TEARING THROUGH THE ENVELOPE:
an interview with Ryan O'Neill
Ryan O’Neill has won the Hal Porter and Roland Robinson awards and got third in the most recent Age Short Story Competition. His stories have appeared in Sleepers, Best Australian Stories, Meanjin; close to twenty five stories have been published in literary journals and anthologies. His collection of stories, Famine in Newcastle (Ginninderra Press) was shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award and he is the most prominent exponent of experimental short fiction in the country.
As a writer you seem relentlessly inventive; always desperately searching for new ways to tell a story. What is the value of experimentalism? Is it a way of reinventing the wheel? Why do some like yourself feel compelled to push the boundaries of what can be done with the short form?
I think the value of experimenting with short stories is that it challenges me as a writer, and keeps me amused and excited about writing. After writing traditional stories for a while, I sometimes want to test myself in a different way. Is it possible to write a short story made up of book reviews? Is it possible to write a story made up entirely of charts and graphs? Is it possible to write a story in the form of an examination? The answer is yes, of course. It is possible to write a short story about anything, and that’s why I love to write them. I find that working on an experimental story reinvigorates my writing when I return to a more traditional form, and vice versa.
In a wider sense, experimental stories have value in that they can surprise, illuminate, interest and confound in a way that perhaps more traditional stories cannot. The Australian short story tradition, from the time of Lawson until the 1970s, was broadly realist in a rural setting, and after an explosion of experimentation forty years ago, it became broadly realist in an urban setting. It remains so to this day, with a few exceptions. There is, of course, enormous pleasure to be had from well written stories told in a realistic manner. I wouldn’t want to read, or write, only experimental stories. But there is an element of fun, of surprise, of playfulness that can only be found in experimental stories. Reading B.S. Johnson, or Borges, or Nabokov gives a different, but equal pleasure to reading Hemingway or Greene or Steinbeck.
I think it’s not a case of reinventing the wheel, but pointing out there might be more uses for the wheel than simply pulling along a realist short story.
I’d say that most Aussie literary journals play it safe, even those that promise that they’re looking for cutting edge fiction. I’ve gone on record saying I dislike Raymond Carver. (My article, Literary John Wayne can be found on the Overland blog) Which isn’t easy to do since he’s adored in this country by pretty much everyone that professes a love for the short form. I’ll confess that I’ve read a few of his stories with pleasure, but I think whether he’s actively being read and enjoyed or not, he still serves as a paragon of realist fiction. The ideal of minimalism often just translates to keeping a story very simple and easily digestible. At worst it generates the perfect conditions for mediocrity. What literary journals do you think are most interesting in regard to experimental short fiction? Are there some stories that have really caught your eye recently?
I think you are correct in saying that a Carveresque style has been dominant in realist fiction in the last twenty five years. I love many of Carver’s stories, but quite a few of them have left me indifferent or frustrated. At worst, I finish a Carver story and think, ‘Was that it? Is that all?’ The question of Carver’s style is a fascinating one. In the last few years it has emerged that Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, exercised an enormous influence on Carver’s early stories, changing names, the order of incidents, rewriting reams of dialogue, and cutting a third or more text from some stories. In letters, Carver revealed his anguish about Lish’s editorial decisions, even as Carver’s stories were garnering massive critical acclaim. In his later work, Carver moved away from the extreme minimalist mode that Lish had imposed on him towards more rounded, and I would argue, more satisfying stories. For this reason, I very often prefer Carver’s later stories to his early ones. In actuality, the ‘Carveresque’ style that has become so prevalent was rejected by Carver himself, and should truly be called ‘Lishian’.
In Australia Carver’s experience has an historical precedent. Henry Lawson’s style of short story, which dominated the Australian literary scene for decades, was greatly influenced by the style ordered by the editors of the Bulletin, the place where his stories first appeared. The stories had to be short, and written in a determinedly realist mode. Arguably then, the style and structure of the Australian short story, past and present, has been influenced more by editors than by writers.
In regard to contemporary journals, Sleepers are not afraid to publish unconventional and experimental stories along with more realist stories, and I think this has been part of the reason for the Almanac’s success. They demonstrate the range of the short story. In the most recent Almanac I enjoyed ‘Welcome to Romance Writing 1A’ by Rose Mulready and ‘Kieslowski’s Unlikely Comedy’ by Patrick Cullen. Etchings have also published less traditional stories. In the latest issue I very much enjoyed ‘Stalking Woody Allen: Your Guide in 54 Parts’ by Christopher Linforth, ‘_IH_TTOCS_’ by Warwick Sprawson, and your story, ‘The Wife’. And in the current issue of Harvest there is a wonderfully bizarre story called ‘The Lego Man’ by Max Noakes that is about as far away from Carver as you can get.
The photo of Ryan O’Neill popped up on Facebook a few weeks ago in an album of photos by Ed Wiltshire. ‘That photo of me was from Rwanda. I lived there for two and a half years, from 1999-2001 teaching English. I look pretty much the same now – except for a bit less hair, and a bit more belly. I had malaria twice over there, which is why I was so thin!’