Friday, 28 January 2011

Review: Schopenhauer’s Telescope

I was slow coming to Gerard Donovan’s first novel, having read and loved his third two years ago. Julius Winsome had, for me, the air of a classic fable, spellbinding me with its poetic and elegiac prose, and at no expense to a highly compelling, dramatic narrative. I remain both excited and nervous to see how it’s adapted for the screen.
And so on finding a book I regarded as one of the best I’ve read in recent years, it would seem natural to seek out the rest of Donovan’s oeuvre. And yet I didn’t. To do so somehow felt like risking the adulteration of my first experience of the author. What if it wasn’t as good? How could it be as good?

Of course this was only going to last so long.

Schopenhauer’s Telescope
is a very different book. Or so I initially thought. But as the story unfurls, the bleak, unforgiving wintry landscape, the writer’s poignant, elegant language began to evoke the former. Both are meditations on violence, on human evils and cruelty, on love. Both transport you to otherworldly landscapes, temporarily allowing the illusion that their harrowing events are separate from your own world, your own capabilities.

So, what of the plot? An unnamed baker digging a hole, Sisyphean-like, in a frozen field strikes up a conversation with a teacher, who watches condemningly from above. And, well, that’s about it narrative-wise, at least for now. I imagine there are few writers who can bestow such limited action with the breathless pace of a thriller, the oblique clues and allusions that compel the reader forward, woven seamlessly in. A philosophical dialogue ensues between the two men - on war, genocide, the nature of evil - and Donovan employs a myriad of styles to slowly peel back the layers of this harrowing story.

The characters’ motivations, their stakes and immediate histories, are revealed gradually, and only fully at the end, which, perhaps deliberately, invites the reader, to their cost, to judge them prematurely. Truth is never absolute, especially in times of war, and Donovan exploits this expertly.

There is much surrealism and playfulness here, absent in Winsome, but this only serves to make the brewing sinister denouement more powerful.

If you’re looking for an easy read, this isn’t always it, especially the first hundred or so pages. But stick in there as the journey is rewarded more than amply. 

Novels that have something to say, books with ideas and great intellect, that exceed mere entertainment and story-telling, are often forced to compromise on narrative drive, especially when set over one afternoon. Not Donovan’s.

Booker longlisted, Schopenhauer’s Telescope is a more ambitious and accomplished novel than many that have won the prize.

Thursday, 27 January 2011


Treat success and failure as the impostors they are. The rejections are probably not as bad as you think, the acceptances not as good. You are playing a long game; it’s not a sprint. Build up a body of work that can’t be ignored. Aim to be a stronger writer with each project you embark on. Dismiss rejection (even though it may be deserved), and briefly enjoy publication. But then move on and write something else. Remember: writers write.

Thursday, 20 January 2011


If you're reading this, then you're not in China. How can I be so sure? A travelling friend has just advised me this blog is banned there. It's hardly a fatwa, but still carries its share of kudos, I suppose.

Monday, 17 January 2011


There’s a great discussion on that ubiquitous debate of whether you can teach people to write over at Elizabeth Baines’ blog. Some interesting thoughts from Sue Gee and Marcel Theroux (click on the links) and the chance to ask them some questions. What are you waiting for?

Friday, 14 January 2011


Short FICTION is now accepting entries for its 5th Annual Short Story Competition. First prize is £500, the winner chosen by award-winning Irish writer Gerard Donovan. Donovan is the author of three novels, including the much-lauded Julius Winsome, the Booker long-listed Schopenhauer's Telescope, and the story collection Country of the Grand.

You can submit up to 2 stories for £10, which also gets you a copy of the journal, effectively making entry free! Word limit is 6,000 and the closing date is 31st March 2011. All competition entries will be considered for publication. The winner will be announced on the website no later than 1st May 2011. Please note we invite stories from writers at any stage of their career. Click HERE to enter. Good luck.

Short FICTION is an annual literary journal featuring some of the best stories from around the world. Some names are long celebrated, others we'll take credit for as our discovery.

Each writer's work is illustrated and presented within its own chapbook.

Contributing editors include Ali Smith, Toby Litt, Helen Oyeyemi, Mike McCormack and Gerard Donovan.

Previous issues include stories by Kevin Barry, Luke Kennard, Julian Gough, Ioan Grosan, Martina Warner and Phillip Ó Ceallaigh.

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?

Friday, 7 January 2011


Part 1 is below if you want to pick up the thread.

Tom Vowler
As for inspiration, yes I am often drawn to disturbed narrators, stories peopled by desperate characters who barely manage to conceal this beneath a ‘veneer of normality’. Loss certain themes heavily in my collection, as does the past with its inexorable grip on the present. Again, though, I’m not wholly aware of themes during composition; I just think our own primordial swamp seeps up into the prose regardless.

Interesting that we all value giving the reader space in our work. I always resist (overt) flags, or force-feeding the story to someone. It’s a fine line, not becoming too arcane so as to frustrate, but respecting the reader enough to allow them room within the story is important for me.

Susannah, you’ve mentioned some of the work that inspires you; are there themes/ideas you’re conscious of weaving into your stories? Or perhaps like me they seep in almost unconsciously…

Susannah Rickards
What I take from the authors I admire is their outlook on life. There is a humane, unstinting examination of how we behave towards others and ourselves, and this frankness is backed up by wit in all the authors I admire. I read them and think: kin. Like they’re of the same tribe. What they succeed at is what I am aiming for too, not because I like their work. I like it because it chimes. That way round.

Consciously I set out not with themes but with events. But they pretty quickly shift to character. I’m not interested in writing about Big Ideas as theories. I prefer to find them in small places. Human activity is endlessly fascinating. It supplies everything I want to examine as a writer.

I admire authors who successfully lead with theme. My work becomes mechanical when I try to, as an exercise. I do aim for a certain revelation. I am fascinated by self deceit, by the gap between who we are and who we think we are; by what people are said to be doing and what they actually do. I got this from your work too Tom. ‘Busy.Come.Wait.’ The daughter’s insistent emotional blindness to the parity between her parents. That chimes exactly, for me.

So – a question for you: how do you make human failing resonant? What lifts it beyond a mere Slice o’ life?

It’s a good question. As a reader I find a story more powerful if it illuminates some small truth I recognise, or understand, but I suppose this need not be specific. Take two stories I find extraordinary in their effect and affect: James Salter’s ‘Last Night’ and Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. I certainly have no direct experience of the horror, the sudden brutal ‘reveals’ to occur in either, yet I connect with them on a human level. So perhaps failings are metaphors for each other, mirroring existential concerns we all share.

I want to mention language. Susannah, you spoke of the story bridging the gap between the novel and the poem. How the cadence and density of the latter is evoked. For me, I know I’m reading something special when I forget I’m reading. When the words sing. In particular when a sentence forces me back to its beginning, desperate as I am to hear it again. Take the following two, the first yours, the second Patrick’s:

‘It happens just as she predicts, and though she is glad they are rapt in this tumbling and hooting, a chill runs through her that she has such control over them, such knowledge of them, that she could predict to the quarter second when they would peel themselves from the radiator as they did and cavort.’

‘Not many weeks later she would be killed by a man who could not bear her beauty.’

So, to you both: how do you know when a sentence is working as hard as it can? When, as with these examples, the words are singing?

I’m taken by your idea that failings are metaphors for each other. Can the same be said of positive action in a story?

That sentence from Patrick’s story shook me too. It felt, briefly, like a line from another author, another prose style, grotesquely intrusive on the meditative voice that had gone before. Such news should jar. How to achieve this syntactically is a challenge.

Was this conscious on your part, Patrick? (I’m not being disingenuous here – it’s clear you are meticulous. I’m asking if that discord of style was a choice or a result of the simple task of bringing such news into so tender a story?)

Tom, for me, when a sentence is singing I feel it physically – a warmth in the muscles, like the second stage of going for a run, after the stiffness and pain, when that ease kicks in. That probably sounds pretentious, but it’s just factual. It’s a physical response to the words, maybe born of relief. When they join together well, you can relinquish responsibility for them.

I’m interested to know how you both tackle theme, so a question for you both – is it an overt starting point, or something that you recognise once an amount of work is out on paper?

And some for you Patrick, specifically: when I started to read your work I stumbled and had to slow right down, as though I were reading a foreign language in which I was not wholly fluent. I appreciated the way the prose demanded to be read attentively and slowly. I have some frustration with instant snack-effect short fiction, there’s a lot on-line, and your work seems the antithesis of that.

When I examined your syntax and vocabulary nothing was convoluted, everything was lucid, and I’m still wondering exactly how you achieve that gear change in the reader. Tom too said he had to slow down, mentioned the cadence as reason. I wonder if it is an Australian cadence. I must confess ignorance of short fiction by other contemporary Australian writers. We’re used to American and UK timbres perhaps. Who are your influences? And what’s driving the musicality of your prose? What are you after, rhythmically?

Part 3 soon.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011


Three for the price of one to kick us off in the New Year. Myself and fellow Scott Prize winners Susannah Rickards and Patrick Holland got together for a discussion on, among other things, the short story and what it means to us. Having read both Susannah’s and Patrick’s collections, I have to say they are stunning achievements and I’m honoured to have my own book forever associated with theirs. It’s an involved conversation so I’ll post it in three parts.

Patrick Holland
When, like me, you are aware of the prejudices facing story collections – I say ‘aware’ rather than ‘understand’ because I don’t understand them – why do you write short stories?

Tom Vowler
This is a simple one for me. As ‘artists’ I think we’re drawn to the medium that excites us most, that rouses us in the morning, or the middle of the night, desperate to emulate what’s gone before us. I came to short fiction relatively late, just a few years ago. But already some of the great stories I’ve read have left their mark, emblazoned across my literary consciousness, more than some of my favourite novels, which is a statement I’d have found remarkable and fanciful in the past. I think like many people, I believed stories were something that novelists did on occasion, by way of experiment or vanity. That they were a bit of fun. And then I read Chekhov, Carver, Updike, Oates, Trevor, Munro et al and realised what was possible. So falling in love with the short story was the start. Prejudices soon became irrelevant as I set out on this wonderful journey of reading the best short fiction out there and trying to match it.

Tom, I agree – at the end of the day, what keeps you going is the love of the thing. At times friends have asked me, why don’t you write something ‘popular’ “just to set you up”. And I suppose it would be easy enough: pick a war to give super-significance to the drama, get some tv soap plot twists, drop tags at the end of chapters like “but he was not all he seemed” or “if only she knew that that decision would change her life forever”… but the problem would be waking up each morning and getting the job done. How to find the energy? For me, writing is an attempt to understand the world I live in and our relationship with the cosmos. Lately, I try to understand the built environment of supermodernity and the losses it imposes. ‘The Source of the Sound’ is an attempt to come to terms with the loss of a loved one; ‘Integrity’ tries to come to terms with loss of landscape, and ‘The Passenger’ attempts to crystalise the tragedy of losing time.

Interesting to hear your influences, especially since your writing reminds me of almost no other writer I know besides, perhaps, John Cheever. My influences are quite different: Barry Lopez, Hemingway, Juliana Horatio Ewing, Yasunari Kawabata, Graham Greene and, more than any other, Kipling. While we wait for Susannah’s response, and while on the topic of inspiration, I have a question… ‘The Method’ is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in my life, what inspired it – a real life exchange with a publisher, perhaps? Also, I’ve written comedy before – the Australian critics were very mixed about how successfully – but the stories in The Source of the Sound are, I think, all of a stylistic and thematic type… was it difficult to go from the high comedy of ‘The Method’ to a story like ‘The Last Supper’, which is so dark as to be troubling, and perhaps my favourite of your stories, ‘Seeing Anyone?’ with its exquisite sadness?

I suppose ‘The Method’ is darkly comic, though I didn’t set out to write a funny story. I’d been listening to an interview with the boxer Barry McGuigan, how he trained Daniel Day Lewis for three years for a role. McGuigan said that at the end of this period, with the exception of the top few middle-weights in the country, Day Lewis could compete with, and likely beat, anyone. I found this staggering, the lengths an actor would go to when researching a part. And it seemed natural to extend this obsessive approach to a ridiculous degree. I’ve read ‘The Method’ to a few audiences, and someone usually asks whether it’s autobiographical, whether I’ve researched the research, as it were, which makes me chuckle, given its depraved and salacious nature. Actually, for one scene I did ask a friend to punch me hard, so I could describe it. We were drunk and, annoyingly, he did.

But, yes, I suppose thematically the collection is often disparate. I didn’t find this difficult: the stories tended to find their own tone, perhaps born from the mood I was in during composition.

Interesting point you make about coming to terms with things, of seeking understanding through the prose. Is the act of writing somehow cathartic for you? That is, might you use a story to make sense of a personal rather than an abstract matter?

The stories in The Source of the Sound are quite beautiful. I found myself slowing down as I read, savouring the cadence as much as the semantics of the words, much as I would a poem. The recurring motifs of light and sound anchored me in these wonderful, but often bleak, worlds you’ve created. Indeed, the stories are often grounded in a profound sense of place; I wondered if setting was often where you began.

Writing is something of a cathartic exercise for me, certainly; and also an attempt to isolate signs of grace in the world, and give them space to breathe. This, as you’ve suggested, doesn’t mean that things always turn out rosy. No man or woman escapes their cross – dig a little and it’s there: so the alcoholism, the prostitution, the addictions and untimely losses the people in my book endure. If nothing else goes wrong in your life, you will suffer the deaths of certain of your loved ones, which produces the keenest pain it is possible to feel. For me, writing, and story-telling, are ways to come to terms with pain and fear, by finding threads of order in apparent chaos.

Place, as you’ve suggested, is vital to the stories – and understanding place is another way to see your way out of chaos and pain, as it brings you close to the deepest creative order. Understanding the built environment makes visible the way humans can destroy the essential order by disrespecting or ignoring it – urban sprawl, with its disregard for community, farming and wilderness, is an example. But somehow – perhaps I’ve been lucky – I’ve always found wilderness, sacred places and beloved human habitats where I can go to reconstitute myself.

I think everyone, over the course of a life, puts together their own map of sacred places, which might not make immediate sense to anyone else who viewed the map: places like a window looking onto a quiet street, or an unremarkable plain… places where significant things have happened, or significant thoughts have come, or places that seem important for mysterious reasons. I have spent hours on the plain described in the story ‘Integrity’ for no reason I really knew, and I know not everyone who saw it would accept my justification that it is beautiful. Such places are often starting points for stories. ‘The City Lost to Heaven’, for instance, is very much a product of my nostalgia for certain locales of Beijing.

Now, how about yourself? It seems it’s urban and suburban landscape, and the people that inhabit those, that inspires you, which is what made me think of Cheever when I read The Method. I’m thinking of a veneer of normality that is soon and profoundly punctured by dark comedy, violence and desperation in stories like ‘The Games They Play’ (you may have penned the best story ever written about swingers there). Am I right in taking this view?

Secondly, leaving a kind of narrative silence in my writing, a space for the reader to cross and come to the work on his or her own terms, is something I’ve been conscious of doing lately, and I sensed it too in that remarkable story ‘The Little Man’ – to what extent do you believe a story should be ‘open’, that is, refuse to put flags up and announce the author’s intentions?

Susannah Rickards
May I jump in by replying to Patrick’s opening question? Like Tom, short fiction is what I read and rate most highly. I love the intensity, or density of language in a poem, and the scope of story that novels possess. The short story connects the two. And I love the form’s ripple effect – that they may only take half an hour to read but stay with you for years – revisiting the mind, replaying themselves in different lights. They change. It’s the greed of a reader who also writes, maybe, to enjoy the space a short story provides for the reader to embellish.

Then, as a writer, I try to do for others as the short fiction authors I most admire have done for me: just open the door a chink onto another world and let the reader do the rest. Providing those open spaces you mention in your most recent post Patrick is something I consciously aim for and something I prize in short fiction. Fitzgerald does it, Carver, Munro, Tobias Wolff and Kyle Minor. Then again, I love the mental tracking of character that authors like Stephen Dixon of David Foster Wallace explore – that rhythmic grasp of how a mind flits and tussles and returns to its obsessions.

There’s an intensity to the quality of the prose I most admire that is most effective in small doses.

Part 2 soon.