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An indisputable joy for me over the past five years has been interviewing Australian authors for literary journal Verity La.
The interviews are conducted by email: I start with a question, the author responds, I ask a follow-up question, the author responds to that, and we keep going like this until we’ve reached a conclusion. Although I’ll have one or two questions prepared in advance, never have the interviews ended where I’ve expected them to, and I’ve learnt to follow the energy in the conversation, and allow the process – which isn’t far from writing letters to each other – to go into personal or dangerous territory. This part of the process can take a week or two, a month or two; some interviews have taken the best part of a year.
Once an interview has reached its natural conclusion, I bring it all together (keeping the order of the questions and answers as they happened), do a light edit, mostly for the purposes of consistency and to meet the editorial guidelines of Verity La, before I send it back to the interviewee for edits and clearance. This final stage in the process is critical: it allows the author to see her or his responses as part of a whole and also take the opportunity to make changes – and they almost always do, due to a desire to improve clarity and/or flow, or because, perhaps, it might be better to be more diplomatic, especially as the National Library of Australia archives Verity La.
With the publication of the most recent interview, with Biff Ward, the author of the extraordinary memoir In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), I thought it might be timely to prepare a bouquet of some of the most memorable observations, primarily about the writing process.
‘Isn’t that what writing is about – wanting to know more, daring to find out, being brave enough to inhabit a place even when you know it might be uncomfortable, even though you might find out that you are the stranger?’ – Francesca Rendle-Short
‘When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material’ – John Clanchy
‘I find plunging into my imagination and making up stories endlessly interesting. I am fascinated by character, bringing each one to life through narrative. And I delight in the fact I can give a character a personality change if s/he is not working within the emerging novel. And I love the English language, it’s gorgeous. Such pleasure to be had playing with metaphor and imagery’ – Andrea Goldsmith
‘I think that there are few, if any, endings in novels that are as satisfying as the journeys which arrive there. In the sense that journeys determine endings, I’d agree with Peter Carey that if the ending is troubled, the cause of the trouble is to be found elsewhere (and the problem perhaps bigger than a failed ending). I think all that should be asked of an ending is that it live up to the journey. My favourite endings, when I think about it, have more to do with poetry than story’ – Andrew Croome
‘Everything we know, see, think, do, down to the minutest un-thought action, is stored in the pressure-cooker of memory where it gets steamed and combined into Memory Soup. Then, when the writer needs something, the soup produces it, not in the form it was originally but as what is needed now’ – Glenda Guest
‘Reading and writing poetry represent the possibility of better things in a world that sorely needs this possibility’ – Paul Hetherington
‘I write stories because I feel compelled to do so. Because I love the writing process, everything about it. Well, maybe not those agonising moments where I know something is wrong but I can’t figure out what needs to happens next and begin to wonder if it’s possible I never will. But then something snaps and everything falls into place and that’s glorious’ – Irma Gold
‘One of my guiding principles in this old distinction between poetry and imaginative prose is Virginia Woolf’s observation that “…the poet gives us his essence, prose takes the mould of the body and mind entire”’ – Alan Gould
‘Material that comes out as part of a creative work needs time to mature like wine and [my novel] needed to work through from a conscious to a subconscious level’ – Denise Young
‘It’s important to me at this stage in my life that I don’t condemn, blame or hurt other people, and I do my best to make my writing and my public work reflect that. I am absolutely in love with all of the strangeness, diversity and surprises of this life, and I want to write about them’ – Walter Mason
‘The way in which I write my novels makes such surprises inevitable. It’s a very organic process for me. I write my way into the characters and I write many many drafts. What I begin with – whether ideas or characters – is rarely what I end up with’ – Andrea Goldsmith
‘My so called ‘achievements’ are not a big deal. I was programmed to have fun, travel and speak my mind. It was more by accident than design I played a small part in extending the boundaries of free speech. It’s an ongoing task, unfortunately, because the leaders of nations both rich and poor will lie, cheat and even kill, in order to protect their interests’ – Richard Neville
‘I see a big distinction between writing-as-therapy and the telling of a dark tale that has been personally experienced. Writing-as-therapy is a wonderful form of self-exploration and clarification – but it needs to be private! It is for the self, not for reading by others. It’s what you do if you need to journey through the glades of despair, to drag yourself through brambles and shudder through cobwebs’ – Biff Ward
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.
You know, six months out from a book launch, you just can’t wait for the big day – it’s all just too exciting. Then there’s the week of the launch and you start counting down the sleeps. But then the morning comes and you think, why the hell do I do this? It’s the nerves: will anyone turn up? But there’s also the anxiety around a story, and the people of the story, who have been private for so long, years, all of it being made public: will the words and their intent come alive for readers?
In the end, people do attend book launches, and the book is officially sent out into the world, and you wake up the next morning and think, Wow, what a night; did that all really happen? Thank you so much to all those who came long to the launch of I’m Ready Now at Electric Shadows Bookshop in Canberra on the Thursday just gone. A packed-out independent bookshop is always a thing of beauty.
McEwan on the novella
I’m Ready Now is a novella, and some people have asked me what this strange beast is all about. It’s the million-dollar question – if there can be million-dollar questions in the world of literary fiction – and many have tried to come to a definition. Back in October of this year, Ian McEwan wrote the following in The New Yorker: ‘I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant’. It’s a great line. But in a feature I wrote last year for The Canberra Times on the novella, John Clanchy dived deeper: ‘Whatever we call it, the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way. I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length. But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.’
What some are thinking
As to the launch itself, a huge thanks to journalist and writer Chris Wallace for cutting the metaphorical ribbon. What’s the best thing a launcher can offer a writer? A close reading. And no bullshit. Chris, who is infamous for calling a spade a spade, offered both. Amazingly, there’s already a review of I’m Ready Now: it’s over at the unstoppable literary blog Whispering Gums. What I love about the review is that it begins with some reflections on the launch, and the independence of these reflections make them more valuable and interesting than anything I can do here. But the writer of the review, Sue Terry, also gets the books, so much so that she concludes that ‘I’m Ready Now is about living imaginatively and about liberation, but it is also about how the past can stall us if we don’t get it in the right perspective’. Those last few words, about how the past can grind to a halt if we don’t frame it correctly, really do get to the heart of the book.
Thanks again to everyone who came along to the launch or sent warm wishes. Special thanks to Marion Halligan, Karmin Cooper, and editor Nicola O’Shea who really helped to bring I’m Ready Now to life through offering very astute suggestions. And, of course, much gratitude to Greg Gould and Lesley Boland from Blemish Books for publishing I’m Ready Now (along with Fall on Me last year). I can only write what I want to write, and what I’d like to read, which means that I may never have the biggest readership in the world (though one can dream), so it’s brilliant that Blemish has made such a commitment to me as a writer and to the novella as a form of story-telling. What now? I just hope that I’m Ready Now is read. One final time: thank you. Until we meet again.
Your copy is here
I’m Ready Now can be purchased through your local bookshop or you can order it directly from Blemish Books – that link will take you straight to Blemish’s online store.
There’s this problem child I know. We all have someone in our lives who could fit this definition – a rebel, a wild one, a lost soul, or all three at once, which would be quite something – but mine is less conventional, in every possible way. The problem child I know isn’t made of flesh and blood and bone, it doesn’t have a heart (at least not in the usual sense), and for some – for many, it seems – it doesn’t actually exist, or they know it does but wish it wouldn’t.
What on earth am I talking about? The novella, of course. That little book of power and pummel, the miniature of in-between.
A quick survey of literary history reveals that the novella has well and truly punched above its weight. Stories like Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice (1912), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) have had an immeasurable impact on Western writing and reading – mini revolutionaries, the bunch of them – and each has firmly found its place in the canon.
But the crunch is this: what is their true identity and purpose?
Jonathan Cape’s hard-cover edition (1972) of The Old Man and the Sea describes it as “shorter than the conventional novel, longer than the longest short story, Hemingway’s new work of fiction eludes classification.” My 1993 Arrow Classic edition of the same tale contains references to it being a short story, a long short story, and a novel. In other words, we haven’t a clue what we’ve just published.
The fact is there is a great suspicion about the novella, because it’s next to impossible to categorise. Down through the ages there have been times when no one wants to even talk about the thing, as if worried that it is going to lead to incarceration, or a long, slow death from The Plague.
But let’s be brave.
The word itself, novella, comes from the Latin, novus, which means new and was originally applied to plants and animals. In the sixth century, novella meant a newly planted tree, which is rather delightful; I’ll be using it the next time I’m at the nursery. Yet this doesn’t really get us anywhere. And definitions that rely solely on word-count – somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 words seems to be the rule of thumb – completely under-estimate the devious ways of the novella.
In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story (1998), Richard Ford tries to capture a definition of our little friend (or perhaps that should be foe) but even he can’t get one to stick, despite interviewing his comrades in academia, who appear knowledgeable about the subject but ultimately brush him off. Interesting that for this story I approached two respected academics in the creative-writing field and neither returned my emails – as if I was enquiring about a missing person they might just know something about.
The history of the novella goes back further than the efforts of Tolstoy and co. Five hundred years earlier one Giovanni Boccaccio authored (or may have simply collected) the first cycle of novellas that comprise The Decameron. A hop and a skip from there, the Germans, who have never shied away from a bit of cheeky experimentation, took a particular shine to the form, primarily in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to the point that the critic Theodore Mundt, in 1823, called the novella ‘the German house pet’. (I shudder to think what Australia might nominate as a ‘house pet’. Kylie Minogue? Actually, could she be described as a pop-music novella?)
However, despite the novella having a long and illustrious history of contribution, it really does seem to be the literary problem child. But why? Why is it so hard for people to get their heads around what is essentially a short work of fiction? Then again, a short story is also ‘a short work of fiction’. And therein lies the apparently insurmountable difficulty: the novella is the slipperiest of beasts, refusing to fit neatly into boxes that appeal to writers, readers, and publishers. And if history has shown us anything, we are sceptical about what doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. Ask your nearest bisexual.
But still novellas are written, and sometimes they’re even published.
John Clanchy, the Canberra-based award-winning writer of short stories, novellas and novels, says that despite being a fan of the shorter story the novella really is cause for heart palpitations. “The concept,” he says, “is suss for many in the Anglo word, which has tended to see the novella as just one more European conspiracy: first they foist the novella on us, and when that doesn’t work they go and invest post-modernism.”
How would Clanchy define the novella?
“Whatever we call it,” he says, “the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way. I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length. But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.”
Despite his own success with shorter works – His Father’s Daughter (UQP, 2008) contains five stories ranging from 9,000 to 30,000 words – Clanchy agrees that one of the biggest challenges with novellas is getting the bloody things into print. “Editors and publishers don’t seem to know what to do with this ‘intermediate’ form,” he says. “Show a novella to an editor – the adventurous Madonna Duffy at UQP excepted – and she’s just as likely to pull a mouth and say, ‘A novella? It’s kind of…um…long, isn’t it?’ To which the only sensible reply is, ‘Yes, but so is a goanna.’”
Mandy Brett, Senior Editor at one of Australia’s most respected mid-sized presses, Text Publishing in Melbourne, believes that it goes without saying that novellas are difficult to publish. “There are a couple of reasons for this and the first is brutally economic. On the bookshelf, a novella is just a very skinny book. We can’t expect people to pay nearly as much for it as for a novel. But in fact it doesn’t cost all that much less to produce. This makes the small book a highly dodgy proposition in terms of turning a dollar.”
The second difficulty is cultural, says Brett, but ends up being economic. “There is not a broad readership for the novella. It is not widely appreciated as a form, being perceived as a stingy novel or a bloated short story.”
Brett certainly has a point. Inspired by Richard Ford undertaking an ‘informal poll’ of his academic mates, I posted on my humble home in the blogosphere a request for thoughts on the novella. Comments came back along the lines of “most writers like writing them and reading them, but readers don’t, because they generally want more of a meal when they sit down to eat” and “I prefer the traditional novel format – it’s not so much a more-bang-for-your-buck kinda thing (though I have found myself standing in a bookshop thinking, there’s no way I’m paying $32 for 120 pages) it’s that I find short stories just too damn short!”
However, according to Mandy Brett it’s not as grim as all this might suggest.
“There’s a small subset of literary readers who will buy an outstanding novella because they appreciate wonderful writing, or hear enough good things about it to give it a go.” Brett cites A Love Letter from a Stray Moon by Jay Griffiths, which was published by Text earlier this year, as an example of a contemporary novella. It is 20,000 words in length and she describes it as “exquisite”.
John Clanchy, too, is optimistic about the future of the novella. “As a committed reader in the Age of Obesity,” he says, “I’ve cut the contemporary fat novel right out of my diet – too many carbs and too little nutrition at too large a price.”
What about this brave new world of digital publishing and e-readers?
Mandy Brett sees fertile ground. “As the ebook starts to take over and book pricing comes adrift from the traditional restrictions imposed by print technology and the physical distribution of books, it will become much easier to play around with format and form. I expect to see more poetry, more novellas, more short stories, and more experimental literary forms accessible in mainstream outlets in the future.” And that’s a ray of sunshine for those writers who want to muck up and those readers who hunger for more than the bulging literary block-buster.
So, it seems, the novella, despite its inherently shifty business, is here to stay. It may well be lurking behind that wall over there, ready to frighten the living daylights out of an unsuspecting public. Perhaps the revolution will – again – come in the form of a little book, one that might pop up on a computer screen and say this: There’s something that you really should know about.
First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 20 August 2011. With thanks to John Clanchy and Mandy Brett. Thanks also to Alec and Agnes, who commented on an earlier Under the Counter post about the novella and are quoted above.