Rjurik Davidson is set to release his first collection of stories, The Library of Forgotten Books. It’s been two years waiting on a publisher to release it, but then there’s the time beforehand you’ll want to take into account, the steady accumulation of awards and publishing credits here and in the UK and the US – all of these stories representing a great many breakthroughs in the upward movement of Davidson’s writing. So a book such as this is a collection of abrupt forward surges.
In 2005 you won the Aurealis Award for best short story, for ‘The Interminable Suffering of Mysterious Mr Wu’. It’s one of those crystalline stories, perfect from the genius title through every detail of the actual story. An ideal balance of mystery and genuine strangeness, which is full and evocative, rather than being evasive and superficial. A huge narrative drive that culminates with a stunning denouement. It’s one one of those rare stories that can stand alongside any of the classics, in this case Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. You’ve become kind of famous for ‘The Interminable Suffering of Mysterious Mr Wu’. So I was wondering what it felt like writing it, the day you began and moment you finished. I’m especially interested in what you think about breakthrough moments and breakthrough stories.
Actually, I think I was pipped at the post for the Aurealis Award by Margo Lanagan and her story ‘Singing my Sister Down’. Still, ‘The Interminable Suffering of Mysterious Mr Wu’ is one of my own personal favourites. It was the first time I really felt like I’d really written something, that I’d actually achieved what I set out to do. I’d just come back from travelling and I sat down at the table and pretty much wrote it in one sitting. All I had was the first line: ‘Mr Wu is crying upstairs again’.
Completing a story in one sitting is a curious experience, and fairly rare for me. In many ways it’s how my best work is produced. I’m most well known outside Australia for ‘The Passing of the Minotaurs’, which was also done in the same way, so there is something to the method. When you’re just writing – blurting it all out – after a while your conscious mind quietens down and your unconscious takes over. As a result, you don’t get in your own way. This also allows you to surprise yourself, which is what happened in ‘Mr Wu’. The denouement came to me in one of those wonderful flashes where you think, ‘Of course that’s what happens!’ Those moments are creative gold. I love it when I get really excited by a flash of insight. At these times I sometimes have shivers run through me – almost like a drug. If only they weren’t so rare! The great thing is that if you surprise yourself with a twist of some sort, then you’ll almost certainly surprise a reader. To write this way, however, means that you can’t plot too tightly, which suits me fine because my characters have a habit of getting up and going off and doing whatever they want anyway. Later – after the writing – then you can sit down and use your conscious and analytical mind. That’s when I often groan inwardly at the various plot problems I’ve created.
‘Mr Wu’ was a breakthrough story for me. Most importantly, it convinced me that I could actually do this thing called writing. Whenever I’m stuck with a story (or novel or script) it’s good to remember such stories. But ‘Mr Wu’ is not a story for everyone. A lot of people find it too introspective, dark and intense (though once a man came up and said to me, ‘That story … it … it … really affected me.’ That was a really nice moment). A greater proportion of people seem to want me to write my more traditional fantastical work, rather than surrealist vignettes. Still, I continue to love surrealism – I wrote a companion piece to ‘Mr Wu’ called ‘The Fear of White’, which won a Ditmar Award and will be available on a podcast at Terra Incognita (https://www.tisf.com.au/) this month. I’ve also a recently published story called ‘The Winding Down of the World’, which is in a very similar mode. But ‘Mr Wu’ is the first in that mode that I wrote, and so will always be special for me.