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March 2012

The short of it

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TWO STEPS FORWARDWith the release of my debut collection of fiction I’ve been talking about the short story a lot and it’s got me thinking. To my mind the short story is undervalued. There are a plethora of short fiction competitions and a handful of literary magazines that will publish them, but a collection in book form? Unless you’re Tim Winton forget it. Nam Le’s debut collection The Boat (2008) is one notable exception. It won every award imaginable and became an international bestseller. Then A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Writers were no doubt hoping all this was a sign of changing times, a sign that the short form was gaining greater recognition. But even Marion Halligan, one of our most celebrated authors with 20 books to her name, recounts how when her latest short fiction collection, Shooting the Fox, landed on her agent’s desk she phoned her up and groaned, ‘Oh, Marion. Short stories?’

As Halligan says, ‘Publishers don’t think much of them, though they may be changing their minds.’ Craig Cormick who’s published over 100 stories and eight collections does believe publishers are ‘starting to value (or re-value) short stories again’. Just five years ago when he was working for Ginninderra Press on their Mockingbird imprint, dedicated to producing short fiction collections, he felt ‘the short story in Australia was on life-support’. ‘It was obvious that in places like the Queensland Premiers’ Steele Rudd Award [for a collection of short stories, the only one of its kind in Australia] there were not the number of contenders they were getting in other categories. During that time Mockingbird had several collections shortlisted for the award.’

Read More »The short of it

The recent announcement of this year’s Queensland Premier’s Awards proves Cormick’s point that short story collections are regaining some favour. The shortlist includes a more diverse range of publishers: Patrick Holland for The Source of the Sound (Salt Publishing), Amanda Lohrey for Reading Madame Bovary (Black Inc.), Wayne Macauley for Other Stories (Black Pepper) and Emmett Stinson for Known Unknowns (Affirm Press). But as Cormick says ‘there is still a long way to go’. Note, for instance, that these four publishers are all small independents who are willing to take risks to publish books they are passionate about.

Martin Hughes at Affirm Press knows all about risk and passion. When he announced his Long Story shorts series, six collections of short fiction by new writers, everyone from the commercial side of things told him he was ‘absolutely bonkers’. Of course the initiative was highly valued by new writers because it is so difficult to get a collection published before having a number of runs on the board. As Hughes says, ‘publishers are not interested in short story collections, unless you’re Nam Le or already a celebrated novelist and they just want to repackage your earlier work.’ Little wonder then that they were flooded with 450 manuscripts. Fortunately for me my manuscript, Two Steps Forward, was selected as the series’ swan song and has just hit shelves. And fortunately for Affirm the series has garnered critical acclaim. Among other accolades, Long Story Shorts author Gretchen Shirm was named Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist of the Year and Emmett Stinson is up for this year’s Steele Rudd Award. The illustrator and designer of the series, Dean Gorrisen, also picked up Silver at the Illustrators Australia Awards 2011 for the first three covers in the series.

So what’s to love about short stories? For Hughes ‘it’s the vitality of short fiction that excites me most; how it forces you to imagine what happened before and after, and how a story gets precisely the number of words it needs rather than approximately the number of words it needs to find a place in a bookstore and be commercial’. And for Halligan it’s the form’s ‘brevity, its elegance, its subtlety, the fact that you have to make such drastic choices about what to put in, what leave out. I think it is like a poem, in that it is much larger than the sum of its parts. I like the small window it gives on to a much larger world.’

The short story is also the ideal form for our fractured, time-poor modern existence. Nigel Featherstone and Alec Patric have been capitalising on this with their online literary journal, Verity La. It is an unexpected pleasure to be eating breakfast or enjoying an idle cup of tea when a new short story arrives in my phone via Verity La. The pleasure of these ‘lovely little distractions’, as Featherstone calls them, is that ‘the work is coming to readers; readers don’t have to make a conscious decision to go and search this stuff out’. He adds, ‘I sometimes get frustrated with writers who whinge and complain about publishers and readers not valuing short stories…Verity La is a way of saying, as writers, we value short stories so how can we get them to readers; in a way it’s writers doing it for ourselves.’

Halligan goes further: ‘A lot of people say they love reading short stories, but don’t actually do much about it—don’t subscribe to magazines, etc. Years ago Elizabeth Webby [former editor of Southerly] said if everybody who tried to get published in Southerly took out a subscription the magazine would have a large and viable circulation. There are few outlets and those that exist are disappearing fast, for example Heat.’ And just days ago Island magazine announced that after 32 years the Tasmanian Government has withdraw its funding and the publication’s future is uncertain.

So if you love the short form why not go out today and buy a collection or subscribe to a literary magazine or check out an online journal like Verity La. As Cate Kennedy says, ‘the short story is alive, part of our collective national voice, and a form to be treasured’. Viva la short story!

Thanks to Craig Cormick, Nigel Featherstone, Marion Halligan and Martin Hughes for their contribution to this conversation, and to Dumbo Feather for some of the quotes from Hughes. This post was first published on Overland literary journal’s blog here.

This writing life

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Varuna imageI have recently returned from a blissful week at Varuna Writers’ Centre. For the uninitiated Varuna is writers’ heaven. Housed in author Eleanor Dark’s former Blue Mountains residency, it is the only place of its kind in Australia where writers can stay and focus solely on writing. With four other writers living in the house, evening conversations often turned to the writing process. We talked about how, when and where we write. About the perfect space in which to create. Varuna aside (for surely there is nowhere more perfect than this place), I confessed to a love of cafes. There you can write in a bubble but are surrounded by life that feeds you. The novel I went to Varuna to work on has mostly been written in this way, fuelled by many a cup of coffee.

I also confessed to erratic nocturnal habits (my long-suffering husband is regularly subjected to three am scribblings). Some years ago he bought me a gift that has pleased us both. The marvellous invention of a pen with a light on its end. So at least he no longer has to endure the flickering of the lamp — on, off, on, off — as the words come in spurts.

The kind of writers I admire most are those who wake before dawn and crank out a thousand words before breakfast, then head off to a ‘real’ job. On the rare occasions that I’m up at this hushed time of day I romanticise that I should do it more often. But in reality I’m not a morning person, and knowing how and when you write best is part of the key. So I snatch time in cafes while my partner does child minding duty or at night when the children are sleeping, and find myself scrawling on the pile of paper I keep beside my bed in the dark, my pen casting a quiet pool of turquoise light.

Read More »This writing life

There are writers who have far stranger habits than mine. Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov all liked to write standing up, with Wolfe often leaning over the top of his fridge. Truman Capote, on the other hand, always wrote lying down, in bed or on a couch. Junot Diaz likes to lock himself into the bathroom to write. Edgar Allen Poe wrote with a cat on his shoulder. And when writing The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker grew a beard, dressed in character and filmed 40 hours of himself giving poetry lectures in the style of his main protagonist. Yes, writers are a strange lot.

But writing is not as simple as heading for the bathroom or grabbing a cat. There’s the issue of procrastination, something every writer wrestles with at some stage or another. Paul Rudnick puts it nicely: ‘Writing is 90 per cent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.’ One of my Varuna cohorts told a marvellous story about a writer friend who has attached seven leather belts to his writing chair. When he sits down in it at dawn, bleary-eyed, he straps himself in, preventing procrastination and forcing himself to write (it is more effort to undo all the belts than to just get on with it). I repeat, writers are a strange lot.

But procrastination is not necessarily empty time. Sometimes it can be crucial to the writing process. While you play solitaire or dust some obscure high shelf ideas are either consciously or unconsciously percolating. The writing is gestating. But these days — sandwiching writing in between children and editing work — I rarely have the luxury of procrastination. Time is precious. That percolating still happens, but it happens in the midst of life. Now when I get one hour here, three hours there to write, I just do it. Toni Morrison once said that when her writing habits were no longer driven by work and children she felt ‘giddy’ in her own house. I look forward to a little giddiness. In the meantime there are invaluable interludes like Varuna where I cracked a problematic section of my novel and everything somehow fell into place. Almost two weeks on, it seems I am still surfing a post-Varuna high, travelling ever closer to a finished final draft.

As I write this my clock is rudely reminding me that it is 4.12 am. Time to put the turquoise-lit pen down and post this.

This post was first published on Overland literary journal’s blog here.