Wow. I admire so many. Three stand out as changing what I knew was possible to do with the form: Haruki Murakami, Margo Lanagan and Ali Smith. Oh and Tom Cho. So that’s four. The way they use language and situation blew my mind. Other than that I dearly love Katherine Mansfield, Barbara Baynton, Miranda July, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, JG Ballard, ZZ Packer. And recent stories I’ve read by local writers such as Steven Amsterdam, Emmet Stinson, Bob Franklin, Josephine Rowe, Cate Kennedy … There’s too many. I know I will wake up tonight thinking about all the writers who should have been on this list.
2. What is the most memorable short story you have read? And why does it stand out for you?
Good lord. What a tricky question. Okay, right now, today, three come to mind. The child by Ali Smith. It’s beautiful, odd and laugh out loud funny. Singing my sister down by Margo Lanagan. It’s moving, uncompromising, set in a world nothing like ours but entirely familiar. Hunting Knife by Haruki Murakami. The image in that story of the hunting knife has never left me. Why don’t you dance? By Raymond Carver. A whole life time in a few pages. So that’s four.
3. What do you like about the short story form?
It’s so wonderful to read and so difficult to write. 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. So I see it as a life long challenge. I used to play the piano and in a weird way 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?
I’m going to borrow the words of someone who knows my writing well. I asked him this question recently because I was having trouble seeing my writing very clearly. My stories usually contain one or all of the following: 1. An odd or slightly skewed perspective or situation 2. Humour. 3. A somewhat melancholic overtone. That resonated with me. My writing has also been described as like ‘being inside a bell jar’ and ‘taking the reader from the mundane to the metaphysical and back again’. I am naturally more of an ‘internal’ writer. I have to work hard to ensure there is action and externalisation in my writing.
5. Which of your stories are you most fond of right at this moment and why?
I have a soft spot for a story I wrote a few years ago called Tiny Happy People. It’s one of those rare ones that kind of came out whole. I like the emotional truth of the story and its execution. It’s a story I would enjoy reading, unlike many others of mine that make me squirm a little. Having said that, I am generally fond of the most recent story I’ve been writing. It’s like we’ve been through a big journey together, sometimes a battle, and hopefully come out the other side in an okay shape. Unlike Tiny Happy People, the story I’ve just finished writing: Uncharted has been through about five complete re-writes and at least that many drafts. We’re both tired now and going to have a little rest.
6. Where do the ideas for your stories come from? (Take us through an example)
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. Recently 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 thought 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 wrote a story structured around that song and the questions of memory and yearning it provoked in me. The song was I won’t let you down by PhD.
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 great deal 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. Many in the fiction group are genre writers, which I’m not particularly. Their clarity of vision is enormously beneficial for me to test if a story is working or not. 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. Do you feel the short story form is valued in Australia? What makes you say this?
It is absolutely valued by writers and the literary world. This is indicated by the number of competitions, journals, workshops and articles I see dedicated to short stories. I think readers love short stories but perhaps don’t always think about them as a first choice purchase from a book shop (as with a novel). Perhaps they are seen more as these gifts that come with the Sunday papers occasionally. If you’re interested in earning a serious income from writing I don’t think short stories would be the way to go. It’s not a hugely commercial venture for most people.
I wonder if short stories are viewed similarly to short films? Studies in the craft that are done in preparation for a more substantial or ‘meaningful’ work – a novel or feature film. I don’t agree with this, I see them as different art forms, but I can see how it might be a perception of some people.
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) and he has recently started broadcasting some of my short prose pieces as part of that. I love that kind of crossover of art form and audience.
10. What advice would you like to offer Spineless Wonders?
Relish the process as much as the product, those hours spent in the world of the story are frustrating, exciting, what it’s all about. Read the work of wonderful writers. And then have breaks from reading – go to galleries, out for walks, get on public transport. If you’re smarter than me you’ll strategise your writing and career. Otherwise you spend a long time wandering around, bumping into things (plays, or is it poetry? Oh excuse me, short stories, and a novel?).
And these bits of advice from Wells Tower (and yes, he should be on that list above): Can you make it better? Write in good faith. Work hard, try hard, try not to be precious or sentimental.