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Despite having them in my life for 30 years, more or less, I don’t really know what they are. They flit about like a type of butterfly that may or may not exist.
I can remember being in the Fifth or Sixth Form of the rather well-healed Anglican school I attended on Sydney’s North Shore, my English teacher, Mr Cowdroy, leading us through the reading of a short story, the author of which I regrettably can’t recall. I loved the conciseness of the story – that life could be created and explored and examined in so few pages – and the sense of compression, the cleverness of the ending, which made me want to start reading the story all over again. It also made me want to keep writing, for by that time I had been writing for some years, albeit for school assessment.
Fast forward to my twenties, when I realised that doing little more than hanging out with mates at the pub was not good and deep living and would most likely lead to misery, I began writing stories again, but only because I wanted to. I also read stories, mainly in anthologies. Collections that resonated were Risks (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; edited by Brenda Walker) and the Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (Faber and Faber, 1991; edited by Edmund White). I also enjoyed Fishing in the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 1994) and that other Irish chap who did quite well in the form, James Joyce with his Dubliners. I’d go on to discover the short works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, and contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Annie Proulx, David Malouf, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Tim Winton, Nam Le, and Alice Munro. I subscribed to and read Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island, Tirra Lirra, and Wet Ink.
Over the years that followed I began having my own stories published, at first in relatively minor journals now gathering dust in the National Library of Australia’s vast vaults, before some of my stories were ‘accepted’ (for that appeared to be the termed used) in the journals mentioned above. It was, of course, all very thrilling. To see my name in an edition of Meanjin (2: 2000) alongside writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Thomas Shapcott, Dorothy Hewett, Arnold Zable, and Dorothy Porter. Eventually my published stories were collected in two humble volumes, Homelife (1999) and Joy (2000). The Australia Book Review (no. 224 Sept 2000) described the latter as ‘beautifully poised, warm, lush, humane, with lots of surprises and shocks.’ Which made my heart sing, and still does. I say all this not to brag but to suggest that slowly but surely I have been taking steps; I have, I think, been making progress.
Soon I gathered the confidence to write longer works, including three published novellas and a novel, but rarely does a year go by when I don’t write – and try to have published – short stories. Perhaps part of the attraction is being able to take a break from convoluted, complicated works and spend a week crafting a little tale. But I’m not sure if that’s true and/or wise. Short stories can be just as complex as longer works, if not more so, and they can be just as difficult to write, if not more so. It is common for fiction writers to say that short stories are closer to poetry than prose, in that they are suggestions more than full explorations. In the best fiction, regardless of length, words need to be deployed artfully so life can rise from the page. But perhaps in a short story, as in a poem, each word has to do some impressive – and exhaustive – heavy lifting, often (hopefully) with spectacular results.
Sometimes with spectacular results. My filing cabinet and PC hard-drive are littered with rubbish work.
Recently, to be frank, I’ve been doubting the worth of the short story as a viable form. Australian literary journals do continue to publish them, although, depending on the journal, it could be said that only writers are reading them. On the whole mainstream publishers turn up their noses at collections of stories, claiming readers want a more immersive experience; and some writers who have excelled at the form have simply given up, claiming there is no point when ‘it’s just too hard to find a readership’. So, if the readership is limited, why do it? Isn’t it like, say, insisting on painting miniature portraits, the sort that galleries won’t touch with a barge-pole? But, but, but: every so often single-author collections, such as Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2008) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), make a big public splash.
What am I trying to say? The short story is a surprising and tenacious beast.
A similarly surprising and tenacious beast is the Review of Australian Fiction, which publishes – electronically – two stories every two weeks and often takes the opportunity to publish works that print journals consider ‘too long’ (over 4,000 words); a worthy venture to say the least, considering also that individual issues cost only $2.99. It’s an honour to be published in the Review a second time, especially as I’ve been paired with Marion Halligan, whose collection Shooting the Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2011) was choc-full of literary magic. My story, ‘The Blue Bottle’, has been emerging for many years – decades you could say – because it uses an event from my twenties as a place for jumping off (no, it’s not set in a pub). On the page the story is nothing more or less than fiction, but there must have been something in the original event that had stayed with me and I’d wanted to turn it over with words and sentences and characters and plot. As is so common (predictable?) in my work, the narrative involves an old house and landscape and music and friendship and intimacy and longing and glimpses – glimpses – of love. But I won’t go on.
All I really wanted to tell you is this: ‘The Blue Bottle’ exists, it is here.
It was the email I was dreading: ‘We need a title for your presentation.’
There I was, halfway through my three-month residency at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, happily researching and discovering and discarding and scribbling, but then that emailed request. Which, frankly, was perfectly reasonable, as I’d committed to doing a presentation at the conclusion of the residency. But still the request put me in a spin.
All was not lost, however. I’d been reading a lot of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who fought and wrote and died during the First World War. I’d been intrigued by his poem ‘Asleep’, which Owen had written/rewritten during 1917 and 1918, so I plucked for myself a line, ‘In the happy no-time of his sleeping’, and offered it up as my title. I was spending the residency exploring the ways masculinity is expressed in times of military conflict and it seemed to be a good fit, at least hinted at truths, or the possibilities of truths.
A reply came almost immediately: ‘We like the title, but what is the presentation actually about? What will you actually be doing?’ Honestly, I had no idea. My head was too lost in the research side of things to provide anything concrete. Besides, what did I, a person who’s never even come close to throwing a punch, know about what it’d be like to be a man during extreme armed fighting? So I wrote back: ‘I’ll be telling stories and asking questions.’
I already had the questions – What is a man? Who is a good man? Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories. Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine. I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams. Bearing in mind also that in 20 years of writing I’ve not once worked with historical fiction. Whatever that is.
Clutching at straws, I decided I’d write one story about the First World War, one about the Second World War, and one about the Vietnam War or the ten-year period of military conflict in Afghanistan. The First World War story, ‘Holding’, came together relatively painlessly, despite the topic: two men in unimaginable devastating circumstances share a moment of innocent intimacy, which may have profound consequences. The Afghanistan story (the Middle Eastern conflict was more present to me than that Vietnam War) came together in a whoosh of words. But the Second World War story, for whatever reason, just never got off the ground. So, after a white-heat period of editing and polishing, it was ‘Holding’ and ‘The Call’ that I read during my final-week presentation, and it’s completely and utterly thrilling that, after more editing and polishing, they’ve been published in the first issue of this year’s Review of Australian Fiction. With the added bonus of sharing the pages with the wonderful Andrew Croome, the author of the Vogel-winning Document Z and, more recently, the critically acclaimed Midnight Empire.
I hope you enjoy this issue of the Review of Australian Fiction. It’s such an innovative enterprise. Do subscribe, if you can, and help keep Australian literature alive – it’s very cheap (the subscription, not Australian literature).
Plus I need more chook food.
There are times – like these last two days – when I feel as though I’m the luckiest man alive, because I’ve been starting the mornings reading on the couch in my library room. For some, luck might be scoring that high-paid job, or travelling overseas, or being able to fill the house with the boundless rush of children, but for me it’s reading, it’s stillness, it’s silence, a book in my lap, a real book, one that needs to be held, one that has pages that have to be turned.
I’m in a writing lull, which sounds bad, as in I’ve lost some kind of fire. But the fire is there; it’s still burning, raging even, it’s just that a manuscript has been completed and sent to my publisher and I’m not yet ready to start a new project. So I’m filling these deliciously long, slow empty days with reading.
Where reading happens
Reading happens all over the house: there’s lap-top and iPad reading at the breakfast-/lunch-/dinner-table; there’s living-room couch reading; there’s writing-room reading, the conscientious, studious sort; and there’s bed-time reading. But the reading I enjoy the most is the sort that happens in the library room, which I also sometimes call ‘the front room’ or ‘the fireplace room’. When it’s really good, both the reading and the room, it’s cold and wet and windy outside, and I light the fire, pour myself a coffee, and cover my body with my grandmother’s black and red and yellow mohair blanket and get lost in the words.
David Malouf and the smell of smoke
Yesterday and this morning the words have been written by David Malouf: The Complete Stories (Knopf 2007). It’s a grandly handsome book, in every possible way, and, at over 500 pages, it’s big, it has such weight – you need two hands to read these stories. Sometimes, when the story is a long one, almost novella length, and I’m far too engrossed to rise for a break, I prop up the top of the book on the repositioned piano stool, which is the perfect height for the task.
Ah, the words on the page, Malouf’s words: searching, circling, yearning, but they’re always so warm; they take you in and have you. Crafted but not overly crafted; satisfying, so very satisfying – days after living for such a brief period with these stories, the people of the stories stay with the reader, demanding just a little more time, a little more understanding, because they’re complex, and their predicaments are complex too – but they don’t wallop you; they’re intelligent, but never clever; they’re absolutely finished but not always perfect. All the while there’s the fire crackling and hissing and popping and creaking away, the heat coming before waning, a thin fog in the room, sometimes even a sting in the eyes, but always the smell of smoke on my hands from getting the fire going in the first place.
When it’s as good as this
Perhaps it’s the stillness I love the most, and the silence, the sort of silence that seems to embrace that which is made by the fire, even enhanced by the fire. And enhanced by the words, David Malouf’s words. What does it mean to read like this? Yes, it’s transportation, and communication, entertainment even. It’s a good, worthy, even noble pursuit. And, with the fire, there’s a kind of romance to the whole practice. But there’s much more to it. There’s depth, great depth, and illumination, everything stripped bare, everything and nothing is sacred, you can’t hide, the words will come for you – yes, you – in the end. Exposed, that’s it; we’re all made raw. Despite the fire and the blanket and the coffee and the couch, it’s uncomfortable to read. When the reading is as good as this.