Claire Aman’s story ‘Why the Owl Gazes at the Moon’ was selected from entries in the 2014 Carmel Bird Award for the Michael McGirr Selects series. We asked Claire about the origins of this story, about her writing habits and her influences. To read a copy of her story and to find out more about the digital long stories series, see below.
Do you remember the name and personality of the first character you ever created?
I think it was Albertine, about 20 years ago. She was an introvert. I don’t think she had a surname. She was secretive, reserved, people thought she was sullen but she was passionate and damaged. She reminded me of an owl. Albertine became Yvette the night roadhouse cook in ‘Why the Owl Gazes at the Moon’.
What drove you to write the story which is in the Michael McGirr Selects series?
I heard a Chinese folk tale in 1983 in Penang about why the owl gazes at the moon, and it stayed in my mind. I’m not sure how, but over the years I wrote a novel that retold that tale, using different characters and plot. The novel took 20 years, and I eventually distilled it into a novella. I rewrite it every few years. I try different structures and viewpoints, different timescales. Each time I come back to it, I find I have a different emotional relationship to it. It is a personal story. My own sister died when we were teenagers, and the story talks about my own feelings, even though the events are not the same. Writing it has been good for me. I don’t think I could have expressed my feelings any other way, other to give them to a fictional person. It also taught me how to write. Before that, I hadn’t written fiction. I went to Varuna three time for rewrites – that was enormously helpful.
How do you approach a new story? With a clear plan of where the narrative is going, or is it more of a ‘well, let’s see how this goes’ kind of approach?
I didn’t know at all what this story would tell. I only hung on to the Chinese tale as a scaffold. I thought about the role of each character in the tale, and gave each of my characters a corresponding role. So that part was pre-ordained. The actual plot only developed very gradually over the years. I didn’t know what I was doing but I loved going to that part of my mind where the story was unfolding. It was quite a long time before I understood that the story was to do with my own feelings about my sister. It’s very much a product of the subconscious.
Is there one particular author or book that you look to as a source of inspiration for your own writing? What are you reading now? Any recommendations?
I love Gillian Mears, Roger McDonald, Elizabeth Jolley, Cormac McCarthy, Shakespeare, Herman Hesse, Helen Garner, and Goscinny & Uderzo. They probably all inspire my subconscious, which seems to be the engine of writing. At the moment I’m really enjoying Paddy O’Reilley’s Peripheral Vision. I was given Harper Lee’s new book for my birthday so that’s next. I recommend Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.
How does writing fit into your day-to-day life? Do you have any unusual writing habits? Any advice to share for those stuck in a writing slump?
This year I’ve loved having my own study with a nice desk. It reminds me of Varuna. But I don’t have to write there. I can write anywhere as long as it’s warm enough and not too many interruptions. I keep notebooks. When I’ve got a story coming on my notebook gets filled with odd images, scribble, diagrams, maybe pictures pasted in, and I write down a lot of questions like ‘who is this person?’ or ‘what is this about?’ or ‘why did she do that?’ I only write when I feel a story building up – that can last for six months or more. Otherwise I don’t think about writing. But I’m glad I don’t have to try and make a living out of it. I’d be poor, and there’d be slumps.
Claire lives in Grafton, an inspiring town. Her fiction has appeared in Cracking the Spine Ten short Australian stories and how they were written (Spineless Wonders, 2014), New Australian Stories, Best Australian Stories 2008 and 2014, Escape (Spineless Wonders, 2011), The Trouble with Flying (Margaret River Press), Southerly, Island, Heat, Australian Book Review and Griffith Review, and read on ABC Radio. Her writing life has been nurtured through Varuna, and an Australian Society of Authors mentorship.
You can find more Michael McGirr Selects stories, here.
Book available at Tomely