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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.

Jessica Au interviewed by Bel Woods

20 Mar

The bright, youthful voices of Jessica Au’s characters flew across the pages in Cargo, (a novel released by Picador in August last year) and Jessica herself is a breath of fresh air, especially when discussing her own attitude towards process and creation. This is how she came to be soaring at age 25.

Bel Woods: I’ve read your novel Cargo grew from previously published work. A practice in novel writing, that, in my opinion, is not utilised enough. The ‘this is what I have, this is what I can make it into’ approach casts light on how writers are finding practical ways to speed up and launch their careers. Do you think new and emerging writers need to think more about moulding the work they have, rather than starting something new? (If only to save themselves time.)

Jessica Au: I think at the end of the day the impetus for a novel simply boils down to that idea – the unnamed variable, the X – that keeps to drawing you back. That makes you go, definitively, I’ve got more to say. (Didn’t The God of Small Things grow out of an image Arundhati Roy had of a sky blue Plymouth surrounded by a sea of protestors?)

Quite often though this X – a mood, a tone, a reoccurring storyline – will have manifested itself in your writing anyway. You can see it, for example in the short stories Beverley Farmer wrote prior to her novel, The House in the Light. She regularly explores the theme of life in Greece for an expat, and for women and wives and mothers in particular. I’m not saying that this is in any way recycling or being lazy, but rather that there are certain narrative impulses that, for whatever reason, you’ll keep returning to.

With Cargo, it was mainly about trying to articulate a certain kind of unease that comes with growing up, particular for teenage girls, and the silent pressures and projections they encounter. I’d touched on this several times in short stories prior to writing the novel, but again still felt I had more to say. So it seemed natural, as well as practical, to draw from them.

Looking back however, I’m not sure if this is always the best route. It was definitely a good thing in many ways – some of the groundwork was already done, the characters were roughly shaded, I had voices, dialogue, backstories. A sketch. On the other hand though, a novel is a very different creature to a short story, and trying to lengthen and stretch one into the other can be a pretty hefty task. There are no shortcuts, as I found out. Cargo took me about two and a half years to finish, and it’s practically a novella. If you are going to go down that road, you really have to be prepared to dismantle everything and start afresh, and I think also be wary of pace and movement. A short story can get away with being a single scene, a few stills. With a novel, it’s more like constructing the whole movie.

So all in all that’s a very long-winded way of saying that first and foremost I think it rides the idea – whether that’s from stories you’ve written before, or something that strikes you out of the blue. And in any case, I think you know it when you see it.

Bel Woods: I think a lot of the time, with writers, there’s a psychological block – not writer’s block per se, as a lot of writers regularly produce work, but a block where the idea of devoting everything to a larger project is just too much. How and when did you decide you were going to commit to a novel? And did you find yourself, during the day to day production of Cargo, having to push in order to keep this commitment?

Jessica Au: Yes writing is definitely an exercise in psychological peaks and troughs. Beginning that ‘albatross’ novel comes with all the usual fears – fear that you won’t be able to pull it off, fear that you won’t finish it. With smaller projects, you can get your returns (completion, publication, payment) incrementally. With longer works, it could, and often does, take years.

But another reason for that hesitation I think also has a lot to do with circumstance. In the barest sense, novels take time, and they take headspace. I would be happy to write manuscript after manuscript (even if a lot of these turned out to be duds), if only I had the luxury of endless days in which to do so. The difficulty is that this is rarely the case. More often than not, we have to fight for the space to write, and of course it’s hard to embark on such a big gamble when other ‘real life’ things keep on nudging their way in. This to me is probably the biggest barrier.

In her memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith talks about how she used to watch other people performing and, despite being blown away by it, a sly thought would always creep into her head as if to say, I can do that. Wanting to write can sometimes be like this – you can be awe of books, and amazed by them, but at the same time you hunger to be the writer behind the words, not just the reader of them.

In that sense I always knew I wanted to write a longer work. But on the other hand, after having a range of short stories rejected across the board, I also realised I was nowhere near where I had to be to begin one! So the how and when was more a matter of waiting and honing until I felt more certain. I can’t really recall any moment when I thought I’ve got a novel here. But I do remember thinking that if I were to start one, it would be easier to conceptualise as a series of little vignettes. I also wanted to try and keep it simple, and within territory that I knew. That led me to go back to those short stories mentioned above – and once I’d decided that, it just a matter of addressing the practicalities: deferring uni for a year, getting some part-time work, working out a set routine etc.

During the actual writing process, I definitely had all those fears and worries all over again. Usually the process was cyclical – good days morphing into writer’s block, which would then break and bring you back to the good days again… But at the same time, despite these gripes, even a bad day writing is better than a good day doing anything else. So in that sense, it was a damn fine time.

Bel Woods: I’m very interested in creative process in all art, especially in new artists who’ve perhaps not figured out or refined their own processes yet, despite having an amount of success. It would be easy for me to suggest you’re quiet a natural writer, but I’m guessing it’s not as simple as that. I do believe, at the novel level, all writers remaining are naturals to a point, though word counts, genre selection, editing/redrafting, and general industry savvy, start involving other life skills. It’s obvious to me that story and creating are big drivers for you, but outside this, are there any other influences or personality traits that make up Jessica the writer?

Jessica Au: Well there’s definitely no sense of ease or seamlessness to me a writer. I’m a re-drafter, a hacker. I’m not the type who can just pump out a good few chapters everyday – in fact I’m lucky if I get a good few paragraphs, and even then it’s a constant job of chiseling and subtracting and rewiring. Don’t get me wrong – I love the robotics of it, but no, it’s definitely not a simple process.

On the question of influences, there are plenty – I always keep a pile of books by my desk that I can return to when I’m stuck. For me the process of writing involves a strange kind of hypnotism. You have to lull yourself in a state where you’re able to drift, yet can still think. The novels that I often revisited while writing Cargo were those by Julia Leigh, Michael Ondaatje, Kazuo Ishiguro, Christos Tsiolkas; short stories by Cate Kennedy, Beverley Farmer, Tim Winton, Nam Le, Laura van den Berg … and many others.

The question of personality traits is a bit harder for me to answer – but maybe stubbornness, or something like it? Because I need to redraft a lot, I tend to be the type who needs to sit at the desk for whole days until it feels vaguely right. I think I’m also very much a creature of routine and habit when it comes to writing, which again maybe has a bit to do with that hypnotism mentioned above. Lastly, I’m not sure if this is a ‘trait’ as such, but I’ve found that working a bit in editing and publishing has helped me immensely in developing a more critical outlook, and becoming aware of real technicalities and mechanics that come with constructing a longer work.

Bel Woods: One of the biggest draw cards when it comes to your writing is your ability to inject powerful imagery into your gorgeous prose. When you’re producing work, are you conscious of this overall aesthetic? Or do you write the narrative first and keep redrafting until everything becomes more lyrical?

Jessica Au: Mood and tone and definitely huge drivers for me – and, as my editors very rightly pointed out, this isn’t always for the best, as I can sometimes overdo it. But a sense or a feeling is definitely where the scene starts for me. I then try and make sure I include enough dialogue and narrative backbone to prop it up.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that conceptualising a novel in terms of aesthetics is very similar to the ways in which a director needs to conceptualise an entire film. As a writer you’re not only ‘acting’ the character your voicing, but you also need to be aware of (and in control of) props and objects, clothing, setting, visuals and so on. Both in terms of how you describe them and how they work together to contribute to that ‘overall aesthetic’ that you mention.

Joan Didion was fantastic at this. She knew, for example, how important it was not just to describe ‘curtains’ but the ‘fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk’ that ‘would blow out the windows the get tangled and drenched in afternoon thunderstorms’, not just ‘a tattoo’ but ‘the plumeria blossom tattooed just below her shoulder’, not just the ‘house’ but ‘the house in Brentwood Park’. Julia Leigh’s cinematographic writing is another brilliant example. In Disquiet, for example:

“The woman was dressed in a tweed pencil skirt, a grey silk blouse and her dark hair was pulled back into a loose chignon, the way her mother once used to wear it. Her right arm was broken and she’d rested it in a silk-scarf sling, which co-ordinated unobtrusively with her blouse. By her feet, suitcase.”

Just from that paragraph and it’s imagery we get so much – a sense of the woman and the formality of the situation, as well as the mystery: who is this mother that she is now copying, and why is her arm broken? The suitcase – where is she going, where is she from? Not to mention the perfect composition of a cast being held up by, of all things, a matching silk scarf. I love details like this and how they, and these aesthetics, can speak volumes.

Bel Woods: In your answer to question two, you talk about about keeping things simple and within territory you knew. I’ve always liked the idea of starting small. I think Cargo is the novel before your ‘Albatross’ novel, though it probably doesn’t seem this way to you. I see it as a sneak peak of what we can expect from Jessica in the future – a pilot episode to a greater work, which will mature with its readers. I think a lot of writers bite off more than they can chew, and get so far beyond the initial idea that with it comes fear they might produce a ‘bad’ novel. It’s for this reason, I believe, great amounts of work just get shelved. Sometimes the writer will push through and the risk pays off, but mostly you hear of writers returning to these more complicated projects after their process and skill level has developed. With Cargo it’s interesting, as you’ve both taken a risk and kept the project in reach. Mind you, the linking of the chapters must’ve proved challenging. At anytime while writing Cargo did you feel like pulling back, beginning again, or starting something new? Or do you think the structure, length, and novel’s marketability may have helped make the end product more achievable, despite the fact those particular things, are, in fact, obstacles in themselves?

Jessica Au: No I agree – Cargo was a big step for me, and I’m incredibly relieved to have finished it, but you’re always learning as a writer, and each novel is a stepping-stone, the first one especially. The further you go, the more you’re able to grapple with more complex themes and structures, but I feel like I’m still shedding training-wheels so-to-speak.

Despite the fears and worries mentioned above, I don’t think I ever felt like giving up on Cargo, or starting something else entirely. When I was younger, I did in fact stop-start several horrible novels on ‘big’ themes that naturally fell apart in my hands, so I realised from there I’d better pace myself. And while pulling apart those short stories was hard enough, it somehow seemed more achievable I think because I was conscious of what wasn’t, and of my own limits. Aiming for a more modest word length and having three voices to bounce off certainly helped, but so did realising how to critique my own work in a worthwhile way. That point was something of a watershed moment, because, conversely, it can give you the confidence to go ahead. As in instead of sitting there helplessly wondering why no one appreciates what you’ve done, you find you’ve got it in you to break the stasis.

Bel Woods: When, writing anything, and the final product comes about, finally, I suspect we all hope to leave it having learned something about our craft and ultimately about how we function as writers. Do you feel more equipped for the next project now Cargo is well and truly birthed? And can we know a little bit about your writing right now?

Jessica Au: Yes I think so. I hope by now I understand a bit more about the temperament of novels – the importance of trying to approach them holistically, with that director’s eye (although of course many things will change from redraft to redraft), and also the idea of really interrogating what you want to say with a work. Being conscious of the whys behind a story or a scene mean it’s less likely to be padding, or to appear directionless. I realised a lot of this only during the editing process of Cargo, so I’m curious about what it would be like to try and write something being conscious about that from the outset. Of course, I still have a way to go!

Terribly, the ‘albatross’ second novel is barely formed in my head, let alone the page, so unfortunately there’s not much to tell. But I am interested in the idea of subverting narrative expectation, especially when it comes to genre. I love books that lure me into certain states of familiarity only to jolt me out of it again, playing around not only with themes, but with conventions. Open endings, scenes in which nothing happens yet everything happens, stock characters turned on their heads and inverted. Something along those lines…

Rob Spillman interviewed by Emily Kiddell

14 Feb

Emily Kiddell: I heard a rumour that the good people of Tin House might be keen to visit Australia with a version of the increasingly popular Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. Having attended the workshop last year in Portland, Oregon, I can vouch for the magical ship that it is. Can you tell our readers a bit more about what you do and why? Is it true you are feeling the pull Down Under?

Rob Spillman: I would love to bring the Tin House Festival to Australia. I love the people and what I have seen of Down Under. I had the pleasure of attending the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2009 and was deeply impressed by the literary community, especially the indies and SPUNC. I couldn’t believe how many funky little book and record shops there were. I brought my bicycle and covered as much of the city as possible, as well as two days worth of riding around Sydney.

What do I do? A lot of juggling. Officially, I am the editor of Tin House, a quarterly lit magazine based out of Brooklyn, New York, and Portland, Oregon. I have been the editor from the start, so thirteen years. Tin House also has a book-publishing arm, publishing ten to twelve books a year, as well as the annual literary workshop, held each July in Portland. I serve as a consultant for both of these ventures. My main job is to put the magazine together, to shepherd selections and keep abreast of what is happening in the world of literature. I spend a fair amount of time looking beyond the US borders for new work (I also edited the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, which came out in 2009). I’ve gone looking for work at festivals in London, Frankfurt, Nairobi, Melbourne, Santiago, and St. Petersburg, to name a few places I’ve scouted out.

EK: That does sound exciting. But editing is a difficult business too, and locating talent must have its unique challenges – how do you go about choosing what to publish?

RS: The simple answer is I publish work that makes me miss my subway stop, work that is so engrossing I wind up in the wrong part of town. That said, work gets into my hands a variety of different ways—sometimes I hear a poem, story, or essay live at a reading or festival, or it comes in through the unsolicited pile. When I’m putting together an issue we’re trying to balance forms (experimental with traditional) gender, experience (new voices versus established), tone (funny/serious). What I’m looking for is voice-driven work that is a world unto itself, work in which the reader will have total confidence. We also commission work, mainly nonfiction, and usually for theme issues, which we do twice a year. There is no magic formula, which makes it continually exciting.

EK: The impression I got at the workshop is that you (and your colleagues at Tin House) are very optimistic about the future of publishing, but can you talk a little about the challenges of working within an industry that is going through a rapid transformation?

RS: People need to tell stories, whether through poetry, prose, film, Twitter, or banging rocks together. The form is always changing, but the need to use words to make sense of what it is to be human at the present moment is constant. To some, the decentralization of the industry, the removal of power from the few conglomerates to the many independents, is terrifying. We think it is exciting. I fundamentally believe that good work rises, and now, more than ever, good work can find suitable homes.

EK: Recently in Australia, debate surrounding gender equality in literature was fuelled when the second all-male short list in three years was announced for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Some distinguished members of the publishing scene here have since been working to establish a new national award for female writers called the Stella Prize. Given you are the editor of the newly-released collection of all-female authors called Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House, I’m interested to know firstly, whether you encountered any controversy as a male editor of such a collection; and secondly, why you believe it was necessary to exclude male authors? A common criticism of this kind of exclusion is that it may serve to ‘ghettoise women’ – do you believe that spotlighting the issue in this way is more powerful in changing prevailing trends than if you were to include a rough balance of writing from both male and female authors?

RS: The issue of gender equality in the arts, and particularly in literature, is definitely a topic of discussion here in the US. VIDA has been posting gender-ratio numbers of various literary organisations, including Tin House. This prompted us to do a detailed breakdown of our submission and acceptance numbers, and what we found was surprising, especially about the numbers of submissions by women who have been asked to send work. My detailed response is here.

As for Fantastic Women, I was inspired by what I saw as a trend that is gender-based, namely that there is a particular kind of fiction being written by women that pushes the surreal envelope in a different manner than what men are working on these days. Some of the most exciting work coming out of the US is being written by writers like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link. I don’t really feel that they have male counterparts, so it wasn’t a matter of leaving out one gender or another.

That said, I am very aware of the tokenism or ghettoising argument. I just don’t think it fits in this case. I haven’t caught much flak for being a male editor of a female anthology, probably because I’ve been the editor for thirteen years, have put out fifty issues of the magazine, and have edited other anthologies.

EK: If there is an area in contemporary fiction that you believe is dominated by female writers, what do you put that down to? Can particular literary traits ever be attributed to gender?

RS: With literary fiction, I don’t think there is any difference in the writing. I think the categorising and labelling are done afterwards.

EK: To some extent anthologising anything is political, but particularly when it involves a minority group (specifically in the context of Western Literature). How did you approach the task of editing Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing? Where did you start and what were some of the questions that informed the final result?

RS: Well, with Africa, you’re dealing with a continent of one billion people, fifty-four countries, over two thousand languages, hundreds of tribes, dozens of religions. There is no one Africa. What I tried to convey by the pieces I included was the variety, urgency, and vitality of current writing across Africa. I divided the anthology geographically, and tried to strike a balance of gender, region, and styles. I had my own enthusiasms to start with, and followed this up with a lot of research, asked many, many experts and smart readers for recommendations. It was daunting, and I could easily have filled three more anthologies with material I loved.

EK: I read in the recent interview you did with Ann Patchett that you grew up in Berlin, in a very musical family. How did that experience inform your literary career path? Did you have any particular early mentors or literary revelations that helped set your trajectory as a writer and editor?

RS: I knew from an early age that I wasn’t going to cut it in any kind of “normal” job. Growing up in the gay opera world of Berlin did not prepare me for “reality.” I didn’t, however, decide to pursue a career in writing or editing until I was in graduate school studying sports psychology and exercise physiology (I ran track in college). I dropped out, moved to New York with $150 to my name, but had the notion that I would start a literary magazine. Having been surrounded by starving artists from the time I was born, the idea of joining their ranks wasn’t particularly daunting, but an adventure.

As for revelations, I guess the biggest shock was that not everyone in publishing went to Harvard and had all the right internships and access. No one has ever asked me where I went to school. All editors care about is whether or not I could write, and on deadline, preferably with politeness and professionalism.

As for mentors, I would have to say George Plimpton by example. My wife was the senior editor at the Paris Review and I was fortunate enough to spend time with him, and to absorb his seriousness of purpose and what it means to be a man of letters. On the other end of the spectrum, Hunter S. Thompson was a shadow presence in my early life; I spent my summers in Aspen, where my father worked at the annual music festival. Thompson inspired me with his fierceness, intensity, and relentlessness.

EK: As you mentioned earlier, you’ve been at Tin House since the very beginning. What do you think defines the nature of Tin House and are there any goals within the organisation that are yet to be realised? Where to from here?

RS: That is a hard question, especially being so close to the magazine. I hope that the magazine retains its ability to surprise and inspire. I’m always looking to be shaken up, to reconsider what the written word can do. My hope for the future is greater engagement with readers, and to reach and engage with as many people as possible.

Patrick West Interviewed by Laurie Steed

20 Dec

Laurie Steed: You are noted as saying it’s essential a short story “spend time in the foreign territories of the writer before it is midwifed onto the page”. How would you define such territories? What are the roles of time and memory when evaluating accessible life experience versus those moments you’ve yet to fully process?

Patrick West: As a writer I’m happy to receive inspiration and useful insights into creative method from just about anywhere. One book I would recommend to any artist is Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson (1911). Bergson makes a seemingly naïve observation… everything isn’t given all at once. In other words, there is time. But is there really time? Bergson’s point is that our conception of time is such that everything might as well be given all at once. Pre-determining time as a series of static moments, as we tend to do, we always fail to encounter time itself. What is time itself? The existence of time, the fact that everything isn’t given all at once, suggests for Bergson that “Time is invention or it is nothing at all.” The future is always a matter of invention and the past is dead as in “already invented”. On Bergson’s logic artists need to insert themselves into time itself as creation in this sense. To do otherwise is to treat creation as merely the re-creation of the already created, as if, to borrow one of Bergson’s own metaphors, all a painter is doing is returning a jigsaw puzzle to its original state. Great artists tap into the very becoming of time and use it as a resource for true creation. Time, for them, is moment-less not as in without time but as in pure becoming. The test then of originality in all art might be that it produces, out of this flow of becoming, an effect of time never before experienced.

I do not claim to have done anything like this myself! And besides I am only beginning my own adventure with Bergson’s thought as it relates to creative writing. However, I think that I can notice in my writing some indications of what, for Bergson, such an engagement with time itself might consist in—namely, an un-thinking of the usual (time-based) categorisations of our existence. Or an attempt to prise open reality across the grain along which it usually splits. With these ideas in mind I just came across this passage from my short story “Nhill”: “When we made up our minds to go it was in sadness. A single duck’s cry carried to our ears with almost no volume at all, the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins.” I like the notion of being “in sadness” (rather than simply say “feeling sad”) because it opens a chink in sadness out of which may trickle an unfamiliar sense of time. It makes sadness itself into a form of becoming. Similarly, the last part about “the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins” suggests an attempt, at least, to occupy the flow of becoming rather than bear down on it too heavily with timeless modes of writing.

To come back to your question, the “foreign territories of the writer” would by this measure be those places where time is able to go to work on memories by drawing on the resources of that most valuable of things for a writer: his or her own body. Our bodies are an ever-present source of creativity for us as writers. In the simple fact that we are living as we write, we may be put in touch with the becoming of time itself. And, I might add, it is probably in the only half-processed (or apparently so) moments of our experience that we encounter creativity of this order.

Laurie Steed: How does the body both individuate and collaborate in regards to creative practice? Is writing meditative fiction, in a sense, a solitary writer seeking connection with the reader through the memory of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste, and how does the mind shape these senses into a finished story? Equally, how do preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative either help or hinder the transmission of our own “body” memories across to the reader?

Patrick West: There is an oft-quoted line in Spinoza’s Ethics (1677): “the body can do many things by the laws of its nature alone at which the mind is amazed.” What are the limits on the power of the body? Does the body lead the mind or is it led by it?

In your question you mentioned “sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste.” These, of course, are all capacities of the body, but in the special sense that they operate as aspects of the interface between the body, any body whatsoever, and the world. In fact, the world is absolutely necessary to the exercise of these capacities. If there were nothing to see we would all be blind…. If there were nothing to taste we could not taste.

In my view, the only creatively useful way to think of the body is in the multiplicity of its possible relations with the world. Even sexual difference is sculpted out of the relations of bodies to the world as a whole. The world, of course, is made up not just of things but also of other bodies: human, insect, animal… and after all don’t we call just about the largest things we can contemplate (suns, stars, moons, planets) heavenly bodies?

How does all this relate to creative writing? It seems to me it’s a question of how and to what extent the senses may be evoked in a piece of writing. Scriptwriting theory tells us that a rounded character is the bridging of the gap between apparent wants and unconscious needs. Perhaps this works in performance, but in writing, for mine, a rounded character is one with a zone of indiscernibility about them. When a reader starts to feel uncertain about where a character ends and where other characters and the world begin, that’s when that character comes to life. Characters then are bodies through and through, as even the mind is woven into the body at every level of existence.

One might even argue that the mind is subservient to the body. Spinoza asks us to consider the case of sleepwalkers and “those things [they] do at which they are surprised when they are awake.” As an aside, I like this idea that creative writing may be like sleepwalking… allowing the body to create art at which the waking mind will be amazed.

Janet Frame warns of the dangers of trying to rid oneself, as a writer, of the demands of the body. In a recent review of Frame’s short-story collection The Daylight and the Dust (2010) I wrote this of her short story “Solutions”:

–>In Solutions, a writer tells of another writer who, “bedevilled by the demands of his body . . . decided to rid himself of it completely”. Eventually, all that remains of him is his brain, which, mistaken for a prune, is tossed out by his landlady and eaten by three mice for breakfast, “spitting out the hard bits”. In his final state, as pure brain, the writer is left “blind, speechless, deaf”. “No one could have divined his thoughts; he himself could no longer communicate them.” Writers who ignore the contribution the body makes to their writing, Frame seems to be telling us in this collection, might as well be dead.

The absence of body is the absence of the senses (“blind, speechless, deaf”) and the absence of all writing. It is also, as it happens, death.

One reason I like the short-story form so much is because you can do things in it that would perhaps not be tolerated by publishers or readers in a novel. Thus, while I’m not sure how “preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative” could help in “the transmission of our own ‘body’ memories across to the reader” I don’t regard these preconceptions as particularly a hindrance to such transmission either. (Having said this though, I imagine that there are some bodies out there that do conform, somehow, to “preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative”, although for my part I wouldn’t want to be one of those bodies.)

But what of the mind? What is its role? I wonder if mind is what “individuates and collaborates” by seeking connections both within bodies (as in complex characters and complex writers) and across bodies (as in communities of friends, lovers, fellow writers)? For me, creative writing is all about making connections through the senses (in that double sense of using our senses to engage with the world and also allowing the world into ourselves through the portals of the senses… thus becoming in a way what it is that we see, or hear, or taste, or touch, or smell).

Although, like most writers I imagine, I write alone, and although, unlike many writers perhaps, my characters often appear to be “solitary selves”, I am not usually inclined to think of myself or of my characters as isolated or cut-off from the world. There is, if you like, an art to being solitary or alone yet not isolated or cut-off.

In “Nhill” the male protagonist, you could say, is solitary yet not isolated: the sensitivities that connect him to the world and the world to him suggest both other types of non-human connection and, just perhaps, future forms of (better?) human connection. Many of my stories, I suspect, are variations on this pattern.

Sometimes though it goes the other way. In “As of Shadows” the main character is so enmeshed in things—at a certain level—so weighed down by her abject historical situation, that her very lack of a solitary identity makes her isolated in quite a terrible way. She is unable to make connections with others or with the world that would enable her to feel richly alone.

In short, “Nhill” is about being a crowd though being alone, while “As of Shadows” is about being alone in a crowd… only “a counter of countries” in a world impossibly teeming with countries.

Laurie Steed: Which, in a way, leads on to my next question. What are the limitations of fiction in recreating experience, and do said limitations occur primarily at the point of transcription, or do they surface at every stage of literary engagement, from transcription through to reader reception, and perhaps even literary criticism?

Patrick West: Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “On Exactitude in Science” springs to mind. Borges describes an Empire of such overweening ambition that it creates a map with a one-to-one correspondence to the territory that it maps. The point of the story is that such a map is useless because it is a map no more. For it has become the unmapped territory itself.

The limitations of fiction in recreating experience are, like the limitations of any map less large than what it maps, quite possibly enabling limitations. Just as the map Borges describes could never be of practical use so any fiction that somehow managed to describe the totality of experience would be useless as a means for reconciling ourselves to experience.

As it happens, my desk is covered with a writing pad that is also a map of the world. The scale of the map is “1: 64 100 000 AT THE EQUATOR”, whatever that means.

But what is the scale of fiction’s relationship to the world? And do some genres operate on a larger scale than others? Is Naturalism, for example, a closer approximation to the world than say Magic Realism? Or do none of these questions make any sense?

Georges Perec wrote a curious little story, first published in 1979, entitled “The Winter Voyage”, about a writer whose work, also called The Winter Voyage, seems to contain quotations from a multitude of famous authors who wrote after him. Perec terms The Winter Voyage a “premonitory anthology.”

I am telling you about this story because the name of the author of this fantastical book is Hugo Vernier and a “vernier” or in full “vernier scale” is, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “a short movable scale used on various measuring and positioning instruments, by which fractional readings may be obtained from the divisions of an adjacent graduated scale.” The writings that come after The Winter Voyage might thus be interpreted as fractional readings of the “premonitory anthology.”

Something similar might apply when we talk about fiction and this thing we call experience. What if there is no experience beyond writing, no world beyond words? What if all writing is like a vernier and/or in relationship to a vernier? What if it’s all just a matter of scaling within language?

My short story “The Japanese stripper from the Inland Sea” concludes with an immodest attempt to somehow scale an understanding of experience (within writing, the setting is a bookshop) against the scale of the universe. It could be seen on one level as an attempt to travel to the very edge of fiction in order to ascertain if there is “‘something more’”.

–> On the morning of his departure from Japan, with some time to kill, Mr Simone browsed in the multilingual Narita Airport bookshop. Simultaneously with the first boarding call for his flight coming over the PA, he picked up The Oxford dictionary of philosophy and started flicking through its alphabetical entries. An ancient Greek name caught his eye. He began to read the one-paragraph entry about an inch from the bottom: ‘… is also famous for his proof of the universe’s infinitude’. (A gramophone needle stuck in the last groove of any record, thought Mr Simone, answers this question easily.) ‘The curious man should travel to the edge of the known universe and toss a dart into the darkness. Only two things can happen. It may disappear without trace. It may bounce back. Either way, the boundlessness of the universe is proved. There is always something more.’

Of course there is “‘always something more’”, but it is a “‘something more’” that hangs suspended in the sublime abyss between something and nothing. It is a something that could be nothing or anything!

Sometimes I think the fiction we write is like the dart described in this passage, indifferently bouncing back from or disappearing into the maw of experience, telling us very little about what it encounters. Sometimes I think that writing is a very crude instrument for describing or explaining the world or even, as Perec suggests, that it only ever recreates other writings in scaled-down or scaled-up versions, which are geometries that make little sense in the face of the “‘boundlessness of the universe’”.

Better writing, though, than a boundless map….

Laurie Steed: Indeed. And yet despite such constraints or limitations, the written word, at its best, continues to confound, engage, and evoke strong political, emotional, and intellectual responses from the reader. The Oulipo Movement of the 1960’s (which included Georges Perec, as well as Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau, among other writers and mathematicians) seemed to see writing as both freedom and limitation, and indeed described potential literature as “the seeking of new structures and patterns to be used by writers in any way they enjoy”. Here, I’m selling their work criminally short: among other things, they played with palindromes, lipograms, and even chess formulas to create new and exciting narratives.

Your work, at least to this particular writer, seems to take the Oulipo spirit as one of its departure points, and if there’s one thing I noted about The World Swimmers, it’s a willingness to showcase rather than summarise, by which I mean you’re willing to see each story as its own point of departure. In West’s world, there is no necessary need for an overarching connectivity between narratives; your stories hint at both solitude, connectivity, and even the malleable nature of time, but all do this in such different ways that there’s a necessary divide between them.

If one, then, was to accurately sum up Patrick West, the writer, what would be the necessary themes, preoccupations, and motivations to be cited? More importantly, how do you see that particular trajectory informing your work that’s still to come?

Patrick West: At the Melbourne launch of The World Swimmers Paul Carter suggested that, though there is considerable geographic range across the stories of my collection, I am not really writing about places themselves so much as about the senses by which we encounter place. Or by which we encounter anything at all for that matter.

This was something I hadn’t really thought of myself until Paul pointed it out, but once he’d said it, it seemed suddenly obvious. I would add that it is not only senses as in the senses of sight, hearing, touch and so on that are in play here. I realize now, on the evidence of my own stories, that I am a writer interested potentially in all of the infinite number of ways by which humans have sensations of the world and of themselves.

To “re-sense” the world and/or yourself, as it were, one has to do what you suggest in your question: “showcase rather than summarise”. For when you “summarise” you take much more for granted than perhaps you should as a writer. Realism as a form tends to summarize in its very foundations. Effectively it says, here is a world that we share, now let’s create a story within that world. The story told may be truly fascinating but it will probably not suggest new ways of sensing the world. It won’t re-create it, make it over. The conventions of language Realism employs won’t allow that.

I like what you say about the Oulipo Movement and writerly experimentation. My writing is sometimes referred to as experimental too (I have a fondness for chiasmus that I couldn’t even begin to explain!). But I hope that what my experimental writing explores is not experimentation for its own sake (something that would be remote from the preoccupations of the everyday world) but experimentation as a way of discovering and perhaps even interrogating other possible ways of sensing.

Experiments of language (which in one very powerful sense at least is all that writers have to work with) may create opportunities for different ways of sensing ourselves and the world of which we are a part. And in these opportunities, to return to an earlier theme of our discussion, there will almost inevitably be new modes of time as an expression of new modes of becoming or being in the world. All of these themes—language experimentation, the sensing of the world, the sensing of oneself, time itself, notions of living—are contained in this paragraph from “The Japanese stripper from the Inland Sea”:

–> Mr Simone crossed the room and placed his palms down flat on the window sill. Distractedly, with just the tips of his fingers, he nudged what he thought of as only some value-less trinkets. Finally raising both hands, he took the smallest of these objects into his grasp, felt its lightness. Replacing it in its original position after several minutes, Mr Simone then turned away. He was never to know of this thing’s aliveness. There is a species of insect that hibernates trustingly in the open the length of the Japanese winter. Now, spring was just around the corner. The thing uncurled itself a fraction on the window sill. Pray mercy, the birds …

The “point of departure” for this story is Mr Simone’s lack of awareness of “this thing’s aliveness”. I hope and imagine that ideas of what it means to be alive—the spectrum from deepest death to fullest life—will continue to preoccupy me in my future writings. And that, perhaps, if I’m lucky, some odd notions of how to sense ourselves and the world differently will slide off the page and take up their place in the world and in our bodies. To make that happen, though, in my view, one needs to engage in concentrated experimentation. One needs to sweep away the “taken for granted” and, almost, to un-learn the lessons that we don’t even know we have learned. For these lessons obscure the new.

* * *


Rebecca Starford interviewed by Will Heyward

3 Dec

Will Heyward: Félix Fénéon, a gifted turn-of-the-century French publisher (of both Joyce and Proust), in response to an invitation to publish his own writing, once said: I aspire only to silence. I want to ask you, generally, in light of this quote, about being an editor and a publisher at Kill Your Darlings and Affirm Press. Many people who read fantasise, at some point in their lives, about becoming a “great writer”, but not nearly as many fantasise about becoming a great editor. And yet the skills required of writers and editors are not so different: a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of language, a feel for narrative, a willingness to read, etc. So, what made you choose to edit and to publish other people’s writing? And to what do you aspire?

Rebecca Starford: I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of the publishing industry, but it was only at university that I decided I wanted to be a fiction editor. I am one of those pesky creative-writing graduates, and writing – and the way we use language – is my primary imaginative pursuit. To me, being an editor and writer are synonymous. You can’t be one and not the other.

Of course, not all writers are editors – luckily, or I’d be out of a job. But to be a good fiction editor you need to possess many of the same creative characteristics and sensibilities as a writer. You need to be imaginative, whimsical, prone to daydreams and flights of fancy; you also need to be organised, dedicated and perseverant. Editors go through fazes of reclusiveness, too (we’re also locked away in a room, day after day, working on a manuscript). You need to be patient and diplomatic, too. You’re working with both the work and the writer – those lines are often complicated, and restraint and empathy are important (even if you really don’t think the character Timmy would talk like that!)

What drew me most to being an editor was the working relationship developed between author and editor. I’d read Hilary McPhee’s Other People’s Words, Jacqueline Kent’s wonderful biography of Beatrice Davis, A Certain Style, as well as all about Gordon Lish – famous for working with the likes of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, as well as being a very good fiction writer in his own right. All this was inspirational, and fuelled my desire to work with writers and their words.

The relationship between author and editor is intimate and symbiotic – at times, in the throes of difficult edits or under time pressures, it can be intense and claustrophobic. It’s a most curious form of familiarity; you must adopt the viewpoint of your author; in a sense, you have to step inside their imagination. You become, as Text Publishing’s editor Mandy Brett wrote in her excellent article in Meanjin recently, ‘their avatar and their advocate’. There must, therefore, be a high degree of trust and confidence.

What do I aspire to? Not to silence, that’s for sure. I’d like to see more recognition for editors – both creatively and professionally. But the tactile work a good editor should always be silently discernable – more than silent, it needs to be invisible: deft, light, retaining the integrity, mood and feel of the work. In terms of my role as a publisher, I’d like to continue finding new Australian voices and publishing them. I’d like to contribute – through my work at Affirm Press and Kill Your Darlings – to a cultural conversation, and to enrich the literary landscape. I’d like both publishing ventures to broaden their scope, to grow in size and influence. And I hope, one day soon, to find the time for more writing of my own – an editor knows the difficulty of finding that little bit of space, away from ‘other people’s words’.

Will Heyward: I want to ask you about Australian voices. Jo Case’s recent article, “Aborigines, Sharks and Australian Accents,” concluded that Australian writing is important because it, ‘reflects our world, our places, our subtle rhythms of speech and communal psychological drives and cultural assumptions.’ And Simon Leys once wrote that, ‘The death of culture lies in self-centeredness, self-sufficiency and isolation. (Here, for example, the first concern – it seems – should not be to create an Australian culture, but a cultured Australia.)’ Do you agree with either (or both) of these statements? Can you describe the Australian voices that you hope to find and have already published?

Rebecca Starford: I get nervous when people talk about ‘Australian writing’ and an ‘Australian voice’ in any definitive context – so often it’s discussed within a very narrow paradigm. What ‘Australian’ means to one person means something else to another. To me, it’s more productive to be debating the necessity for pluralism in this definition.

I agree with Simon Leys in that ‘the death of culture lies in self-centredness, self-sufficiency and isolation’. But his ‘cultured Australia’ might be different from mine or yours – in 2011, ‘culture’ is a contested site. You only need to look at the recent debate surrounding the erosion of singular critical authority [in relation to literary reviewing, particularly] to see how reluctant the establishment is to shift with the tides of change.

Jo’s excellent article highlighted the imperative of ‘Australian fiction’ – that it nourishes our understanding of our culture and society. But what are our cultural assumptions? Obviously our place in the world determines these views – and as Jo’s article demonstrated, too much of ‘Australian’ life located in the bush and by the beach is recognized and rewarded in our literary community in the shape of prizes and awards yet it’s not an accurate representation of Australian life in its totality. It seems to me that whenever there’s a conversation of this nature, it’s still very skewed towards a single canon, one that’s very Anglo/male/hetero/bourgeois, versus ‘everything else’.

One of my favourite novels of the past couple of years was Kalinda Ashton’s debut The Danger Game. It was a sophisticated three-tiered narrative, which balanced past with present, different registers and modes of voice, threading Kalinda’s own political and social preoccupations through the story without it ever becoming overwhelming, as well as engaging her readers with authentic, multifaceted protagonists.

I think, then, for all these reasons that I’m not able to answer succinctly what voices I hope to find as a publisher – only that I would like to see a variety of new writers writing about a variety of different (Australian) lives – from the bush to beach to city to suburbs; from men to women; from gay to straight to intriguingly in-between; from the range of intersecting ethnic communities who make up the fabric of Australian society.

William Heyward: A quote from Roberto Bolano: “I’ve had the misfortune of meeting a number of editors who were a burden to their own mothers and I’ve also been lucky enough to meet several, maybe seven or eight, who were and are responsible people, rather gloomy (melancholy is a mark of the trade), intelligent, with guts to spare and a sense of humour, editors who’re determined, for example, to publish authors and books that they know from the start will sell very few copies.”

This quote touches on a problem that I’m sure all publishers and editors have faced: how to publish books that sell, but also books that one loves personally. How do you see this problem? As someone working in Melbourne, what’s it like starting a career in publishing, a profession in which, if we are to believe Bolano, unprofitability is a trait of distinction, at a time when the foundations of the industry (bookshops, and even the book itself) are being called into question? And how fair is Bolano’s double-edged characterisation of editors?

Rebecca Starford: Well, I hope I’m not too much of a burden to my mother…

I’m in the fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on my mood) position of being, often, both editor and publisher – so I always have marketability at the back of my mind when it comes to new books. Which is a frustration at times, but it’s also simply a reality of the business. Publishing houses are not charities; they are not benevolent do-gooders (some projects might be altruistic *insert shameless spruik of The Boy and the Crocodile*) – they are commercial enterprises.

As we spoke about earlier, editors and publishers are tireless advocates for their authors – they believe in them as artists, as well as members of the collective enterprise. And it is the art of the work that comes first because really, no one, especially in the current economic climate, goes into publishing to make enormous profits.

At Affirm Press, we embarked on a risky commercial series for a new publisher – Long Story Shorts. The series comprises 6 individual collections of stories from new and emerging Australian writers. These days, fiction itself is hard enough to sell – short-fiction is even harder. Throw a new or emerging Australian writer into the mix and it’s dangerous territory!

Fortunately, the books have done a lot better than we anticipated, which is a happy surprise. There is a genuine hunger for the form, and I reckon we’re seeing something of a renaissance in the form (short fiction is so celebrated in the Europe, the UK and the US, and we all know how much we love to imitate those guys).

Long Story Shorts was always planned as a long-term commitment: to our authors, to short fiction and to new and emerging Australian writers at large. New writers are encouraged to cut their teeth on the form, but it is increasingly difficult for them to build a profile from short-fiction (there are, of course, celebrated exceptions – Nam Le, for example).

It saddens me that the book industry is currently plagued by a degree of caution and uncertainty – that’s not a healthy atmosphere, and it’s not conducive to innovation. And this may be naïve, or overly earnest – but I do believe that if you’re hardworking, passionate and shrewd about writing and ideas, there is enormous opportunity in our industry; the potential is enormous – and that’s without even getting into ebooks. So I’m excited for the future, rather than fearful – there’s equal scope for revision and change and all things fresh and different.

Wayne Macauley Interviewed by Ryan O’Neill

5 Nov

RYAN O’NEILL: A few years ago you made a comment about Australian short stories that could be just as well applied to Australian novels, namely that ‘the stuff that gets published… is, for the most part, stylistically and structurally conservative social realism.’ With your latest novel, The Cook the narrative voice, with its unique approach to punctuation, immediately announces a stylistically experimental novel. How did you go about capturing the voice of Zac, the narrator, and were you ever worried that Zac’s voice would alienate readers more used to stylistically conservative narrators?

WAYNE MACAULEY: ‘Experimental’ is a very relative term, isn’t it? In my case, given that I am writing in the early part of the 21st century, as opposed to the early 20th, with high literary modernism now nearly a hundred years old and post-modernism already looking a bit fat and middle-aged, to write a two hundred-odd page novel of unpunctuated sentences in the interests of capturing the rise and fall of a character’s thoughts is, let’s be honest, actually a bit of a conservative thing to do—and probably something a so-called edgy writer like myself ought to be ashamed of.

I don’t consider my work experimental, in and of itself. What is experimental about it, I guess, certainly in the Australian literary context, is my willingness to mess with form in the pursuit of an idea. In this instance the idea of a rudderless young man as the apogee of a fast, liquid, shape-shifting, centreless modernity; a mind that thinks like society functions (or malfunctions): rapidly, superficially, vainly, disconnectedly. If in pursuit of this idea you end up getting some readers offside—well, what can you do? Writing is not a popularity contest. I’ve certainly never set out to deliberately alienate a reader—and I hope I never do—but that doesn’t mean I want to kiss them on the forehead and tuck them in for beddy-byes either.

As for Zac’s voice, specifically, its tone and cadence and so on, I’m still not completely sure where it came from. As a writer I obviously prepared myself, took notes, tried things out, attempted to relate the work in my own mind to the works of other great writers I knew and loved, but in the end, as with any piece of creative work, you eventually have to close your eyes and jump in the deep end. This I did for a bit over a year. For the year or so following I used what skills I had so far learnt to turn the consequences of my floundering into The Cook.

RYAN O’NEILL: You mention that when writing The Cook you attempted to relate your novel to the works of great writers you love. Can I ask you about your literary influences, both Australian and international?

WAYNE MACAULEY: I’ve been asked this question a number of times and every time I answer it I feel like I am being reductive, quoting a handful of writers as if they will somehow ‘explain me’. But my reading has been extremely broad and varied over many years, with fiction playing an important but not definitive part in it. So this time I have decided to make my list of authors more comprehensive (which, when I think about it, is the only really honest way to answer your question). This list, chronologically ordered, describes the authors on my shelf that I still turn to for inspiration or comfort, or most often to snap me out of my lethargy and remind me what great writing is: Heraclitus, Plato, Montaigne, Cervantes, Pascal, Defoe, Swift, Voltaire, Sterne, Lichtenberg, Kleist, Schopenhauer, Gogol, Kierkegaard, Dosteovsky, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Stevenson, Conrad, Hamsun, Walser, Kafka, Orwell, Beckett, Gombrowicz, Camus, Bernhard, Murnane, Coetzee, Sebald.

The idea of literary influence is a strange one, and something I still have trouble wrapping my head around. On the one hand I freely acknowledge the influence of all these authors on my work but on the other I want to protest that, no, what I’m doing is original and always has been. Somewhere between these conflicting feelings, I suppose, is the truth underlying the journey every writer takes towards finding their own voice: we are right to acknowledge our influences but wrong to be slavish to them.

RYAN O’NEILL: The Cook is very much a portrait of the artist as a young man, with Zac gradually mastering, and becoming obsessed with, succeeding in the culinary arts. While there are many elements of Zac’s progress that could apply to any artist, whether a writer, a poet or a sculptor, such as his delight in his first successes, his feeling of a found vocation, and his intense craftsmanship, it seems to me that in the artistry explored in The Cook there is an inherent criticism of Australia’s attitude to the arts. This country’s recent obsession with ‘the art of cooking’ in shows such as MasterChef and its imitators, and the concurrent phenomenon of celebrity chefs is in stark contrast to the continuing marginalisation of much Australian writing and filmmaking. While Zac becomes a great artist, I would maintain (and I confess that I am a food philistine) that the art form he excels at is essentially a transitory and empty one. The human body passes criticism on all food, no matter how good it is, by eventually excreting it. In the end, Zac’s idealisation of the art of cooking and what it can achieve eventually destroys him and others. I’d like to ask how much the choice of Zac’s vocation was influenced by the MasterChef fad, and if this choice was indeed a criticism of Australia’s general attitude to the arts.

WAYNE MACAULEY: In the notebook I kept before and during the writing of The Cook there is an entry that reads, simply: Worship of the superficial. I know that in the writing of the book I was trying to explain this idea to myself—how in contemporary society the deep, complex and profound is increasingly sneered at while the superficial is worshipped. Or more correctly, a society in which the superficial is treated as if it were the profound. This situation, of course, in the first instance, is comic gold, and has been since the time of Aristophanes. When people take the shallow and ephemeral seriously they give themselves the illusion of status and power (Don Quixote taking up his lance in the cause of knight errantry, the Emperor without any clothes) but they also leave themselves open to ridicule. But the idea of the superficial parading as the profound also speaks in a very serious way to what contemporary society has become. We are increasingly infantilised. Like a small child we grab at this and that, have a quick taste then move on. We have forfeited our critical judgement and with it our sense of irony. We can’t see any more how childish and stupid we look, because childishness and stupidity have become the norm.

I think this new cooking phenomenon—and here I’m talking about the high end of the business, rarefied fine dining for the credit card rich—is shallow and ephemeral. It has also, unfortunately, because of all the things I’ve outlined above, been allowed to take itself so seriously that a satirist need only alter the perspective very slightly for the whole thing to look ludicrous. The phenomenon is comic, but at the same time, in a world where one in seven of our fellow human beings cannot feed themselves, deeply, deeply shaming and tragic.

As to how this may relate to the status of the Australian artist, it is probably drawing a long bow. Disenfranchised Zac’s determined pursuit of the perfect dish might indeed equate to the marginalised artist’s pursuit of the perfect artwork, but I think The Cook throws its net a bit wider than that. Yes, I think the arts are by nature marginalised in this country when compared to say TV or sport, but the mantle of martyr to the cause of marginalisation doesn’t sit easy with me. I don’t think we as artists are any more hard done by than anyone else—and there are plenty of people far more hard done by than us. In my earlier novel, Caravan Story, I satirised the so-called arts industry and its commodification of culture, but I think I reserved the most poison in my pen for that novel’s principal character, a writer by the name of Wayne Macauley, who during the course of the book comes to believe that by writing to order he might one day win approval and financial support from those above pulling the strings. A marginalised artist with delusions of grandeur is a writer’s comic gold, too.

RYAN O’NEILL: Finally, I’d like to ask you about the nuts and bolts of your writing process. Graham Greene’s slow and steady five hundred words a day eventually led to a considerable number of brilliant novels and stories. Proust liked to write in bed at night, while Nabokov wrote his later novels on index cards while standing up. Some writers are more comfortable having several pieces of work on the go at once, whereas others must concentrate on one thing at a time until it is finished. Earlier, you mentioned that The Cook took a number of years to write. Could you take us through that process in a little more detail? Do you have a target number of hours/words that you try to write every day? Were you often distracted by other projects, or did you deliberately take time off from The Cook in order to refresh yourself? Did you need a fallow period after finishing The Cook or did you begin work on a new story/novel straight away?

WAYNE MACAULEY: I work early mornings and when I’m working on a specific project I write a minimum of a page a day. For five months of the year I have a full-time day job. During this time I get up at 4.30am and am at my desk at 5.30. At 9 I finish writing and ride my bike to the pool and have a quick swim before I start work at 10. For the other seven months my day job is part-time, starting at 1. During this time I get up at 7, start at my desk at 8, ride my bike to the pool at 12, swim, and have a half-hour for lunch. I do this five days a week—I rarely, if ever, work on the weekends. Outside the hours described I try to avoid my desk completely, although I will on a Friday evening often open a beer and put on some music and sit there for a while thinking about what I’ve done and what I’ll do next and maybe even make a few notes. Each weekday morning when writing a first draft I read what I have written the previous day and edit and change where necessary then refer to the note I have left for myself on the verso page the previous morning to point the way for that day’s work. I write freehand in cheap lined notebooks. I don’t use a computer until the work is finished, then I type it up, like a stenographer. That marks the end of the first draft. Then I print it out, date stamp it, and the next draft begins. The first draft of The Cook took fifteen months to write. Redrafting and editing to final proofs took another fourteen. I don’t take many breaks between writing if I can avoid it and if possible I always try to have something on the go. But The Cook was an intense and exhausting book so I have been taking it a bit easy since I finished.

If that all sounds boring that’s because it is. The external life of the writer is truly, truly boring. (Can there be anything more boring than someone getting up every day at the same time to go and sit at a desk…?) It is the internal life that’s interesting, of course, but that’s precisely the life we never get to see. I know my internal life’s best chance of birthing a book is by surrounding it with a firewall of regularity and routine, but the process by which a novel emerges from that internal life is still a mystery to me. I am as little able to explain it as I am of explaining bees.



Les Zigomanis Interviewed by Bel Woods

29 Oct

Bel Woods: The day I met Les Zig he commented on my left-handedness. He then proceeded to list every left-handed person in the Professional Writing and Editing course we were taking at the time. I likened it to that moment in Wonder Boys,  when James lists ‘all the movie suicides’ in alphabetical order. If I were ever to describe Les to someone who’d never met him before, I think I would relay this story. It says so much about the little I do know about him, and the little I don’t.

You write a lot of stories that follow the journey of the writer, whether it be the path to success, or disillusionment, or something else entirely. I remember you once told me that as a teenager you wanted to be professional pool player, and then an actor, that writing was always on the cards, but nothing ‘ordinary’ ever appealed to you. Traditionally, the writer’s path, as with that of the actor or sports star, includes this rising above obstacles. And in many ways you’ve had a lot of obstacles, especially where depression and OCD are concerned. Despite this though, you’re extraordinarily prolific. Is this a matter of pushing yourself even when you’re unwell? Or do you believe writing to have therapeutic benefits that perhaps draw those afflicted to it, and help them write their way back to a feeling of normality? And do you think you could’ve ever done anything else?

Les Zigomanis: I don’t know how realistic some of those alternatives were. I wanted to play pool (and practiced twelve hours a day for about a year, on top of playing ten years) until I broke my arm and suffered bad nerve damage to half my hand, so that went out the window. I also wanted to be a computer programmer at one point, programming games. And I also played guitar, really poorly, and wanted to be in a band with some friends, who also played instruments really poorly, (and some, so poorly, that they didn’t play them at all).

Fundamentally, what a lot of these things had in common – as far as acting, music, and programming went – was that they all had story at their core. For acting, I imagined the stories to be involved in; for music, the stories behind songs; for programming games, the story behind the game. So everything was about telling stories, and that goes back to when I was a kid. In primary school, I loved writing stories. In early high school, I used to turn in epic short stories – I turned in a sixty page handwritten sci-fi short story in Year 9 English – and when I was seventeen I hand-wrote my first novel, which was book one of an intended five book series in the vein of The Lord of the Rings.

I don’t think there’s a correlation between my fantastic career aspirations and the obstacles I put in front of characters. It’s just infinitely more interesting when a character is flawed and has those obstacles to overcome, (and, often, my characters have psychological obstacles). It shows growth in the character and, I guess, the potential everybody faces within themselves, that they too can unlock, if they overcome their own obstacles.

For me, writing’s always been therapeutic. When I don’t write for a while, I feel ideas backwash in my mind, so I have to get them out, like a form of exorcism. And when I do write – when I actually get into it and I’m flying – I become oblivious to the world around me. It’s a meditative state. It shuts everything out. It’s like going somewhere else. I don’t think it’s entirely a case of writing back to a ‘feeling of normality’, as you put it – at least not for me. I think you can overdo it. In the past, the distant past, when I’d written for twelve-hour sessions, it’s a little hard letting go, when I leave the keyboard. And after finishing something big, if it’s been full-on, writing every day, I find it very draining, and come away flat, so it takes a while to replenish. You put so much of yourself on the page, you can lose too much of yourself, and it takes a while to recharge.

As for writing about the journey of the writer, that’s really just writing about experience, and I’ve had a lot of experience in that regard.

Bel Woods: Another thematic thread, and the drive behind most of your recent stories, is your relationship with your partner. One of my favourite stories inspired by your personal life was the simple yet engaging ‘Bookstore Fetish’ published by Wet Ink in December of last year. I know your partner read and liked that particular piece, but do you find yourself concerned about putting aspects of your life, especially your personal life, into your stories?

Les Zigomanis: Yes. There are a few I haven’t given to her to read, because I think the details are too close. Not personal in a sense where I’d betray her confidence(s), but  maybe because I don’t want her to see what I think of the relationship in some ways. Invariably, I think everybody has to work out things for themselves.

Bel Woods: In 2009 you won a fellowship with Olvar Wood for one of you manuscripts, which assured you a week away to write, along with mentoring throughout the following year. You then when on to be shortlisted for the Atlas Award in 2010 for the same project. What were both experiences like? Has this changed how you feel about writing? How important do you think it is for writers to receive mentoring? Does this kind of thing give you assurance that you’re on the right path?

Les Zigomanis: Olvar Wood was awesome. It was four writers (Paul Garrety, Felicity Castagna, and Kylie Mulcahy) living in the same house for a week, with ‘classes’ during the morning, where we talked about aspects of writing with the two writers/editors who ran the Fellowship, Nike Bourke (author of The Bone Flute, The True Green of Hope, and What the Sky Knows), and Inga Simpson (author of Fatal Development and Off the Grid). Sometime afterward, Paul got a contract with Allen & Unwin, and his book, The Seventh Wave, came out earlier this year. Also, recently, Transit Lounge published Felicity’s collection of short stories, Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia.

The thing I really enjoyed about this was that there was no affectation, which you don’t often get in writing environments. Sometimes, I think people can promote themselves as writers, talk about writing, but never actually do any writing. The rest of the time, we were left to our own devices, which was mostly writing. It’s something I’d recommend to anybody serious about their writing.

The Atlas Award shortlisting was just a hope-for-the-best thing, and waiting for the announcement of the winner, telling myself not to build hopes too high, but building them up anyway, and then not winning is the typical kick-in the-head-resign-from-writing-temporarily-disappointment.

I don’t know if these things tell you you’re on the right path, because you can seem to be on the right path forever, whereas others leapfrog you for success without any of these things at all. I guess it does tell you that your stuff’s at a publishable level, that it’s being considered in these lights.

The mentorship is invaluable, because as a writer – particularly when you’ve been involved with the same piece for so long – you can lose objectivity, so it’s useful to have somebody from the outside looking in, who can offer you feedback, and who you can bounce ideas off and who’ll offer a fresh perspective.

I think there’s a lot of writers – a lot – who are (or would be) publishable if they had some guidance and nurturing along the way, but unfortunately those sort of resources aren’t available.

Bel Woods: Anyone who knows you will understand you have strong views where writing and publishing are concerned. There are industry no-nos they harp on about in a lot of the university classes, but you’re one of the few writers I’ve met who figure it’s hard enough out there without limiting yourself. Over the years you’ve edited for both ‘reputable’ and borderline vanity publishing companies, you’ve published erotic fiction under a non de plume, and while you’ve sat on the other side of that editorial desk, you still express unapologetic views on the conduct of some Australian literary journals and publishing houses. Do you think writers, particularly now, are too frightened to break away from what they’ve been taught and just ‘make it’ rather than interning, studying, and submitting at/to the ‘right’ places? And do you think they do this to the detriment of making money and changing the industry to financially support emerging talent?

Les Zigomanis: I don’t know if they’re too frightened to break away. I mean, there could be – just for example – the Australian equivalent of Stephen King out there who we don’t know about because he/she isn’t getting published because, for the most part, mainstream fiction doesn’t seem to get the same sort of exposure in Australia as literary fiction. It’s almost like we have an impoverished financial arts economy (same applies to film) so if anything gets made, it has to have some artistic merit, some literary enrichment (or ennoblement), to justify its expense. There’s nothing wrong with that stuff, but it just seems to dominate our markets. You never read about a killer clown lurking in sewers (a la IT from Stephen King). I use King as an example, as I think he writes, primarily, because he likes to tell a good story.

When I was studying, everybody was writing their own things. I didn’t know anybody who was writing what they thought the market wanted. And some of these people were really good writers with really good stories. Now if you look at that as just the tiniest sample of the writing demographic, there’s a lot of stuff being written. But a lot of the stuff which is invariably published seems the same.

Bel Woods: You’re a big part of Blaise Van Hecke’s [untitled] team and one of her best friends. This idea for a journal outside of the existing Melbourne writing circles, was first formulated when we were all enrolled in a Small Press Publishing class. Now that you’re four issues in, has it changed how you work together? Has it made you more sympathetic to the perils of journal publication? Has it changed how you look at submitting as a writer?

Les Zigomanis: It hasn’t really changed how we work together. If anything, we probably know what’s expected of each other more now. Blaise is going to do less editing for hereon because she’s so overloaded doing everything else – layout, dealing with printers, organising the launch, etc. At launches, she’s the only one that doesn’t get thanked, but does so much of the work.

I don’t think working on [untitled] has changed how I look at submitting myself, because as I got older and more experienced, (less stupid), I tried to be fastidious in meeting a target market’s submission guidelines. That’s the most important thing for me. Present a story as it’s requested. It’s annoying to get something in Comic Sans or which blows away the word limit, as if the author thinks it’s going to be so awesome that we’ll overlook any other liberties, (although, to be honest, when I was much younger, I behaved a bit similarly).

I don’t know that it’s made me sympathetic to the perils of journal publication either, other than to maybe show me there’s a limited number of spots for stories in any one journal, and way too many submissions to accommodate them all.

But I know during the first issue, when I was handling our mailbox (which we now have interns doing) I felt absolutely horrible sending out rejections to people, knowing they were going to experience that dejection I’ve felt so often. It was actually draining. I wondered if the people who’d sent me rejections felt the same.

Bel Woods: The journal itself is interesting. You have policies regarding submitting to allow space for new writers to get their work out there, you often offer feedback and editorial support to accepted writers, and you accept all fiction, placing genre and commercial fiction at the same importance as literary fiction. This, alongside the fact you’re not affiliated with any universities or writing organisations, has made you appear a more accessible publication to writers in general, not just new writers. Was this what you were aiming to do? – To create a comfortable, inviting, submission space for writers? Or do think this has for to do with family-like environment Blaise has adopted for everyone involved?

Les Zigomanis: When we originally discussed [untitled], we wanted it to be accessible to mainstream and genre writers as well. Literary fiction is well-represented in Australia. That’s not to say we won’t publish it, because we’ve had some literary stories. But we wanted to be open to everything, as long as it’s a good story, whereas it seems some other markets are only open to a good story if it’s a literary story.

Originally, we also wanted to personalise rejections to everybody, and we did that to begin with. But as we got more and more submissions per issue, we found it was just too hard to keep up the practice so, sadly, we reverted to form rejections, for the most part – although we’ll still personalise the occasional rejection. Sometimes, it’ll be for something which we were close to accepting. Other times, it might be to somebody you can see is starting out, and offering a few suggestions to help them along. It’d be great to personalise them all but, again, with the amount of submissions coming in, it makes it impossible.

Bel Woods: Most recently, you’ve been working on a YA fantasy novel – a large break away from your literary and realism work. Is this a genre you’d like to work in more? And given the extraordinarily short amount of time you spent writing the novel (just weeks, wasn’t it?), do you believe this could be the genre you’re most comfortable with?

Les Zigomanis: I wrote my young adult novel, which was 75,000 words, in about six weeks, and most of it was in the last month, because Blaise challenged me to finish it in time to enter in the Text Prize.

I’ve always liked fantasy. That’s actually where all my writing began. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve, and while some people find them overwritten and/or boring, the thing which really astonished me was their depth. They weren’t just self-contained stories with hastily-written backdrops.

Tolkien had built this foundation of history (which was later explored in his other books, like The Silmarillion, and the various anthologies his son compiled from his short stories and unfinished work) that spanned millennia, and made LotR incredibly layered and textured, which I think some people miss. The world is so dense and storied.

That was actually my first lesson as a writer: before I begin writing anything, build the world from the ground up. I don’t plan the story itself, just the world in which the story unfolds. So a lot of times I’ll come up with characters and locations, etc., which I might never use. But it helps, because you never get to the point where you have to contemplate who the characters are meeting or where they’re going. Those things are there, and they propel the story.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to write fantasy. I handwrote book one of an intended five book series, then rewrote it several times (once by typewriter, another by computer). I wrote another fantasy epic (260,000 words), which is sitting on my computer, waiting to be redrafted. I never really did much with them, though. I know the first book got past a round of reading, but was rejected. The other didn’t really go anywhere. Back then, I was great at sitting down and writing and finishing stuff, but horrible at submitting stuff after it was done.

I don’t think I’m really comfortable with this genre. I’m probably most at ease with stories based around writing where the protagonists are deeply flawed, but I like fantasy, (which is why I’ll keep writing in the genre and hope to publish a best-seller). I like that all things are possible, and that ultimately it comes down to classical archetypes of good versus evil.

I just like to write to write, to tell a story, whatever that story might contain. If I wanted to attribute any meaning to it all, I think with writing, it’s constantly a reinterpretation of self. Even if you’re writing something fantastic or other-worldly. I always see bits of myself in my protagonists, and bits of friends, family, etc., in the other characters. It’s almost like a way of making (or trying to make) sense of yourself.

* * *

You can find [untitled] here:

Jeff Sparrow

1 Oct

Alec Patric: You’ve overseen a critical transition in what is arguably Australia’s most important literary journal—moving Overland from an exclusively ink & paper operation to a vigorous digital presence. You’ve made that seem a natural metamorphosis. Could you talk about what’s gone into negotiating these radically changing years.

Jeff Sparrow: A ‘little magazine’ like Overland is, more than anything, about ideas. So embracing a technology that facilitated the dissemination of those ideas in ways that had never been possible before seemed like a no-brainer.

In practical terms, however, there were some immediate issues. New formats don’t supersede old formats – at least, not initially – so much as sit on top of them, and the tendency is thus for each new platform to add more and more work. Abandoning paper was never going to be a short term option for Overland, which meant that the time put into digital publishing was simply additional labour.

So coming to terms with that was difficult.

On the other hand, the Overland website has really confirmed how much affection there is for Overland as an institution. If we’ve been able to do anything new, it’s because so many people share the journal’s political and aesthetic goals.

Alec Patric: It’s a poorly kept secret that Meanjin will soon transition to an entirely online form, abandoning the print medium altogether. With this move the prestige of the journal will come into question. While Overland has grown into a new environment, its roots still find purchase in the solid ground of print. I’m interested in what your thoughts are on Overland similarly cutting away its print form. It would certainly mean less work.

Jeff Sparrow: I don’t know what Meanjin’s plans are. But we see ourselves publishing in print for the foreseeable future, even as we embrace some new forms. Print on paper is still the most readable way to present long essays and fiction. It’s portable, it’s attractive, it’s accessible everywhere, and it lasts. Most writers still prefer it, as do the majority of readers.

At the same time, we are not sentimentalists. It is silly to pretend that the literary journal ten years down the track will look like the literary journal of today.

That being said, I think the printed page still has a few years left in it.

Alec Patric: There are different kinds of motivation writers have. Some are more personally corrosive that others. Revolt seems to be at the centre of your work. Both in terms of an emotional response to the world being as fucked up as it is, as well as an innate rebellion. I’m wondering how it doesn’t wear you down.

Jeff Sparrow: On the contrary, writing prevents you from being worn down. What’s most corrosive about the twenty-first century is the prevailing sense of powerlessness, that feeling of being buffeted about by events entirely beyond your control. Terrible things happen and we all must suck them up. If it does nothing else, writing at least allows you to organise your thoughts about the world. And sometimes – not always, but sometimes – it can be an intervention.

I’m not a naturally fluent writer, nor am I one of those people who say they’re never happier than when at their desk. For me, writing’s always been slow and difficult. But the compensation is that it allows you to feel that you are responding to the world rather than simply being pummelled by it.

Alec Patric: The fluent writer might be a myth. Great writing would be far more common if it wasn’t. Work of real value comes from a difficult, often painful, process of evolution, where a writer is struggling to develop both his understanding and craft. If writers don’t feel that process to be slow and difficult, it’s because they’ve begun recycling old thoughts. When was the last time you read something remarkable and what made it memorable to you? How difficult is it to find this kind of work for Overland? How often do you produce it personally?

Jeff Sparrow: Is fluency a myth? Maybe. But people do work in different ways and at different speeds, and I do know some writers who can produce very high quality prose very quickly.

I think if you’re talking about remarkable non-fiction, there’s a couple of different things to consider.

The first is ideas – the arguments that the essay (which is what we’re talking about with Overland) makes.

In a perverse way, radical political writers in this country have the advantage of working in opposition to a mainstream culture in which so much political journalism consists simply of the reiteration of commonly held prejudices (think of all the pieces explaining that Kevin Rudd was a political genius – and then, a few months later, all the pieces explaining that he was a political dunce). The narrowness of that consensus means that just about anyone who challenges, say, the notion of the free market as a divinely-ordained institution comes across as saying something startling and new.

But then, of course, there’s also the question of the writing itself. In a really good essay, it’s not just the argument that changes the way you see the world, for the prose itself works to make the reader think differently. And writing that operates on both levels like that is much harder to find.

Alec Patric: You’ve written and published a number of books, been the editor of Overland for five years, overseeing critical growth and transformation, continue to publish articles in the major newspapers of the country, not to mention having had a stint as a radio host. You are also one of the few writers in the country that is able to live purely from the worth of your words. Most remarkably, you’ve accomplished that in opposition to our culture’s economic aspirations. All of this before the age of 40. It’s disingenuous to say you are not a fluent writer. Can you tell me what fluency would look like for you? Does a writer ever get to feel a sense of accomplishment or do we only ever get to keep grinding away at our own personal limitations?

Jeff Sparrow: What you say is very kind (especially about – ahem! – being under 40) but, as for living from my words, I’m in the same position as most Australian writers – I earn money from my day job (Overland) and then I write in my spare time. Which, I think, is how it’s always going to be.

About fluency, I wasn’t trying to make any particularly profound point. It’s simply that writing never feels easy to me, and always more about constant grind than bursts of inspiration. But, perhaps, as you suggest, that’s the case for everyone. Certainly, upon completion, all of my projects have ended up looking very different from how I imagined them.

No, I don’t think writing is very conducive to a sense of accomplishment. Indeed, in some respects, you couldn’t really design an activity more perfectly suited to fostering insecurities. Writing a book is all about communication, about relating with the social. Yet in order to get a book done, you need to spend a lot of time by yourself, staring at a computer, often to the exclusion of more normal social interactions.

That’s why public events with writers are often so very often odd, since they’re about expecting introverts and isolates to suddenly become raconteurs and performers.

Alec Patric: One of the great promises of literature is liberation — socially, politically and personally. Do you still believe in that?

Jeff Sparrow: No. And I’m not sure that literature ever did promise that, did it? I would have thought that the conventional novel developed quite comfortably within the conventional order.

IMO, it’s important for political writers to be clear about what literature can and can’t do. Most novels and most poems effect very little in the way of political change. Books are not activism – at least not in any simple sense. If you want to intervene directly, you should write a pamphlet rather than a novel – and, indeed, there are times when you can argue that novelists need to do precisely that.

But it’s also true that literature can serve distinct purposes. It can, for instance, make you see the world in a different way. And there’s a political utility to that.

We were recently privileged to tour the Afghan activist Malalai Joya, who appears in Overland 204 and who spoke at some Overland events at the Melbourne Writers Festival. She is an extraordinary woman who, because she has spoken out against both the Taliban and the Karzai regime, now lives in extreme danger in Kabul. In between one of the MWF sessions, she told me that the book that most inspired her was Voynich’s The Gadfly, a novel she read over and over again. Now, when, in 1897, Voynick published her novel about Italian nationalist revolutionaries, could she ever have imagined its influence on an activist in Afghanistan? Of course not! That’s a good example of the subterranean ways political writing can make itself felt.

Alec Patric: Liberation is often just rhetoric, but the vast majority of writers work for the duration of their careers with little recognition or financial reward. If we removed the money motive, most industries in this country would collapse overnight, but our own field would probably be undaunted. Writers might not use the word Liberation when trying to define why they foster this often bewildering desire to work towards an abstract literary goal, striving against ridiculously bad odds, making sacrifices all along the way, but perhaps it doesn’t matter what word we use. We don’t need to define that sense of necessity that keeps us writing.

Seeing ‘the world in a different way’ is an idea that we can provoke change in people. As far as I know, you’ve never published one piece of poetry or prose. Is this because ‘thinking’ about the world in a different way is what you’re most interested in? I’d suggest that what’s fundamental is how we ‘feel’ about the world and our place within it. Our ‘thinking’ is constructed around a primary emotional attitude. I think this is why we see a bunker intellectualism, where a warfare of ideas takes place across our media, but which rarely reaches entrenched positions. What are your thoughts on these ideas?

Jeff Sparrow: There’s a few different issues there.

I took your reference to literature and ‘liberation’ as a political point. That was the context for my response: that it’s easy for writers to have grandiose notions about what their work-in-progress will mean but, actually, meaningful political change comes about through the mass participation of ordinary people. It’s important, then, to maintain a certain modesty. Literature won’t liberate the people. The people will liberate themselves.

As for the relationship between thinking and feeling, yes, I agree: that is the area in which literature works, in which plays and novels and poems contribute to change.

I did, in fact, write short stories at one time. I just wasn’t much good at it, so I stopped.

In terms of entrenched positions and a warfare of ideas, I’d contend that there’s not enough of either. Obviously, one should be intellectually open. At the same time, any kind of political program depends on defending key principles – and what we’ve tended to see over the last decade is a retreat by liberal intellectuals from anything like liberalism. It shouldn’t, for instance, be difficult or controversial to assert that torture is wrong – and yet, in the course of the war on terror, there’s been a remarkable willingness by some so-called progressives to debate the circumstances under which ‘enhanced interrogations’ might be acceptable.

Alec Patric: I started this interview by talking about what you’ve managed to do with Overland over the last few years. What’s been your greatest disappointment and what’s given you the greatest sense of achievement?

Jeff Sparrow: At our most recent launch, I quoted Walter Benjamin: ‘the work is the death mask of its conception’. You never achieve exactly what you wanted: it’s the nature of such things.

More specifically, I think we have a lot of work to do in prosecuting an argument about what political fiction in Australia might be like – indeed, even creating the environment where such an argument might take place.

In terms of achievements, well, we’re still here. And in an era that hasn’t been so kind to the Left, that’s something in and of itself. What’s more, we’re growing, both in circulation and influence. As an editorial team, we’re much clearer about what we’re looking for: we know when we find an essay that seems ‘Overland-like’. We’ve been fortunate enough to make contact with a fantastic group of people: writers, of course, but also editors, bloggers, designers and so on. In its own modest way, Overland has become something of a hub for writers who are interested in activism and activists who are interested in writing. And that, I think, is really the point.



The Destructive Appeal of Tim Richards

17 Aug

Alec Patric: You’ve got to wonder why anyone would want to be a Jazz musician in today’s music scene. If someone you loved, told you that’s what they wanted to do, you might try persuade them to play something that hadn’t peaked thirty years ago. A short story writer can only look back to the days of Borges, Hemingway or Chekhov, and feel those were the days where the world was really paying attention to their kind of prose. Yet some of us persist and I was wondering why we can’t persuade ourselves that there’s a different kind of music people want to hear. Could you entertain my analogy and tell me whether it’s about the instrument or the sound. Why do we insist the best days of Jazz are still to come?

Tim Richards: I wouldn’t insist anything of the sort. I’d like to believe that my own best fiction is yet to be written, but the new belle epoch will have to take care of itself… Something compels me to tell stories, and shorter form narrative suits the kinds of explorations I want to make. Do I need to worry that the form I choose to tell the stories in – like virtually all the dominant art forms of the last century – would seem to be in serious need of revitalisation? No, there are people who can worry about that on my behalf. In the meantime, I’ll bring a few loosely related ideas into collision to produce outcomes and imperatives that surprise me. All that I’m doing when I start drafting is trying to find a true place within that material, and serve the narrative as best I can. While seeking to do that, I’m not giving a moment’s thought to whether what I’m doing is innovative, fashionable, or unfashionable, or whether the story in question will contribute to the revival of a jaded genre or mode. I just want to discover that thing within the material which will make it necessary in some way. There are a million ways for writers to double-guess themselves to death: Will this story be impressive? Is this subject matter sufficiently serious to identify me as a serious writer? Will my arse look big in this? … Just tell the story in a way that best reveals its truths, that best speaks in a voice that’s distinctively yours.

Alec Patric: A deepening engagement with craft and voice is commendable but we fall in love with the stories and we want them to be read by more than a scattering of short fiction aficionados. You say the new belle epoch can take care of itself and that there are other people who can worry about the state of short stories on your behalf. Who are these people? Perhaps you mean publishers, but given the current state of the industry, I don’t think they’re able to do much more than struggle to stay afloat. Collections of stories don’t get much of their publicity dollars. Do you mean journalists? The newspapers have tiny literary sections and devote most of the allocated space to the international authors or local novelists. You’ve spent years working on the stories in your new collection, but it seems as though now you’re done with it and are ready to return to other stories. I’m wondering how you think Thought Crimes will generate a readership.

Tim Richards: Ultimately, any revitalisation of the literary scene has to be led by the publishers. They have to commit to the work that they believe in, and endeavour to shape tastes. On a couple of occasions in the past ten years, I’ve sent out collections, and the fiction publishers have told me that they’ve loved them, but they have to wait for readers’ reports, and when those reports came in luke-warm, they passed on the project. Your first reaction (after kicking something) is to say, What’s the fucking point in calling yourself a publisher if you don’t go with your gut? If it’s going to be about pulling the three oranges on the slot machine, then all you are going to get is blandness; the works that will get published are the least rejectable. So now you are tempted to call publishers who back story collections ‘brave’, but what would they be if they weren’t brave? Why be in publishing? Would there be any satisfaction to be had from telling an author, I didn’t particularly like your book, but the people in marketing are confident there are five or ten thousand people out there who will think this bland burger tastes wonderful if we tell them it tastes wonderful? … But, ultimately, that’s not my business. My business is to ask, Would I like to read this story? Would reading this story be an exciting experience, or, at very least, time well spent? How can I best shape and balance the collection to keep the reader wanting to continue, to give them a sense of momentum and unity? For Thought Crimes, I had fifty stories to choose from, and the best fifteen were always going to make the cut, but then you’re looking for stories that are pace-shifters, and palate-cleansers. I imagine that it’s very like selecting and organising an album of songs. Yes, you need two or three ‘hit singles’ in the first five, and you want to finish strongly, but all the time you are thinking, How am I best going to hold the reader? Where is the ideal place for this story? I spent a full year doing that, and continually re-writing and editing the stories that were excluded to make sure that I’d given them their best chance.

But in terms of ‘generating a readership’, there really isn’t a lot that I can do. I’m a writer, I’m not a song and dance man. One of the real traps that the book industry fell for was the Festival Circuit. That was a death-blow for literary fiction that does what literature fiction is meant to do; to shake readers, to challenge their core values, and their habitual ways of engaging with the world. I’d prefer to hear just about anyone talk about books than their authors. The writers have put their heart and soul into writing the thing, they’ve invented a voice through which to express the otherwise inexpressible – read the fucking book. I don’t need my favourite writers to be celebrities, or public intellectuals, or the kind of people you’d love to invite home to a dinner party. (So many of my favourite writers were three-quarters insane.) Critics should be there to discuss books and to gate-keep, and to provoke arguments, and what we really need is to foster a critical culture…

Alec, I can only attest to the value of what I do by continuing to do it, and to make that work as vital as I can. If people wiser than me insist that they need to publish my work as an e-book with an author’s commentary track over the top, so be it. The business is their business, and writing the stories is mine. I have plenty of opinions about how things could be done better, but it’s not my money. When you have a profile like Radiohead, then you can self-publish … As it happens, I’ve lucked-out with my publisher. Black Inc have poured a lot of faith and determination into this book. I can honestly say that I’m much more anxious for them and the commitment they’ve made than I am for myself.

Alec Patric: Writers often have an abstract idea of the reader. I work in a bookstore so they are customers and often friends. Readers are not afraid of being shaken. They enjoy being challenged in how they look at the world and what they value. What they avoid is language that requires a combined degree in linguistics and literary history to be understood. There are multitudes of television zombies staring open-mouthed at broadcasted ‘reality’ but a reader buys a book and sits down to decipher the text. If writers believe the reader is just another kind of zombie, they begin writing for their own perceived genius and/or the literary intelligentsia. It’s a disease in literature and it’s the reason why the industry is moribund. The challenge for the writer has always been to take highly complex aspects of the world, the elements of existence we can barely understand, and make them understandable. To create with just paper and ink, objects that can thrill, that engage, that can change us. Would you agree with that? What kind of readers will enjoy Thought Crimes. How do you hope the collection will be understood and appreciated?

Tim Richards: If you spend too much time worrying whether this or that reader in Eastern Sydney or an American university is going to appreciate your work, you’ll never free yourself to write. Ultimately, you’re writing to surprise yourself and to impress one or two specific people, and you have to hope that their enthusiasm will extrapolate to a broader enthusiasm. Your so-called ‘ideal reader’ is generally someone whose outlook is similar to your own, whose obsessions are in the same ballpark as your own, but if readers have to be learned in all the stuff that you’re learned in, or to speak the secret-handshake language of the literary academic, then you are in trouble. That said, you cannot go out there trying to be everything for everyone. If no one dislikes your work, the odds are that it has no flavour, that it’s effectively unnecessary. If everyone dislikes your work, you’re fucked.

Who is going to like Thought Crimes? … Most likely the people who enjoy energy and ideas in their fiction. These twenty tales are mainly speculative fictions; they’re subjective and expressionistic. The sensibilities they portray are uncommon and surprising. There will be people who find them pretty funny, and others that see no humour in them at all. The stories tend to focus on that point where the imagination ceases to be creative and constructive and becomes destructive … So maybe they’ll appeal to destructive people, who knows?

Alec Patric: Publishers like Black Inc, Affirm Press and Spineless Wonders are making the kind of commitment to short fiction we haven’t seen before in Australian literature. I don’t know if there ever was a belle epoch but the entire literary landscape is changing and I think short, sharp, well made prose, will emerge as the preeminent, modern literary form. Small press publishing means that print media can grow from our culture’s grassroots upwards like never before and the internet has opened up a whole new dimension of discourse and dissemination.

You suggested that any revitalisation has to be led by publishers. A publisher can choose what they print, but have nothing more than the power of a press release when it comes to actually influencing tastes. The strength of the imprint used to be enough to generate an audience but electronic media is becoming the prime arena for cultivating and sustaining interest. You seem to have avoided having much to do with the e-world, so I was wondering what your thoughts were on the subject. Is involvement with literary culture beyond the actual production of stories superfluous?

Tim Richards: Not at all – I’m very happy for writers to be critics, academics, public intellectuals – but it shouldn’t be mandatory. I have opinions on a great many things, but it’s rare that I would choose to express them directly and in public. For a start, I’m not a verbally articulate person, which is one of the reasons why people are driven to write.

My first inclination is to divert any powerful need to express something into fiction – to dramatise the tensions around an issue or idea, and to draw out the complications and paradoxes. Like most ‘literary’ writers, I write in response to things that I’ve read and experienced, and I write into perceived gaps …

As for avoiding the e-world, I have poor eyesight, and struggle to read large-ish print on paper. I don’t want to read off screens for a second longer than I have to. While, I don’t profess to have any expertise, I think that publishers have it arse about with the e-book, especially with story collections, and that the print version should be augmenting audio or video versions rather than vice versa. Audio books and e-books definitely need to be integrated, otherwise you’re totally underselling the potential of the medium. And the author’s commentary track I mentioned earlier, I’d be up for that.

And I have to disagree with regard to the influence of the publisher. Choosing what to publish and how much time and energy should go into the production and promotion of the text is critical to shaping the literary future. It’s one thing for a writer to sometimes / often write texts that dare to be disliked in the home of subverting and renovating jaded literary modes, it’s quite another thing for someone to commit money to that end, risking a financial loss because they choose to prioritise literature’s needs, and identify themselves as a true literary publisher. Publishers have my sympathies. To some extent, they have to pretend that 25 years of movement from mainstream culture to ‘narrow-cast’, niche cultures and sub-cultures hasn’t happened, that it’s still possible for the margins to renovate the centre rather than for the centre to become increasingly marginal, dispersed, tribalised and fragmented. 25 years have passed since the end of the post-modern period, and what has replaced it? The genres have definitely become more commercially influential, but I don’t really see new genres, just the occasional gimmick like grunge in the mid-90s – mutton dressed up as mutton. To get the necessary transformations and renovations, you have to take risks, and Harry Potter can’t prop up the industry forever. I’m not pessimistic, I’m not optimistic, but shopping around photogenic, middle-of-the-road authors as literary celebrities at events that exist to celebrate the very dubious notion of literary celebrity is not the way forward. It actually denigrates what literary production is about.

I wish all those publishers who are committing to short-fiction well. I love reading short fiction, and writers like Gogol, Chekhov, Mansfield, Kafka, Borges, Cortezar, Nabokov, Barthelme, Calvino, Allen, Carver, Marquez, Carey, Murnane, Garner, Farmer, Gaitskill, Lahiri, July and so many more have helped transform my understanding and appreciation of the world. All power to the people who work to extend and transform our perceptions.


Graham Nunn Interviewed by Ashley Capes

7 Aug

Ashley Capes: Your newest collection Ocean Hearted includes a confident blend of haiku and verse. I’m interested in how you see haiku interacting with your verse poetry.

Graham Nunn: I got in to writing through haiku, so the form is very influential on my writing process. In my last collection, I used haiku throughout the book to help the reader make the leap from poem to poem. For me, they kept the collection moving, much like in a renga, utilising that idea of newness, of not looking back. This (ie. Mixing haiku and free verse) is something that I will continue to do, as for me the haiku also act as a cleanser for the longer verse. They keep everything sharp.

Ashley Capes: I like that description of haiku as cleanser and sharpener, and I think it really shows in the collection. It’s interesting that haiku was the form that turned you to writing. How did you find haiku? Through school? A penguin classic?

Graham Nunn: I actually came to haiku through Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. At the time I was living at the top of a mountain range in a very small town (population less than fifty people), so I was really feeling his isolation, his solitude. The haiku dotted throughout the first half of the book really hit me. The poem on Starvation Ridge/ little sticks/ are trying to grow is a poem I go back to often. It still has the same spark, the spark that has ignited what I am sure will be a lifetime interest in haiku.

Ashley Capes: Compositional context fascinates me and I’ve wondered if the way modern methods and tools have changed the way we compose poetry, if it has altered the content more than we realise. That it may have removed some of that solitude you mention. Do you work with both the pen and the keyboard? If so, when is one tool more appropriate than the other? And if not, why do you prefer one more than the other?

Graham Nunn: The keyboard does not play a part in the composing process… I am very much a pencil and notebook person. I really enjoy composing while outdoors. My big old dog Floyd was a great writing companion. He heard the poems in Ruined Man long before anyone else did. We would sit out under the Pepperina Tree for hours… I have recently been running a ginko series for QLD Writers Centre, and that has been great for my writing as each week there is a new destination, a new set of stimulus and most importantly, time to open up to your surrounds. There is definitely too much time spent with the doors closed (literally and metaphorically speaking). I am also a believer in carrying a notebook with you at all times. Sketching ideas and experiences play a very important role in the process of composition. I have been going back through some very old notebooks of late and working on different ideas. They seem so foreign to me now, which makes them all the more exciting.

The keyboard… well I use that exclusively for editing. It creates too many distractions for composition.

Ashley Capes: By which, do you mean, what the keyboard creates access to? The internet, answering e-mails, bureaucratic tasks etc?

Graham Nunn: Absolutely, I really struggle to ignore all of those things when I sit down at a computer, so I tend to stay away until it is actually time to type and edit the poems I have been working on.

Ashley Capes: I know for you music isn’t one of those distractions. Many writers have their favourite albums to write to and just as many require silence. From your blog alone, the casual observer would suspect that music is a big part of you – take your performances with Sheish Money or the album you collaborated with him on The Stillest Hour. What music do you find best to write to, and conversely, what music do you find impossible to write to?

Graham Nunn: As I am writing this, Margot Smith’s Taste is simmering in the background… sadly, she passed away recently, such a beautiful voice; a gifted songwriter. Wherever possible I have music playing… bands like The Necks, Because of Ghosts, Set Fire To Flames, Tren Brothers, GodSpeed You! Black Emperor and Clogs all create a space where the sound of reality is drowned. Through music, I find it easier to inhabit a world free of distraction. I very rarely listen to anything with lyrics while writing, although Sigur Ros is a band that gets plenty of writing air time. Jonsi’s voice is so otherworldly that it becomes part of a song’s arrangement, rather than a focal point. That for me is the defining point… I could never listen to Bob Dylan and write, nor The Church or The National or Okkervil River or so many of the bands and artists that I love. Their lyrics are so potent, so important to the overall song that I am unable to free myself from the world they create.

Ashley Capes: The ocean has a profound effect on your writing, especially the autobiographical elements (I’m not only thinking of your latest but also your haibun collection, Measuring the Depth) Can you explain how it came to be so important? And why it continues to do so?

Graham Nunn: I was fortunate to grow up in a family with grandparents that lived near the beach. My Gran lived at Paradise Point (Gold Coast) and my Gran and Da lived at Toorbul (Sunshine Coast), so for me, two out of every three weekends was spent in or around the ocean. I see the ocean as the thing that draws our family together. Whenever I am feeling out of sorts, I pack a fishing rod and head to Toorbul. Standing waist deep in the ocean never fails to get me back on the level. Sadly Paradise Point is unrecognisable, so I rarely go back there. But there are many other places that are important in our family’s mythology – every Easter I go to Brunswick Heads, my Great Grandmother lived in the caravan park at Tweed Heads, so I regularly go back there to swim and fish.

The cleansing power of the ocean is what constantly draws me in… no matter how you are feeling, it is always there, ready to accept and wash over you.

Ashley Capes: The idea of a family’s mythology is interesting, can you expand on it a little? I take ‘mythology’ to mean something vital to the group’s identity, rather than something ‘made up’ and I like that you are a part of creating it in the way you so deftly incorporate such history into your writing, both at a literal and a symbolic level.

Graham Nunn: I think of our family mythology as a created world and definitely something that each of us has a role in creating. Place is very important in this whole concept and plays a major role in the construction of our mythology. An example of such a place for me is Toorbul, a very sleepy little beach side town, north of Brisbane. For me, this place has great spiritual significance. It holds so many of my childhood memories and to this day fills me with the same innocence I had thirty years ago when my Grandparents first moved there. When I am there, I feel the deepest of connections; my mind is always clear and my youth is always just below the surface.

With Ocean Hearted, I wanted to bring a little of that connection to the poems; to bring that mythology into the poems.

Ashley Capes: Could you share something of the process you undertake when revising work for a collection? When putting it all together, what are the differences, as you see them, between ‘selection’ and ‘editing’?

Graham Nunn: Selection is far more painful than editing. It is the one job I happily give over to other people. It is incredibly difficult to make that ruthless decision about what stays in and what is left out. I am lucky to have four or five people that I can send work to; people whose instinct I trust. Once they are finished with the ms, it is generally pretty clear which poems have risen to the surface. It is then a matter of sequencing. In that sense, I generally look at things like a musician making an album. I want each poem to make the collection build in intensity and emotion. More often than not I have a start and finish point, so then I look over the poems to build the narrative in between. I am working on a new chapbook-length collection and this time, the selection of poems has really looked after itself as the central poem, ‘On the Island’, will make up the bulk of the book. I am now deciding what I am going to do to flesh the collection out… I am caught between a series of love poems that I have been working on and another longer series of poems titled Black Stump Blues, written during my time in Blackall (Western QLD) during the last few years. I am leaning toward the latter idea as the mix of ocean and outback would create a real contrast. But, we’ll see…

Ashley Capes: I remember the Black Stump Blues poems, and I agree, they’d make a really effective contrast with the ocean. That’s actually the kind of big-picture thinking I find most difficult when putting something together. How important do you think a theme is to a collection’s unity? I noticed that your latest collection Ocean Hearted is broken into three parts/themes, and here you talk about wanting a collection to ‘build in intensity and emotion’ is this difficult to match to thematic concerns?

Graham Nunn: Theme is something I have really focussed in on, in the compilation of my last two collections. With Ruined Man, I wanted to put together a series of really urban poems; poems that lifted the skin of Brisbane and slipped into the vein of the city; poems that brought the inner and outer darkness together. With Ocean Hearted, I wanted to move away from the urban, and capture the coast, while also focussing on aspects of family, love and death. I had to laugh the other day as a friend of mine said to me, whenever I think of your writing, I think of death and the ocean… definitely made me chuckle!

Ashley Capes: Brisbane is another of your great loves, how important is a city to a poet?

Graham Nunn: For me, feeling at home is incredibly important and in Brisbane, I feel very grounded. Brisbane has a unique energy… a mix of being totally comfortable with itself and searching for something new. It is that mix that makes it creatively vibrant.

The community of poets here is also very special. While the number of readings fluctuates from year to year, there is always something on each month and audiences have definitely grown. Having a major festival like QLD Poetry Festival and a truly magnificent Writers Centre, really helps to create a focal point. SpeedPoets has also done great things for the poetry community and I am thrilled that it is still going strong after ten years.

Ashley Capes: SpeedPoets has recently moved venues. How has that changed the gigs for you as an organiser and performer? Have you been able to introduce any new facets to the performances?

Graham Nunn: With every venue, there is change, in fact, because of the open nature of the event, every gig is surprisingly different. The move to Brew in the heart of the city feels really good though. The space is vibrant, comfortable and has great sound. And importantly, it feels really focussed. All of these things influence you as a performer; they give you that extra kick to make sure your performance is spot on; that when it your turn to make your mark on the mic, you deliver.

Ashley Capes: Would you consider the internet explosion of blogging to be something of a poetry movement in itself?

Graham Nunn: I hadn’t really thought of it like that. The internet is definitely a fertile ground for poets and with the recent shake up in the book industry, new technologies are going to be taking more of the market share. Publishing in a traditional sense definitely has its back against the wall, so online avenues such as blogs and social media sites like Facebook have become an essential tool for audience development. And like most movements throughout history, blogging has opened up new networks, and is proving to be a vital creative space, where people from all over the globe can gather, engage and create. It will be very interesting to see where things are at in another ten to twenty years.

–> Photos by Julie Beveridge