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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.
For two days I visited newsagents but came away empty-handed every time. On the third day, however, there they were, a whole bunch of them stacked up high on the shelves. I grabbed one, grabbed another. Paid my money, got on my way. But only a dozen or so steps outside the shop I stopped. Flicked through the pages in my hands. A story on a musical response to a selection of Arthur Boyd paintings. A story on comedian Bill Bailey finding happiness. Gorgeous photographs of a gorgeous house, and fine text about the house’s design and construction. A boutique, biodynamic winery.
And then, there it was, my story, a piece of fiction – amongst all this.
There are three things that I love about ‘Come with me (to another world)’ being published in issue 66 of Capital Magazine. First, it’s a story that was in response to ‘Paths through the Forest’, an exhibition at M16 Art Space in Canberra in 2013 curated by Julie Bradley and Ann McMahon. I was asked to prepare a piece that responded to the art work in whatever way I felt was appropriate and ‘Come with me’…well…came into the world. Second, I adore the idea of fiction finding a way to readers through different means – quite frankly, as many means as possible. I love the thought that someone may pick up a copy of Capital to be inspired by beautiful architecture but come away being inspired by beautiful prose too (hopefully).
Perhaps, however, the main reason I love this whole thing so much is the accompanying illustration. It’s by Matt Adams, an award-wining artist and illustrator who’s worked for Fairfax Media and Mad Australia, and in 2006 won a Bald Archy for his portrait of John Olsen. It’s extraordinary to have your work interpreted by a visual artist (especially considering the story was originally inspired by a carefully curated selection of visual art). What elements will the artist explore? How will the themes be interpreted and communicated? What new layers will be revealed?
In short, it’s a visually literate way of seeing inside a reader’s mind.
Matt’s illustration for ‘Come with me (to another world)’ blows my brain. Almost literally: it’s almost too much too bear. A young man in T-shirt and pyjama bottoms. An axe. A chook coop. A chook on its side – it’s fallen, hasn’t it. A gate. A fence. A lemon tree. The corner of a Hill’s Hoist, a white handkerchief flapping freely in the breeze. But let’s go back to that young man: he’s not fully present, he’s faded – is he coming or going? It’s all so domestic, backyard, but oh so very dark. One day I’d love to see this art work on a wall in a gallery. Because, I think, it’s that good. But also to see what life it takes on. It’s as if the whole project has been about passing a kind of baton: from visual artist to me to visual artist to readers to…?
Huge thanks to Capital editor Gillian Lord for taking a risk on ‘Come with me’.
And huge thanks to Matt Adams for taking the story into another world.
To purchase this issue of Capital head into your favourite newsagent, or check out the magazine’s website.
It’s there beside me on the desk, adjacent my elbow, and it feels like the most valuable thing, but also the most useless.
It’s orange, A4-sized, and inside are twenty pages – a short story and a covering letter. On the front of the envelope, written in my dreadful scrawl, is the name of a literary journal and its overseas address. On the back is my own address, in the hope that good news – the best – will be sent in reply. This is what I do: I write short stories and send them away, even though the odds are firmly stacked against me, against this thing that occupies so much of my time, the vast majority of the last twenty years.
For weeks, months, longer, so much longer, there has been in the guts of my computer that strangest of beasts: a story, something conjured, concocted. Part dream, part idea(l), part concept, part theme, part wish, part ambition. Imagined characters discovering, solving, unravelling, opening out. Blue pen ink on pad page, before becoming black lines and angles on a flickering screen, before becoming – always becoming – black ink on crisp white print-out paper. All those words, words formed up to make sense, to be read.
What is the purpose of this? To entertain? To move? To anger? To be admired?
It’s all this and more. A great deal more.
I have tried to stop; like a smoker or an alcoholic I have tried to give up. But can I give up? No. Because I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Couldn’t I have been good at something much more useful, like fixing electrical wiring, or building decks, or progressing propositions of law? I could garden: rip out weeds for a living. Or walk dogs for cash. Or breed chickens and sell their eggs and their precious manure.
But it wouldn’t be the same. There’d be no wrestling with words and their meanings. Oh what words can do: they can illuminate. There’d be no heartache when the story comes back with a slip paper-clipped to the top: Sorry, but this isn’t what we’re looking for. But even that doesn’t bring me to a halt. Because stories are beneath my skin, and, so I’ve heard, they are beneath yours, too. Because that’s all we are in the end – stories.
Bye for now; I’m off to the post-box.
To send away my valuable, useless, infinitely beautiful purpose.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 August 2014.)