Tag Archives: Les Zigomanis

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.

Bicycle (Les Zigomanis)

31 Oct

‘You’re stressed,’ my GP told me following a check-up. ‘Is there anything bothering you?’

Bothering me? Hmmm. Let me see. Relationship in the shitter, no social life, and work … ah, the inanity of work. People dropping in on me. Constantly. ‘Can you take a look at this?’ Courteous. Exquisitely. ‘Write this up for me. Cheers.’ Behind their fake smiles. Their plastic expressions. ‘How’s that report going?’ Their ongoing demands, always their demands, never-ending, never-stopping, never—

‘No,’ I said.

‘You need a way to unwind. A hobby! Everybody needs a hobby! Find something you enjoy doing, something that’ll help you relax. Preferably something physical. Get rid of that nervous energy. Spend it. Leave it all out there. It’ll do you a world of good.’

I tried the gym, but company annoyed me – people offering to spot me, asking me how much I could bench, wanting to talk. I exercised in my garage, but found it claustrophobic. I tried jogging, but my feet were pounded into surrender. On and on my search went, through a variety of endeavours, until I discovered cycling. It was just me and road before me. That’s when I believed I’d found the one, and I even bought all the gear – bike, helmet, reflective kit, pump, chain-lock, water bottle, and even a pedometer. The whole lot set me back almost a thousand bucks, but it was worth it.

The first week my muscles burned with every metre pedalled, protested at every hill, and screamed for relief the further I pushed myself. Conditions that seemed mild – like a cool breeze – were exacerbated at high speeds on my bike. But I was invigorated – reinvigorated. I controlled the pace, cruising when possible, and speeding whenever the urge took me. Most of all, I revelled in being uncaged, open and free. By the second week, I couldn’t wait to finish the daily tedium of work to get on my bike.

Then I learned the most disturbing thing. Or maybe I just started noticing it – noticing it in a way that it becomes impossible to un-notice it, and which makes every subsequent incident cumulatively aggravating.

Cyclists have their own little sub-societal etiquette.

Whenever I passed somebody on a bike, they’d nod their head in acknowledgement – acknowledgement that, hey, they were a cyclist just like me (in case I hadn’t noticed). If we were going leisurely enough, it wasn’t just a nod, but an entire ‘Hey’; or even a, ‘Hey, how’re you doing?’

And on and on it went.

I tried to ignore it initially, tried to conveniently look the other way whenever these exchanges loomed. But they became inescapable, gnawing at me, overwhelming me through their sheer weight of repetition – pressing, demanding, smothering.

Nod. Nod back.

‘Hey.’ Hey.

‘Hey, how’re you doing?’ Good.

Somebody even had the audacity to stop to talk to me one evening when I’d paused at a park for a breather. He pulled up right alongside me, hopping off his bike even before it had come to a halt, and rested it against the bench by which I stood.

‘Hey.’

Hey. I checked my pedometer. Three Ks so far.

‘Nice bike.’

Thanks. I took a drink from my water bottle.

‘Looks pretty new.’

Yup. I took my chain-lock from my bike.

‘Haven’t been riding long, have you?’

Uh uh. Surreptitiously wrapped my chain-lock around my right hand.

‘You’re probably only just starting to feel the benefits – the muscle tone in your legs, the increased fitness, the mental well-being.’

Hmmm. Closed my right hand into a fist.

‘But what is it they say?’

What? Cocked my right hand back.

‘Healthy body, healthy—’

And punched his fucking head in.

The first blow hit him – literally hit him – right between the eyes. The flesh popped, like a burst water balloon, with a splatter of blood; there was an almighty crack, which must’ve been the bridge of his nose shattering; and yet what registered first on his face was surprise.

That would teach him.

Something must’ve clicked in his head then, some survival instinct, because he tried pulling away. He wasn’t quick enough. My next punch caught him exactly in the same spot as the first, and he stumbled back, hitting the bench, and falling onto his butt.

I kept punching him and punching him; punching him until he was lying back on the bench, and I had a knee planted into his chest; punching him until his face was pulped, the way an orange gets when you grind it; punching him until his skull seemed to shimmer within the flesh of his head, as if it had shattered and lost cohesiveness; punching him until I had nothing left to give, and no rage left to spend.

I got up from the body, and took a moment to compose myself.

Then I took him and ditched his body in some thickets, covering him with branches until he was hidden. I had no illusions: he’d be found, and much sooner than later. But I didn’t want him lying out in the open like that. What if kids stumbled upon him in the morning, when they were crossing the park to get to school?

His bike I set against a pole on the far side of the park, by the road. Unchained, it was sure to be stolen. It was just a matter of time. Damn neighbourhood. You really can’t feel safe anywhere nowadays.

I was about to get on my bike when I realised that I felt different. Something had changed. I stopped, gave myself a moment for reflection, and found that my mind was remarkably clear. I was filled with a peculiar but intoxicating euphoria.

For the first time in many, many months, I felt awesome.

Getting on my bike, I rode from the park.

My GP was right.

Everybody needs a hobby.

 

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: http://www.untitledonline.com.au/

Vox: Les Zigomanis

26 Aug

The question is the threshold. With print novels (until the age of cheap self-publishing), there was quality control. Publishers weren’t publishing everything that came through their offices. They were selective. Obviously, they got it wrong a time or two, but they tried to maintain a standard. The e-form opens the dam, which would almost be like every publisher publishing their slush piles.

I’m not trying to be snobbish. I think everybody has something valuable to say and by valuable, I don’t mean it has to be ennobling with some lofty artistic merit. For me, something entertaining is ennobling, because for the time it entertains, it makes you feel good/happier/more fulfilled/or whatever the case might be, so there’s value in that. And with that being the case, I think everything has a market, whether it’s niche or mass.

But the question for me, always, I guess is voice. What’s to differentiate something worth reading from what’s not? Because if you have this saturation, at what point does it become a flood from which you recoil because you know venturing out there is going to drown you?

Although there’s a ton of novels out there, there’s always been a marquis about them, because it’s traditionally been so hard to get published. The e-form takes that out of the equation. Blogging almost validates that since so many people blog. All you need is a computer.

So with the e-form opening the door for everybody to publish everything, everybody else effectively becomes a slush pile reader, kicking up (in a sense of recommending) some gem they’ve found to others, which creates that cascade effect that you’d hope you discover the life-buoys in the flood.

However, the book will never die. You cannot kill a good story you can lose yourself in. It’s just the form it takes. Reading on a computer isn’t conducive to reading length. But eventually the technology’s going to develop that makes e-readers comparable to hardcopy print, which might even suggest that length will go the other way, since printing costs won’t be a consideration. In time, e-readers will become as ubiquitous as mobile phones, which, you’d hope, might actually encourage reading.

Somehow, though, kids will probably just play games on them.

As an aside, I don’t think you can beat the tactile sensation of an actual book. Maybe nerdy, but the texture of a page under your fingertips, the feel of a cover (particularly when it’s embossed, or the grain of a hardcopy), the actual sensation that turning a page is like taking a step deeper into the story’s world.

I like the pages’ smell when they’re new, and the way they yellow – almost with self-importance – and grow musty as the book gets older, as well as the way a book’s wear shows the journey it’s taken with you over the years. It has its own story. I even have books which might have a dog-ear, or a coffee stain on a particular page, which always triggers a memory of when that page was read.

Not to mention a book’s durability. You can read it in the tub; throw it in your bag, flick it on your bedside drawers, or hurl it at a spider, without fear of it being damaged; and, in all likelihood, somebody won’t mug you for it when you’re riding a train home late at night.