Exercises in the Experimental: Ryan O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart

Posted on June 26, 2012 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Robert Goodman

Ryan O’Neill is a lover of words, and he knows how to use them. The Weight of a Human Heart, his new collection of short stories, contains a challenging, stylistically rich group of pieces, many of them previously published and a few award-winning. He is part of what many are seeing as a revival of the short story both in Australia and worldwide, led by award-winning collections such as Nam Le’s The Boat and short story novels such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

The first few stories of the book set out the main thematic concerns of the rest. ‘Collected Short Stories’ is a story of an obsessive writer who plunders her life for short story ideas and in the process estranges her daughter. The second, ‘The Cockroach’, is a heart-wrenching tale of a young Tutsi girl fleeing the 1994 massacre in Rwanda. In ‘English as a Foreign Language’ an English language teacher fails to communicate with his wife. And ‘Four Letter Words’ is an anglo-immigrant Australian family story, sprinkled with liberal doses of both swearing and etymology.

Africa features strongly in this collection and is the setting for two of O’Neill’s most powerful stories: ‘The Cockroach’ and ‘Africa was Children Crying’. The first, as mentioned above, is a retelling of the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 through the eyes of a young girl. The second is the story of a foreigner riding out a malaria attack in a tiny rural hotel. This story exhibits one of O’Neill’s key themes: misunderstanding across the cultural divide. Other stories such as ‘The Genocide’ and those set in Uganda (‘The Saved’), China (‘The Chinese Lesson’) and Lithuania (‘Understand, Understood, Understood’) explore this theme.

O’Neill knows how to use words and imagery and he often wields them to devastating effect. Just one of many examples from the collection is this passage from ‘Last Words’:

Opposite his house was a decaying corner shop where years ago he used to get his morning paper. A placard beneath one of the broken windows proclaimed a ten-year-old headline that was as unchanging as a tombstone. The walls of the shop were a palimpsest of graffiti. A decaying building’s last words were always curses, Auld thought.

Many of O’Neill’s characters, in fact almost all of them, love words almost as much as he does – there are the etymologist, short-story writer and language teacher in the stories mentioned above, but there are also journalists, academics, crossword fans and book reviewers. While many of these characters love language, many of the stories turn on their inability to understand other people and the world around them. While this aspect of his characters affords O’Neill the freedom of linguistic experimentation that gives many of these stories their flair, it also results in a sense of sameness to the characters and hence to the stories as a collection.

This is part of the danger in collecting short stories. While individually these stories are inventive and experimental, when brought together they start to appear more like a series of creative writing exercises. Many of the stories retell what is essentially the same story in different styles. The themes, characters and plot lines become repetitive and lose some of their impact, so that towards the end of the collection what should otherwise have been surprising plot twists and character reveals have become predictable progressions to similar ends.

In this respect, the four initial stories discussed above don’t only set the out the thematic concerns of the collection, they form a narrative template for many of the stories that follow. Interestingly, this approach is echoed in the story ‘Collected Short Stories’ in which the mother of the narrator continually reuses the events from her life in different guises in her short stories, as the narrator complains:

In my third year at uni after I had read my mother’s latest story (in which I lost my virginity yet again, and my father died once more), I decided to get a tattoo.

Overall, The Weight of a Human Heart is an impressive collection of stories. The range of styles and use of language is engaging and effective, and if you are at all interested in the future of the short story as a literary form, both in Australia and internationally, then this book should be on your list. As a collection, however, the stories tend to lose their power. Given this, the best way to appreciate these stories is to savour them, slowly and individually.

The Weight of a Human Heart
Ryan O’Neill
Black Inc, 2012
225 pages, $27.95


ENRICHMENT AND ABSORPTION: an interview with Ryan O'Neill

Posted on April 30, 2012 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

LES ZIGOMANIS

Tell me about your collection.

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How did the collection come together?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So why only write short stories? Surely there’s a novel somewhere lurking in your imagination?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Short story (collections) are a form which seem to be making a comeback. Do you think there’s a reason for that?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Well, tell us about the stories.

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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!’

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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?’

LES ZIGOMANIS

Then when is enough enough? When is a story initially finished for you?

RYAN O’NEILL

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!

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So, given all this writing and revision, is a story ever actually finished?

RYAN O’NEILL

I choose to believe it is finished when it is published, as you could work on a story forever.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So you wouldn’t pick up an unsuccessful story which is years old and have another shot at getting it right?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

You wouldn’t try rewriting from scratch and getting it right?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

As far as the process of writing goes, is there somewhere you want the story to take you?

RYAN O’NEILL

I just want to get from the first line to the last, and hopefully leave something worth reading in between.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

In terms of writing, are you a planner, or do you just let the story take you wherever it wants to go?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So at no point do you deviate? At no point does your imagination brooks the plan and takes you elsewhere?

RYAN O’NEILL

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’.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How long does a story’s conception and planning take?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Do you know how long the story will be before you begin writing?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Any preconceptions on how long a short story should be?

RYAN O’NEILL

I think the length has to be justified by the quality of the story. A long story had better be excellent.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How long does it take you to finish a story?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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!

LES ZIGOMANIS

Any writing quirks? Favourite pens, music, feng shui of the room, need for the perfect opening line – anything?

RYAN O’NEILL

I’m afraid not. I just sit down at the computer, whenever I have the time and energy, and start tapping away.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Who are your other influences? What have you drawn from them?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So what are your favourite books? What’s the one that stands out for you?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Is it perfect?

RYAN O’NEILL

No – though it does come pretty close.

LES ZIGOMANIS

What’s wrong with it?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Are the faults with the book exclusive to you or faults general to a readership?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

What about yourself? When was the first time you realised you wanted to write? What was the spark?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Was that it? There wasn’t a story which sparked you, made you think, I want to write my own adventure?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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: ??

Total: 100%

LES ZIGOMANIS

Have you always gotten support from those around you, (parents, brothers, sisters, partners, kids) that you’ve needed?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So where’s the win there?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Is there a balance that you think needs to be maintained between writing and life outside of writing?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How do you find the state of the short story market in Australia, both with publishers and journals?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So are you constantly submitting? A lot of writers I know write, but then their stuff just sits there.

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How do you deal with rejection?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Any tips for other writers?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.’

LES ZIGOMANIS

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

It’s an amazing feeling. Just getting the collection published in Australia is wonderful, and anything beyond that I start running out of superlatives.

Vox: Ryan O’Neill

Posted on September 19, 2011 by in Verity La Forum

 

I have to admit that I don’t like change at the best of times, and seeing the havoc that Amazon, the Book Depository, Kindles etc have wreaked on the publishing and bookselling industries scares me. I admire those people who can see the positives in new opportunities for publishing, writing and reading. I can only seem to see the negatives. (I admit that in a previous life I would probably have called for Gutenberg ‘s head, thinking that nothing could be better than illustrated script.)

Where some praise the cheapness, versatility and instant availability of e-books, I can only think about the closure of so many bookshops, places where I have spent some of the happiest times of my life, and how words on screen never seems as ‘right’ as words on a page. Others celebrate the fact that publishers are running scared after being the ‘gatekeepers’ of literature for so long. Now, they say, all those great, ignored voices on the slush pile can rise up and be heard. Yet if publishers stifled some unique writers (John Kennedy Toole, for example) they also protected us from being subjected to a hundred million others that are now screaming out in all their shrill mediocrity online. I realise that the distinction between being published in a journal or a book, and being published online is gradually eroding. But for me the former will always seem more permanent, more important, more real than the latter.

Looking at what I have just written I’m aware I haven’t made a very good argument, or indeed any kind of argument. Instead, I’ve described my feelings. As I mentioned, I don’t like change, and we live in a time of unprecedented change for readers, writers and publishers. I hope that a lot of good will come out of it. Other contributors to this forum will be able to articulate that far better than I can. I’m hopeful their responses will make me feel more positive about the future of reading and writing in Australia and beyond.

The Chinese Lesson (Ryan O’Neill)

Posted on October 22, 2010 by in Lies To Live By

In the park, the old women were walking backwards.  Watt waited beneath the enormous statue of a twenty metre rifle grasped in a clenched stone fist.  It was as if China itself was taking aim at God, he thought.  He tried to read his book, but the words of the passing Chinese inflected the English, and turned it into nonsense.  He pushed his round glasses back on his nose, to stop the world from slipping from his eyes.  As he waited he took a chipped blue disc from his pocket and twisted it in his hands.  Standing in front of the large painted map of the park bolted to the base of the statue, he looked at the Chinese characters and their English translations.  A small, primary-coloured pagoda on a nearby hill was, he discovered, the Chinese People’s Blood-Soaked Friendship Pavilion, whilst the dirty lake at his back was something to do with fragrant happiness.  At least he could understand the English.  Chinese characters seemed to him to be little mazes, like those he would try in activity books on long car journeys, when he was a boy.

Unable to find a way out of the character for “lake,” Watt looked up and saw Xia Meng walking through the park gates, her textbooks gathered in her hands.  She carried these books the way a waiter might carry an overfull tray, afraid of spilling knowledge everywhere.  She was wearing a white blouse with nonsensical English printed all over it, as was the fashion.  Xia Meng was a translator, and it was she who had composed the English translations on the sign.  Watt replaced the disc in his pocket, and went towards her.  It was an overcast day, not cold, yet still he walked with hunched shoulders, staring at the ground.  Even in sunlight, Watt walked like a man in the rain.

They met, awkwardly, at a mossy bench by the artificial lake, and greeted each other so formally they might have been speaker A and speaker B in an English textbook dialogue.  Then they sat down on the bench, the only one in the park unoccupied, for it was a few feet from a choked litter bin which seemed to be breeding wasps.   They sat with their notepads on their laps, looking out over the water, which was dark and showed no reflections, as if it had drowned the sky in its murk.  Sheltered by the grey blocks of flats surrounding the park, there was little wind.

“Now,” Xia Meng said.  She was a pretty young woman, who always had sleep in the corner of her eyes from staying up late to study.  “We are continuing ‘To the market,” aren’t we today?”

“No, Xia Meng,” Watt said.  “Today I want to do ‘Travel.’”

“Why, Lawrie?” she asked.  Although they had been sleeping together for two and a half years, they still could not pronounce each other’s name properly.  Whilst he had given up on hers, she would still practise his every night as she worked on her translations, mouthing, “Red lorry, yellow lorry,” again and again.  But the r’s always straightened themselves into l’s, and the l’s stooped over to become r’s.

Watt’s eyes were red.  The factory smoke seemed to give the air a grain if he looked closely at it, almost as if it were paper.  He remembered a game they used to play.  She would pull the skin around his eyes to slit them, so she could pretend he was Chinese, and he would hold her eyelids between his finger and thumb, so he could pretend she was European.  But they had stopped that game after a while, for it hurt their eyes.   Watt took off his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt.

“We studied Travel last month,” she said.  “You know, your vocabulary of food is very bad.  We should really practise that, so you can start going to the market, instead of me all the time.”

“No.  Travel,” he insisted.

Xia Meng’s left foot trembled, making a little grave for itself in the dirt.

“I can never understand you,” she said.  “All last week till now, it is ‘I want to study market’ and now it is Travel.  I don’t understand you at all.  Sometimes I wish I could read a biography of you.”

“You would have to be the one to write it,” he said.

“And I would write only bad things,” she said, frowning.

“I want to do Travel,” he whispered, “for the honeymoon.”

She smiled, and looked past him to watch a little boy as he picked up a pebble, threw it in the water, and then stepped back at the splash as if he expected the lake to overflow.  Watt glanced at his watch.

“What time is it?” she asked him

“In English?  Ten past two.”

“No, in Chinese.”

“In Chinese?” he watched the boy’s mother pick him up and hold him above the overflowing bin so he could defecate into it.  “About five hundred years ago I think.”

“You are very humour,” she said.  “Let’s start the lesson now.  Travel.  Very well.  ‘I am a teacher from Australia.’  Say it in Chinese.”

Watt tried the words, and Xia Meng corrected him.  His Chinese was appalling.  Shopkeepers and bus conductors assumed he was speaking English, even when he was saying a simple phrase in Mandarin like, “Hello.”

“Your pronunciation is still not very good,” she said.  She paused over the characters on the book before them, and then said suddenly, “Tell me again.  What is Australia like?”

“Koalas,” Watt said.  “Kangaroos.  Hats with corks.”

“It is a very new country, isn’t it?” she asked.

“Yes.  My ancestors were the kind of people your ancestors built the Great Wall to keep out.”  She laughed.  Watt looked across the lake at the pagoda on the hill, where he had first been alone with Xia Meng.  From there you could see into the zoo, which contained a miserable lion in a six foot cage, and a reptile enclosure with a small chair amidst the tree branches and snakes, upon which terrified children were placed to have their pictures taken.  Before the pagoda was the playground, where old men hung on the monkey bars, or see-sawed together for morning exercise.  He could see a very young soldier sitting on a swing, laughing.  The young man didn’t seem to take his uniform seriously, as if he were an extra in a war movie, and his prop rifle leaned against the ice-cream stand.

Watt hated Chinese parks, how they domesticated the landscape, plucked the sting from the drifting wasps, turning their meandering hum into that of a refrigerator.  The few gulls in the grey sky were like a child’s mobile.  The only trees he could see were the poorly painted ones on the walls of the public toilets.  He looked at his watch again, and then at Xia Meng as she wrote the Chinese characters for “airplane” and “ticket.”  She had had the left-handedness beaten from her in school and her handwriting was not as graceful as he was used to seeing from his students.  After she had written the characters, he took the pen from her, and copied them into his notebook.  Occasionally she corrected his strokes.

“Very good,” she said.  ““It will be funny when my name is Watt because it sounds like ‘what.’  Did you know?”

“Yes, I knew,” Watt said.  “How would I say, ‘A one way ticket to Beijing?  Hard sleeper.’”

She told him how to ask for the train ticket.

“Can I watch you write it?”  Again he watched her, and copied her writing, much more carefully this time.

“How is that?” he asked.

“Excellent!” Xia Meng said.  “You are a good student!”

The smile left her face as she saw a pregnant woman walk past.  The woman had no belly yet, and would not have for another month, but still she wore large, loose green dungarees with a white rabbit embroidered on the front.  Watt and Xia Meng both sat still watching the water for some time, like bored sightseers.  Then Xia Meng began to cry quietly, her hands resting in her lap.  After a moment, she reached over to his jacket which lay on the bench between them, looking for a tissue.  Watt took the jacket away from her and searching the pockets himself, brought out a white clean handkerchief to give to her.

“When can I wear clothes like that?” Xia Meng said, wiping her face.  “I am more pregnant than her!”

“Soon,” he said.  “Soon.  You know you’ll be allowed more than one child because you’re with a foreigner.  You can wear clothes like that all the time.  I’ll keep you as pregnant as a Catholic, if that’s what you want.”

“What’s a Catholic?” she asked him, sniffing.

“Just an animal,” he said.  “It likes to have sex, and then feels bad afterwards.”

Upset as she was, Xia Meng still made careful note of this new word and its definition in her notebook.  This yellow book was full of things Watt had made up as a joke.  He had often meant to tell her this, but never had.  The first time that she used any of his definitions in conversation with other Chinese, she would be humiliated.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked her.

“You know,” she said.  “We must tell my mother, and then we must get married.  Not to get married after all this, it is impossible, you know.  My mother will be happy.”

Watt thought of Xia Meng’s mother, a bitter old woman whose face was not so much wrinkled as creased, like the lines on the palm of a hand.

“If your mother is happy that you’ve a bastard with a foreigner, then I’m a…” he laughed.  “I’m a bloody Chinaman.”

“Do not swear, Lawrie, please,” she said.

“Don’t cry,” he said.  “We’ll tell her tonight, if you want.”

“Do you mean it?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Oh, Lawrie!  Red lorry, yellow lorry!” she took his hand under the wooden table. “I love you.  We will be happy every day!”

A bald man carrying a newspaper hawked and spat a little China of bacteria at their feet.  Watt looked at him in disgust, but Xia Meng hadn’t noticed.

“You should go back to the flat, and change,” he said.  “I’m going to buy a new shirt.  We should both look our best tonight.”

“Yes, wonderful!” she said.

They walked together to the park gates, past the crowded shops with the names that had long since ceased to amuse him, “Classy Lady,’ “Soft Lass,” “Smelling Beautiful Food.”  Watt gave her the hundred yuan for the lesson, which she would then pass on to the agency she worked for.  As she took the money from him, she squeezed his hand.  Then he watched her get on a bus.  She waved to him from the window as it drove away, but Watt couldn’t see her face because he found himself trying to make out the words on her blouse.

As the bus turned the corner, he tore a page from his notebook and then threw the book in the bin.  He walked towards the crowded square in front of the train station.  Passing the rows of hairdressers that were really brothels, he glanced at the prostitutes standing behind empty chairs, playing with scissors and pretending to cut each other’s hair.  In the square there were hundreds of men and women sitting or standing beside enormous striped plastic bags.  All the men were smoking, and almost all of them wore brown of one shade or another.  They were like a nation in camouflage.  Watt found the left-luggage office and took the blue disc from his pocket to give to the attendant, who wore a surgical mask against the air.  He looked in the shelves behind him, then handed Watt a new black suitcase.  Watt hefted the suitcase to the ticket office, and after queuing for a long time, handed over the note that he had copied from Xia Meng, and paid for his ticket to Beijing.

“Thank you,” he said, in English, and the pretty young clerk smiled shyly at him.

As Watt waited on the platform for his train, he took his glasses from his irritated eyes.  But no matter how much he polished the lenses, the world would become no less dirty.

A First Draft (Ryan O’Neill)

Posted on July 23, 2010 by in Lies To Live By

 

Beginning- thief/work/wife [“She was always heavily made up, like the body in a casket that had been in some terrible accident.”  She is aware of thefts.  Main character- “All his gestures were exaggerated, like a silent movie star.”  They live by the water- “When it grew dark the sky was black and the water alive with pinpoints of light, as if the sea and the sky had changed places.”]  Thief in debt to local loan shark.

Middle- selling stolen merchandise to old man who suffered stroke.  [“Half of his face moved and spoke, the other half frozen in a smile, as if it were already dead and in heaven.”]  Selling doesn’t bring enough $$$ to repay loan.

End- Wife catches him stealing jewellery from her.  She leaves him.  He contemplates suicide, but realises not enough of a thief to take his own life.  [“He did not like to think of death.  He had read hundreds of biographies, and always stopped reading before the final chapter.”]

For this draft, write, don’t revise.  Remember Hemingway (?) says – first draft of anything is crap.

Theft/The Thief/A Thief By Phillip Begg.

All his life Jim Cahill/Crawley had been told that he had his mother’s eyes, his father’s ears, this or that uncle’s chin or way of walking or laughing.  [Change to present simple, more immediate]  It is no surprise then that he believes he doesn’t belong to himself.  Perhaps this is why he is a thief.  Jim works the night shift in a warehouse in Newcastle [too specific?] a small country town.  [with aboriginal name- the town was stolen from aborigines.]  With the dawn he leaves work with at least ten boxes of shoes in his car.  He is a tall man in his twenties [or fifties] with side-swept greying [and or red hair,] a weak chin and thick black-legged spectacles with sad, watery blue eyes stuck to the glass.  His family had wanted him to be a priest and he attended a seminary for two years before he was expelled for stealing [wine?  money?].  There is still something of the priest about him as he adjusts his glasses constantly, the better to scrutinise the world’s sin.  He thought of…[exposition- owes large gambling debt.]

[Use description of drive home from “Glass Umbrella” story, the one rejected by Meanjin, and add here.  John arrives home, wakes up wife.]

Description of wife, Jessica- She was pretty in her way, with a face that should have been framed by a veil, for first communion or wedding, he imagined she would be at her happiest then.  She reddens at his touch, saying softly, “Oh!” but not to him for her eyes would not quite meet his.  Instead, they went to a spot above his left or right shoulder, as if she could see his angel or his the devil there.  She looked very kind, and religious and disappointed, like a virgin saint whose martyrdom had been postponed.

[Not bad, but religious theme doesn’t fit.  Use old photograph of Helen as reference for wife, the one of her swimming in the ocean on our honeymoon.]

*

“Is that you, John?” Jessica asks sleepily.  She often has a cold since and with the snot/phlegm  in her throat her breathing sounds like paper being ripped into pieces.  He takes off his clothes and sat naked beside her.

“It’s me,” he says.

“Are you sleepy?” she asks him, and he sees her hand moving slowly under her nightgown, over her belly to her loins.  [There is a book on the bed beside her.]

She has an anxious guilty beauty, as if it were stolen and she might be required to surrender it at any time.  He is not surprised that she is awake, for she can only sleep when she is touching some part of him, his thigh, his arm, his foot, [penis?] as if she needs a handhold of flesh to prevent her from becoming lost in her dreams.  Above the bed is the crucifix, which always makes him think of the two thieves crucified with Christ.  He always means to find out their names.  [Note- look up names in religous encycopedia.]

After a moment she holds her fingers to his nose so he can smell her.  [Too explicit perhaps, but want to show the sexual side of their marriage.  Copy rest of sex scene from Helen’s journal entry for our honeymoon.  They make love.  He is careful not to get her pregnant.  “Even in erotic dreams, he used contraception.”]

Afterwards, as the light steals in through the curtains, she sees the boxes on the floor.

“John, you promised,” she says.

“Just this once,” he says  [biting his nails, his lip]  “We need the money.”

“You could go to prison,” she says, holding her belly.  [Perhaps she is pregnant- womb as prison]

“I’m careful,” he says.  “I stole your heart and got away with it, didn’t I?”

“You didn’t steal it,” she says, smiling despite herself.  “I gave it to you.”

[Or]

“Did you?” she said.  “I suppose all men are thieves.

[Helen said “All writers are thieves.”  Also add her comment, “Forgiving your faults is like painting the Harbour Bridge.  As soon as you finish, you have to start over again.”  Use later?  Have John and Jessica talk for a couple of hundred words more.]

[e.g.]

“Are you happy?” he asks her.

“Yes, I’m happy.  I love going to the beach with you, feeling your hand in mine etc etc.”  [For rest, quote from Helen’s old love letters.]

[Next day-John goes to sell the stolen shoes.]

John gets in his car, and sweating, drives the short distance to the shop.  He parks in an alleyway across from the place.  A clumsy hand-painted sign in the dirty window says “All things bought and sold.”   The walls of the building are cracked and the red paint is peeling off like sunburnt skin/as if the walls were sunburnt.  Outside, on a bench, an old man is sitting in the shade.  Above him, printed on the dirty window, are the words A PIEBURN.  [or P BLACKLAW]  Without the full stop, John is reminded of a sign on a cage in a zoo.  The old man sits and spits on the pavement from time to time, regarding the cars and passers-by with barely concealed outrage, as if the world were his and his rights were being trampled on.  John takes the boxes from the boot and crosses the street, and at his coming the old man gets up and goes inside, John follows him into the dim shop.  Inside, it seems that the sunlight is hesitant to come in, as if it is afraid that Pieburn might charge it admission.  A bicycle bell pings as the door shut behind John, who stands for a moment to let the world die from his eyes.

[Following taken from unpublished story, “Blacklaw.”  Change name and tense to present.]

On the left wall were shelves of paperback books, mostly Westerns it seemed, and piles of old magazines that had the same discarded look as newspapers left on trains.  Opposite them were racks of clothes hanging from nails and teapots, pots and pans.  The old man, Blacklaw, waited behind a dirty glass counter, watching.  Paul was breathing heavily from carrying the bag in the heat, and the old man regarded him sourly, as if there was a finite amount of oxygen in the world and Paul was using more than he was entitled to.  [Too much description?]  It seemed that everything in the shop had a neat, handwritten price tag, even the carpet at their feet.  Most of the prices had been revised up or down several times in red ink.  Coming closer to the old man Paul saw he was wearing a worn, but neat, black suit and a creased white shirt.  Blacklaw was old, but his face had few wrinkles.  He seemed to clench it, so that no one would think him rich in anything, even in years.  He would have made love to a shower of gold, like Danae, Paul thought. [Reference too obscure.]

“Aye?” the old man said.

“Would you take these diamonds?” Paul asked.  He emptied the diamonds onto the counter.

“Take, oar buy?” Blacklaw asked.  He had a strong Scottish accent that he has not allowed Australia to take from him.  As he began to sort through the clothes, the old man smiled thinly.  He instantly gives the strained impression that he had been smiling for a long time.

“These come from the same place as last time?” Blacklaw asked.

Paul nodded, and Pieburn seemed to appreciate the word that was saved by doing so.

“Then I’ll give you five hundred.”

“All right,” Paul said.  Outside, it had started to rain, and the old man looked on with satisfaction at his windows getting cleaned for nothing.   [end of “Blacklaw” extract]

Pieburn pays John, and puts the shoes in a milk carton behind the counter., then goes back to his yesterday’s newspaper.  John still doesn’t have enough money to pay back X [Mr Chatters/Mr Cohen/Mr Smith] and he is frightened.  Then he remembers Jessica’s jewels.

[Climax.  John drives home, and Jessica catches John stealing her gold necklace.]

“What are you doing?” Helen Jessica screams.

“Nothing, nothing,” he tries to put the book box away.

“Are you stealing from me?” she asks him.  “I told you if you ever did that-“

“No,” he says.  Then, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s too late for that now,” she says.  “After all this time with you, I feel that my life has been ransacked.  I’ve watched you steal from everyone else.  You’re not going to steal my life and sell it.”

“I just wanted to see-“ I say.

“You were reading my journal,” Helen says.  “You were taking notes, I saw you.  You were stealing from my life to use in one of your stories.  I can’t take it anymore.  I’m leaving.  Look at you.  Even now you’re thinking about how you can write this.  Give me my books.”

I hand over her journals, but she doesn’t notice that I’ve kept one of them back, and a bundle of her love letters.

“Look at you, Phillip,” she says and she is crying.  “You’re so full of holes and contradictions.  You’re not even a man, just a first draft of one.”  [Sounds stagey- but she really said this.]

[And Helen Jessica leaves.  In above remember- change journals to jewels.  Perhaps suggest Jessica reads a lot, to make sense of her last few lines.  John returns to Pieburn’s shop and sells the jewels.  He now has enough money to pay off his debt.]

[Last paragraph]   “So the wife gave you her stuff tae sell, eh?  How is it all writers thieves have understanding wives?”  John leaves Pieburn’s shop quickly, feeling that if he stays there too long he will end up with a price tag on him himself, and he has no desire to know his true worth.

TEARING THROUGH THE ENVELOPE:
an interview with Ryan O'Neill

Posted on July 22, 2010 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

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.

ALEC PATRIC

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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.

ALEC PATRIC

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?

RYAN O’NEILL

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!’