Monday, 10 January 2011


This blog is literally a toddler now: two years old today. So pull up a chair, have some cake, and enjoy the final part of our discussion on the short story. (Scroll down if you want to pick up the thread.)

Patrick Holland
Tom, you’ve cut to the very heart of the matter with your singing/hard-working sentence question. The best justification I can give for the sentence you refer to is that it is plain truth. ‘Irene’ of the story is made of a little girl, and friend of my young sister’s, who was killed in a creek that ran through my family’s land. Whenever I deal with a plain truth like that, whenever I’m given it, I feel the best way to treat it is to add nothing whatsoever of myself. Just lay it down like testimony, like a circle of stones.

On this, I move increasingly toward minimalism and the broad precepts of Eastern instrumental art (especially Orthodox Ikons) versus Western expressionist art. The move toward minimalism was inspired as much by composer Arvo Pärt as any writer, and is a response to the need for simplicity in a world of increasing complexity. The desire for instrumental art? Perhaps a response to the cult of the self in the 21st C… our media ceaselessly advises us to ‘express ourselves’, and I can’t count the amount of advertisements that use a variation of ‘you deserve it’ as part of their pitch. One of my great prayers is that I don’t get what I deserve. The chief result I see of new communication technologies is that we are able to spread inanities much faster and in greater volume than ever before. If everyone expresses themselves constantly, you do not get communication, you get noise. I’ve never understood ‘writer’s block’. On the day I don’t have anything to write I’ll very happily put away the pencil. And I don’t much wish to impose myself on anyone else for such a sustained period as book necessitates – if I can’t channel somthing larger than me, I think I shouldn’t bother. There is, of course, a paradox here, and this touches on your question on themes, Susannah… that the artistic product is often a response to some personal crisis, and bears the marks of this, as I’ve explained is the case in ‘The Source of the Sound’. This was true, also, of Ikon painters, who wanted to express a particular devotion. I suppose, as Tom suggested, there is something universal about what is personal, and something personal about the universal (just as looking at the night sky has the ability to make us feel small and yet part of something immense at once).

I’m pleased to hear both of you say The Source of the Sound had you slowing down… this is one of the effects I hope my prose will have, the same effect I get when sitting in a forest or upon a vast plain, that time is slowing down. This is a creative and regenerative space, I think. Again, it’s a response to the fact that the world of the 21st C is always hurrying us up, to what end and where we scarcely have time to question. And you’re right, it is different to ‘entertainment’ literature. I rarely try to entertain, not that I’ve got anything against entertainment, but in our society it has usurped its proper place. We are, both literally and metaphorically dying of our leisure. It would be irresponsible for any true writer to give more whipped cream to a public dying of obesity. And for the record, Tom, I’ve never thought of comedy as inevitably relegated to the realm of entertainment: great comedy, as you well know, can work on us as profoundly as anything else – we need only think of Don Quixote.

On style, the way I write certainly isn’t the Australian idiom: it comes, I suppose, from the above aesthetic and philosophical concerns and from a host of odd influences, from Pärt to Isaiah, Kipling and photographer Roni Horn. Rhythmically, I desire a constant, quiet beat, interrupted by moments of violence or breathlessness. Something like the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli.

Now, Susannah, before we read each other’s work you mentioned ‘Life Pirates’ as one of your favourites, but qualified this by saying that it might be ‘a bit girly’. It is certainly ‘girly’, if that means concerned with female sexuality and motherhood. And yet, it did not bare the slightest resemblance to any ‘chick lit’ or work of feminism I’ve ever seen. At every point that a reader with a model in mind might have said ‘here we go’, there we didn’t go, instead you take the reader into ever stranger and more beautiful places as the story unfolds. So I want to ask you, to what extent are stories like this autobiographical (I ask this as these characters and events seem so unlike any others I’ve come across that they almost can’t be completely made up); and further, to what extent do you believe a story like this – infused with a good deal of pain – can do the work of healing.

Susannah Rickards
I am extremely interested in the degree to which music informs your writing, Patrick. It is almost kinaesthetic. I can’t equate music and language so closely. I can only reach music (which seems to me the purest art form in that it is the only one where representation is almost inaccessible) through the emotional response to it. That you can make words of the music you hear is compelling.

Just want to clarify – 'Life Pirates' is far from one of my favourite stories. I come close to disliking it but it had such a favourable response from readers I trust that it went into the book. What is autobiography? I’ve never had a bath in an alcoholic’s flat following a haemorrhage. But I have bought a sickly tree against advice and planted it in memory of a dead child. (Years later, it still flourishes.) There is no small Hopkins museum in Lancashire as far as I know. But he is one of my favourite poets and I’d been reading him solidly in the days before I drafted this, without any intention of writing about him. About half way through the draft I became conscious of Davy as a modern Good Samaritan and realised the story was my first foray into writing about faith, heftily disguised behind human fallibility.

As to stories healing – well, that’s one reason why I read so many of them. They work. They do the jobs of giving companionship when none is at hand, of advising and releasing and generally creating a sense of forgiveness and accord. Good art shakes us up. Great art is salve, perhaps.

Tom Vowler
I thought we might finish off touching on process. I’m always intrigued how other writers work, the hours they keep, their accoutrements. For me, short fiction tends to be composed differently to other forms, such as the novel. The latter might see me yield several thousand words on a good day, scribbled masses, often incoherent, requiring endless revision. With a story, though, I’m far more diligent, crafting with more precision. Rewrites may still number in the tens, but there’s more a sense of sculpting, of fine-tuning, than wholesale change. I certainly find stories the hardest and most rewarding to write.

I prefer a balance of writing new material and revising old during the day. The old maxim of leaving an idea, a scene or sentence, unfinished helps me begin the following day. Reading work aloud is important to me, which perhaps taps into all we’ve said of cadence and muscularity of prose. I have to hear the words if they’re ever going to sing.

And you two?

I’m a blue-collar worker. When I’m able, I’ll get up early, work till lunch… then walk/rest/do something manual, then I’ll start again at seven at night and go till midnight or thereabouts, often with the aid of whisky (probably not going to get invited to any schools on the back of that). My tools of choice are a fine-tip blue pen and art paper (no lines), though I make a big job for myself when it comes time to decipher my scrawl and put it on computer.

When stories come, they tend to come in a flurry, maybe three or four at a time, all tied by theme. And, like you Tom, I’ll generally revise a piece ten times or more. The thing I like about short stories is that they can be written in one sitting, and I always try to do this, so you can keep better rein on them than you can a novel.

Like everyone else, I cherish those times when there are days ahead of nothing but writing, and envy the rich and famous of our trade who have this always; but at the same time, the neccesity I have to work, at least six months in the year, working with horses and cattle and teaching in various countries, like China and Vietnam, provides fuel for my writing, and, as Hemingway said, I’d rather have the instrument I write with dulled and blunt from disuse and have to grind it into shape each time I have something to write, than have it sharp and polished and nothing to say.

Patrick, you and Hemingway put that beautifully.

My writing day is dictated by other demands – raising children and earning money. I find this helps, as it structures the time. On a roll, I get up at 5am and write for a couple of hours before school, then, if I’m not at work that day, I write through until it’s time to collect them. If it’s a work day I put in an hour or so after they’ve gone to bed. There can be long periods of time when work and family life prevents any writing at all. I used to feel guilty about that, as though it were my artistic duty to create more hours in each day. I’m far more attuned to it now. When I can, I write. There are plenty of opportunities, if not throughout a week, then throughout a year.

I always start on paper and then either type up what I have and finish the story on computer or work the second draft as it’s being keyed into the computer. But I also work with an online group of short fiction writers. Once a month we write from dawn till dusk online. At times this produces six rough drafts in one day, which can be worked up over the following weeks.

My thanks to Patrick and Susannah for giving us this fascinating insight into their work. I urge fans of the short story to read their brilliant collections (links in Part 1). And non-fans, do the same for instant conversion. Right, ice cream and jelly anyone?


Rachel Fenton said...

What I've enjoyed most about these discussions is thinking, I do that, or that's exactly what it is like. Thanks. I'm listening Spiegel im Spiegel, too - Arvo Pärt - very apt.

TOM J VOWLER said...