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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’s January in Australia and I’m hot and bothered. Hot, because that’s exactly what it is: for weeks now it’s been thirty degrees Celsius in the shade, some days thirty-five. Last Friday went over forty; Sydney, just two hours drive north of me, had its hottest day ever – it breached the forty-five-degree mark. Here at home the chooks have their beaks open and their wings out and hanging low, so I’ve covered their run as much as I can with an old tent-fly – it seems to help, for now. But hot is hot is hot and there’s not much I can do about it. And I can’t do much about the alarming waft of smoke as it comes into town and gets us coughing. Last week there was an automated message left on the landline: ‘Tomorrow’s bushfire conditions are CATASTROPHIC. Activate your bushfire survival plan now.’ I put the sprinkler into the garden and, rather uselessly, turned it on.
All this is enough to make anyone hot and bothered, but it’s not all.
On 26 January there’s Australia Day; yes, it’s come around yet again. So the flags are out and about: they’re being stuck on cars and utes and trucks, they’re hung in shop windows, and they’re sent flapping in front gardens, stating the bleeding obvious, but also as though staking a claim all over again. We do it every year, our national day to commemorate the beginning of British settlement, when Governor Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. I was born and bred here, my forebears arriving by boat only a handful of years after that adventurous governor. Despite this ancestral longevity, however, and whatever blood I have in my veins, and all my thinking on the topic, I don’t really know this nation of mine; as I age I’m understanding it less and less. So, this summer, this dreadful, pressure-cooked summer, I’ve turned to our writers for assistance, for succour even, because their imagination, observation and skilful way with words are surely better than simply hanging out a flag.
Keep reading at Overland. Thanks to Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead.
- Disgrace by JM Coetzee
- Holding The Man by Timothy Conigrove
- The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
- Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
- The Riders by Tim Winton
- Last Orders by Graham Swift
- Eminence by Morris West
- The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishigo
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Twenty-three things these books have in common (and I’ve been thinking about this for ages, years really, and for a long long time I had this list up on my wall and I’d add to it and take things off until now I think it might actually mean something):
- They’re all late twentieth-century literature
- They’re all set in relatively contemporary times (i.e. 1980s and beyond), except, perhaps, Brokeback Mountain, In Cold Blood, The Remains of the Day
- The main characters are all men, except those in The Blackwater Lightship
- They’re all written by men, except Brokeback Mountain
- They’re all about men, even The Blackwater Lightship in a roundabout way
- The writers are all Caucasian, except Kazuo Ishigo
- They’re all fiction, except In Cold Blood and Holding the Man
- They’re all set in the Western World
- They’re all dramas
- Only one of them is gay-lit per se: Holding the Man
- Most of the main characters have clear occupations: academic, schoolboy, cowboy, butler, priest
- They all understand their political context
- They all ask questions about nationhood, except The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
- The passage and complexity of time is very important to them
- Family – in the broadest sense – is at their heart
- They all have strong senses of place
- Apart from Brokeback Mountain, they’re all single point-of-view narratives – simple
- They’re also all relatively straight-forward in terms of structure, but they lead the reader into tough and dark terrain: murder, mental illness, racism, religion, homophobia, right-wing ideologies, death, grief, the weight of history…but there’s also a whole lot of love
- They’re all driven by clear ‘what ifs’ e.g. Eminence: what if the Pope-in-waiting was in fact an atheist
- The prose is accessible, sometimes understated, but always beautiful
- The writers appear to be burning to find something out through the writing of their works
- There’s an overt sense of warmth and humanity – this is their true power
- My life would be less without them
Despite my age I’m doing it more and more, I can’t stop, hour after hour after hour, until I’m sore, my hands, my wrists – from holding a novel. Because it’s reading novels that I can’t stop doing, great big slabs of it, whole mornings, whole afternoons, whole days, from dawn until dusk, lost in the best of written words, or I might mean found.
As a boy and early teenager I loved reading, except I don’t remember being voracious, that word that’s often used to describe someone who ploughs through books like there’s no tomorrow. But read I did and was moved. Jean George’s My Side of the Mountain, Stowe’s The Merry Go Round in the Sea, and Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were the novels for me.
In my late teens and early twenties, that first taste of university life, I had other things on my mind, no time for reading, no inclination even – I wish someone had thrust a tome into my hands and said ‘Read that, you oaf’. But I fell back into the habit when I moved to Perth to live for a while; alone, lonely, I wanted to know more about that far western place, and, miraculously, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet had just been published. I read those pages on the sand and in the sun, the teasing sea just there.
These days I have a library in my house; it’s in the smallest room, what would have once been the parlour, that place for visitors. There’s a coal-burning fire – sometimes, on the coldest, dampest, windiest days, I light a fire and that’s a heaven that’s hard to describe. Rising up on each side of the mantelpiece like columns are the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, rows and rows and rows of novels, my favourite of the favourite at the very top where the bastard cat can’t spray them.
It’s in this room that I like to spend whole days with the best of fictional worlds, just ink on the page. What magical lies! I’m visited; I go visiting. I’m transported, I’m opened out. I’m led away from myself so I’m walking in the shoes – living the exciting, illuminating lives – of others.
Logan Pearsall Smith, the US-born British essayist, wrote, ‘People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ How true.
I hope I’ll never stop reading novels.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 29 September 2012.)
A confession: I’ve got the hots for a chick, and have had so for quite time. Of course, she doesn’t have flesh and bones, at least not to me; she’s a voice, a music, and what an extraordinary voice she has, and what extraordinary music she makes. And her most recent album: well, it’s been a long time since I’ve adored an album as much as this, how I’ve learnt every song, as in I’ve become to understand it all, it’s seeped into me, getting beneath my skin. You know when you’re young and you listen to an album so often that you start to become sick of it? So you wisen up and get into the habit of drip-feeding albums that you’re loving. Or you love an album immediately only to find that it doesn’t hold its own ground. Or you don’t like an album immediately, but soon find yourself playing it over and over, loving it intensely, obsessively, until it’s all-consuming.
PJ Harvey’s most recent album Let England Shake is the sort of album that makes me remember the great records from my deep, dark past – Faith by The Cure, London Calling by The Clash, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths – and I do own this latest Harvey opus on record, as in on vinyl, because that’s how I like to listen to the best albums that come my way.
Despite being an age-old though not uncritical PJ Harvey fan, I’ve come a little late to Let England Shake. It was recorded over a five-week period at a church in Dorset UK in April and May 2010 (when I was bunking down in Launceston Tasmania, I realise rather deliciously) and released later that year. In 2011 Harvey won the coveted Mercury Prize for this record, making her the only musician to have bagged the honour twice; she’d previously won it for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea back in 2001.
What makes Harvey such an exciting, beguiling, and sometimes, let’s face it, frustrating singer-songwriter is her dogged refusal to repeat herself (Tim Winton should take notice, in more ways than one). Her albums have covered such various terrain as riot-grrl grunge, folk, pop, electronica, sparse piano ballads (check out 2007’s White Chalk), and now she adds a dozen war songs to her, er, canon.
Harvey wrote Let England Shake over a two-and-a-half-year period, producing the lyrics first – she claims to be inspired by Harold Pinter and TS Elliot – before sitting down to set the lyrics to music. Her mission, it’s clear, was to explore what it means to live in a country that’s at war. However, this isn’t some table-thumping polemic; it’s intimate, it’s beautiful, it’s harsh, it’s haunting. Her voice is higher than on previous records, and it’s complemented – more than appropriately – by the deep timbre of her long-time collaborators, John Parish, who Harvey has described as her music soul-mate, and Mick Harvey (no relation), who for many years has worked with Nick Cave.
Using instruments as diverse as autoharp, zither, piano, trombone and saxophone, as well as some cheeky and downright hilarious samples, Harvey has crafted an album that is as engaging as it is adventurous. And it’s packed with tunes; it would almost be thigh-slapping good fun if it the subject matter wasn’t so serious. Check out ‘The Last Living Rose’, the gut-wrenching ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘Written on the Forehead’ to experience the musical and emotional range of the album.
It’s true that PJ Harvey can be awkward company: I imagine that you’d have a delightful cup of tea with her, she’d smile, she’d talk sweetly but with brutal honesty, before she’d stand up, excuse herself, and go and play with her chooks or pot up some salvia. And I haven’t always been faithful to her; in fact years have gone by when I’ve not had much to do with her. But, despite the latest fixation on how ugly human beings can be to each other, how supremely violent for no real logical reason, we’re back together now. And I feel that this time she’s with me for quite some time. Even if she does a runner on me again, or I do a runner on her, I have no doubt that in twenty years time I’ll still be playing Let England Shake, and on vinyl, and loud, very very loud.
Happy on my treadly some Sundays ago, I found myself thinking about bravery. I wasn’t planning on dramatically sliding my pushbike beneath a truck or launching myself over a giant pothole. I was thinking about a good friend who’d received feedback from a potential publisher on his latest manuscript for a novel. ‘They say I have to be braver, the bravest,’ he’d told me. ‘Give me an example of what this means,’ he added, ‘to be the bravest of the brave.’ And then he’d flung back his double-shot long black, and more than a bit wounded, disappeared into the wilds of the nearest supermarket, heading for the chocolate aisle, then the ice-cream aisle, and then the bottle-o.
I rode off to the pool in town, because swimming for me is what camomile tea is to those brave enough to try living without caffeine. See? Bloody bravery! That word was smothering my beautiful autumn afternoon, all because my friend had received that feedback.
But what does bravery actually mean?
There is, of course, bravery and there’s stupidity. It wouldn’t be brave of me to even consider sliding my bike under a truck just because I’d seen it done in movies, and it wouldn’t be brave to try bunny-hopping a pothole by clenching my thighs around the bike frame and getting some kind of levitation thing going. This would be the stuff of fiction.
Well, let’s talk about fiction. Was Tim Winton brave when he put two different families in an old Perth house and wrote his Cloudstreet epic? Was Morris West brave when he constructed the extraordinary Eminence around the idea of the Pope-in-waiting being an atheist? Was Annie Proulx brave to write about a life-long love affair between two American cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. Was Heath Ledger brave to star in the filmed version of Proulx’s story? I’m not sure I know the answers to these questions, except the last, which is a resounding yes.
But I needed to find something more definite for my friend.
I reached the city’s paved central square, the cafes half-filled with neatly dressed Sunday afternoon types guzzling coffee. A short distance away, black-clad teenagers lurked menacingly over a stainless-steel pillow with its accompanying poem inconspicuous beneath.
Within seconds my ears filled with the speed-boat-like sound of trance music coming from a portable CD player off to one side of the stage. Gathered around the CD player was a group of about a dozen boys. I’m hopeless at determining ages of people but I figured that the youngest would have been about ten, the oldest maybe fourteen, fifteen. Some were small, others just beginning to be awkward and gangly. Most were casually sitting on the lip of the stage, but three of them, the youngest of the group, were dancing wildly as if the ground was burning up; they were moving so fast it looked like their legs were going to separate from their bodies. They weren’t there to draw a crowd. They were simply dancing in public, and they didn’t have a care in the world, it didn’t matter what others thought of them.
Minutes later, as I lowered myself into the cool pool water, I silently said to my friend, I have found what you need.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, April 25 2009)