I picked up your new collection, Other Stories, published recently by Black Pepper. In a word, superb. ‘Reply to a Letter’ might just be the great Australian novel boiled down to an essence. This kind of piece often leads to a backward looking perspective but there’s an open hearted dream of multiculturalism in the equally brilliant ‘One Night’ that drives us forward. In that second story you play with a powerful sense of nostalgia for a yet to be realised future. In both, there are subtle notes of surrealism, and though there are degrees of playfulness, your work pushes; it has urgency and relevance. And then I turned to your Acknowledgments page, and was stunned. You’ve won The Age short story competition for ‘Reply to a Letter’ and ‘One Night’ was published in Meanjin, which you’ve done a few times. In fact, the nineteen stories have been published in all of the very best literary journals in the country. So this seems a kind of greatest hits collection, not only of your work, but an anthology of the best writing in Australian literature over the last decade or more. Yet before picking up this superb collection, let me confess, I’d barely heard of you. This might suggest a degree of ignorance on my part but with the kind of continuous success you’ve had, I’d expect you to be at least as well known as writers like Cate Kennedy or Nam Le. I was hoping you might talk a little about writing for Australian literary journals for over a decade and why it has not brought you wider recognition.
Thanks for your kind comments. As to the question of why I have not gained wider recognition for my work, this is on the one hand a very complicated and on the other a very easy question to answer. The easy answer is: I don’t know. You make the work, you put it out there, and hope it lights a spark. If it doesn’t, what can you do? The complicated answer is that every writer is unfortunately a victim of forces outside their control: the shifting moods and tastes of the public, the changing personnel and philosophies of big publishing houses, a contrary zeitgeist, blind luck, and so on. In my case I think I did have the misfortune to begin submitting my work at a time when big changes were happening in the Australian publishing industry. In fact, I would call that time, looking back on it, a very dark chapter in the history of Australian literary publishing. It was the time when economic rationalism began to rule, the big houses here became subsidiaries of head offices elsewhere, publishing was ‘rationalised’, lists cut, risks reduced. Poetry disappeared, as did (with some very rare exceptions) collections of short stories. (You still often hear the mantra from the big publishing houses now—‘Short story collections don’t sell’—proving again how received wisdom becomes a truth. Of course they won’t sell if you don’t want to sell ‘em…) Throughout the 90s and well into 00s it was solely the literary magazines, plus a few small and dedicated alternative presses, that allowed a place for an alternative, fringe, experimental and/or political voice. That is, a different kind of Australian literature. My first novel, which ticks a few of the above boxes, did the rounds of and was rejected by all the main publishing houses during that time before it was picked up by Black Pepper and published in 2004. Of course the magazines were absolutely critical during this period in allowing me to explore and push my prose in the direction I wanted, free of any commercial constraints, and for that I am very grateful to them. But it has to be said this didn’t necessarily do anything for my ‘career’. It’s a cold hard truth, and one we might not like to acknowledge, but the fiction editors of big publishing houses probably don’t read Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Island, much less Going Down Swinging, Harvest, Page Seventeen, Kill Your Darlings or Wet Ink. The literary magazines are a training ground, a testing place—but a path to literary recognition? I’m not sure.
As for the main game, book publishing, thankfully these days things are changing and changing for the good. The lunatics are taking over the asylum. Like the massive changes wrought on the contemporary music industry over the past decade, a seismic shift is happening in publishing. The mainstream publishing industry has begun to devolve. A new generation is asserting itself, small presses and journals have begun to proliferate, and new modes of delivery are challenging the old ways. In every respect big publishing houses are going to have to re-invent themselves—big, lumbering publishing houses with big lumbering structures—while meanwhile those on the fringe have already done the reinventing. I think one of the great consequences of all this is that there will be a lot less of a rift between the new journals and literary blogs and book publishing as such. A serious, alternative publisher of literary fiction will now also read GDS and Verity La. And this has got to be a good thing. It was time for the old paradigm to be challenged.
Finally, at the end of it all, what is ‘recognition’? I am happiest when I am sitting in my study, writing. All the other stuff just becomes an annoyance in the end. I might have been recognised ‘earlier’, and as a human being my ego would have been stoked, but as a writer would it have done me any good?
There’s a brand of satire you use in your writing that I find incisive and rewarding. There are elements of surrealism, which with most writers comes off as merely fanciful and often just kills a story for me. That’s not the case with your writing. The surrealism in your work has a political dimension that imbues it with gravity. But that brings us to the question of why there’s so little political or experimental fiction in Australian culture. I’m not suggesting we need a Dadaist style smashing of convention but there’s very little that even squirms in the envelope, let alone pushes the edges. Is there a conservative quality to Australian culture that cannot be opened up? You’ve mentioned retreating to your study but I wonder what you think about the roll writers play in other parts of the world as leading cultural agents and why this is not possible in Australia.
Your question is a very broad one and I’m not sure I can answer it all. But I’ll give it a go. I think at the heart of it (I may be wrong) you are asking me about an element of my work that, as you suggest, ‘pushes the envelope’. So let me talk about that first.
In his essay On Authorship and Style, Schopenhauer said: ‘the first rule of a good style is that an author should have something to say’. I spent a lot of years (my twenties and early thirties), before writing the works that would eventually become the pieces collected in Other Stories, doing little else but reading and thinking. I kept a writer’s journal throughout this time (I still do, though not quite so assiduously), in which I wrote down my thoughts on what I’d read, quotes worth keeping and sometimes the beginnings of prose pieces inspired by an idea in one of these quotes. I say idea, and this is important. I wasn’t observing the world and writing down what I saw, I was observing the world through the prism of the ideas I’d got from my reading. I guess in some ways I was looking for evidence of these grand (generally European) ideas in my own backyard, or, more precisely, in the streets of suburban Melbourne. Sometimes I found the evidence I was looking for: Heraclitus’ ‘all is flux’, Søren Kierkegaard’s ‘despair of possibility’, Plato’s ‘becoming and never being’, Schopenhauer’s ‘human existence must be some kind of error’. After a couple of pots on a Saturday night in a pub in Glen Waverly it was very easy to understand what Nietzsche meant when he said ‘man is absolutely not the crown of creation’.
As you can probably guess, most of my reading throughout this time was philosophy (my fiction diet was almost exclusively second-hand Penguin classics). This wasn’t because of any formal course of study I was doing (I don’t have a tertiary degree) but because I wanted to understand why I was here and, now that I was, what exactly I should be doing. The world already looked strange to me; I wanted to understand why. I believe there are two layers of reality: the one we see, which realist fiction describes, and the one we find when we look, which I guess is what ‘other’ fiction covers. A couple of weeks ago I read something that relates to this in a book of essays by Kundera: ‘The more attentively, fixedly, one observes a reality, the better one sees that it does not correspond to people’s idea of it…’. I agree with this sentiment, which perhaps explains why my surrealism, as you call it, doesn’t, as you suggest, seem forced. (I don’t see it as surrealism, a realism ‘above’ or beyond a common reality, to me it is the realism inside it.)
Now to the difficult part of your question which asks (to paraphrase): Yes, but what does all this mean to one living in Lotus Land drinking cold beer and swatting the flies off the meat?
When Socrates drank his hemlock he died for an idea. I can’t yet see an Australian writer dying for an idea, but perhaps that’s only because we’ve had no occasion to, yet. You have to remember this culture we’re talking about (white, European-derived culture) is only two hundred years old. Our relationship to most other (read European) cultures is still that of a small child: looking up in awe for approval, smiling when we get it, bawling when we don’t. When you talk about a ‘conservatism’ in Australian culture, though, I presume you are talking about literary culture. The contemporary visual arts scene for example is anything but conservative, the contemporary music scene likewise, the architecture scene is as alive as a scene can get, the contemporary theatre scene, which I myself have been involved in, takes way more risks than I ever see in contemporary literature. No, we have a very conservative literature, protected by very conservative gatekeepers. Somewhere along the line (the early 90s) a white surrender flag was put up about what ‘Australian literature’ is. Carey had done his ‘Fat Man…’, Bail his ‘Contemporary Portraits…’—and that’s quite enough experimentation for us now thankyou very much. Since then I think the main object of Australian literary publishing has been to shore up what 80s-defined Australian literature was. Why change the tyres when the car’s running fine?
There is no such thing as a definitive ‘Australian film’, a definitive ‘Australian theatre’, a definitive ‘Australian sound’, god forbid a definitive ‘Australian literature’. We’re a baby. Nothing’s defined. We’re still making it up. And we’ll be making it up for centuries yet. This, for me, is what is exciting (as opposed to frustrating) about being an Australian artist—and I hope one day it will be seen that way for the gatekeepers too. There are no rules, other than the ones we write. Everything is possibility.