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Evolution of a story

In 2016, at the end of a solo three-week trip through Thailand, I was sitting on this bench at Kanchanaburi station when I began scrawling down a story in my notebook. Writers are always asked where their ideas come from and it’s the most difficult question to answer because, for me at least, they have complex and elusive origins. In this particular moment the motif of the train line struck me, but that’s as much as I can explain. Where the characters and their story came from I don’t know. But as Paul Murray says, ‘When the right idea comes along, it’s like falling in love.’ That’s how I felt with this story, even though my characters are falling out of love.

As my short stories often do, this one emerged in fits and starts. I wrote a bunch of words during the noisy thrumming train ride to Krung Thep (or Bangkok), pausing to think, and watch banana palms and rice fields blur by. I wrote a bunch more words in Bangkok airport, sitting on a plastic chair drinking bad coffee. And then on the flight home, leaning on my wobbly tray table. Back in Australia the last of it came.

Read More »Evolution of a story

I tightened and edited the piece, by now called ‘The Line’, and gave it to my short story group who made helpful comments like ‘hope you didn’t have an affair as research’. (They may also have given some more useful feedback.) I rewrote the ending more times than I can count before I felt I’d struck just the right note. And then I sent the thing off to the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Awards. I rarely enter literary competitions these days, but the brilliant short story writer Laurie Steed was judging and there was a decent cash prize on offer. Needless to say I was thrilled when ‘The Line’ won.

With the award win I was eligible to enter the highly regarded annual anthology, Award Winning Australian Writing. I’ve never quite managed to coordinate myself to submit to the anthology before, but this year I did and was delighted to receive notification that they’d selected ‘The Line’ for their tenth anniversary edition. It launched in Melbourne recently and has just landed in my mailbox; I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it.

So there you have it, the evolution of a short story from a Kanchanaburi bench to Award Winning Australian Writing 2017.


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Working in publishing is full of ups and downs, and it can be easy to dwell on the ‘downs’, allowing them to taint, or even eclipse, the ‘ups’. So in the spirit of celebrating all the good stuff, I thought I’d put together a newsy post about the ups of the last couple of months.

First up, the big news. I recently signed a contract for my next picture book, Seree’s Story, with Walker Books (publisher of Megumi and the Bear). Getting the call from your editor to give you the thumbs up is The Best. Let’s just say there was much dancing around the house and celebratory mid-afternoon champagne.

As a self-confessed elephant nerd, this book is very close to my heart. The manuscript has emerged from the culmination of many experiences, beginning with a trip to the circus at age seven. I started writing the book at 3.30 one morning when, seemingly out of nowhere, the opening line popped into my head. By 5.30 I had a first draft. Then came an artsACT-funded trip to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, which saw a complete rewrite, and now a book contract. I’ll save the full story behind the book for another time since it won’t be out for two years, but the story itself is about a captured baby elephant, forced to work in the circus, who is eventually rescued and brought to a sanctuary.

Picture books take a long time to come together (painfully long for the author who can do nothing but wait). One thing most readers aren’t aware of is that the publisher, not the author, chooses the illustrator. At this stage an illustrator for Seree’s Story has not yet been finalised, but Walker has such an incredible stable of talented illustrators to draw upon that I am awaiting the decision with great anticipation.


Another call came at the end of last month from CAPO (Capital Arts Patrons Organisation) with exciting news of a different kind. The organisation has awarded me a travel grant to research a new full-length work. It’s a fledgling thing at the moment and a grant like this means everything in allowing me to develop it. I don’t want to say much more about it at this stage, except that I’m grateful to CAPO for believing in its potential.

On to more tangible things, and the publication of a couple of new short stories in Westerly and Contrappasso literary journals. Westerly is one of Australia’s oldest and most respected literary journals, and is always chock full of good stories and poetry. So I’m stoked to see my story, ‘Rescuing Chang’, in its pages. It’s set in Chiang Mai and features tuktuks, elephants, ladyboys and a magnetic attraction. It was pretty much the most fun I’ve had writing a story in recent times. ‘Hose’, on the other hand, which appears in Contrappasso is a much darker tale. It features alongside a Nobel Prize winner, no less. In fact, the line-up in this issue is crazy, with writing from China, Malaysia, Iraq, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Ireland, England, Argentina, the US, New Zealand and, of course, Australia.

I must also give a shout-out to Duncan Felton and the Grapple Annual which has just picked up a MUBA. This award is close to my heart as Two Steps Forward was shortlisted for its inaugural award, but Grapple Publishing has gone one better and actually won the thing. It’s great news for publishing in Canberra, and I’m so pleased to have a short story included in what is now a multi-award-winning publication. Look out for the next annual which is due out before the end of the year.

Still on short fiction, the ACT Writers’ Centre invited me to run a six-week short story critique group which turned out to be even more enjoyable than expected, largely because I had such a lovely group of emerging writers to work with. I’m told feedback was entirely positive (a rarity, apparently — so how nice is that?) and I’ve been asked to run another next year. So if you’re a writer with some stories in your back pocket keep an eye out.

As always I’ve been working on all of the above around editing books for various publishers. November has been editing madness with two novels, two picture books, one non-fiction book, and five novellas all at various stages. There’s lots to be excited about but I’ll mention just two. The first is a stunning picture book by Coral Vass called Sorry Day (out with National Library of Australia Publishing 2017). This is a heartfelt and beautifully-written story about the Stolen Generation that moves so cleverly between past and present. I can’t wait for kids to get their hands on this book, and I’m sure it’s going to become a staple of schools around the country. The second is really five, that is five novellas by Nick Earls (out with Inkerman & Blunt 2016). There’s a lightness to these stories that is so enjoyable, but then they sneak up on you to reveal deep truths about families that are struggling in different ways. Working with Nick on these novellas has been such a pleasure, and I really hope they do well; they certainly deserve to. So look out for the Wisdom Tree series, launching early next year.

As we head into December I’m looking forward to getting back to my own writing (I have barely put down a word during this madly busy November). I still have another three books to finish editing before Christmas but then come January I’m jetting overseas on a writing adventure! And my littlest is off to preschool in February, which means two-point-five days to write and edit and read! I know I’m imagining that I can pack in way more than I actually can (the literary version of eyes being bigger than the stomach) but nevertheless it’ll be the first time in 13 years that I won’t have to fit in everything around full-time mothering. And that, my friends, is thrilling.


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5668563In the last couple of years I haven’t had much time for writing short fiction. I’ve been focussing on other writing projects and short stories have mostly been sidelined. As Lorrie Moore says, ‘a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend’, and I’ve missed that. But recently, in small pockets of space, I’ve been able to reengage with the form. This has led to my stories appearing in three very different publications, all of which I admire for different reasons. So as a way of celebrating my renewed love affair with the short story I thought I’d tell you about them.

First up is a story called ‘The Little Things’ which will be published in Australian Love Stories, an anthology edited by Cate Kennedy. I was most chuffed to have my work selected by Cate, one of Australia’s finest short story writers. I have long admired her work, have devoured everything she has written, and the comments she wrote about my story (coming as they did on the back of two rejection letters for other pieces) meant more to me than she could have known. If that wasn’t enough the publisher, Donna Ward, emailed me to say: ‘It [‘The Little Things’] was the first on the list Cate sent me and has coloured, favourably, my whole experience of the book, and of life, really.’ Is there any more a writer could possibly hope for?

Australian Love Stories is out in October and features writers like Jon Bauer, Tony Birch, Carmel Bird, Lisa Jacobson, and fellow Long Story Shorts author Leah Swann. Its companion volume, Australian Love Poetry, edited by Mark Tredinnick, did extremely well when it was released earlier this year, so I’m thrilled to be keeping such talented company in the short story volume.


The second story, ‘Travelling Left’, will appear in a new anthology, the Grapple Annual, which is aiming to carve out a niche and reputation much like the Sleepers Almanac. (Lovers of the short form will know how successful Sleepers Publishing’s annual Almanacs have become.) The Grapple Annual is the first publication for Grapple Publishing, a new independent publisher founded by Duncan Felton, who also happens to be one of the Scissors Paper Pen founders, a team that puts on a program of some of the most interesting and dynamic literary events around Canberra.

The Grapple Annual will feature a mix of poetry and fiction, both short and long. It’s often difficult to find a place for longer stories; literary competitions typically require 2-3000 words, and literary journals are similarly inclined. So I was pleased to discover that the Annual was accepting longer pieces because I’d just finished ‘Travelling Left’ (at 5000 words) and was wondering what to do with it. The Annual has a quirky premise—each story represents a date on the calendar and the Annual is aiming to eventually cover every day of the year. I’m glad to be a part of their inaugural line-up because with Felton at the helm I’d lay money the Annual will go gangbusters.

Finally to a sMEANJINtory that has already hit the shelves in Meanjin (vol. 72, no. 1, 2014) called ‘The Company of Birds’. Meanjin is one of my favourite literary journals. I love what it does—the mix of essays, fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, etc—as well as the design and feel of the publication. But it’s more than that. Meanjin was the first major literary journal to publish me. As one of Australia’s oldest and most revered literary journals, I felt I’d hit the jackpot. (I recall there was much celebratory champagne.) Back then Meanjin was publishing themed editions, and my story appeared in ‘Meanjin Does Drugs’. (One to make the parents proud.) Brett Whiteley, who was referenced in my story, ‘Great Pisses of Paris’, featured on the cover. (That story was subsequently included in my collection Two Steps Forward.) This time round Meanjin chose a Katsushika print to accompany ‘The Company of Birds’ without knowing how much I adore his work. Meanjin just gets me!

As for what these three stories are about you’ll have to read them for yourself and make up your own mind. The Meanjin issue is out now in print and also online, so if you fancy a squiz at ‘The Company of Birds’ click here. You’ll have to wait for the other two.

And here’s hoping I get more time this year with some other mad, lovely visitors.

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.