The alarm goes off early morning, and in her dream she is thrust into a hospital as the monitor of a ghostly someone makes the piercing sound of a heart stopped. It’s been ten years since she found her father cold on the kitchen floor and yet still her sleeping mind throws up such things.
After fumbling with the clock she reaches for the warm body beside her and, when she finds him, burrows her face into his chest until he slips an arm across her back. It’s only after they have breakfasted and showered and he has left for work that she is struck by something: for some time now she has been sleeping on the left-hand side of the bed. No longer the tangle of limbs, no longer the rolling apart while dreaming to a different side each night.
She checks beside the bed and it’s as she suspects: her books are piled there, a few pairs of earrings lie there, her hair ties are scattered there. And, on the right-hand side, on the floor, are his things: three DVDs, a scarf, some socks. She stands there a moment—freshly showered, freshly kissed goodbye—and wonders at her alarm.
The coffee she brews finishes what the shower began; after downing it, she sits at her desk to start today’s accounting job, alert. But she is also restless, oddly, so after an unproductive hour she scrounges around for a scarf and, not finding one, grabs his (from the floor beside his side of the bed) before hurrying outside.
She finds herself heading to the supermarket but once there she can’t think of anything they need and so doesn’t go through the glass doors when they part for her. She encounters some women spilling out of a cafe, loose limbed and giggly, the bubbling of their conversation punctured with laughter. She finds herself smiling in their wake. And then comes, just as abruptly, the dread of the dream made fierce by memories of her father (his careful explanations to her queries; his drawing her attention to the beautiful orderliness of numbers; his sudden, brutal abandonment). She’ll have to change the tone on her alarm clock.
When she returns home she brews another coffee and gets back to work. She relaxes into the comfort of the figures behaving as she expects them to, the symmetry and rhythm of her calculations and, finally, a perfectly exact balance sheet.
But she finishes early and the solace fades. She distracts herself by googling around until she remembers something she vaguely considered reading once. She decides she must search for that book right away. She finds it; it’s cheap; she means to buy it. She clicks through the payment-details pages, hoping that the knowledge of a purchase in the mail will help ease this creeping discomfort.
‘Ship to same address? Yes / No’
She stares at the question a moment and then hesitates before making a move to click ‘Yes’. She checks the clock. One hour until he’s home. He is perfect in every way—she can’t remember a time when someone made her happier—and now they have their own sides of the bed.
‘Ship to same address? Yes / No’
She stills her breathing and makes a final calculation: x + y = z, where x = love, y = loss and z = grief. The chance of y, she knows, is much greater than most people imagine. And the only way to avoid z in the case of y occurring is to stifle x before it grows too deep.
She closes the laptop and goes into the bedroom, where she pulls her clothes from the wardrobe and starts shoving them into a suitcase. If she finishes quickly, she can make the break before the sight of him melts her resolve.
Nothing stays the same.
Of all people, writers know that. In fact, it’s our bread and butter. Our job is to map change, to explain, as best we can, and to move people by our telling. Verity La isn’t immune to change, which has been made clear by the departure of Alec Patric as co-editor.
Almost two years ago, when the concept of Verity La found the light of day, Alec jumped at the opportunity – maybe literally. His energy, enthusiasm, and literary intelligence helped to take Verity La from idea to reality. This journal – which really is nothing more than an internet space where people donate their work for the enjoyment of others – has grown almost exponentially because of Alec’s involvement.
But now he’s stepped away.
What happens from here? Verity La will keep going, and growing. The journal will continue to publish the best writing submitted, and there’ll be more reviews and interviews, as well as social comment and photomedia. The mission has always been to publish brave writing that moves people. Be brave – yes, that’s the masthead motto. So the journal will bravely keep sailing. What about you? Keep subscribing, keep reading, keep submitting. There are uncharted territories ahead, which – it’s hoped, desired even – will be truly exciting for all concerned.
Verity La and its community wish Alec the very best for what’s ahead in his creative life. No doubt there’ll be more of his stories to read and enjoy and be challenged by. Some of them maybe, just maybe, you’ll read here.
Good luck, Alec, and thank you.
Tell me about your collection.
The Weight of a Human Heart is a collection of stories set in different parts of the world and told in a range of different styles, from realist to formally experimental and metafictional. The thing I love most about the short story form is its versatility, and I wanted to try to demonstrate that versatility in the collection. So there are funny stories, sad stories, stories told through exam papers, book reviews, graphs, charts; stories set in Rwanda, Uganda, China, Lithuania and Australia.
How did the collection come together?
One of my stories, ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’, was fortunate enough to be selected for Best Australian Stories 2010 (Black Inc.). After publication, Black Inc. contacted me to say they had enjoyed the story and would like to see more of my writing. I replied thanking them for their interest, and explained that I only wrote short stories, and so had a collection and not a novel to show them. I assumed that would be the end of the matter, as so few publishers are willing to consider single author short story collections (or if they are, the author is usually an already established novelist). I was delighted when they said they would like to see my collection, and it was eventually accepted.
So why only write short stories? Surely there’s a novel somewhere lurking in your imagination?
JG Ballard argued that there has never been a perfect novel, but there have been perfect short stories, and I agree. Although I’ll never achieve that perfection, it does seem to be within reach, and it is always something to strive for. A great short story doesn’t have any flat spots, any sections where you feel like flicking ahead, any digressions, and it is never too long. A great novel may still have one or all of these features.
In short stories, I enjoy moving from setting to setting, style to style, and experimenting. If a story doesn’t work, then it has perhaps only taken a month of your life. A novel that doesn’t work can take years of your life (and years off it). In general, a novel doesn’t welcome experimentation and different styles (though there are, of course, magnificent exceptions such as Ulysses). I love the short story form, and I think it plays to my strengths as a writer, such as they are. If I ever feel the burning need to write a novel, I will. But as yet, the need isn’t there.
Short story (collections) are a form which seem to be making a comeback. Do you think there’s a reason for that?
Perhaps one of the reasons is that people who love reading and writing short stories have become publishers of short stories, which is the case with Sleepers and Spineless Wonders. I also think the success of collections such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and, closer to home, Nam Le’s The Boat have encouraged publishers to have another look at the form. It certainly seems a more hospitable environment for short story collections now than when I first came to Australia seven years ago, when almost every publisher’s submission guidelines, it seemed, told you not to bother if all you had was a short story collection.
Well, tell us about the stories.
As with any writer, there is an autobiographical element to many of the stories. For instance, I lived and taught in Rwanda, Lithuania and China for a number of years, and a few of the incidents (such as the experience of having malaria) in those settings are drawn from life, though most of the plots and characters are entirely invented. Another story features my childhood love of superhero comics, though that is the only thing about the story which I didn’t make up. Also, I’ve always loved books, reading and writing, so it seemed natural to write about those topics. Some ideas have been sparked by reading great writers such as Borges, Barthelme and Barth. Other times I would try to list some of the forms I had never seen attempted in short stories – such as book reviews, examinations, bibliographies, and so on – and then see if I could write a story in that form. The stories sometimes weren’t successful, but I always felt that I learned a great deal from the process.
You talk about stories having an autobiographical element. Is that just on a physical and circumstantial level? Or does it go deeper to an emotional and spiritual level?
That’s a difficult question. I suppose any piece of writing, from a novel to a short story will reveal a lot about the writer, whether they want it to or not. After all, the characters in any story are all drawn from one person’s character – that of the writer. Even those characters slavishly modelled on a real person are not in fact based on that person, but the writer’s recollection and interpretation of that person. In that sense, it’s reasonable to say that the characters in my story do represent different parts of me, and my preoccupations, and maybe even my neuroses. It’s not something I think about when I am writing a story. I just want to get the words down on the page, and for them to make sense.
Has anybody – a friend, or somebody in your family maybe – ever said to you, ‘Hey, that’s me in your story!’ Or, ‘Hey that’s what I did that time and you’ve put it in your story!’
Actually, that’s never happened. If I do use an incident taken from life, I make sure I disguise it as much as I can, so no one has ever really seen themselves in any of my stories.
You quote JG Ballard saying that ‘there have been perfect short stories’, and say that it’s within reach, but then claim that you’ll never achieve that perfection. Why not?
I suppose, like many writers, I am most critical of my own work. Whenever I look at a finished story there is always something I want to change. In the extremely unlikely event I ever did write a story someone else considered to be ‘perfect,’ it would still not be perfect to me. There’s a line from Robert Browning that I’ve always loved: ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’
Then when is enough enough? When is a story initially finished for you?
For me a story is finished when I can’t bear to look at it any more. I rewrite and rewrite until the very sight of the story makes me nauseous. Then I know the initial draft is finished!
Then what’s the process? Do you have a clique of readers who give you objective feedback? Or do you just start sending the stories out to fend for themselves?
I have five or six good friends and fellow writers whose judgement I trust on my work, and who trust me to look at and comment on their work. When I’ve reached the stage where I can’t stand to look at the story, I send it on to them, then review their comments, which are always extremely useful, and make changes. These can be small cuts or additions, but on occasion their feedback has led me to completely overhaul a story.
When the story’s made you nauseous and sick of the sight of it, how do you feel when you send it out, it’s accepted, and it comes back marked-up?
I welcome comments from editors. In fact, I am very suspicious when I don’t get any, as I know there is always room for improvement in the stories. My best experiences with editors are with those who have made lots of comments and suggested changes and deletions, as I know this means they have read the story carefully. On occasion, there are some quirks of style, etc., I might want to keep, but I think in general I would accept 95% of suggested changes, as a good editor will obviously only make a story better. I’ve never had a bad experience with an editor. About the only thing I can think of is one story where the journal wanted to change the title of the story. I agreed, though I didn’t like the new title. But then I didn’t like the old title either, so it wasn’t much of a wrench.
You say a good editor will only want to make a story better, which I agree with. But how do you tell a good editor from one who may be overly intrusive, who may mark-up changes and make suggestions simply for the sake of making them?
I think it comes down to what you think when you see the changes and suggestions made by the editor. Almost all of the time, when I’ve seen them, I’ve thought instantly, ‘Of course! That works so much better!’ On those occasions when I didn’t feel that way, the editor respected my opinion, and kept the work as it was. So far I haven’t come across the kind of intrusive editor you mention. But I don’t think they would be too difficult to spot, as their changes just wouldn’t ‘feel’ right.
So, given all this writing and revision, is a story ever actually finished?
I choose to believe it is finished when it is published, as you could work on a story forever.
Movies are re-cut and re-released. Raymond Carver’s short stories were re-released as he intended them, as opposed to how they were published following his editor Gordon Lish’s revisions. Could you see yourself one day realising a published story should’ve unfolded another way and going for an Author’s Cut?
I don’t think so. The only time I have gone back to published stories was when I looked at those in the collection that had been published before, and spent some time revising them. If the collection hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have looked at those stories again. For me, the final cut is publication. After that, I stop tinkering.
In terms of there always being something you want to change, do you think writing’s like parenting? In that regard, I mean a parent will always – to some degree – treat their child as a child, regardless of age. So is a story always something you’ll try to parent to what you hope is something better for it?
I hope writing isn’t like parenting. I don’t think I’m a particularly good parent to my stories. I usually can’t wait to see the back of them, so I never have to think about them again! When I finish a story, and if it has the good luck to get published, then I generally never look at it again. I think it’s important to always think about the next thing you are writing, not the piece you have just finished.
So you wouldn’t pick up an unsuccessful story which is years old and have another shot at getting it right?
I do have a few stories that are years old, and have never been published, and occasionally I go back and tinker with them. I usually only do that if I have nothing new on the go. Sometimes the old stories can be saved, and sometimes they can’t. If they can’t, then I cannibalise them for characters, imagery, dialogue, anything I can rip out of there and use in a new story.
You wouldn’t try rewriting from scratch and getting it right?
The idea of beginning an entirely new story is much more appealing to me than trying to recast an old one, so I will always tend to go for the new over the old.
As far as the process of writing goes, is there somewhere you want the story to take you?
I just want to get from the first line to the last, and hopefully leave something worth reading in between.
How do you measure worth? You mentioned earlier about experimentation with form, but that you weren’t always successful. You once told me that your story, ‘The Chinese Lesson’, had literally been rejected by just about every journal in Australia, yet it placed third in the 2010 Age Short Story Competition. So how do you measure the worth in your own story, given reading is such a subjective business?
I think after writing for a few years you hopefully develop a sense of whether a story works or not. Of course this sense is not 100% accurate. I’ve laboured over a story for weeks believing it to be very good, only to realise much later it was deeply flawed, and on the other hand on one occasion I dashed off a story in a couple of hours just to amuse myself, and it was published very quickly. If my sense of a story working lets me down, then I can rely on the circle of fellow writers who give me feedback to catch it.
In the case of ‘The Chinese Lesson’ I thought it was a solid story, better than some other stories of mine which had been published, so I was a little surprised when it was rejected time after time. I thought about revising it, but couldn’t see too much wrong, so I put it away for a while. I only entered it in The Age competition as an afterthought. It wasn’t even my main entry, which was a story that still remains unpublished today.
For me, a story is successful if it accomplishes what I set out to do. In that sense, I’ve written some experimental stories that I consider successful, but that I doubt will ever be published.
In terms of writing, are you a planner, or do you just let the story take you wherever it wants to go?
I’m a planner. Before I begin I plan it all out. I get some paper and write ‘Beginning, Middle, End’ and then put in all the events of the story in their proper place. Prior to commencing the first draft I also like to spend time thinking about the story and jotting down notes for possible dialogue, imagery and so on. Sometimes these notes will run to several pages. I am happiest when I have a first line and a last line in place as I start to write, and I also like to have a title, though that doesn’t always happen. I used to envy writers who say their characters take on a life of their own. Mine always do exactly what I say.
So at no point do you deviate? At no point does your imagination brooks the plan and takes you elsewhere?
If something isn’t working, then of course I will try different ideas. But in general I don’t like to deviate too far from my signposts of ‘Beginning’ ‘Middle’ and ‘End’.
Then there remains something organic in your process, because whilst you have your plan, you also have a gauge while you’re writing which distinguishes the irreconcilability between how story’s emerging and how it was planned?
Yes, I suppose so, though I usually just plod on to the end even if I realise a story isn’t working, as I hope it can be saved in the re-writing process.
But is it sometimes saved in the journey? By that I mean, in the process of writing, do solutions to issues reveal themselves which you hadn’t otherwise considered, or planned?
On good days, yes. On good days, sometimes it almost feels like playing ‘Tetris’ where different parts of the story float down and join together perfectly. At other times you can get too close to the story, and not see a way out of a difficulty. That’s where feedback from others becomes important.
How long does a story’s conception and planning take?
Sometimes the initial idea, then the first draft, rewriting and final draft can take a very short time, such as a week, but that is very unusual. Normally I have an idea, then write it down and leave it for a while, adding notes as they strike me, and it might be weeks, months or years before I get around to writing it.
Do you know how long the story will be before you begin writing?
Not really. But I would expect it to be less then 5000 words, as I don’t usually write stories past that length. It’s not a conscious decision. I just tend to write between 3000 to 4000 words for a story.
Any preconceptions on how long a short story should be?
I think the length has to be justified by the quality of the story. A long story had better be excellent.
How long does it take you to finish a story?
For me, the story really comes together in rewriting, and this is something I spend a long time on, usually far longer than the time it took for the first draft. On average, probably three or four weeks.
I’ve always found that characters develop life the further you write. As opposed to taking ‘on a life of their own’, they become almost real and dear, (well, to me at least). Have you ever felt reluctant to put a character through whatever you’ve planned for them?
I used to feel a bit envious of writers who talked about their characters doing unexpected things, surprising them, and becoming almost like real people to them, as they never did to me. But then I read an interview with Vladimir Nabokov in which he said that his characters were simply puppets who did exactly what he said, and any writer who believed their characters had a life or will of their own must have mental problems. Though this was, of course, Nabokov being typically provocative and mischievous, it did make me feel better!
Any writing quirks? Favourite pens, music, feng shui of the room, need for the perfect opening line – anything?
I’m afraid not. I just sit down at the computer, whenever I have the time and energy, and start tapping away.
Do you feel story is a reinterpretation of self, that it exists on a level of entertainment, or there is some (for the want of a better word) ennoblement about it?
The short answer would be, yes, yes and I hope so. But I’ll try to expand.
For a long time I’ve believed that we read to make sense of the world and our lives, as they so often make so little sense. The earliest story in human history, Gilgamesh, has a man seeking immortality and the secret of a happy life. (For the record, the answer he gets is to eat, drink and dress well, and cherish his wife and child, which still strikes me as good advice today.) We read to experience other lives, whether searching for the Maltese Falcon or for bananafish. I like to think that the best stories can change us for the better, though I have no scientific proof. Reading a story is putting yourself in someone else’s situation, and the world could only be a better place if we all did that more often.
A story should also entertain, if I can interpret ‘entertain’ as also meaning ‘provoke’ or ‘disturb’ or ‘cause reflection’ as well as amuse. Both P.G. Wodehouse and Franza Kafka I find wonderfully entertaining, in very different ways.
Who are your other influences? What have you drawn from them?
The writer I most admire, and who I think has influenced me to an extent, is Graham Greene. Open any of his books at random, and you will almost certainly find a striking line of dialogue, an original image, a vivid description, or a memorable character. His novels are never a line longer than they need to be. There is no padding and by today’s standards, most of them are quite short. Even his weakest novels are worth reading, and do not waste the reader’s time. I have tried to follow Greene in keeping my stories as short as possible, and doing all I can to make the reader feel their time has not been wasted.
Apart from Graham Greene, I love writers who play with form and convention, such as John Barth, Murray Bail and Jorge Luis Borges. From them I have taken the idea of squeezing the short story into different – and sometimes strange – forms and seeing what happens.
So what are your favourite books? What’s the one that stands out for you?
Among my favourite books are Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, John Williams’ Stoner, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo and Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry and Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. But my all time favourite is a relatively little known (outside Scotland) novel called Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. In synopsis it sounds very dull: a young woman grows up on an isolated farm in the Scottish highlands, as the First World War approaches. But it is a beautiful novel, lyrical (an adjective applied to many modern novels that are very far from being so), moving, sometimes hilarious and extremely readable, despite the number of Scots dialect words that a modern reader wouldn’t recognise without the help of a glossary.
Is it perfect?
No – though it does come pretty close.
What’s wrong with it?
It has its faults, but they only become apparent in the third or fourth reading. The author wrote it in something of a hurry, as if he had foreseen his tragic, and unexpected, early death, and sometimes the slapdash nature can be seen. But the novel’s faults are easy to forgive because of the genius of the whole work. Gibbon was one of the greatest Scottish novelists of the last century. If he had lived beyond the page of 33, he would probably be better known around the world.
Are the faults with the book exclusive to you or faults general to a readership?
I’m not sure. On reflection, I think the speed at which he wrote it is a strength as well as a fault. The words crackle with energy and almost leap from the page.
What about yourself? When was the first time you realised you wanted to write? What was the spark?
I distinctly remember being in Year One of primary school, and the teacher giving me a gold star for a little story I wrote. I suppose I’ve been looking for gold stars ever since.
Was that it? There wasn’t a story which sparked you, made you think, I want to write my own adventure?
Actually, for a long time before I wrote short stories, I wanted to be a comic book writer, and the story that sparked that off was Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I spent a lot of time trying to write comic scripts like Alan Moore, before finally realising that the only person who could write a comic like Alan Moore was Alan Moore. Around that time, I discovered Graham Greene, and it was his novel, Stamboul Train, that drew me back from comics to novels and stories. I still love comic books, though I don’t read them as much as I used to.
Writing’s tough. I think a lot of outsiders looking in don’t understand the allure of it, unless you’re writing a best-seller and making it rich. So why do you do it? Is it for the reasons you’ve given – to make sense of the world, to entertain/provoke/disturb, et al?
George Orwell once dissected the characteristics of a writer in his essay, ‘Why I Write.’ For Orwell, all writers wrote from a differing proportion of four reasons; sheer egoism (‘Look at me!’), aesthetic enthusiasm (taking pleasure in writing well), historical impulse (a desire to record events for posterity), and political purpose (a wish to change the world). Out of 100% here is my breakdown:
Political Purpose: 1%
Historical impulse: 5%
Sheer egoism: ??
Aesthetic Enthusiasm: ??
Have you always gotten support from those around you, (parents, brothers, sisters, partners, kids) that you’ve needed?
My mother and father always encouraged my writing. I have a vivid memory of coming home from school one day when I was about twelve to find they had bought me an electric typewriter as a surprise. (This was before the days of desktop publishing.) I used to write science-fiction and comic book scripts on that noisy machine.
For the last seven years, I’ve been lucky enough to have a very understanding wife who realises that I may feel miserable when I don’t write, and conversely, I may feel miserable when I do write.
So where’s the win there?
The win is in those moments when it all comes together; when you are writing well, and you know you are writing well, and the story flows and is good, and there is immense enjoyment and satisfaction in making something, and making something worthwhile. Those moments are few and far between, but they make up for a lot of the grind and the disappointments.
Is there a balance that you think needs to be maintained between writing and life outside of writing?
Yes, definitely. Writing and life outside writing should inform and strengthen each other. I believe it’s a mistake for someone to attempt to put all their energies into becoming a ‘Writer’ (with a capital W). You also have to live. I’ve been fortunate to have had opportunities to live and work in different countries, and to have had many experiences which have fed into my writing. Similarly, writing has enriched my life, providing me with an activity which I find wholly absorbing and (sometimes) very enjoyable.
Writing is an important part of my life, but it is not the most important part. If it was, it think it would be very sad. For proof of that, just look at the life of Richard Yates.
How do you find the state of the short story market in Australia, both with publishers and journals?
I think in general the state of the short story is relatively healthy in Australia. There are many excellent journals publishing quality short fiction, and there are a lot of short story competitions with significant prizes and exposure for a short story writer. Black Inc. with its Best Australian Stories, and Scribe with its New Australian Stories, have made an admirable and continuing commitment to publishing and promoting local anthologies on an annual and bi-annual basis. However, the more established publishers do seem more open to publishing single author collections from American or British writers than Australians, which does puzzle me sometimes. But this has left the field open to great new publishers like Spineless Wonders, Affirm and Transit Lounge who have been producing excellent collections in the last couple of years, and will hopefully continue to do so for a long time to come.
So are you constantly submitting? A lot of writers I know write, but then their stuff just sits there.
For the past year or so I haven’t been submitting as much as I used to, as I was working on the collection, but in general I would usually have three to seven stories out there at any one time, entered into competitions or submitted to journals.
How do you deal with rejection?
Being Scottish, and naturally pessimistic. Rejection is my default position. I am always very pleasantly surprised, and grateful when a story of mine is accepted by a journal or anthology. Almost all of my stories were rejected at least once before finding a home, and many of them several times. I would estimate I’ve had over a hundred rejections in the last few years. Being an editor now myself, at Etchings, I’ve also come to realise that stories can be rejected for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with quality. For example, two excellent stories with very similar themes might be submitted, and obviously, you can only choose one of them for that particular edition. It’s been a strange but rewarding experience being on the other side of the fence; reading submissions rather than submitting. It has also made me realise that a rejection is simply one person’s opinion. Hopefully that opinion is well-schooled, but it’s an opinion none the less. And the next editor’s opinion may well be very different.
I’ve been asking you questions as a writer. Let me ask you just one as a reader/editor. How do you feel about the state of writing and short fiction in Australia?
Though the golden age of Australian short fiction was undoubtedly the 1970s, I think the short fiction of this millennium has seen the most exciting developments since that time. There have been a large number of excellent short fiction writers active in the last few years, beginning with Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots through Paddy O’Reilly’s The End of the World, Nam Le’s The Boat Tim Richards’ Thought Crimes and Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories. Experimentation seems to be making something of a comeback, while realism has moved into, and been reinvigorated by, other forms such as the ‘novel in stories’ of Patrick Cullen and Gretchen Schirm, among others. I think now is the best time to be writing short stories in this country in the last twenty-five years.
Any tips for other writers?
I can only give a few tips that have worked for me. Read. A lot. Try to find your own voice. Write about the things you love, not the things you think an editor will love. Expect rejection. Accept honest criticism. And the hardest part of all: sit down and write. As Ray Bradbury said, ‘You only fail if you stop writing.’
Finally, I understand the rights to The Weight of the Human Heart have been sold to the UK and the US. How do you feel about that?
It’s an amazing feeling. Just getting the collection published in Australia is wonderful, and anything beyond that I start running out of superlatives.
A cream-coloured door with two deadbolts ajar; through it walks a young woman in blue trackpants, her strawberry-blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, three shoeboxes in her hands, nails unpainted. She enters a room to the left of shot. A man in jeans climbs three front steps, boxes obscuring his face. Bumps into the doorframe, swears, then walks toward camera down the hall and exits to the right.
PAN LEFT. Scuffed floorboards, high wooden ceilings, lopsided venetians, a citrus tree and a fence.
‘Ran into the door.’
‘Be careful, honey.’
More boxes, a purple futon, another doorway leading to a linoleum kitchen.
CUT TO: the woman is standing at the sink, kettle boiling, stacking plates into the cupboard, hanging spoons on a cutlery tree. She wipes beads of sweat from her neck. Turns around, opens the uncurtained window, stops. Her face hardens, softens, her top lip twitches.
‘Tom?’ With urgency. ‘Tom!’
BACKYARD: two eucalypts, a steel Hills hoist and a clearing beneath it in which can be seen a tribe of tiny aborigines. They hunt through the lawn, pushing through overgrown buffalo grass with twig spears. Thumbnail-sized babies suckle at freckle-sized breasts, mothers crosslegged under the wavering shadow of the clothes line.
The couple on the back verandah. Tom scratches at the wristband of his watch.
‘Come on in, Jen. I’ll call the real estate in the morning.’
Jennifer’s hair is pulled over one shoulder like a question mark.
LOUNGE ROOM. TIME LAPSE: Tom moving through the room, boxes appear and disappear, Jen huddled on the couch, on the phone, then with a cup of tea, an argument, a cuddle – behind the futon, the lemon tree glows green, yellow, purple, now the window mirrors the room. Time lapse over, they eat a pizza from the box.
‘What do they want?’
‘Babe, don’t worry. Eat my artichoke.’
‘I don’t want it.’
They are lying in bed. She is staring at the ceiling. He mumbles in his sleep. A windy night, trees whistle, sirens wail, midnight to predawn to sunrise.
FLASHCARD:THE NEXT MORNING
A cluster of chest-high skyscrapers, paddocks of clover extending from the suburbs to the soil quarries by the back door. A red helicopter swoops past the space needle. She speaks with choked pauses.
‘It all looks so small from up here.’
‘They’ll send someone out this afternoon.’ He goes inside.
FLASHCARD: THAT AFTERNOON
The suburbs deserted, shattered glass and overturned cars. Burnt homes like teeth with the crowns rotted through. Fields empty and torched. Cables reach up to the arms of the Hills hoist, red and green lights affixed to the four cross beams. He stands alongside, rubbing her shoulders. She puts her ringless left hand on his to cease his idle movement and says:
‘Tom. I want a baby.’
Review by Mark William Jackson
I’m not sure how I feel about the Australian Poetry Café Poet Program. On the one hand any publicity that poets and poetry receives is a good thing; on the other, the idea of sitting in a café like an exhibit while people come to marvel at the atrocity chills me to the bone.
However, if the Café Poet Program can produce works like Your Looking Eyes then I am definitely all for it.
Your Looking Eyes was written during Emilie Collyer’s residence at c3 contemporary art space. In keeping with the visual feel of the collection, the design, layout and artwork of the collection is provided by visual artist Eirian Chapman.
The first poem of the collection, ‘The Reader’, presents the issue of how a writer must create images in a reader’s mind. The poem is from the reader’s perspective. In this piece the writer is stuck for words:
She wants you to remember the thing that makes you squint
Sucking a lemon wedge
Fingernails on a blackboard
Draw a picture of your eyes
I hate the cliché Show. Don’t tell. It is too easily offered as advice but all it does is present the problem, what can be done with words? Collyer opens an illustrated collection written while surrounded by visual art by asking a question, what can a writer do to present an image to the reader, to get inside the reader’s head and make the reader smell the image, to hear the image. The poem closes with the reader’s fear:
Art that asks me to do something. Am I doing it right?
Is someone watching? Will they laugh at me?
‘Frames of childhood’ laments the lack of film of a childhood and expresses the limit of still images and memories.
There are no films of us as children
just photos and stories
how fast did my brother
sprint into that stone wall?
But the memories are stimulated by the photos and the associated questions; how fast? what expression? Remember lemonade icy poles, smelling skin, running hot tracks in the sun. The poem races like a barefooted girl through childhood:
children don’t grieve change
we crave it
Notice the voice/tense change, the opening stanza presents an adult looking back on childhood photos, lamenting the lack of film. The second and third stanzas are present tense, first person child narration. The fourth stanza drags us unwillingly back to adult present:
when does rear vision begin?
the trawl through albums and drawers and boxes
The poem closes ‘this thing we call childhood / belongs to adults’, this is a wonderfully sad ending, the technique Collyer employs in the piece regarding voice and tense takes us on a free-for-all joy ride as children. At the end we don’t miss our childhood years because we never knew we had them. Only now, as adults, can we recognise the years and paint them in a fond light.
And now, pure opinion… the best poem in the collection, spanning pages 22 & 23 – printed sideways so that you have to turn the collection as if you’re leering at a Playboy centrefold.
‘What does it mean?’ is visual, experimental, almost L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, presenting a quizzical jumpiness into a central epiphany which makes the ride out of the centre like post meditation breathing exercises.
Now, here is what could possibly be the world’s first meta-referential review. I stepped out of the writing of this review to contact Alec Patric, asking him to seek permission from Emilie Collyer to reprint ‘What does it mean?’ in Verity La the day before this review appears.
Permission sought and granted. ‘What does it mean?’ is printed sideways and appears like a concrete poem. I don’t know what is says of my state of mind but it looks to me like a Rorschach test and given the title I wonder what it means. When you read the poem, turn your head sideways and you’ll see what I mean.
In technique, the poem drips letters upon letters, forming words, words forming indecipherable sentences, until the central epiphany:
One of the artists I spoke with considers it a positive thing when people don’t recognise his work as art. He says it means he is creating something new that has not been seen before. He likes this phenomenon. Can the same be said for words?
And then back out, the words fall away, fading like the Star Wars opening crawl.
Your Looking Eyes is a great introduction to Emilie Collyer’s work; 14 poems with strong visual aspects, the art-space literally infused in the words.
The first print run of 100 copies sold out. The second run is selling fast.
Your Looking Eyes
Emilie Collyer, 2012
One his has be
One it his mean has this be
One I it when his .mean something has before this Can be ?
One the I with it positive when don’t his as .says means is something that has been before He this .Can same be for ?
One of the artists I spoke with considers it a positive thing when people don’t recognise his work as art. He says it means he is creating something new that has not been seen before. He likes this phenomenon. Can the same thing be said for words?
? for be same Can phenomenon likes before been has new creating he it He art work recognise people thing a considers spoke artists of
of spoke a people work He he new been likes Can be ?
? Can been he work a of
of work been ?
I’d never thought of my father, Len Smith, as an imaginative person. He’d always seemed very practical and applied to the task at hand, so to speak. However, I began the eulogy at his funeral with a short anecdote describing an innovative tactic he had used to make some money, as a boy, in the early 1920s. It was the sort of story you can use at a funeral. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised at how much laughter it generated.
He’d told me about how they used to snare seagulls. He and his mate, Ray Jones, would fashion a string of snares out of fishing net twine and lay them out on the dry sandbar. They’d cover them a bit with sand here and there and then spread dried, broken and torn bread about the place. They would then ‘draw back a’ways’ and wait.
The gulls would swoop down together and land. Then as they ran all about pecking at the bread they’d snare their feet and get captured, three or four at a time, by trying to pull away. They literally caught each other up by tightening all the snares with the jerking and tugging as they struggled to fly off. It was an ingenious trap. And their fate was in his hands.
He often told us about how there wasn’t money for things when they were kids and how you had to make your own fun and all. But this was the other side of the coin. This was about making a few bob. The boys clipped one wing on each of the gulls and then they hawked them around to people; sold them to eat the bugs out of their gardens and off their vegetable plants. It was a shilling for the black-legged ones and one and threepence for the red-legged ones, ‘because the red-legged gulls looked better on the lawn’.
Maybe the recollection generated a surprising amount of laughter because of the way I told it. Or maybe because it was the first formal opportunity to release emotion for all these people, who had been arriving, greeting and filing in through the last half hour or so. But it worked like a charm, I settled a bit and launched into the rest of the eulogy; it was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do in my life, I guess.
There was a good-sized contingent of local Koori fishermen from Wreck Bay present. When I was talking with them after the service, at the graveside, one of the younger Adlers, Paul, whom I’d never met before commented on the seagull story saying how he enjoyed it. I’d started at the beginning of my father’s life and it was nice to have one of the local Wreck Bay crowd comment on it. And then he gave me one of his recollections of Dad and his grandfather, old Charlie Adler, from the last part of their lives.
He recalled how Dad had arrived out at their place one time with his ‘new discovery’ and he was so excited it made them laugh, as he told old Charlie about how you could see right through the water with these new Polaroid sunglasses. He’d brought a pair for himself and another for Charlie. Dad and Charlie often sat up on the sand-hills watching to see the travelling mullet coming along. When they saw a patch they would yell and wave and indicate to the boys at the water when to shoot the net around them. And now here they were sitting together, the two of them wearing their Polaroids and as pleased as punch with themselves and their newfound sight.
I had heard some version of this story before, perhaps from Dad himself, or more likely, Mum. But it seemed more real hearing it from the younger Adler bloke. Perhaps because he’d been there and it was like an echo or seeing through a reflection. Anyway, it had a real lively feel about it, there by the grave.
I was born and raised on the foreshores of Botany Bay at the end of an era, the end of a place called Fisherman’s Village. Four generations of my family had been fishing professionally in Botany Bay since the early nineteenth century. The Fisherman’s Village community was situated around the area known as Booralee in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay. It grew into a community of about two hundred people. My great-great grandfather, Charles Smith, joined it in about 1840. However, vague records show how some families, like the Puckeridges, had been there for decades at that time. A group of families – Smiths, Duncans, Thompsons, Jones’s, Byrnes, Bagnalls and more – established a working community and developed a fishing family lifestyle that evolved and continued for over 150 years. Gradually the cart tracks became Booralee and Luland Street and Fishing Town, as it was also known, centred around these streets, growing to encompass an area of about fifty acres.
At the bottom of Booralee Street was a large expanse of shallows in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay where the original mouth of the Cooks River flowed into it. This area provided good mooring for the boats and the fishermen could work from here and sail or row their Carvel and Clinker-built, open twenty-foot ‘yachts’ to anywhere in the bay. They were net fishermen. They worked by ‘shooting’ hundreds of metres of rope and net out from the beaches and sand bars in large semi-circles and then slowly hauling them in. Sometimes they trawled the shallow floors of the bay for crabs and prawns. Occasionally they set nets in a straight line across a large, tidal shallow and waited for the fish to ‘mesh’.
The fishing village community developed a working lifestyle and culture that, while integrated with the emerging South Sydney area, maintained certain internal patterns that were determined by the weather, the seasons and the travelling schools of fish that would come into Botany Bay to feed and spawn. The bay provided the community with a focus for both work and recreation. They used sailing to survive but also for leisure. Working practices and strategies for recreation evolved and changed in relation to the greater Sydney community. My father, for example, became a very accomplished sailor and raced ‘eighteen footers’ on Sydney Harbour. He eventually skippered an Australian boat in the world championships in New Zealand in 1950.
However, during the late 1950s, the area known as Fisherman’s Village was absorbed into a greater industrial zoning in Botany. This generated the situation wherein I was raised and the Fisherman’s Village was compromised until the time my father and uncle retired as the last two full-time professionals from Fisherman’s Village, in the late 1970s. For myself, Botany Bay was always a place to leave, not to stay. When the last professional net fishermen retired they moved south to Jervis Bay and I headed off in the alternative culture drift that drew many people to the north coast of NSW in the mid-1970s.
Botany Bay was the official site of first British contact with Australia. It has been marked as a place of Captain Cook’s arrival in all official, symbolic and historical contexts but I had a very real sense of the place as a site of deterioration. It remains, symbolically, the site of the ‘first landing’. But the decision to establish the colony in the harbour to the north was like placing a metaphorical time bomb in Botany Bay. As I grew up the industrialization swallowed the houses, paddocks and sand dunes, slicked the foreshores and then poisoned the water. By the time we left they were measuring the mercury content in the fish. Breakwaters built for the protection of shipping caused erosions and ruined spawning grounds for the large travelling schools of fish. Dredging for airport runways reshaped the shorelines and then came the reclamation of most of the north shoreline for the port.
This inversion and the contradiction that I took for granted has always stayed with me. I watched the fishermen moving against a changing background. A backdrop of industry was replacing their foreshore scenery. It gave me an appreciation of the irony of life whilst providing an underlying sense of loss that I later came to see reflected in many aspects of recent, Western culture. And the irony of the loss of the native Kameygal people to small-pox, displacement and their nation, compared to the relative comfort of the displacements of my generation, is haunting.
This essay is part of a longer work that was first published in Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Space Eds. Barbara Holloway, Jennifer Rutherford. (UWA Publishing, 2010). For more information about the Botany Bay fishing village, go here.
She sits quietly, ankles and knees pressed together, hands settled neatly into her lap on the faded flower print of her tired dress. She is not going anywhere but would much prefer to be and indeed imagines she is, even though in her imagination it is not to somewhere but to someone. That would be preferable to this waiting that gnaws at her as it has for long years past.
She unfolds and refolds her hands.
There is a glossiness to her eyes that could be hope, but could just as well be the pain of memory and its fixedness, its fact, threatening to overwhelm. She hears children before they come into view, their glee tumbling ahead of them. She notices without contempt that they quieten their chatter as they hurry past her house, and she wonders if they think she is a witch. If her frailty, unkempt appearance, crinkly skin and lonesome existence reveal that her broom has aspirations far above sweeping the floor and that her kitchen cradles a cauldron.
She wonders this as she sits on the veranda, bones creaking gently, waiting with glossy eyes as she has for many years. But above all what she wonders, as she has wondered countless times, is this: Can what I am doing be called waiting when I was the one who left?
In a recent interview with Amitava Kumar, Michael Ondaatje spoke about the need for multiple voices and various narratives in stories of political or social consequence. ‘You want the politics of any complicated situation to be complicated in a book of fiction or nonfiction,’ Ondaatje said. In an oeuvre that has become increasingly complex, it is a belief that Merlinda Bobis has come to share; her latest novel Fish-Hair Woman is a narrative of knots. Set in Manilla and the village of Iraya, on the surface it is a fictionalised account of events during the civil uprisings of the seventies and eighties that led to dozens of Filipinos who opposed the ruling regime ending up at the bottom of the river. And it is this, but Fish-Hair Woman is many things.
Attracted by revolution, Australian journalist Tony McIntyre visited the Philippines in the 1980s. He fell in love with the country and its people, but, like so many others, disappeared. Now, over a decade later, he makes contact with Luke McIntyre, the son he abandoned. Luke reluctantly flies to Manilla where he is whisked away by his father’s wealthy patron, the missing man himself nowhere to be seen.
It’s this narrative that serves as Fish-Hair Woman’s spine. But at its heart – and in this novel as in all of Bobis’s work, it’s the heart that matters – it is a story about story: the untruths that are sculpted into truths, the myths that lives are built upon and the truths that corrode into myth. Myth and superstition run through the story like rust. But the meta-lesson of omens and old wives tales is that the world is a complex place; mythologising is an attempt at ordering a universe that stubbornly refuses to offer up a reason.
It is out of this same tradition that the novel, the grandmother of storytelling, rises. A novel is an attempt to order and explore, its existence relying on the fact that there is no single, straightforward story. The world is still a complex place. It’s why we need the novel – to remind us that nothing is simple, and to help us find comfort in this notion.
As if to underscore this idea, punctuating Bobis’s novel are clippings about the Iraya case from the Philippine Daily News. They offer some clarity, and give the story some real-world context. But the clippings are small, some cut from the margins, the kind of news-in-brief article that can be scanned in the short moments between bites of toast or jolts of the bus on the morning commute.
Presenting these concise paragraphs alongside Fish-Hair Woman’s elaborate narrative has the effect of making mainstream media’s attempts to grapple with any complex story appear futile. Perhaps pushing the case of multiple murders and government corruption to a page’s edge is an admission of this: a newspaper’s obligation is to skim a story’s top, as it only can. ‘Our sadness very big,’ Pay Inyo, Iraya’s medicine man, says to Luke. Leave it to the novel, a form without pretensions of truth, to attempt to unravel ‘big sadness’, to reach to a story’s heart, because, of all the storytelling mediums, the novel does it best.
‘Why is the past more present than the present, the old stories more acute, more in the flesh?’ Throughout the novel, the past persistently nudges through. “This is the hum of memory,” writes Estrella, the “fish-hair woman”, to the missing Tony. The merging of memory with the present gives the prose the quality of a dream that’s risen in the blue hours of dawn. The reader is asked to hop from the lyrical, Tagalog-peppered storytelling of Estrella to the stiffer prose tracing the stories of the Australians; occasionally the shift is in the space of a few short chapters. The styles are not so disparate from section to section as to appear written by different authors but this tangle of past, present, voice and place makes for challenging literature.
A text of this nature is going to pose challenges for the author, too, and Fish-Hair Woman is not a novel without flaw. At times, sub-stories are dropped and picked up and eventually concluded with little consequence. There are also occasions that the novel trades being poetic for being nebulous, thus losing the momentum it works hard to sustain. It’s at these times that the meandering narrative could have used some knocking into line.
But then there are tales like that of how Bolody, Estrella’s brother, became Belody da Teribol that Bobis gets it just right. Semi-present for most of the story, Bolody appears in full to have his heartbreaking story told. It is in these examinations of life in tiny Iraya that Bobis is at her best, the glow of fireflies all but visible just off the page.
As I was reading my thoughts kept turning to Wide Sargasso Sea. It shares with Jean Rhys’s masterpiece more than just a threat to topple into tragedy, but Fish-Hair Woman takes a wider view. It is a love story, a murder mystery, a story about family and a story about the impact of the kind of self-perpetuating government corruption that so often befalls a country in political turmoil. It’s ambitious and sprawling, and things could quickly go wrong. Fortunately, they don’t. Bobis is a talented, passionate writer who is unafraid of exploring the storytelling potential of the novel.
Spinifex Press, 2012
306 pages, $29.95
they built streets
on dead river beds
throwing down tiles
when it rains
al fresco floating down stream
gondolas drag-racing trucks at the lights
Melbourne just built roads
mosey trams along
and when it rains the way it has
for weeks now
these grooves become tiny Yarras
eventually their banks burst
giving me no other choice
no other way forward
but to sail