A FULFILLING BURDEN: an interview with Craig Cormick
Ever met someone who’s had over 100 short stories published? No, Verity La hadn’t either – until we met Craig Cormick. Not only has Cormick been prolific with the short form, he’s also written across an extraordinary range of genres. Borrowing outrageously from his bio, Cormick’s writing awards include the ACT Book of the Year Award (1999) for Unwritten Histories (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1998) and a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award (2006) for A Funny Thing Happened at 27,000 Feet… (Mockingbird Press, 2005). In 2006 Cormick was a writer-in-residence at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, and in 2008 he received an Antarctic Arts Fellowship to travel to Antarctica, which he documented in his 2011 book In Bed with Douglas Mawson. He has studied ‘bits and pieces of degrees’ at the University of Canberra, the Australian National University, the Canberra School of Art, the University of Iceland and Helsinki University, and has a PhD from Deakin University on creative historical fiction. As a science communicator, Cormick is a regular commentator on public attitudes towards emerging technologies in the media and at conferences in Australia and internationally. He has travelled to all seven continents and his research has been published widely in peer-reviewed journals and conference papers. But having listed all that, who is this man? Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
You’ve written over a hundred stories, numerous collections, historical novels and now, with the publication of Time Vandals, you’ve moved into young-adult fiction. What do you think is the common thread between all the work that you do?
I find that my writing brain is a bit akin to my reading brain, so it’s like it’s roaming around the shelves of a great old second-hand bookshop or library, finding new and interesting things in different nooks and crannies, and pulling volumes off the shelf that intrigue and delving into them a little bit before moving on. I know authors are meant to rewrite the same story over and over, at some level, but I find my work is a long trail of grazing into different topics of interest, so my work has roamed across the savannas of historical fiction and non-fiction, climbed into the rocky foothills of relationships and bloke’s narratives, wandered into the canyons of speculative fiction and romped across the wide open plains of young adult fiction.
I really enjoy when a single line from a text, or character from history, or just an idea, works its way into my consciousness and demands to be recreated in a story or text. Perhaps it’s my way of making some sense of the world. It means keeping a part of my brain open and receptive to the ideas that float past (and sometimes it is a lot more receptive than others), but when you feel the germ of a story growing I think of it as a very fulfilling burden – to the point that I find that before travelling to new places and countries I’m preplanning in my head how I might write about it and understand it.
Before going to Paris recently I had the idea of Napoleon revisiting the city today, and that sort of framed how I was viewing it as I went around. Then while there I discovered another perspective of having Ned Kelly bail up a restaurant in Paris in the 1920s, and while trying to dictate his Jerilderie letter, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway keep offering him writing advice. A common element in my writing is playing with genre boundaries, mixing fiction and non-fiction, blurring tenses (and probably putting too many metaphors into a single paragraph in interviews).
I love that idea of keeping your brain open so you can catch ideas as they float past. How exactly do you keep your brain open?
It can be a lot harder than it sounds with the pressures of everyday and the insistence of real-life upon you, but I believe you can learn to get into that zone easier if you work at it. There is a good description of it in Dorothy Porter’s verse novel The Monkey’s Mask, where she has a passage about waking up and finding you seem to be wired just a little differently, like you see and hear everything a little differently, or if you are suddenly viewing life via Instagram: ‘Is this how poems start, when every riff on the radio hooks in your throat. Is this how poems start? When the vein under her skin hooks in your throat, is this how poems start?’
Call it what you want – the zone, a feeling, a reaction, a heightened sensibility or even a visit from those elusive prick-teasing bitches the muses (who delight in leaving you waiting at their pleasure) – but it is undeniable that there are times you seem more acutely aware and responsive to creative expression, and while I do think you can learn to slip into that state more easily with practice, conversely I don’t think it is a place you can live in for too long at a time. I have heard people talking about over-drinking from the well of creativity, and that might be one way of viewing it, or understanding it, but I think of it more like swimming underwater, in that you can do it repeatedly, but you just can’t stay down there too long.
Why? What’s down there under the water that’s so frightening?
It’s not that it’s frightening to be down there so long – it’s just that it’s not possible to be down there too long without naturally bobbing back to the surface. If we want to keep playing with metaphors, I could say that you can, of course, weigh yourself down with leaden prose, heavy chains of ego and other weighty matters, but they can drag you down and you will have trouble ever resurfacing again. And if you don’t resurface you won’t be able to see your work with that same surface view point of other readers, and so you risk losing perspective and believing there is great weight and depth to any old crap you produce.
After all these years of writing, is there a story form that you keep coming back to, due to sheer enjoyment?
I can’t actually say that there is, though I do find I get a little dissatisfied if I write a story and find it too close in form to something I have done before. But I also find that some story forms that I think are quite innovative, my wife raises an eyebrow at me and asks if I am writing just for the enjoyment of myself rather than considering the enjoyment of the reader. She’s got very astute ‘bullshit radars’ which is an asset that can’t be over-valued. Every artists needs a bullshit radar of some type.
How do you juggle that balance between the enjoyment of the reader and the enjoyment of yourself, particularly when it’s you who has to put in the hard yards to make the story work in the first place?
Write for yourself, but rewrite for the reader.
Who are the writers and what are the books that have been critical to your development as a writer?
People sometimes ask who were my mentors as a writer, and I guess there are dozens of them – but they are all people I’ve only known through their work. And earlier this year I was at the Lifeline Bookfair in Canberra, which is one of the largest second-hand book fairs in the world I’m told, and I had one of those moments – browsing amongst the books I kept finding books that had been quite influential to me over the years. It was a really odd experience, like seeing your life played out through finding an old photo album in a bottom drawer at your parents’ house, but here it was played out in books. It really made my head spin that I just seemed to keep coming across individual books that were of some significance to me as I was growing as a reader and a writer. Nigel Krauth. Patrick White. Bo Carpelan (best opening section of any novel), Mario Vargas Llosa. Ernest Hemingway. Ryzard Kapuchinski. Xavier Herbert. Graham Greene. Salman Rushdie. Margaret Atwood. Mudrooroo. James Joyce. Barry Dickens. Roddy Doyle.
But to answer the question in more detail, the earliest books that really made a dent in my understanding of what I should or could be writing were the Jindyworobaks, those Australia poets who were driven to try and find Australian myths rather than say Greek or Roman ones, to use in their imagery, mixing Aboriginal understandings of the land. I had the privilege to hear Roland Robinson reading a poem, at an early Word Festival in Canberra and it really wowed me. So I spent a lot of time looking at Aboriginal ways of looking at and expressing things and how that could be incorporated into a new Australian way of writing, which came to expression in Unwritten Histories (published by Aboriginal Studies Press in 1998, which won the ACT Book of the Year Award).
Next along my journey was magic realism, predominantly the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I found that very exciting to have permission, as it were, to mix the fantastic with the everyday, and I looked for a way to incorporate the Australian tall tale into the everyday. Looking back I find that myths and epics and fairy tales have always been something I have had a strong interest in, and that were influential in my work. I lived for a year in Iceland and another year in Finland and got into the myths and epics of both countries in a big way too.
But, you know, having started answering this question I realise it’s going to a whole essay, not just an answer, and is going to range across Eastern European literature and literature of dissent, prison literature and censored voices. Then whenever I visit a country I try and read up on its emerging literature, and write something in response to it, which I have done in India, Japan, USA, South Africa, France, South America, China, Antarctica – the list is long, but so is the list of stories written.
Although, I also find the older I get the harder it is to find that same marvellous buzz I used to get from reading when I was young – but every now and then it does happen – like when reading the occasional Murakami, Cormac McCarthy or just rare surprises.
At the moment I’d describe my key interests as Slipstream, that merging of genres and styles, literary fiction with speculative fiction.
And my favourite novel of all time: Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Favourite collection of short stories of all time: Fishing the Sloe-black River, by Colum McCann. Favourite poem of all time: Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas.
We started this interview with a mention of how you are now writing young-adult fiction. Tell us about Time Vandals. What did you learn from the production of this story about yourself as a writer?
Time Vandals is a venture into speculative fiction and also Young Adult fiction, which I really enjoyed writing. I suppose my inspiration was Artemis Fowl, which I also really enjoyed and wanted to have a go at the genre. The back story of Time Vandals is probably more interesting than the book itself. I had been reading time-travel books and thought, no one seems to ever have a humorous take on it, and so set out to write a humorous book. I got this concept of a young boy and girl who are recruited to a secret organisation to stop people causing changes to the time-line, and I looked at the science of it and mapped out what would be the real interesting points of history to use – the Titanic, Hitler, etc… And then, just when I’d finished the first draft, I’m googling time-travel things and I discover there is a book coming out in the UK called Time Riders. I read through the details and can’t believe it. A secret organisation set up to stop people disrupting the time-line. Young guys and girls recruited to it. One is pulled off the Titanic. Somebody had changed time so that Hitler wins World War 2… (“Faaaaaarrrrrkkkk!”)
I actually have a bit of a track-record for similar things happening, so after getting really miffed for a few days I decide I can do a better book and look for things that will make this different and beyond the clichés, which was where my first draft was wobbling into to be honest. So it’s now about alternative realities (which is closer to actual quantum physics) and has humour and has zombies – and I think is a really good book. So now the promo begins, which can be pretty fierce for YA fiction, but I’ve kicked it off with a YouTube film and a Facebook site, as YA books are no longer just about the book, but about all the associated mediums that it can exist in as well. Check it out http://youtu.be/mI7ajf2sfFk
But back to the original question: what did I learn from the writing of it? I actually found it was quite fun to write, which isn’t necessarily my normal writing experience – it can be very enjoyable and satisfying – but not what you might call fun as such. But we’d better keep that a secret or even more people would be writing YA books than are writing them now.
What would you like to tackle next?
For what looks like a short and simple question, I find it is actually a HUGE question. There is just so much floating and bubbling around in my brain that I’d like to be tackling next, some projects half-begun (some probably half-baked) and some just ideas. And they move around from being vague ideas to becoming obsessions and then fading back into my head again, and at times there is nothing I would rather do more than write and write and write, and just cut myself off from work and family and eating and sleeping, so I could then just capture some of these ideas and really get them down – but that’s not the shape of real life, so when they come close enough to capture I throw out my net and some become short stories and some become books and some float around near me and then flitter back into the distance. I guess every book/story/essay etc is something that is buzzing around your head and the only way to rid yourself of it is to capture it.
I’m currently completing two books that I’m writing at the same time, while on a literary grant. One is a non-fiction travelogue and the other is a speculative fiction history that I’d like to make into a series exploring alternative histories.
But I also want to write a fiction book set in Antarctica and a book about Ned Kelly (who is a reoccurring motif in my work (Peter Carey inscribed inside my copy of his True History of the Kelly Gang ‘To Craig who will be the author of the second best Kelly book ever written’), a speculative fiction collection/book about Captain Cook and so many Australian history stories and a love-triangle story based on a Japanese classic text and rework some of my books that have as yet to be published and on and on it goes.
Dorothy Green once asked how many people would still consider writing if everything had to be published anonymously. That perhaps should be updated to ask how many people would still consider writing if your chances of commercial publication were small, and your chances of being read and making an impact after publication were smaller. Self-publishing and e-books provide new options for authors, but I think deep down we all just want to write, become rich and famous, and let somebody else look after the editing and marketing and publicity and all those other non-writing parts of the writing trade. But reality is the more you write and the more you publish the more you have to do all those other things and they start to get in the way of your writing as well.
But having said all that, there are also many days when I wonder what else I could be doing with my life if I was not writing. Fixing stuff up around the house. Working with charities. Just relaxing and reading more. Doing more family things. Watching TV and movies. Hanging out with friends. Becoming more a social animal.
How do we measure our worth as a person and our contribution to life? I’m sure that sitting at home and writing may not be as great a contribution to society as getting out and helping people in need, but it does add to our cultural output as a society and is undoubtedly more beneficial to society than some other popular social obsessions like getting drunk and driving noisy cars fast, going to football matches and screaming abuse at opposing fans, or just shopping for the sake of shopping (unless you’re buying books – you get an exemption from crass consumerism if you’re buying books!)