The last time Verity La chatted to Irma Gold, in July this year, her collection Two Steps Forward was almost but not quite published. Back then, she said, ‘Writing is such an isolated process that small comments 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.’ We’re glad to report that Two Steps Forward has been very well received indeed, by critics and readers alike – go on, put it in someone’s Christmas stocking and make their day. But how does Irma think the collection is going? More importantly, how is she? Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
Congratulations on your collection Two Steps Forward, which has been published by Affirm Press as part of the Long Story Shorts series, and reviewed here at Verity La. It’s your debut publication, and you’ve been working on these stories for many years, sending them out, having them published, including in journals like Meanjin, Island and Going Down Swinging. You told me recently that you wanted to wait until you found the best possible publisher. What’s it like having these stories bound together at last and put out there for all to read? And what did you mean by ‘waiting around for the best possible publisher’?
It’s a very personal experience having a book released into the world. Fortunately the response to Two Steps Forward has been very generous and affirming. It’s been awkwardly lovely having people talking to me about the characters, what they thought of them and which stories they loved most. I say awkward because it’s strange to have people dissecting (even in a good way) characters that are like real people I know and care for. At a literary event one evening two brilliant writers whose work I admire very much began passionately debating the subtext of one of my stories. I felt like I was eavesdropping; it was surreal. When they eventually turned to me to ask me which one of them was ‘correct’ I truthfully said that what I thought was irrelevant. Once it’s in the hands of readers it becomes theirs to interpret, so in a sense they were both ‘right’. Readers bring their own life experience to the book and find meanings and nuances that sometimes I didn’t know were there. That’s a wonderful discovery for me to be privy to.
And then there’s the object itself. That glorious wedge of paper with its new book smell and my name right there on the cover. Nothing quite beats the moment you first lay eyes on it, hold it. I still have the note from my publisher folded inside that very first advance copy, now creased and stained. There is something momentous about it and I don’t think it will ever find its way into the bin. As to your question about waiting for the best possible publisher, unless you’re already a well-known author it is pretty much impossible to interest one of the major publishers in a short story collection.
Publishers don’t like short stories because they think they are economically unviable. I wrote a post about it for Overland recently because I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about the underappreciated short form since my collection was published. It’s only the smaller independent publishers who are willing to take a risk publishing short fiction by lesser known writers. So when I was looking for a publisher for Two Steps Forward I knew it would need to be an independent.
Independents mostly operate on limited budgets with a small number of staff required to do a huge amount – everything from design to marketing – and some do it better than others. I wanted a publisher that was going to edit, design, market and distribute the book well. As a writer you want to be read. There’s little point publishing a book if no one’s going to read it, and although it sounds superficial the truth is we all do judge a book by its cover. So before I submitted my manuscript to Affirm Press I looked at the books they had published to see what their production values were like. I was impressed. And the experience I’ve had with them has borne out that initial research. The Long Story Shorts books are beautiful objects that do the contents justice, and (I think) make people want to pick them up. That’s half the battle with sales. What’s more they have a rigorous editing process and are damn nice people to boot. The whole process has been a great experience.
I’m interested in your comment about how ‘momentous’ it is to write and publish a book, and that the physicality of the book makes it so very real and tangible. Established writers talk about ‘the silence’ – they work so hard to get books out into the world, there might be a launch, some reviews, maybe an award or two, but in general there’s this terrible non-reaction. No matter what we write, no matter how well we write it, life does have a habit of just going on its merry way. Surely even the best of writers think, why do I do this when in the end it seems to have little impact? Have you experienced this?
In a way it’s been the opposite. I suppose because I’m used to having individual stories published in journals which really do get swallowed up by the silence. If you’re lucky the journal gets reviewed and your story gets singled out as a favourite, and perhaps another writer mentions something nice about it, but mostly these stories disappear into the ether. Oddly enough that has never bothered me. Once I receive my copy I tend to file it away and forget about it. By the time it’s published I’ve already moved on to the next thing (life does go on its merry way!). But of course the difference between publishing an individual story and a book of them is that the latter feels more significant. You’ve invested so much, and you want it to be received well.
With Two Steps Forward I’ve been doing radio, and interviews like this one, and there have been a healthy number of reviews, so I feel like I’ve got a lot of feedback. And the response has been pretty wonderful. I haven’t had a terrible review yet which is, frankly, a relief. But if there’s one sentence in a review that is even slightly critical that’s the one you focus on. It niggles at you. The review can say dozens of positive things but it’s the one criticism which you turn over and over and over. I wish I was the kind of author who didn’t care about reviews (I have heard they do exist!) but it’s difficult not to.
That said, there are certain people whose opinion matters far more than even the most influential reviewer. One of my closest friends heads up a prestigious publication and given her line of work she’s reading books all the time. She’s a highly discerning reader and I respect her judgment, so naturally I wanted her to like my book. No, let’s be honest, I wanted her to adore it. I knew if she didn’t I’d know immediately. When she told me that she loved the book and what a relief it was to be able to genuinely say that, I also breathed a sigh of relief.
But I’m meandering off the track here. As to agonising over ‘why do I do this when it seems to have little impact’ I can honestly say that I don’t think about it in those terms. I write stories because I feel compelled to do so. Because I love the writing process, everything about it. Well, maybe not those agonising moments where I know something is wrong but I can’t figure out what needs to happens next and begin to wonder if it’s possible I never will. But then something snaps and everything falls into place and that’s glorious.
What’s more the response of even just one person can make the whole thing seem worthwhile. When I was talking about Two Steps Forward on Triple R with writer/radio presenter Alicia Sometimes she told me that one of the stories (‘The Third Child’) made her cry her eyes out. To know that a story has connected with a reader at that emotional level is quite something. And then a major prize-winning author sent me an email saying he was envious of my gift for metaphor. I couldn’t quite believe that coming from a writer I so admire. All these little pieces of feedback are like unexpected gifts. And that’s enough for me.
I’d like to talk a little more about reviews. You seem to be having a dream run with Two Steps Forward, but I was wondering if you have a philosophical approach to reviews. For example, I know one established writer who says that she gives herself 24 hours to bask in the glow of a good review but then she must simply move on; she also gives herself 24 hours to commiserate over a bad review but then she must simply move on. Have you formed a way of ‘coping’ with reviews?
Every writer, no matter how brilliant, gets a bad review at some point. The process is so subjective; there’ll always be people who don’t like your work. So it’s just a matter of time, and there are still a couple more reviews that I’m aware are due to come out. I’m always prepared for the worst (can you tell?!) so when it’s not borne out I feel relived. I did have one review in The Canberra Times that I’d describe as lukewarm. It was neither overly negative or overly positive. Oddly though a number of people congratulated me on it. And I thought, Are you reading the same thing I am? I’m not sure if the disparity is that others are impressed solely by the fact of the review itself, or if I’m being overly sensitive as the author.
Recently I saw an interview with Yann Martel on the day his book received a bad review in The New York Times. It’s a very raw response, I think every writer can relate to it. He said: ‘You give everything to art … so when your story is rejected, it hits you right here … Art, just like religion, it’s who we are. So when you get a bad review, it’s your entire being that is negated. And that hurts.’
Years ago I remember a writer saying, don’t believe the bad reviews and don’t believe the good ones either. I’ve always thought that was good advice. If you allow the good ones to boost your ego then the bad ones will crush you. It’s not easy to do though. The 24-hour rule is a good one that I try and follow. I find that physically filing the review away makes it easier to achieve this. Put it away, forget about it, move on. Richard Ford apparently has a different solution. After Alice Hoffman gave him a bad review he took one of her novels outside and shot a hole through it. Thankfully I haven’t yet needed to resort to the use of firearms.
So, where to from here?
I’ve just had my third kid’s book accepted by a major publisher but it’s still under negotiation so I probably can’t say much more about that. I’ve also been working on a novel in a very part-time way for the last five years. It’s almost finished but I’ve been so busy with other projects that it’s been sidelined for months. But this January I’ve rented a little nook of a space where I intend to hibernate. There’ll be coffee, chocolate, a well-thumbed manuscript and me wielding a red pen. I can’t wait. I feel like my characters are a bunch of old friends I’m dying to catch up with.
I’m also editing an anthology of 100 years of ACT writing. The anthology will be released at the end of next year as a National Year of Reading flagship publication and will then be part of Canberra’s centenary celebrations in 2013. The Advisory Committee has just read through all 300 shortlisted works and I’m now going to spend some time making final selections. There’s so much brilliant writing and only 250 pages to fill so it’s going to be quite a challenge, but I’m excited about the book finally taking shape after several years of preparatory work.