The lovely Louisa Loder manages to get me rambling away. For the interview see the below text or the click on the link.
A lot of writers I know are intimidated by the short form, as though there is some kind of magical ‘short story formula’ lurking around that they’re not grasping. Which elements would you say are essential to any short story?
I think there are some generic formulae used – especially by the pulpier, more formulaic writers who adhere to all the rules. There’s certainly readers after that type of story, so I suppose there’s a place for it too. At the opposite end are experimental abstract montages on paper.
I personally appreciate a wide variety of stories, but I’ll confess that the overly tight and highly-paced stories don’t always gel well with me. There are plenty of myths out there about narrative rules and what a short story ‘must be’ – often, unfortunately, these myths are propagated from short story writers who believe what they do is a rule for all. There are a myriad of ways to write a strong short story. Some writers, for instance, merely suggest a sense of place, others, such as Steinbeck, fleshed it out. I’m an avid short story reader, especially the longer type, and I’m relieved that there’s such wonderful diversity of style and structure out there.
A few examples, which highlight the great variety and reasons that ‘rules’ need to be broken are the wonderful stories ‘Fossil Figures’ by Joyce Carol Oates and ‘Troll Bridge’ by Neil Gaiman, which really cover entire lifespans within the confined space of a short story. I tried to do the same with my recent story ‘Lady Killer’ in Bloodlines ed. Amanda Pillar. And then, when you contrast these stories with Brodkey’s famed story ‘Innocence’, which is a long short story, almost entirely consisting of a highly detailed cunnulingus scene, then you see the great breadth that the genre offers. The before mentioned are all long stories and the manner Brodkey’s ‘Innocence’ plays with time and structure is a complete contrast to Oates’and Gaiman’s.
With ‘Submerging’ (The Best Australian Stories 2014. Ed. Amanda Lohrey and Overland 214), I tried to have a conventional narrative (events of the day), then I endeavoured to change the prose in the latter part to fit a more poetic, punchier, narrative that explores the adolescent protagonist’s life up to that point.
I think all this means that any narrative or language convention can be moulded or shaped or changed for the benefit of the story.
I’ve read wonderfully rich stories from Karen Russell, John Steinbeck and Angela Carter, satirical over-the- top stories by Will Self and George Saunders, the more ethereal, suggested worlds of Margo Lanagan and Lisa H Hannett, detailed realist stories of Richard Yates. I’ve read short story writers who use plenty of imagery (Steinbeck would have been lost without detailed sensory imagery) and those who don’t use any at all. Yet all these writers’ stories have worked wonderfully in their own right.
Essential elements is a tough one. I won’t cower away from the question though but feel free to ignore or be critical of what I am including here…I think a sense of place, even if it’s a vague sense, works well for me. Well drawn characters are important. And I prefer stories with an element of change, whether it’s subtle or dramatic – it may even be suggested in an open-ending. There also has to be at least one of the following elements at play: unveiling, connection-disconnection, conflict.
What’s the best thing about writing speculative fiction? Is there a genre you’d like to try, but haven’t dabbled in as yet?
I suppose I don’t see my own work as falling distinctly into any field. I’ve written realist stories, contemporary climate change stories, steampunk, historical fiction, historical fantasies, gently satirical sci-fi, magical realism, straight realist. The list would be ongoing. I don’t quite know what the next story out in At the Edge ed. Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts would be classified as, the same applies for stories coming out next year.
It’s intriguing, and incredibly myopic, when you see stories boxed or blacklisted when you read comments relating to awards. For me a lot of great fiction blends genre and can’t be tightly boxed.
I’ve written as much realist work as speculative and to be honest many of my favourite short story writers: Karen Russell, George Saunders, John Steinbeck, John Cheever, Will Self, Haruki Murakami and Joyce Carol Oates, aren’t always as well appreciated by the genre field as they deserve – although Joyce Carol Oates and Haruki Murakami have made very strong inroads. All the before-listed writers have written fiction that could easily be classed as speculative. And on the flipside, other writers I adore like Robert Shearman, Jeffrey Ford, Graham Joyce and Nalo Hopkinson (I’ve also recently discovered Geoff Ryman too – and wow) deserve greater respect from the ‘literary critics’. It’s all changing of course. There’s a cross over occurring and hopefully great prose and stories are what’s at the forefront, regardless of genre. When you read the fantastical collection, the superb The Long Valley by John Steinbeck, it’s apparent that the crossover was actually always there. And if you think of Victorian texts like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula and Frankenstein, you can’t ignore that speculative fiction has always been an integral part of literature. The difference was that for a while, there appeared to be a shunning of one field by the other. Now with writers like Kelly Link, Haruki Murakami, Karen Russell and Michael Chabon being short listed or winning major awards on both sides of the spectrum: speculative and ‘Lit’; good writing, regardless of the speculative elements and genre it can be boxed in, is beginning to be truly recognised. This can only bode well for the future of fiction in general.
Regarding speculative fiction, there’s so much more opportunity for an exploration of the human condition through transforming realist elements relating to place and character into the fantastic. Shifting us outside of our natural environs and seeing how we all function is an integral part of the genre, whether its satirical, symbolic, allegorical or simply to enhance reader interest. The layers that occur with an altered place or being are what draws me to writers like Karen Russell and George Saunders and Nalo Hopkinson.
What inspired you to start writing? Do you have any tips for people who want to get started, but aren’t sure how to go about it?
As an adult I really started writing late in my 30s. But on reflection, I realise that I did write back in highschool and when I was in first year uni. I even dabbled in primary school. I recall winning the best story prize in my Yr 1 class at Glencoe Primary school, which consisted of a class photo that I was absent from. More importantly, I was always an avid reader. I was fortunate. The first two stories I wrote in my 30s found homes. After listening to advice from two well-known editors and anthologists (I won’t mention the two editors by name as it feels like name dropping) at a breakfast here in Perth, about aiming as high as possible, I sent my third story ‘Reading Coffee’ off to Overland, which is a journal I esteem. That story was published and I received professional pay. It went on to be short listed for an Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Story and reprinted in The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror, 2011. Ed Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene. That gave me a world of confidence.
And Julienne Van Loon and Deborah Hunn also gave me confidence when I did a postgraduate university course in Writing. Having people truly believe in your ability helps no end. I think writers should try to celebrate every success too – we’re a self-critical bunch.
Other than aiming high and celebrating your triumphant moments, my best advice regarding the craft is to read. Read for enjoyment but also read to write. And read outside of your comfort zone too, which means reading broadly. Being stuck in the one genre of reading may limit your development. I’ve never met a decent writer who wasn’t well-read.
Other tips are to speak to writers. Reading on the craft can help too but keep in mind that it’s a subjective field. Because Stephen King or Janet Burroway write about their thoughts on the craft it does not mean that it’s law. I’ll never forget Kurt Vonnegut rabbitting on about never using a semi-colon in A Man Without a Country and then, on the very last page of the book, there was a semi-colon, purposefully and appropriately placed, in all its glory. Stephen King dislikes adverbs but he uses them. Neil Gaiman says to find your voice and stick with it yet I know other writers who change their voice radically for the benefit of the piece, Nalo Hopkinson, Robert Shearman and Karen Russell are fine examples. The point is that advice and tips help but you need to work out what works for you and then continuously build on that talent.
I personally always like having two works on the go. It keep me fresh. But that’s just me. I think it’s because my attention span is limited at the best of times.
And I only write a couple of long short stories a year due to work. I do think that care counts. I do hear the occasional speculative fiction writer spout vast numbers of publications yet their homes are questionable – and often the most they’ve been paid for a story is $200 or so. We don’t write short stories for money but you do want to know that there is either a reading audience of some kind or that they will be studied by others. I’d personally vouch for quality over quantity. Kicking 150 goals in an Amateur League is very different from kicking goals in the professional AFL. I’m sure there are writers out there with multiple collections but I’d rather wait for a couple of superb collections like Karen Russell’s over reading sixty stories of varying quality.
Oh, and finally, writing takes work. Give a piece wait time. Come back to it. I’ve been on Cloud Nine with a draft, then waited, and then read it again, to think that the story is a criminal act against the arts. That’s part of the craft, falling from Cloud Nine into the Abyss, and then finding ways to climb back out of it. The bright side is that your editing will vastly improve your piece. Murder parts, rework other parts. And be open to criticism. Self-doubt is a writer’s ally.
You’re a veritable machine when it comes to short stories, with your work appearing in premier publications. What advice do you have for writers looking to expand their writing ‘resume’?
Thank you for the very kind words. I think of myself as more of a minnow. I’m under no illusions – I have a lot to learn and a long way to go. I think every writer benefits from ongoing learning. But I’ll admit that having stories published in Overland twice, Meanjin and Best Australian Stories in a short space of time (Sep 2011-Nov 2014) gave me a lot of confidence. The pay was rewarding too. Having said that I’m my own biggest critic and cringe when I read my early drafts, and even when I read stories that have been published. I’m learning to let go and move on.
I do love being published in spec-fic anthologies too. Think I’m up to seven at present. Ticonderoga Publications have been especially good to me.
Similar to my previous response, choose the journals that you truly respect. I submitted my stories cold to Overland and Meanjin – so having the stories find homes there was truly rewarding. I was an unknown from isolated Perth (I’m still an unknown from isolated Perth) and I was glad, in a way, that I’d never met any of the readers or editors. It means that you’ve earnt your place. Professional payment does help. Having said that I’ve had several stories published for much less than these journals offer.
My submission process has changed a bit – I have been given the early ‘heads-up’ to submit to spec-fic anthologies of late but I also see that as an opportunity earnt. Your story still has to earn its place but at least it means that at least once a year, I’ll write for a specific genre. I’ve also made some good friends in the spec-fic field: editors, fellow writers, and readers. The field here in Australia, from my limited perspective, appears to be very welcoming, inclusive and friendly. At least it’s not at all like that extreme right that’s trying to influence things over in the US with their bullish discourse AKA the Sad and Rabid Puppies – or is that simply juvenile puppy behavior from immature brats? Some of their points may be valid, free speech is integral, the issue, however, with these right-wing groups is that they they appear to lack the ideals of inclusivity and they are also part of the rail-roading that they seem so against.
I can’t really comment on self-publishing, I barely blog – and I’m not overly open and personal when I do – and I certainly don’t have an author page on facebook. Each to their own though.
What can we expect next from you?
Next up is a story called ‘Crossing’ in an anthology of Antipodean spec-fic called At the Edge ed Lee Murray & Dan Rabarts. There are a couple of long stories in the pipeline and a couple of novellettes/ long short stories out next year but I can’t yet officially announce the news as their contents haven’t been finalised.
Workwise, I always have a couple on the go. I’m on the third draft of a novel and I’ve just written two long stories.
After I finish the next novel draft, I’ll tinker away with a couple of short story ideas. Presently, I only write a couple a year at most. I have a demanding job, which I love, so I see the holidays as an opportunity to write. I’m producing much more than I’d ever thought, which is a rewarding bonus.
Latest Read and Latest Publication (not part of the interview)
Latest Read: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. An utterly intoxicating melodrama, which explores American identity. It's humorous in parts, yet also moving, reflective, considered and visionary. The critics are right – the sporadic intrusion of the first person narrator doesn't quite suit. Still, I don't believe it impacts on the overall quality of the novel. Superb.
Latest story: The anthology At the Edge ed. Lee Murray & Dan Rabarts, which contains my latest story 'Crossing' will be launched at Au Contraire in Wellington this weekend. I look forward to reading it myself. It will be sold at various bookstores and will also be available from Amazon Books and Book Depository.