The world of literature is filled with personalities. Yes, that’s an inane sentence, but let me explain. The world of literature – perhaps the arts in general – is jam-packed with people trying to be someone, trying to be an artist, a ‘creative’ (why is that term so bloody irksome?), to stand out, to be significant and, the greatest crime of all, important. We’re all guilty, no one gets away scot-free. Except Irma Gold. Irma just goes about her business, and it’s a supremely multifaceted business, not putting herself ‘out there’, just working away, writing well, very well indeed. Her gigs include having her short stories published in Australia’s best journals, blogging at overland, freelance editing, managing a wide variety of publication projects, and that no small matter of raising a swag of young kids. Did I mention that her first collection of stories is being published by Affirm Press later this year? Recently Irma Gold and I chatted via magic-mail. This is the transcript of what happened. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
You may well be the busiest person I know. Before we talk about the millions of things that you do with your life, can you tell us about your forthcoming short-story collection, Two Steps Forward? Has there been a key motivation behind the writing of the book?
The book has taken several years to come together. I completed the manuscript and then it sat there idly for some time. Short story collections are notoriously difficult to get published, but I wanted to find the right publisher. In the meantime some of the individual stories were published in places like Meanjin, Island and Going Down Swinging and so I decided I’d rather the collection wasn’t published at all if I couldn’t find a publisher that was the right fit. Then along came Affirm’s Long Story Shorts series to publish six short story collections. I liked their philosophy, the series was an exciting opportunity, and I submitted my manuscript along with 450 or so others. Lucky for me (and let’s face it, there’s so much luck involved in publishing) they liked the collection and agreed to publish it as the series’ swan-song. A lot more work has gone into Two Steps Forward since then, and I’m really pleased with the way it’s shaped up.
As to what it’s about, I’m interested in the lives of ordinary people facing difficult situations and how they find their way through that, how they achieve some kind of happiness. When I met the designer, Dean Gorissen (who has created a fabulous cover for my collection), he confessed that one of the stories he was given to read before he started work on the cover, ‘The Sounds of Friendship’, made him cry. To hear that a reader has connected with the work in a meaningful way is so gratifying. That he was able to enter the world I had created and really feel for those characters. I found it interesting that in person I didn’t match up with the way he’d envisaged me because he was sure that I must have lived that world in order to write about it, that I was in some sense a character from that story. For me, that means I must have got something right, that the world I created feels authentic.
Writing is such an isolated process that small comments like these can take on exaggerated importance. There is a kind of vulnerability – a sense of exposure – that comes with publishing work and opening it up for critique. It’s nerve-racking. I was recently speaking with a writer who has published more than 20 books and has another about to come out. I was heartened that for all her experience, she too felt nervous about how it would be received.
Vulnerability and exposure – perhaps that in a nutshell is what a writer aims to achieve. To make readers feel vulnerable to the essence of what our lives are, or what our lives could be. And, of course, writers aim to expose the truth, to get to the core. As your collection is close to being published, what are you telling yourself about how your work might be received? Is it simply a matter of letting go?
Exactly. It’s definitely a matter of letting go, although it’s not necessarily that simple, is it? You’re so invested in the work, you care deeply about how it is received. And if you don’t feel vulnerable and exposed you probably haven’t risked enough. It’s no wonder writers often compare their books to babies. Although they’re really more like adult children, aren’t they? You’ve prepared them as best you can, nurtured them, but then you send them out into the world and they have to stand alone. Once the work is in the public domain it is, in a sense, no longer yours. Readers will find and shape their own meanings. You have no control over that; it becomes theirs. Lionel Shriver recently wrote about her brilliant book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which has polarised readers over whether the mother’s ambivalent feelings for her child turned her son into a monster, or whether he was just born evil. But Shriver says she never gets involved in that debate because what the book means is no longer up to her. Your original intention is no longer relevant. Seeing what readers make of your work is both nerve-wracking and exciting.
I reckon you’ve nailed it when you say ‘seeing what readers make of your work is both nerve-wracking and exciting’. One of the gazillion literary activities that you’re currently involved in is coordinating an anthology of writing from those with a connection to Canberra for the centenary of that city, in 2013. Tell us more about that project, and also about your experience of being a practicing writer and being able to explore this treasure-trove of writing that comes from one particular place.
It’s an anthology of work that spans the last century of ACT writing, and we’re thrilled that it will also be a flagship publication for National Year of Reading 2012. The book is really long overdue. Despite our small population Canberra has so many nationally and internationally famous and award-winning novelists and poets. Those of us who live and work here know that Canberra is the perfect place to write, with the benefits of both bush and city, yet to outsiders our city is generally regarded as a boring place of politics. As an ex-Melbourne girl I’m regularly asked, Why on earth do you live there? And then of course I defend the richness of our cultural landscape. In literary terms, there is so much exciting work being created here. I really hope this anthology exposes Australians to what a vibrant literary tradition we have.
I am currently immersed in the reading and selection process for the anthology. Connecting with so much work created locally is a rewarding experience. With an advisory committee of respected writers and literary experts, we have the massive task of considering the oeuvres of 150 writers. Some of those works are set in Canberra, many aren’t. And yet the place we live in shapes us and filters into our writing in ways that are not as immediately obvious as setting.
Take my two cities, for example. For me, Melbourne is full of buzz. It’s a city pumping with life, full of fabulous cafes and bars, and streets of lovely messy chaos. Being there injects me with a particular kind of energy. Canberra, on the other hand, is a place of space, both in a physical and mental sense. It is a mass of sprawling suburbs intersected by mountains and lakes that lacks the density of Melbourne. And it’s a place of contradictions, of both order and disorder. Where polite, neatly groomed public spaces sit alongside legal prostitution, for example. I love both cities, and both places effect my writing differently. It’s been interesting working on this anthology and thinking about how the spaces we inhabit infect our writing in ways that even we are not aware of.
‘The spaces we inhabit infect our writing in ways that even we are not aware of’. Of course, writing infects us in ways that even we are not aware of! You’re officially the busiest writer I know – developing your own work, attending residencies, editing a range of projects, blogging over at Overland, as well as raising a family, including, currently, a new-born. How on earth do you juggle everything? And what sustains your writing life when it all seems like it’s about to go arse over teapot?
My life is definitely crazy but in a beautiful kind of way. Being a full-time mother to three kids and a freelance writer and editor does mean I’m juggling lots of balls all the time. I blame it on my parents really who drummed it into me as a kid that I should always pursue work that I love. The trouble is, lots of things fit that criteria, and I’m determined to make room for them all. I used to be a terrible procrastinator but since having kids I don’t have that luxury. Every minute I get to work is used. I also have a very supportive partner who does countless hours of child duty while I work.
The trick is, as you say, amidst all this, how to sustain my writing life? It’s easy to prioritise paid work when there are deadlines to meet. I’ve found the only way to ensure time for my fiction is to be disciplined, to set aside specific days and times every week and then stubbornly refuse to let anything else interfere. It’s really about creating a mindset. Those hours then become sacred. So, for instance, every Wednesday my husband comes home from work early and I go and sit in my favourite café and write into the evening. I’ve been working on a novel for the last four years and Wednesdays are my novel time. It’s become so ingrained that no matter what other projects I’m working on, when I get to that café I slip straight into the space of my novel.
That said, my writing routines have by necessity changed over the years. I’ve had to be flexible as my kids have been at various stages, and now with a new baby I’m readjusting again. Of course there are times when it feels like there are too many balls in the air and things get a bit stressful. But mostly it all seems to work and I’m grateful that I get to do what I love.
All the very best for the months leading up to the launch of Two Steps Forward. We’ll be sure catch up with you again later in the year to see how you and the book are going.