Cherry Bomb (Cassandra Atherton)

30 May

I wished it were a phantom pregnancy.  I prayed I was really Christine and had been impregnated by the Angel of Music.  Or the ghost of Gaston Leroux.  Not you.  Never you.  Never Dale Fiddich.  Not Mr Dale Fiddich of Ascot Vale.  No letters after your name.  Just the school roll at your fingertips.  I scrolled through the results thinking that ‘yahoo’ must be a sick joke in this context.  A sorry smorgasbord of choices.  ‘It won’t be long now,’ I told myself, ‘not too much longer.’  I scrolled more furiously.  Titles blurred.  Blue font filled the screen.  I felt the buzz in my veins.  Life blood.  Blue veins.  Blue like the computer screen.  And the Wedgwood my mother had locked away in the crystal cabinet.  Just in case.  Fear of the two ‘S’s: smashing or selling.  But I had never wanted to break china.  Only men’s hearts.  And I couldn’t be bothered stealing either.  China and hearts weren’t worth all that much in the end.  They couldn’t smother or suffocate or crush so I had no use for them.  I clicked on the third website.

Sheryl Lynn Massip placed her six-month-old son behind the tyre of her car and ran him over, repeatedly crushing his head.

Josephine Mesa beat her two year old son with a toilet plunger then buried her battered baby in a trash bin.

I didn’t have to read the screen, I knew it off by heart.  But seeing it in print made it real.  Made it possible.  Made the blood rush to my head.  Made the plane ticket under my pillow my last chance.  Last week I had been given a Barbie suitcase on wheels.  Small enough for hand luggage.  Pink enough to be mine.  You told me that New York would make it dirty.  Your orange case was filthy from all the travelling.  But I wasn’t going to New York.  Not this time.  No little apartment in Brooklyn.   No Empire Diner or Tom’s Restaurant.  No celebration eggs sunny side up.  No eggs at all.  Ever again.

If only they had photos on the website.  Photos of the dead babies.  Photos of the mothers’ relief.  The mothers’ first uninterrupted night of sleep since the baby’s birth.  No conscience.  No Macbeth to murder sleep or somnambulist Lady Mac to wring her hands.  Just joy.  Joy at the silence.  At having your life back.  At being in control again.  And having bubble baths and a social life and young friends who have never contemplated being stitched up after giving birth.   My best friend’s dad fainted during a video of a woman giving birth in a Health and Human Relations class when I was in primary school.  He had five daughters.  We thought it was funny.  He didn’t faint during the video of the abortion.   I closed the lid of the computer.  I knew when I opened it again that Sheryl and Josephine would still be there.  Waiting for me.  Inviting me to join them.  Special club.  Perhaps there would be an addition.  I decided to refresh the screen when I returned.  Just in case I was already there.  For my murderous thoughts.  And vanity.  I wanted a caramel macchiato.  For all of us.  Bitter but syrupy.  If the barrista asked me if I wanted extra caramel on the top I would tell her ‘only if you criss-cross it across the top.  Like ballerina’s ribbons’.  I wondered fleetingly if anybody had ever strangled a baby with a pointe shoe ribbon.  Starbucks.  I remember what it was like.  Before I knew.  Before the plane ticket.  Before the search for filicide.

I didn’t know I was carrying your baby then,  I just wanted more tenderness.  But you were always scared.  Too scared to touch me or bring me daffodils until I asked.  You wanted the schoolgirl and I just wanted to play house.  But I only had six more months to be a schoolgirl and a lifetime to be a wife.  Meeting lonely men in Starbucks was the saddest thing I have ever done.  Up until now.   If they have sex with me then the onus is no longer on you.  It could be any of their babies.  It wouldn’t necessarily be yours then and that would make it easier.  For when the time comes.

He sees me and I can feel him smiling into the back of my head.   I continue writing.  It’s his lucky afternoon.  He sits down and he tells me about his daughter and his passion for swimming.  Solitary sport.  Too much time to think in a place too much like the womb.  I’m afraid of drowning even though I am a good swimmer.  I represented my school in backstroke at the interschool sports.  At Oak Park.  I got caught on the ropes.  Perilous zig zag.  I peek at the clock on my mobile phone and hope he doesn’t see me looking.  If he had a knitted hat with a pom-pom on the top and a set of mittens he could be straight out of an American Christmas movie filled with snowmen and turkeys.

I know he is the one I have arranged to meet because he looks out of place here.  Argyle scarf.  Hair too long and shaggy.  Not as good looking as Darcy in Bridget Jones but just as dated and daggy.  He might even have looked better in a reindeer jumper than Colin Firth.  If he has a daughter he could easily be the father of my baby after we have sex.  Except of course that I am already pregnant.  But that is just a minor detail.  Insignificant in the scheme of things.  He is nervous and tries to look into my eyes but I can’t give him that.  I can only give him my body.  Once.

‘How old are you?’ he asks before we leave Starbucks.

‘Old enough.  Does it matter?’ I smile at him.

‘Well, I guess not.  Are you older than my daughter?’ he presses, taking my elbow like my old-fashioned grandfather.

‘How old is she?’ I reply.

‘Fifteen,’ he continues.

‘Absolutely.’ Absolutely leaves no doubt.  I will absolutely have sex with him.  Dale is absolutely the father of my unborn baby.

‘But not by much?’ he pushes.

I wanted to scream Freud and Oedipus.  I wanted to fiddle with the salt shaker but there are no salt shakers on the tables at Starbucks. I always feel better when I feel up a salt shaker.  I don’t mind the glass ones but my preference is for the cold, metallic, phallic ones.

‘Look, are you up for this or not?’ I snap, already knowing what his answer will be.

I return to my computer.  Hand on my stomach.  Throw my sodden panties in the wash.  I pick up Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born.  I pin up a poster of Brooke Shields and her children.  I fantasise about leaving my child with Gwen Harwood in the park.

Late at night.  I don’t rely on the moonlight.  I have an electric lamp.  I switch on my computer.  There is another one.

Asuka Lee electrocuted her baby in a bathtub and then buried her in the basement beneath her old toys and clothes.

It wouldn’t be long.

Blurred Impressions (Callie Doyle-Scott)

23 May

I wish I could say that I had a plan.

But when I eventually decided to say something… it was as if the awkwardness in my gut dissolved and carried me along with it. A moment before, I had been prepared to shut down Skype, close my laptop, and go to bed as though I didn’t have a thousand threads of disappointment squirming like tapeworms in my belly.

Looking back, maybe it was because I could see Mum’s face, not just hear her voice.

‘Actually, Mum… there’s something else I have to tell you.’

Immediately I could see she knew that it was serious, whatever ‘it’ was. Which only made me even more nervous.

‘Don’t worry… I’m not on drugs, I’m not gay, and I haven’t got anyone pregnant.’

What else could she possibly think it could be now? That you’ve murdered someone?

She won’t like it she’ll look at you like you’re a monster and that’ll be it over done finished a disappointment

THAT’S ENOUGH. Just say it. Say it. She’s your mother. Think of your stepfather, your stepbrother- no, she’s my stepsister now… quickly, before you run away again, say it, say it, say it, say it!

‘Mum… I… I have a condition called Gender Dysphoria… I’m a girl.’

Beat. Mum nods slowly.

‘O-kay.’

Another silence. In hindsight, a second.

‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.’

That was when the mouse escaped into Mum’s kitchen.

*

‘What if… hypothetically speaking… I was your daughter instead of your son?’

‘Darling, I’ll always love you. No matter who you choose to be, you’ll still be you.’

I wish I could remember that conversation as it happened. All I know for sure is that we were driving away from the theatre one afternoon. It was cold, but the sun was shining so brightly.

*

I take a quick look in my wardrobe after hanging up from Skype two hours later. A fluffy black scarf, complete with matching hat. Kitty ears. My favourite skirt. Two pairs of jeans, carefully shaped. Elegant leather boots with perfect heels that I’ve never had the courage to wear in public.

*

I always told myself that I was good at hiding who I really was. Even now, I’m still surprised when someone, usually someone who I’ve never met, manages to actually see me. That friend of Mum’s whose first thought on meeting me was ‘what a lovely woman he’d make.’ Katie’s first boyfriend, who, just after I’d figured out who I was, took her aside after a long day of Dungeons and Dragons to ask her if I was transgendered. Another friend of a friend, after seeing me from a distance, asked Katie who her ‘gorgeous’ companion was.

Every time it happened, I couldn’t figure out why. I wasn’t beautiful, or even pretty. I was about as feminine as a gorilla, with the hair to match. … or so I thought.

*

Did you know that every human being is female in the womb? It’s a difference of a few degrees in temperature that determines our eventual sex, but every single tiny embryo starts off as a girl.

‘I wonder if you’re transgendered because you were born premature, Callie?’ Mum muses one evening. We’re both curled up in our respective thrones in that sleepy half-hour between eight-thirty to nine o’clock at night (she in her red-and-white striped armchair, me buried in my nest of pillows on the couch,) so it takes a little while for her question to filter through my daydreams of maiden knights kissing sentient stories and even longer for me to think of a response. It’s honestly never something that I’ve thought much about before, but the thought that I might have been born in that magical period of time just before my sex was imprinted on my brain by those few extra degrees makes a lot of sense.

I try to convey this as best I can without sounding as though I’m about to fall asleep. The last thing I see before I close my eyes is Mum smiling to herself.

*

Whenever I think about telling my Father, I seize up.

It’s not that I don’t know he loves me. Or that I don’t think he’ll support me. But in the moment that I do tell him, I know that I’ll be taking away his son. And the disappointment in his eyes when I do… I don’t know if I can take that. I really don’t.

*

‘I’m sorry darling… right in the middle of the most important conversation we’ve ever had- ACK! Kimba, no!’

‘Drop a towel over it, Mum! Drop a towel over it!’

‘Right!’

Finally, after a frantic minute of shrieking from both of us, flying towels from Mum, and hysterical laughter from me, the furry invader is trapped underneath a fluffy white bathtowel. Our cat, a sleek ginger specimen, looks up at Mum with an expression of shock on his gormless face. It’s not surprising: to him, we’ve just taken his squeaking, scurrying dinner and erased it from reality.

After that talking about my situation is easy. I tell Mum everything: the visits to the endocrinologist that I’ve been keeping secret, the hormones I’ve been taking, the wonderful way my body is slowly changing. I tell her about how scared I’ve been to say anything, how every time I’ve tried, my fear of disappointing her has paralysed me. She shakes her head.

‘I’m only sorry that you had to go through all of it alone.’

*

After I tell him, my father sits silently, staring at me. My stomach slowly begins to fold in on itself.

‘I think you’re wrong,’ he says finally. ‘I’d rather you lived a little more of your life before you made a decision like this.’ He sighs. ‘Go on. Get it over with.’

I blink. ‘Wh-what..?’

‘The name. What name have you picked out for yourself?’

‘Callie,’ I mumble.

‘Thank God for small mercies. When was Gender Dysphoria first recognised as a condition?’

‘I-I don’t know.’

‘I say this to all my patients: become an expert on your condition.’ He takes a sip of wine. ‘If you expect me to take this seriously, you’re going to have to put in the work for me. Can you do that?’

Something inside me snarls. What do a few dates have to do with how I feel, with what I’m trying to explain to him?

‘You haven’t disappointed me. I’ll always love you, and I’ll never judge you. I’ll do whatever I can to support you.’

Silence.

‘But I am going to challenge you every step of the way.’

I don’t reply. Around us, the bustle of the restaurant continues unabated.

It’s my twenty-second birthday.

*

Growing breasts hurt. They remind me of the growing pains I used to get in my elbows when I was younger: dull, prickling aches that can last anywhere from a few seconds to an hour or two. Sometimes they grip me so tightly that I have to grit my teeth. Once, I forgot that they were there and whacked them against a doorframe: I used expletives that I never thought I knew and have never thought of again. So many different pains, large and small, chasing each other across the growing wonder of my chest.

I love them all.

*

When I first talked to my supervisor about possibly putting the story of my coming out into writing, he was enthusiastic, if a little wary.

‘I think it’s an amazing idea… I just hope you can do it. Whenever I try to write about my own coming out, it comes out sounding like rubbish!’

I think I know what he means now. This story is so close to my self, the core of who and what I am, that actually trying to put it on paper is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Impressions become mixed, events and dates blur, feelings whirl together in a maelstrom of extremes eight years in the making. How could I possibly set out a story like that in a way that makes sense?

Perhaps I don’t have to. Perhaps I can be content with this. After all, my journey has only just begun.

Clue Five (Duncan Felton)

16 May

I’m hunchbacked over keys, typing faster than electricity, and I’m melting into the couch and the clackettyclackettyclack is the erratic rhythm of everything and everything is about to come together when a subtle sound (‘fftt’) jabs my reverie. I swivel my neck, possessed, looking for the sound. My eyes laser to the sliver of blue hall-light under the door. A sudden white rectangle slid there also. I clamber over the back of the couch, scamper over electronic, organic and uncategorised waste. An envelope. No address, just two words: CLUE ONE. Grasped. No contents. From that, my first and last case begins.

My apartment: an office. I make a sign bearing ‘P.I.’ and affix it to the desk/couch, then venture out into the aqueous corridor, to the garbage disposal. The two-doors-down lady across the hall, she doorway glares, all curlers and stareful judgement circuits, bags of fluid. I size her up with detective instinct to instantaneously decide she knows nothing and so hiss at her. Slam. Well, good. I investigate the chute, peering down darkness. Nothing. Process of elimination rocketing to victory. Scuttling return to office, shifting eyes, swipe my card and enter, almost slipping on another rectangle, deposited while my back wasn’t watching.

Horizontal, I later lay in wait, forehead to doorjamb, eyeballs moist and freshly peeled, scanning up and down the glowing hall sliver.  But: fruitless.  I reluctantly hobble off to excrete stench into my cubicle. Awaiting my return, secreted into my cleared sentryway is yet another accursed postal infiltration. Clearly a well-matched adversary, pending nemesis. Roll the dice, make a move, hide, seek, repeat.  I hold my poor poker player hand triptych and consider the portents of their contents. CLUE ONE: empty. CLUE TWO: ‘get out’. CLUE THREE: ‘or else’. Certain of warning and meaning in the envelopes, I deduce espionage.

Constant beyond shutters, dark hours hurtle into light relentless, like the insect vehicles below far.  My cybersearch yielded little, my calculation literature: inconclusive, but I hesitate to look further than askance. Through the dim, I  sustenance slurp from tins of oiled cabbagefruit, keep attuned with high-vol rumblewave. Perseverance. But the peeking mystery morning prickles my retina, vicegrips my mindmince. A vendetta to sleuthtaunt, sinister epistles, communiques of gumshoe confoundment, slow beckon, stupor greyout. I awaken in sixth-sense seizure. CLUE FOUR arrived as I snored. ‘Final Warning’: the fine-fonted memo within. My clockwork jigsaw conundrum clicks and whirrs, self-constructs revelatory panorama.

It’s that trickly hepcat downhall: Klaus Dagmar! With his cursive whiskers, typographical spectacles and poisonous flares – Nemesis! Incipient checkmate, elaborate takedown. Finally: hallbound. I go to grapple with his doorbell, with bundled documents, holstered eviction drafts. But affixed beneath his door numerals: CLUE FIVE. Prodigal evidence. Victory grin. Momentary clutched, then taloned apart. I blindburst inhale a choke of white. Spore scrabble, hollering revulsion, jarring bellowing enemy mirth behind doors. Headpipes sizzling, tumbling elevator evac, whooshing earthbound, spluttering apocalyptic.  My initial mission: de-mystery. Now: pending detective infection hospitalisation bracket incognito vagabond eviction peripatetic itinerant endbracket. End investigation. Ever-closed case.

Out of limbo

12 May

‘Look at me. Listen to me. This is who I am.’

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

A special project of Verity La, and a collaboration with Calli Doyle-Scott from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Out of Limbo is a web-based series that aims to collect the ‘coming out’ stories of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex and Bisexual individuals, as well as the ‘secret stories’ of those people who haven’t yet come out but want to do so.

What we’re looking for:

  • short stories of up to 2000 words, based on or telling the story of your own ‘coming out’. We’re also looking for ‘secret stories,’ the stories of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex or Bisexual people who haven’t yet come out, but who want to do so, that tell us why they have decided to remain silent. These could be anything from the first conversation you had with your family about your sexuality, to the moment you first realised the truth about your own sexuality. Be creative, be brave, and above all be true to your own thoughts and feelings.
  • We want well-written stories; the better the quality of your writing, the higher the chance that your story will be selected.
  • If you wish, you can submit your story anonymously or under an alias.
  • Send all submissions to limboverityla@yahoo.com.au
  • Submissions close on the 22nd of July 2012.

From Out of Limbo project editor Calli Doyle-Scott:

‘For Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex and Bisexual (GLTIB) individuals, the realisation of their sexuality, and the moment they reveal that realisation to someone else, are two of the most important moments of their lives. For many of us, this act of ‘coming out’ can define who we are, how our family and friends see us, how we live our lives from that moment on, but in my experience this transition isn’t widely recognised for just how important it actually is. Instead, despite the many advances that have been made towards a tolerant society, people like us are still subject to levels of hatred that are bewildering in their intensity. However, being Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, Intersex or Bisexual isn’t a lifestyle choice, a sickness, dishonourable, or immoral. It’s who we are. The moment we reveal that self to the rest of the world can be the most exhilarating and frightening experience of our lives.

These stories deserve to be told.’

Calculations (Elizabeth Bryer)

9 May

The alarm goes off early morning, and in her dream she is thrust into a hospital as the monitor of a ghostly someone makes the piercing sound of a heart stopped. It’s been ten years since she found her father cold on the kitchen floor and yet still her sleeping mind throws up such things.

After fumbling with the clock she reaches for the warm body beside her and, when she finds him, burrows her face into his chest until he slips an arm across her back. It’s only after they have breakfasted and showered and he has left for work that she is struck by something: for some time now she has been sleeping on the left-hand side of the bed. No longer the tangle of limbs, no longer the rolling apart while dreaming to a different side each night.

She checks beside the bed and it’s as she suspects: her books are piled there, a few pairs of earrings lie there, her hair ties are scattered there. And, on the right-hand side, on the floor, are his things: three DVDs, a scarf, some socks. She stands there a moment—freshly showered, freshly kissed goodbye—and wonders at her alarm.

The coffee she brews finishes what the shower began; after downing it, she sits at her desk to start today’s accounting job, alert. But she is also restless, oddly, so after an unproductive hour she scrounges around for a scarf and, not finding one, grabs his (from the floor beside his side of the bed) before hurrying outside.

She finds herself heading to the supermarket but once there she can’t think of anything they need and so doesn’t go through the glass doors when they part for her. She encounters some women spilling out of a cafe, loose limbed and giggly, the bubbling of their conversation punctured with laughter. She finds herself smiling in their wake. And then comes, just as abruptly, the dread of the dream made fierce by memories of her father (his careful explanations to her queries; his drawing her attention to the beautiful orderliness of numbers; his sudden, brutal abandonment). She’ll have to change the tone on her alarm clock.

When she returns home she brews another coffee and gets back to work. She relaxes into the comfort of the figures behaving as she expects them to, the symmetry and rhythm of her calculations and, finally, a perfectly exact balance sheet.

But she finishes early and the solace fades. She distracts herself by googling around until she remembers something she vaguely considered reading once. She decides she must search for that book right away. She finds it; it’s cheap; she means to buy it. She clicks through the payment-details pages, hoping that the knowledge of a purchase in the mail will help ease this creeping discomfort.

‘Ship to same address? Yes / No’

She stares at the question a moment and then hesitates before making a move to click ‘Yes’. She checks the clock. One hour until he’s home. He is perfect in every way—she can’t remember a time when someone made her happier—and now they have their own sides of the bed.

‘Ship to same address? Yes / No’

She stills her breathing and makes a final calculation: x + y = z, where x = love, y = loss and z = grief. The chance of y, she knows, is much greater than most people imagine. And the only way to avoid z in the case of y occurring is to stifle x before it grows too deep.

She closes the laptop and goes into the bedroom, where she pulls her clothes from the wardrobe and starts shoving them into a suitcase. If she finishes quickly, she can make the break before the sight of him melts her resolve.

Good luck, Alec, and thank you

3 May

Nothing stays the same. 

Of all people, writers know that.  In fact, it’s our bread and butter.  Our job is to map change, to explain, as best we can, and to move people by our telling.  Verity La isn’t immune to change, which has been made clear by the departure of Alec Patric as co-editor. 

Almost two years ago, when the concept of Verity La found the light of day, Alec jumped at the opportunity – maybe literally.  His energy, enthusiasm, and literary intelligence helped to take Verity La from idea to reality.  This journal – which really is nothing more than an internet space where people donate their work for the enjoyment of others – has grown almost exponentially because of Alec’s involvement.

But now he’s stepped away.

What happens from here?  Verity La will keep going, and growing.  The journal will continue to publish the best writing submitted, and there’ll be more reviews and interviews, as well as social comment and photomedia.  The mission has always been to publish brave writing that moves people.  Be brave – yes, that’s the masthead motto.  So the journal will bravely keep sailing.  What about you?  Keep subscribing, keep reading, keep submitting.  There are uncharted territories ahead, which – it’s hoped, desired even – will be truly exciting for all concerned.

Verity La and its community wish Alec the very best for what’s ahead in his creative life.  No doubt there’ll be more of his stories to read and enjoy and be challenged by.  Some of them maybe, just maybe, you’ll read here.

Good luck, Alec, and thank you.

Ryan O’Neill interviewed by Les Zigomanis

30 Apr

Les Zigomanis: Tell me about your collection.

Ryan O’Neill: The Weight of a Human Heart is a collection of stories set in different parts of the world and told in a range of different styles, from realist to formally experimental and metafictional. The thing I love most about the short story form is its versatility, and I wanted to try to demonstrate that versatility in the collection. So there are funny stories, sad stories, stories told through exam papers, book reviews, graphs, charts; stories set in Rwanda, Uganda, China, Lithuania and Australia.

Les Zigomanis: How did the collection come together?

Ryan O’Neill: One of my stories, ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’, was fortunate enough to be selected for Best Australian Stories 2010 (Black Inc.). After publication, Black Inc. contacted me to say they had enjoyed the story and would like to see more of my writing. I replied thanking them for their interest, and explained that I only wrote short stories, and so had a collection and not a novel to show them. I assumed that would be the end of the matter, as so few publishers are willing to consider single author short story collections (or if they are, the author is usually an already established novelist). I was delighted when they said they would like to see my collection, and it was eventually accepted.

Les Zigomanis: So why only write short stories? Surely there’s a novel somewhere lurking in your imagination?

Ryan O’Neill: JG Ballard argued that there has never been a perfect novel, but there have been perfect short stories, and I agree. Although I’ll never achieve that perfection, it does seem to be within reach, and it is always something to strive for. A great short story doesn’t have any flat spots, any sections where you feel like flicking ahead, any digressions, and it is never too long. A great novel may still have one or all of these features.

In short stories, I enjoy moving from setting to setting, style to style, and experimenting. If a story doesn’t work, then it has perhaps only taken a month of your life. A novel that doesn’t work can take years of your life (and years off it). In general, a novel doesn’t welcome experimentation and different styles (though there are, of course, magnificent exceptions such as Ulysses). I love the short story form, and I think it plays to my strengths as a writer, such as they are. If I ever feel the burning need to write a novel, I will. But as yet, the need isn’t there.

Les Zigomanis: Short story (collections) are a form which seem to be making a comeback. Do you think there’s a reason for that?

Ryan O’Neill: Perhaps one of the reasons is that people who love reading and writing short stories have become publishers of short stories, which is the case with Sleepers and Spineless Wonders. I also think the success of collections such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and, closer to home, Nam Le’s The Boat have encouraged publishers to have another look at the form. It certainly seems a more hospitable environment for short story collections now than when I first came to Australia seven years ago, when almost every publisher’s submission guidelines, it seemed, told you not to bother if all you had was a short story collection.

Les Zigomanis: Well, tell us about the stories.

Ryan O’Neill: As with any writer, there is an autobiographical element to many of the stories. For instance, I lived and taught in Rwanda, Lithuania and China for a number of years, and a few of the incidents (such as the experience of having malaria) in those settings are drawn from life, though most of the plots and characters are entirely invented. Another story features my childhood love of superhero comics, though that is the only thing about the story which I didn’t make up. Also, I’ve always loved books, reading and writing, so it seemed natural to write about those topics. Some ideas have been sparked by reading great writers such as Borges, Barthelme and Barth. Other times I would try to list some of the forms I had never seen attempted in short stories – such as book reviews, examinations, bibliographies, and so on – and then see if I could write a story in that form. The stories sometimes weren’t successful, but I always felt that I learned a great deal from the process.

Les Zigomanis: You talk about stories having an autobiographical element. Is that just on a physical and circumstantial level? Or does it go deeper to an emotional and spiritual level?

Ryan O’Neill: That’s a difficult question. I suppose any piece of writing, from a novel to a short story will reveal a lot about the writer, whether they want it to or not. After all, the characters in any story are all drawn from one person’s character – that of the writer. Even those characters slavishly modelled on a real person are not in fact based on that person, but the writer’s recollection and interpretation of that person. In that sense, it’s reasonable to say that the characters in my story do represent different parts of me, and my preoccupations, and maybe even my neuroses. It’s not something I think about when I am writing a story. I just want to get the words down on the page, and for them to make sense.

Les Zigomanis: Has anybody – a friend, or somebody in your family maybe – ever said to you, ‘Hey, that’s me in your story!’ Or, ‘Hey that’s what I did that time and you’ve put it in your story!’

Ryan O’Neill: Actually, that’s never happened. If I do use an incident taken from life, I make sure I disguise it as much as I can, so no one has ever really seen themselves in any of my stories.

Les Zigomanis: You quote JG Ballard saying that ‘there have been perfect short stories’, and say that it’s within reach, but then claim that you’ll never achieve that perfection. Why not?

Ryan O’Neill:I suppose, like many writers, I am most critical of my own work. Whenever I look at a finished story there is always something I want to change. In the extremely unlikely event I ever did write a story someone else considered to be ‘perfect,’ it would still not be perfect to me. There’s a line from Robert Browning that I’ve always loved: ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’

Les Zigomanis: Then when is enough enough? When is a story initially finished for you?

Ryan O’Neill: For me a story is finished when I can’t bear to look at it any more. I rewrite and rewrite until the very sight of the story makes me nauseous. Then I know the initial draft is finished!

Les Zigomanis: Then what’s the process? Do you have a clique of readers who give you objective feedback? Or do you just start sending the stories out to fend for themselves?

Ryan O’Neill: I have five or six good friends and fellow writers whose judgement I trust on my work, and who trust me to look at and comment on their work. When I’ve reached the stage where I can’t stand to look at the story, I send it on to them, then review their comments, which are always extremely useful, and make changes. These can be small cuts or additions, but on occasion their feedback has led me to completely overhaul a story.

Les Zigomanis: When the story’s made you nauseous and sick of the sight of it, how do you feel when you send it out, it’s accepted, and it comes back marked-up?

Ryan O’Neill: I welcome comments from editors. In fact, I am very suspicious when I don’t get any, as I know there is always room for improvement in the stories. My best experiences with editors are with those who have made lots of comments and suggested changes and deletions, as I know this means they have read the story carefully. On occasion, there are some quirks of style, etc., I might want to keep, but I think in general I would accept 95% of suggested changes, as a good editor will obviously only make a story better. I’ve never had a bad experience with an editor. About the only thing I can think of is one story where the journal wanted to change the title of the story. I agreed, though I didn’t like the new title. But then I didn’t like the old title either, so it wasn’t much of a wrench.

Les Zigomanis: You say a good editor will only want to make a story better, which I agree with. But how do you tell a good editor from one who may be overly intrusive, who may mark-up changes and make suggestions simply for the sake of making them?

Ryan O’Neill: I think it comes down to what you think when you see the changes and suggestions made by the editor. Almost all of the time, when I’ve seen them, I’ve thought instantly, ‘Of course! That works so much better!’ On those occasions when I didn’t feel that way, the editor respected my opinion, and kept the work as it was. So far I haven’t come across the kind of intrusive editor you mention. But I don’t think they would be too difficult to spot, as their changes just wouldn’t ‘feel’ right.

Les Zigomanis: So, given all this writing and revision, is a story ever actually finished?

Ryan O’Neill: I choose to believe it is finished when it is published, as you could work on a story forever.

Les Zigomanis: Movies are re-cut and re-released. Raymond Carver’s short stories were re-released as he intended them, as opposed to how they were published following his editor Gordon Lish’s revisions. Could you see yourself one day realising a published story should’ve unfolded another way and going for an Author’s Cut?

Ryan O’Neill: I don’t think so. The only time I have gone back to published stories was when I looked at those in the collection that had been published before, and spent some time revising them. If the collection hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have looked at those stories again. For me, the final cut is publication. After that, I stop tinkering.

Les Zigomanis: In terms of there always being something you want to change, do you think writing’s like parenting? In that regard, I mean a parent will always – to some degree – treat their child as a child, regardless of age. So is a story always something you’ll try to parent to what you hope is something better for it?

Ryan O’Neill: I hope writing isn’t like parenting. I don’t think I’m a particularly good parent to my stories. I usually can’t wait to see the back of them, so I never have to think about them again! When I finish a story, and if it has the good luck to get published, then I generally never look at it again. I think it’s important to always think about the next thing you are writing, not the piece you have just finished.

Les Zigomanis: So you wouldn’t pick up an unsuccessful story which is years old and have another shot at getting it right?

Ryan O’Neill: I do have a few stories that are years old, and have never been published, and occasionally I go back and tinker with them. I usually only do that if I have nothing new on the go. Sometimes the old stories can be saved, and sometimes they can’t. If they can’t, then I cannibalise them for characters, imagery, dialogue, anything I can rip out of there and use in a new story.

Les Zigomanis: You wouldn’t try rewriting from scratch and getting it right?

Ryan O’Neill: The idea of beginning an entirely new story is much more appealing to me than trying to recast an old one, so I will always tend to go for the new over the old.

Les Zigomanis: As far as the process of writing goes, is there somewhere you want the story to take you?

Ryan O’Neill: I just want to get from the first line to the last, and hopefully leave something worth reading in between.

Les Zigomanis: How do you measure worth? You mentioned earlier about experimentation with form, but that you weren’t always successful. You once told me that your story, ‘The Chinese Lesson’, had literally been rejected by just about every journal in Australia, yet it placed third in the 2010 Age Short Story Competition. So how do you measure the worth in your own story, given reading is such a subjective business?

Ryan O’Neill: I think after writing for a few years you hopefully develop a sense of whether a story works or not. Of course this sense is not 100% accurate. I’ve laboured over a story for weeks believing it to be very good, only to realise much later it was deeply flawed, and on the other hand on one occasion I dashed off a story in a couple of hours just to amuse myself, and it was published very quickly. If my sense of a story working lets me down, then I can rely on the circle of fellow writers who give me feedback to catch it.

In the case of ‘The Chinese Lesson’ I thought it was a solid story, better than some other stories of mine which had been published, so I was a little surprised when it was rejected time after time. I thought about revising it, but couldn’t see too much wrong, so I put it away for a while. I only entered it in The Age competition as an afterthought. It wasn’t even my main entry, which was a story that still remains unpublished today.

For me, a story is successful if it accomplishes what I set out to do. In that sense, I’ve written some experimental stories that I consider successful, but that I doubt will ever be published.

Les Zigomanis: In terms of writing, are you a planner, or do you just let the story take you wherever it wants to go?

Ryan O’Neill: I’m a planner. Before I begin I plan it all out. I get some paper and write ‘Beginning, Middle, End’ and then put in all the events of the story in their proper place. Prior to commencing the first draft I also like to spend time thinking about the story and jotting down notes for possible dialogue, imagery and so on. Sometimes these notes will run to several pages. I am happiest when I have a first line and a last line in place as I start to write, and I also like to have a title, though that doesn’t always happen. I used to envy writers who say their characters take on a life of their own. Mine always do exactly what I say.

Les Zigomanis: So at no point do you deviate? At no point does your imagination brooks the plan and takes you elsewhere?

Ryan O’Neill: If something isn’t working, then of course I will try different ideas. But in general I don’t like to deviate too far from my signposts of ‘Beginning’ ‘Middle’ and ‘End.’

Les Zigomanis: Then there remains something organic in your process, because whilst you have your plan, you also have a gauge while you’re writing which distinguishes the irreconcilability between how story’s emerging and how it was planned?

Ryan O”Neill: Yes, I suppose so, though I usually just plod on to the end even if I realise a story isn’t working, as I hope it can be saved in the re-writing process.

Les Zigomanis: But is it sometimes saved in the journey? By that I mean, in the process of writing, do solutions to issues reveal themselves which you hadn’t otherwise considered, or planned?

Ryan O’Neill: On good days, yes. On good days, sometimes it almost feels like playing ‘Tetris’ where different parts of the story float down and join together perfectly. At other times you can get too close to the story, and not see a way out of a difficulty. That’s where feedback from others becomes important.

Les Zigomanis: How long does a story’s conception and planning take?

Ryan O’Neill: Sometimes the initial idea, then the first draft, rewriting and final draft can take a very short time, such as a week, but that is very unusual. Normally I have an idea, then write it down and leave it for a while, adding notes as they strike me, and it might be weeks, months or years before I get around to writing it.

Les Zigomanis: Do you know how long the story will be before you begin writing?

Ryan O’Neill: Not really. But I would expect it to be less then 5000 words, as I don’t usually write stories past that length. It’s not a conscious decision. I just tend to write between 3000 to 4000 words for a story.

Les Zigomanis: Any preconceptions on how long a short story should be?

Ryan O’Neill: I think the length has to be justified by the quality of the story. A long story had better be excellent.

Les Zigomanis: How long does it take you to finish a story?

Ryan O’Neill: For me, the story really comes together in rewriting, and this is something I spend a long time on, usually far longer than the time it took for the first draft. On average, probably three or four weeks.

Les Zigomanis: I’ve always found that characters develop life the further you write. As opposed to taking ‘on a life of their own’, they become almost real and dear, (well, to me at least). Have you ever felt reluctant to put a character through whatever you’ve planned for them?

Ryan O’Neill: I used to feel a bit envious of writers who talked about their characters doing unexpected things, surprising them, and becoming almost like real people to them, as they never did to me. But then I read an interview with Vladimir Nabokov in which he said that his characters were simply puppets who did exactly what he said, and any writer who believed their characters had a life or will of their own must have mental problems. Though this was, of course, Nabokov being typically provocative and mischievous, it did make me feel better!

Les Zigomanis: Any writing quirks? Favourite pens, music, feng shui of the room, need for the perfect opening line – anything?

Ryan O’Neill: I’m afraid not. I just sit down at the computer, whenever I have the time and energy, and start tapping away.

Les Zigomanis: Do you feel story is a reinterpretation of self, that it exists on a level of entertainment, or there is some (for the want of a better word) ennoblement about it?

Ryan O’Neill: The short answer would be, yes, yes and I hope so. But I’ll try to expand.

For a long time I’ve believed that we read to make sense of the world and our lives, as they so often make so little sense. The earliest story in human history, Gilgamesh, has a man seeking immortality and the secret of a happy life. (For the record, the answer he gets is to eat, drink and dress well, and cherish his wife and child, which still strikes me as good advice today.) We read to experience other lives, whether searching for the Maltese Falcon or for bananafish. I like to think that the best stories can change us for the better, though I have no scientific proof. Reading a story is putting yourself in someone else’s situation, and the world could only be a better place if we all did that more often.

A story should also entertain, if I can interpret ‘entertain’ as also meaning ‘provoke’ or ‘disturb’ or ‘cause reflection’ as well as amuse. Both P.G. Wodehouse and Franza Kafka I find wonderfully entertaining, in very different ways.

Les Zigomanis: Who are your other influences? What have you drawn from them?

Ryan O’Neill: The writer I most admire, and who I think has influenced me to an extent, is Graham Greene. Open any of his books at random, and you will almost certainly find a striking line of dialogue, an original image, a vivid description, or a memorable character. His novels are never a line longer than they need to be. There is no padding and by today’s standards, most of them are quite short. Even his weakest novels are worth reading, and do not waste the reader’s time. I have tried to follow Greene in keeping my stories as short as possible, and doing all I can to make the reader feel their time has not been wasted.

Apart from Graham Greene, I love writers who play with form and convention, such as John Barth, Murray Bail and Jorge Luis Borges. From them I have taken the idea of squeezing the short story into different – and sometimes strange – forms and seeing what happens.

Les Zigomanis: So what’s your favourite books? What’s the one which stands out for you?

Ryan O’Neill: Among my favourite books are Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, John Williams’ Stoner, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo and Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry and Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. But my all time favourite is a relatively little known (outside Scotland) novel called Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. In synopsis it sounds very dull: a young woman grows up on an isolated farm in the Scottish highlands, as the First World War approaches. But it is a beautiful novel, lyrical (an adjective applied to many modern novels that are very far from being so), moving, sometimes hilarious and extremely readable, despite the number of Scots dialect words that a modern reader wouldn’t recognise without the help of a glossary.

Les Zigomanis: Is it perfect?

Ryan O’Neill: No – though it does come pretty close.

Les Zigomanis: What’s wrong with it?

Ryan O’Neill: It has its faults, but they only become apparent in the third or fourth reading. The author wrote it in something of a hurry, as if he had foreseen his tragic, and unexpected, early death, and sometimes the slapdash nature can be seen. But the novel’s faults are easy to forgive because of the genius of the whole work. Gibbon was one of the greatest Scottish novelists of the last century. If he had lived beyond the page of 33, he would probably be better known around the world.

Les Zigomanis: Are the faults with the book exclusive to you or faults general to a readership?

Ryan O’Neill: I’m not sure. On reflection, I think the speed at which he wrote it is a strength as well as a fault. The words crackle with energy and almost leap from the page.

Les Zigomanis: What about yourself? When was the first time you realised you wanted to write? What was the spark?

Ryan O’Neill: I distinctly remember being in Year One of primary school, and the teacher giving me a gold star for a little story I wrote. I suppose I’ve been looking for gold stars ever since.

Les Zigomanis: Was that it? There wasn’t a story which sparked you, made you think, I want to write my own adventure?

Ryan O’Neill: Actually, for a long time before I wrote short stories, I wanted to be a comic book writer, and the story that sparked that off was Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I spent a lot of time trying to write comic scripts like Alan Moore, before finally realising that the only person who could write a comic like Alan Moore was Alan Moore. Around that time, I discovered Graham Greene, and it was his novel, Stamboul Train, that drew me back from comics to novels and stories. I still love comic books, though I don’t read them as much as I used to.

Les Zigomanis: Writing’s tough. I think a lot of outsiders looking in don’t understand the allure of it, unless you’re writing a best-seller and making it rich. So why do you do it? Is it for the reasons you’ve given – to make sense of the world, to entertain/provoke/disturb, et al?

Ryan O’Neill: George Orwell once dissected the characteristics of a writer in his essay, ‘Why I Write.’ For Orwell, all writers wrote from a differing proportion of four reasons; sheer egoism (‘Look at me!’), aesthetic enthusiasm (taking pleasure in writing well), historical impulse (a desire to record events for posterity), and political purpose (a wish to change the world). Out of 100% here is my breakdown:

Political Purpose: 1%

Historical impulse: 5%

Sheer egoism: ??

Aesthetic Enthusiasm: ??

Total: 100%

Les Zigomanis: Have you always gotten support from those around you, (parents, brothers, sisters, partners, kids) that you’ve needed?

Ryan O’Neill: My mother and father always encouraged my writing. I have a vivid memory of coming home from school one day when I was about twelve to find they had bought me an electric typewriter as a surprise. (This was before the days of desktop publishing.) I used to write science-fiction and comic book scripts on that noisy machine.

For the last seven years, I’ve been lucky enough to have a very understanding wife who realises that I may feel miserable when I don’t write, and conversely, I may feel miserable when I do write.

Les Zigomanis: So where’s the win there?

Ryan O’Neill: The win is in those moments when it all comes together; when you are writing well, and you know you are writing well, and the story flows and is good, and there is immense enjoyment and satisfaction in making something, and making something worthwhile. Those moments are few and far between, but they make up for a lot of the grind and the disappointments.

Les Zigomanis: Is there a balance that you think needs to be maintained between writing and life outside of writing?

Ryan O’Neill: Yes, definitely. Writing and life outside writing should inform and strengthen each other. I believe it’s a mistake for someone to attempt to put all their energies into becoming a ‘Writer’ (with a capital W). You also have to live. I’ve been fortunate to have had opportunities to live and work in different countries, and to have had many experiences which have fed into my writing. Similarly, writing has enriched my life, providing me with an activity which I find wholly absorbing and (sometimes) very enjoyable.

Writing is an important part of my life, but it is not the most important part. If it was, it think it would be very sad. For proof of that, just look at the life of Richard Yates.

Les Zigomanis: How do you find the state of the short story market in Australia, both with publishers and journals?

Ryan O’Neill: I think in general the state of the short story is relatively healthy in Australia. There are many excellent journals publishing quality short fiction, and there are a lot of short story competitions with significant prizes and exposure for a short story writer. Black Inc. with its Best Australian Stories, and Scribe with its New Australian Stories, have made an admirable and continuing commitment to publishing and promoting local anthologies on an annual and bi-annual basis. However, the more established publishers do seem more open to publishing single author collections from American or British writers than Australians, which does puzzle me sometimes. But this has left the field open to great new publishers like Spineless Wonders, Affirm and Transit Lounge who have been producing excellent collections in the last couple of years, and will hopefully continue to do so for a long time to come.

Les Zigomanis: So are you constantly submitting? A lot of writers I know write, but then their stuff just sits there.

Ryan O’Neill: For the past year or so I haven’t been submitting as much as I used to, as I was working on the collection, but in general I would usually have three to seven stories out there at any one time, entered into competitions or submitted to journals.

Les Zigomanis: How do you deal with rejection?

Ryan O’Neill: Being Scottish, and naturally pessimistic. Rejection is my default position. I am always very pleasantly surprised, and grateful when a story of mine is accepted by a journal or anthology. Almost all of my stories were rejected at least once before finding a home, and many of them several times. I would estimate I’ve had over a hundred rejections in the last few years. Being an editor now myself, at Etchings, I’ve also come to realise that stories can be rejected for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with quality. For example, two excellent stories with very similar themes might be submitted, and obviously, you can only choose one of them for that particular edition. It’s been a strange but rewarding experience being on the other side of the fence; reading submissions rather than submitting. It has also made me realise that a rejection is simply one person’s opinion. Hopefully that opinion is well-schooled, but it’s an opinion none the less. And the next editor’s opinion may well be very different.

Les Zigomanis: I’ve been asking you questions as a writer. Let me ask you just one as a reader/editor. How do you feel about the state of writing and short fiction in Australia?

Ryan O’Neill: Though the golden age of Australian short fiction was undoubtedly the 1970s, I think the short fiction of this millennium has seen the most exciting developments since that time. There have been a large number of excellent short fiction writers active in the last few years, beginning with Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots through Paddy O’Reilly’s The End of the World, Nam Le’s The Boat Tim Richards’ Thought Crimes and Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories. Experimentation seems to be making something of a comeback, while realism has moved into, and been reinvigorated by, other forms such as the ‘novel in stories’ of Patrick Cullen and Gretchen Schirm, among others. I think now is the best time to be writing short stories in this country in the last twenty-five years.

Les Zigomanis: Any tips for other writers?

Ryan O’Neill: I can only give a few tips that have worked for me. Read. A lot. Try to find your own voice. Write about the things you love, not the things you think an editor will love. Expect rejection. Accept honest criticism. And the hardest part of all: sit down and write. As Ray Bradbury said, ‘You only fail if you stop writing.’

Les Zigomanis: Finally, I understand the rights to The Weight of the Human Heart have been sold to the UK and the US. How do you feel about that?

Ryan O’Neill: It’s an amazing feeling. Just getting the collection published in Australia is wonderful, and anything beyond that I start running out of superlatives.