My friend Laurie Steed’s debut, You Belong Here, has just been published. It stretches from 1972 to 2015, beginning when two baby boomers fall in love and finishing with a poignant epilogue chapter from their first grandchild, but at its heart it’s a novel about Generation X, that forgotten generation that no-one seems to have talked about since the nineties. He-man toys in childhood, PJ Harvey on the stereo; reading it is a welcome respite from an internet world as the three Slater children – Alex, Emily, Jay – grow up on lolly bags at the deli, cricket and VHS at the end of the twentieth century. Continue reading
John Kinsella Old Growth 254pp Transit Lounge, 2017. Review copy supplied by publisher.
John Kinsella’s new short story collection, Old Growth, is a wondrously Western Australian book, centred on the wheatbelt with regular trips to Fremantle, the suburbs around Bicton on the south of the river, and up to Geraldton. Yet its pleasures are not just in its sense of place, but its capturing of so many different ordinary lives lived in these places. Continue reading
I found Donna Mazza’s “The Exhibit” a terrifying story to read. It starts with a pregnant narrator, Stacey, in a troubled relationship – ripe drama for a short story – but before long we realise the full picture: as part of a de-extinction project, her baby has been spliced with neanderthal DNA. The ordinariness of Stacey’s concerns about things like an unfriendly radiographer makes the scenario feel so much more real. It happens as it would in real life: the person at the centre of it not being told the full picture, not in control, at the mercy of radiographers and doctors, and quite remote from the scientists driving it. I’ve recently been through the anxiety and hope of my wife’s pregnancy and this story conveyed much of that experience but amplified it so well. It’s great literary science fiction, inhabiting the same dark territory as the Black Mirror television series.
“The Exhibit” appeared in Westerly 60.1 last year, but you can read it online here. Donna’s the author of the TAG Hungerford Award winning novel The Albanian. I’ll be appearing alongside her on the Australian Short Story Festival panel, Voices From the West on Saturday.
Katharine Susannah Prichard published two books in the 1950s – Winged Seeds, a goldfields novel, at the beginning of the decade in 1950, and N’goola and Other Stories at the end of the decade in 1959. It was a difficult decade for Katharine -she felt the sting of Cold War persecution as a Communist; her health was poor; her only son was living overseas and then interstate; and the writing projects she had envisaged in 1950 did not work out how she hoped. N’goola brings together this decade of troubled writing. There’s much in it which surprised and interested me. Continue reading
Why does structure matter? How does it shape the meanings of a story, and the reader’s response to it?
For one thing, structure gives signals to readers. I break my long short-story “The Zealot” into twenty tiny chapters. It’s quite a filmic story and the “chapterettes” function as scenes. It seemed like a necessary thing to do for a piece like this which is written in the present tense. It’s an intense story through the eyes of an unstable teenage-activist and perhaps it offers some relief for the reader, a containment. On the other hand, it’s also a trace of that story’s origins as an entire novel, and a signal that perhaps it’s not exactly a short story. It’s rare to have a short story which is broken into numbered sections, but it’s quite common for them to be structured with many scene-breaks, marked off with asterisks. I’ve got a misbegotten tendency to think of short stories which are “one take” – no breaks of any kind – as being a purer example of the genre.
Katharine Susannah Prichard’s first collection of short stories, Kiss on the Lips, was published in 1932, the same year as her collection of poetry, The Earth Lover and Other Verses. It came at the height of her career, soon after her three great novels – Working Bullocks (1926), Coonardoo (1929) and Haxby’s Circus (1930) – as well as her underrated “children’s” novel Wild Oats of Han (1928). It was the last book she was to publish before the devastation of the death of her husband, Hugo, in 1933.
It’s a diverse collection, spanning two decades across genres, landscapes, readerships, and quality. The book offers no guidance to readers, not even an acknowledgement of previous publications, and I can imagine some of them feeling bewildered. Continue reading
I had the honour of launching Shibboleth and Other Stories, edited by my friend Laurie Steed, in Perth last night. Here’s my launch speech.
Thursday 18 August 2016, Centre for Stories, Northbridge
Laurie Steed, the editor of Shibboleth and other stories, is one of the great ambassadors for the short story in Australia today. Another great ambassador is Ryan O’Neill, who tweets about short stories as if short story writers are a persecuted minority. Which is sometimes true. Here are some of his tweets:
- “Not all awesome people write short stories, but all short story writers are awesome.”
- “Endings are tough to pull off in short stories. Too neat and they seem artificial, too open and they are unsatisfying.”
- “Before becoming a writer I analyzed the market to see what made the most money. Sadly, I’m awful at maths, so I became a short story writer.”
It’s a real achievement for Margaret River Press to bring out this fifth anthology from its competition. It shows commitment and patience, and has resulted in growing significance. This sort of stability in the literary scene is precious. There are many things writers need, but near the top of the list is opportunities to publish good work and reach an audience, hopefully beyond other writers. Congratulations to Caroline and John Wood and the rest of the team. Continue reading
Here’s my slightly tatty copy of Potch and Colour, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s 1944 collection of short stories. It’s the only copy I’ve ever seen – it’s not particularly rare or valuable, but it shows up less often than her better known books. I found this copy serendipitously in a secondhand booksale run by the library where I work. I wish it had the beautiful dust cover I have glimpsed at low-resolution in an antiquarian bookdealer’s catalogue (right).
Katharine wrote some incredible short stories. I would go as far as to say that I think the form suited her better than the novel, even if she is not as remembered for it. This collection mainly includes stories originally published in journals after her first collection, Kiss On the Lips (1932), but the first appearance of some of them still needs to be established. One story, at least, is quite early – “The Bridge”; I found a newspaper copy of it on Trove from 1917 (unfortunately, it’s not one of her “incredible” stories; but it’s here, if you’re interested).
This collection divides into two types of story – goldfields “yarns” and the more substantial, realist stories, several of them about Aboriginal characters. The yarns are old-fashioned and entertaining enough with flashes of inspiration. They point the way to The Roaring Nineties, the first novel of the goldfields trilogy, which Katharine was already writing when Potch and Colour was published. But it’s the other stories which impressed me.
There’s three particularly worth commenting on.
The first is “The Siren of Sandy Gap,” which manages to be both humorous and an astute critique of marriage. Susan, “a little woman, well over fifty,” leaves her tight-fisted husband George for the more jolly Dave. She “lives in sin” with Dave unapologetically but talks fondly to her ex-husband when he comes to beg her to return to him. When her new lover becomes morose and fights with her ex-husband over her, she runs off with a third, younger man. “‘I want to go away and have some peace and happiness in my life,’ Susan said. ‘They’ve no right to think I must just do what they say.'”
The second is “Flight,” a story which begins with a police officer charged with removing three “half-caste” (sic) Aboriginal children from their families. He doesn’t particularly agree with their removal, but his strongest feeling is not about the injustice so much as the embarrassment in the eyes of the locals as they watch him ride his horse with the girls. When he arrives at his house, the point of view shifts to his wife, who feels compassion for the girls, but of a very narrow kind – she feels strongly they shouldn’t have their hands tied for the night and sneaks out to untie them, telling them she’ll come back first thing in the morning to retie them. And then the point of view shifts to the girls themselves and the options that face them, untied as they are. It’s a traditional, beautifully crafted story which is devastating and prescient in its critique of the Stolen Generations policy.
The third is “Christmas Tree,” a poignant portrait of failed wheat farmers in Western Australia in the Depression. It’s one of the occasions Katharine gets the balance right between her politics and aesthetics, as she reveals the injustice of the banking system not didactically but through the eyes of one of its victims. Perhaps her husband Hugo’s failure as a farmer before World War One fed into her account. My supervisor Tony Hughes-D’Aeth tells me this story gets a mention in his literary history of the WA wheatbelt, forthcoming from UWA Publishing.
Katharine’s stories are not in print at the moment, though several “best-of” collections have been published – the ones containing just her short stories are Happiness, published in 1967, two years before she died, and Tribute (1988), selected and edited by her son Ric Throssell. Rather than a new selection or a reprint of one of the old collections, I think the best thing for the future would be a collected stories edition. It could showcase her development as a writer and the themes which preoccupied her over different periods and show how substantial her body of short fiction is.
Crow’s Breath is John Kinsella’s fine new collection of twenty-seven short, intense stories. It’s centred around the wheatbelt of Western Australia, with forays west to Fremantle, south to Pemberton and north to Carnavon. In about the middle, a character travels to London in “Statue” and the stories after this move with expatriates to Ireland and the USA as well. A common thread is the exploration of Australianness, the different ways of Australians living in this country and out of it. Kinsella shows an ability to inhabit a rich diversity of Australian characters. Continue reading