word was Hilo. Hawaiians in the past named each of the thirty nights of a lunar month. The first night was called Hilo — to twist — because the moon was like a twisted thread.
This sliver of moon appears only briefly toward the end of my story. Yet the image was enough to catapult me into Orley’s world.
Orley’s a gentle giant who runs one of those old-style caravan parks in a scraggly, wannabe resort town called Desmond. His wife is sick and his daughter is rebelling so he’s struggling with loss — fearing it, trying to control it and ward it off. Love and fear lie coiled together in the heart of this character. It’s universal, isn’t it?
The pact was also significant. A friend and I have been working on a book together and the pact has been pivotal to our creative process. I can’t tell you any more about it, though, because if I do I’ll have to kill you … Just kidding! However, there does need to be an element of surprise about this, so let’s hope the book gets published soon. We’re reworking the manuscript now and I have my fingers crossed that “Shooting Star” will make the final cut.
What do you like about the long story form?
As someone who is used to writing poetry, and very little of it lengthy, the long story form gives me a chance to stretch out. What I’ve realised, though, is that to write anything well regardless of length — takes a similar degree of concentration and intensity. In other words, just because it’s a longer form, it doesn’t mean you can relax.
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?
Australia has been blessed with a long tradition of brilliant women writers like Christina Stead, Miles Franklin, Elizabeth Harrower, Ruth Park, Thea Astley and so many others. I feel buoyed by the example of these women who so passionately explored their creative dreams, our nation’s psyche, pressing social issues and more global concerns. Reading their work, and of their courage despite setbacks, helps me to keep putting pen to paper even when I feel like I’m banging my head against the walls of my loft and struggling to express myself. It’s great that The Carmel Bird Long Story Award can provide encouragement to women like me to keep writing and connecting deeply with the issues of our times.
How does your usual writing process work? Where do the ideas for your stories come from?
Every now and then I get the feeling that there’s a character, or a number of characters, lurking in the shadows waiting to step forward. Gerald Murnane expresses this neatly in “Last Letter to a Niece” in A History of Books when he says writing may be a kind of miracle through which “invisible entities are made aware of each other through the medium of the visible”.
Though these entities are nearby, Murnane adds, there is no reason to think these beloved personages have imagined the writer’s existence.
If this sounds too mystical, I’d also want to emphasise how ordinary and everyday writing is for me. As well as writing stories and poems, I’m a journalist, blogger (on www.abiggerbrighterworld.com) and editor, so writing is definitely a craft. There is much scribbling and crossing out in my journal, researching and reading, typing and deleting, putting in a comma and taking it out again, reading out loud for rhythm and pace and scrawling notes on multiple drafts. I’m lucky to have two superb writers and editors who act as first readers for me and who push me to face my fears and get the work out into the world.
With my short story “The Bearded Ones”, I’d come across a snippet about a 17th century adventurer called Maria Sybilla Merian, who’d raised eyebrows in the scientific world. I also had a vague idea that I wanted to write about an individual obsessed by a detailed process. I borrowed books from the library and learned as much as I could about my character’s chosen enterprise. I spent a billion years writing the first page or so and then somehow, mercifully, the rest of the narrative took off. I’d included a back story of two of the characters and really liked it but my first readers both said it didn’t belong in the story. I hacked it out and reworked it as “Two Sides Like Her Hips”, which recently won a short story award … so I was pretty happy I’d listened to their wisdom.
What writers do you turn to when you’re feeling uninspired? Do you have any tricks for getting motivated?
A story I return to again and again is “The Persimmon Tree” by Marjorie Barnard. The voice is pure melancholy and the description of a woman recovering from illness is moving. Much of it is set in one room looking out onto a street and yet the sense of place it evokes is amazing. I also love how it describes the tug of the seasons and the seductive curve of the persimmons on the windowsill. It’s a deceptively simple story, perennially fresh and quite beautiful.
So many writers inspire me! Alice Munro, William Trevor, Colm Tóibín, Amy Hempel, Elizabeth Hay, Lorrie Graham, Gwen Harwood, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, Gig Ryan, Josephine Rowe … The list is extremely large and grows daily. All of these writers remind me that reading and writing are potent in fighting off the gloom. I think it’s Ray Bradbury who said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
Motivation is tricky. I set dates and times in my diary to devote to writing and try not to let anything interrupt that. Once I’m there I try to stay there and write. Even if it’s drivel I can sometimes later see there’s grit in the slime that might be cultivated to form a pearl. I also set deadlines with my first readers and try to stick to these for getting my work to them.
While all this is happening, it’s really important not to get dispirited about how long it takes to write anything good. If I Loved You I Would Tell You This by Robin Black is one of the most startling short story collections released in the last few years. Its ten stories took Black eight years to produce. I agree with Colm Tóibín, who says his writing comes out of silence. This kind of work can’t be rushed.
Marjorie Lewis-Jones is a Sydney-based writer, editor and poet. She works in publishing and media management, has run creative writing and journalism workshops and is a voracious reader and reviewer with eclectic tastes.
Book available in ePub and mobi formats at Tomely