We interview Melbourne author and dramatist, Emilie Collyer about the audio story, ‘The Other Guy’ which she recorded for our Earworms program. Here she also talks about the influences on her writing and writing tips. You can preview ‘The Other Guy’, written and narrated by Emilie below.
1. Who are the short fiction authors you admire (Australian or otherwise, alive or dead)?
Wow. I admire so many. Three stand out as changing what I knew was possible to do with the form and also writing truly entertaining and gripping stories: Haruki Murakami, Margo Lanagan and Ali Smith. Other than that I dearly love Katherine Mansfield, Barbara Baynton, Franz Kafka, JG Ballard, Donald Barthelme, ZZ Packer. Local writers such as Steven Amsterdam, A.S. Patric, Maria Takolander, Josephine Rowe, Maxine Beneba Clarke … These are writers who come to mind right now but there are so many more.
2. What is the most memorable short story you have read? And why does it stand out for you?
I find this a very difficult question as there is no one short story that is the most memorable. Different ones stand out at different times both in current reading and in my memory. Having said that, I do return frequently to a story called ‘The Child’ by Ali Smith (from: The first person and other stories). It’s about a woman who is shopping at a supermarket and discovers a child in her trolley. She takes the child home as it doesn’t seem to belong to anyone and once inside her car the child starts ranting at her in the way a 50 year old racist and sexist man might.
I love it primarily because it is funny and dark. It explores a universal theme – the relationship between adults and children and in particular women and babies – in a startling and fresh way. It’s irreverent and profound at the same time. The language is crisp and alive and leaps off the page. It’s a wonderful story.
3. What do you like about the short story form?
Getting a whole world in a bite sized piece. As a reader it’s like eating a delicious meal – doesn’t last long but can linger in the memory forever. Short stories can make you see or hear something you’ve never noticed before. Kind of like tuning forks – they help you listen closely to the world. As a writer I find it an incredible exercise in shape and discipline. I have only written a couple that I think really work. It’s a fantastic way to explore an idea or a mental or emotional ‘itch’. So I see it as a life long challenge. I used to play the piano and in a way I enjoyed practising every day as much as performing. That’s a bit how I feel about short stories.
4. How would you describe your own writing?
It’s a bit like being asked to describe yourself isn’t it. I think I am strong at ideas but have to work very hard at execution. I try to write stories that engage and entertain but that may also provoke thought, invite the reader to see the world in a different way. I do love a speculative bent. I often use humour. There is often a wry or melancholic tone to my writing. One of my favourite reviews (which was of a play of mine) described my writing as: ‘Ballardian, Sontagian. Like a post cyber punk Gertrude Stein.’
5. Which of your stories are you most fond of right at this moment and why?
I’ve been pushing my writing more overtly into speculative / science fiction over the last few years, with some success. I had a story called ‘What you wish for’ published in a US sci fi / fantasy anthology. It’s about a 38 year old woman who wakes up one morning to find she’s been adopted by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. I am fond of it because it’s funny but also poignant. Also I exorcised a few of my own ‘perfect family’ demons while writing it and I love that it has found an international audience.
6. Where do the ideas for your stories come from? (Take us through the genesis of the story published by Spineless Wonders.)
Something I see or hear that goes ping! A question I don’t know the answer to. Roland Barthes speaks about the ‘punctum’ of a photograph – the thing that draws your eye and gives you an emotional charge. I look for those around me, in images, conversations, news stories, objects etc and then try and write about them.
The idea for ‘The Other Guy’ came from a moment when I was hanging out some washing and a melody line from a song popped into my head. I couldn’t remember the name of the song, I knew it was from the 80s and I’d liked it, but hadn’t though about it in years. I Googled the line from the song, found it, watched the video on YouTube and was really taken by its ‘dagginess’. I started writing to find a form and story that could capture that kind of surprising sense of nostalgia. I trawled my own memories for relationships and images that fitted the same landscape and constructed a story by piecing all of those things together with a fictional construct.
7. What is your writing process – from idea to publication? (Do you go it alone or are others involved?)
I am generally a solo writer. I like to keep ideas in my cave until they feel strong enough to bring out for further inspection. I have taken plays through extensive ‘workshopping and development’ and that’s taught me a lot about when work is ready to be shown and tested and when the process can do more harm than good. Now I am lucky to be a part of two writing groups, a poetry one and a fiction one. I don’t workshop every piece, but the outside perspective is really useful for some. I often listen for what’s working and try to make that stronger and apply it to the whole piece, rather than getting reactive and trying to fix all the things that aren’t working – let them fade away or cut them out. My partner is also very helpful. He’s a writer as well, but in comedy and performance, so we complement each other. He’s very honest.
Each piece has its own trajectory. I usually have a few different things on the go, at different phases of development, and even in different forms. That way I can work consistently but let pieces rest that need time to settle, circle back, edit them when I’m ready or when a deadline demands it.
8. What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve received as a writer?
That’s another question that is really difficult to answer. Things like: ‘Don’t stop’ are very useful to hear, especially from more experienced writers. In the last few years the thing that really shifted my perspective was doing a Masters in Writing for Performance. My tutor was great. Very clear in feedback, about what parts of my writing were strong and where it fell down so I learned to see it externally in a way I hadn’t been able to so clearly before. Also, he said to me: ‘You’re a good writer. You need to be more confident.’ These seem like pretty simple statements but they totally changed how I viewed myself as a writer. Of course I need to continually push myself to improve and I have a long way to go. But this helped me own what I was doing, that it was up to me to ‘claim a space’ and then set about becoming the best writer I could with the skill set I have.
9. How do you feel about your work being published in non-print forms such as digital and audio?
Delighted. However it can reach a keen audience, and especially a different kind of audience, is wonderful. A friend of mine has a podcast about impro (theatre) where he has broadcast some of my poetry and short prose pieces. I love that kind of crossover of art form and audience.