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Post #7 in my Australian Short Story Festival series

In my writing career, I have had the triumph of a short story which became a novel – a familiar enough transformation – but also the tragedy of a full length novel which only ever saw publication as a short story. There’s nothing tragic about short stories, of course, but generally a writer doesn’t like to spend twelve years on one.

The happy story first. In 1998, three years after writing about alien creatures on a distant mining planet (see earlier post!), I was still writing science fiction, but I moved much closer to real life. A day or two after my final tertiary entrance exam, I started writing a short story called “The Tournament”, which was really an attempt to express the mixture of angst, hope, ambition, lust and love I had been feeling over my last year in high school. I gave angst and teenage isolation a tangible form: a fungus – the fur – which had invaded Western Australia. It truly was a short story at that point, as Michael hopes to win the sports tournament and have a chance to take a trip out of the state and escape. I submitted it to the late-great Perth-based science-fiction journal, Eidolon. I’ve just been looking through my dreaded file of rejection letters (unopened in many years!) but couldn’t locate the rejection for this one – I seem to remember they said, after many months, that it had come very close but not quite.

In creative writing classes at Murdoch University in 1999 and 2000, I wrote two more stories about Michael in the fur, the first one set toward the end and then one set near the beginning. Both of them had a narrative arc that made them complete as stories, but fitted together with “The Tournament” as a longer narrative: Michael’s mother gets sick and dies which provokes him to question how he lives; and some time after the tournament, Michael’s dreams have all been smashed and he’s trying to find redemption. There was another two years of writing after that, but the rest of the novel joined up those three original short stories. The Fur emerged and like a fairy-tale, won the TAG Hungerford Award and was published by Fremantle Press in 2004.

The second novel I wrote, “The Zealot”, didn’t have those self-contained short stories built into its construction. It was a short novel told through four viewpoint characters, activist housemates in a run-down share house in East Victoria Park during 2001,  protesting globalisation as two of them fall in love, two of them fall out of love, and 9/11 changes everything. One of the ways in which I feel a sense of connection to Katharine Susannah Prichard is in my attempt with this novel to weld politics and literature. (Unlike her, I tried to add religion to the mix as well.) I worked on this novel on and off from 2002 to 2010. It didn’t end happily for me. It was always going to be a hard novel to sell, and it was didactic in places, among other faults.

Just as importantly, when I revisited it three years after finally giving up on it, I realised that there was only one viewpoint character whose voice was working. I hadn’t inhabited the other characters properly, I couldn’t write convincingly through their eyes. I took the drastic step of excising all but the one strand of Leo’s voice, and after an extensive rewrite, I finally had a piece I was happy with. Of course, I no longer had a novel; I had a 13,000 word narrative which fell in no-man’s-land. Perhaps it’s a novella, but it’s shorter than most of those; perhaps it’s a novelette, a term not often used; perhaps it’s a long-short-story. For the purposes of the Australian Short Story Festival, let us go with the latter. It has the focus of a short-story and a lot of the twists and turns of the novel have been simplified.

Twelve years after I started writing it, “The Zealot” finally went out quietly into the world as the b-side of Review of Australian Fiction 10.2 with Ryan O’Neill’s “Eight Documents for a Literary Biography”. In fact, you can buy a copy here for $2.99 – please do, I’m still trying to earn back the $150 advance.