A long, long time ago now, I had a story called ‘Cartography’ in a Virago Anthology called Wild Cards. I was living in West Africa, visiting a London aunt, when a woman telephoned asking for me. It was The Call: a London agent calling.
At the time, the anthology with my story was gracing a bookshop window in Shaftesbury Avenue. For this dreamy Australian writer it was a heady moment. Even though reviews were so-so and it was plain that for the big world the book was too wimminy. But The Agent had called. I parked my pram and boyfriend downstairs in Soho and climbed up the stairs to her office.
To date I had published quite a few short stories, the first of which was called ‘Elton John’s Mother’ and earned a place in a 50-best anthology of Australian authors. I had a messy, scrawled novel lying neglected at home, and I was co-running a bar and art gallery in Accra. In the words of the insightful and busy Grace Paley, And then we had our normal family life—struggles and hard times. That takes up a lot of time, hard times. Uses up whole days. So I wasn’t writing anywhere near full-time, in fact those crazy years have provided much of the subject matter that makes up Pelt and Other Stories.
Very quickly, the agent expressed her interest in my work and suggested I supply her a novel ‘with a twist’. No thank you, she said, she wasn’t interested in a short story collection. Nobody wants stories because stories don’t sell. Ever thought of writing a book of interlinked stories?
Interlinked stories? The halfway house between the Novel and the Short Story? I wasn’t convinced. This seemed like some sort of market gimmick. And with this the meeting went nowhere, really. Except for a pat on my skinny back, a big dose of affirmation (Well, you can write!) and a very daunting, And do send me that novel, Catherine!
Many years later I realised the short stories I had been sending off and gradually publishing in literary reviews were forming themselves into a collection. I began thinking about themes, order, connection. To my horror, I found there were unfinished situations and characters with more allure than I cared to abandon. I wrote some interlinked stories. Characters who had been secondary in certain pieces stepped forward into their own. Themes branched out, thrusting along new tributaries. As James Salter says, You’re sitting around the campfire of literature, so to speak, and various voices speak up out of the dark and begin talking.
So while my approach to writing a short story remains fairly standard, as the book came together I worried I had fallen into some kind of contemporary market trap. Would agents/publishers think I’d exploited the same characters because I’d run out of ideas? Would the whole thing gel or be a leaky wreck with shallow pretensions?
There are several storylines in Pelt where the same situations are turned sideways or seen inside-out. As the writing process broadened I became more and more interested – even obsessed! – by this unravelling and development. And yet each piece remained an entity with cadences and its own roiling delivery – not the calm paced stuff of a novel, but firmer, richer, faster.
In 2010 I’d been lucky enough to find a small British publisher who published my first novel, an erotic comedy that marked my attempt to enter the market, and who agreed – with reluctance – to read my story collection. I fully expected another pat on the back, another suggestion to Bring on that novel, Catherine.
He said yes. And now that Pelt and Other Stories is out I am wondering if anyone will see the stitching: the small moments of my vast discoveries. And the funniest thing? I am writing a new batch of stories. Not yet interlinked, but who knows?
Catherine lives in Italy after many years in West Africa.
She is originally from Sydney. Pelt and Other Stories is
released in the UK on 2nd September, 2013.