Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Category: News

Three Questions With Jennifer Castles: author, editor, sometimes ghost writer

In the second of my ‘Three Questions With’ interviews with writers published during COVID, Jennifer Castles talks about working with Australian football star Tayla Harris on her new book Tayla Harris: More Than a Kick. Jennifer also describes juggling her roles as a submissions editor at Allen & Unwin publishing, and as a freelance writer/co-writer of children’s and adult fiction.

QUESTION ONE:

Emma Ashmere: Your name is on the title-page of the new YA non-fiction book Tayla Harris: More Than a Kick. Tayla is a massive star in Australian women’s football, also in boxing, and as a role model for young women and sportspeople everywhere. The book offers insights into her daily regime, her attitudes to feeling ‘different’ at school and how she used them to her advantage, and her non-sporting interests – including a brief stint at keeping quails! It is also a handbook dealing with bigger issues of pride, confidence, and safety, following the media storm and trolling sparked by Michael Willson’s viral photo which captured Tayla’s athleticism in ‘that kick’.

Can you tell me about the process of working with Tayla, her goals for the book and your role in helping put her side of the story into words?

Jennifer Castles: I loved working on this book. It all happened very quickly. Tayla was still reeling with the fallout – good and bad – of the trolling she received when the photo of her went viral. She was getting loads of questions about how she handled the situation, especially from young women. She decided that a book would be a good way to share what she has learned from the experience and get her message across. When publisher Jodie Webster asked me if I would be interested in helping Tayla to write the book, I knew very little about her apart from the stunning photo, but I was intrigued.

Tayla’s very up front about the fact that she’s not much of a writer, but she’s a great talker and she loves telling stories. We met, clicked, and a few days later the work began. I asked questions, Tayla talked and then I went away and transcribed the recordings. At the same time I was studying up on women’s footy and Tayla’s meteoric journey from a five year old roped in to her brother’s footy team to the star she is today. It was an incredibly easy process. Mostly because Tayla and the lovely people who surround her are warm, respectful and eager to share their stories with me. The other major factor is that there is a LOT of media surrounding Tayla and not just because of ‘that kick’. She’s been pushing down barriers for female athletes since the beginning and she’s not shy of journalists or their cameras. Her story was literally unfolding as I wrote and I was constantly having to keep up with her latest exploits on and off the field. It was exciting!

A large part of the book is devoted to discussing social media and the ways that young people can protect themselves and others. Tayla felt strongly about this and we worked hard to get it right. It was no surprise that Tayla was recently named an ambassador for OurWatch: an organization dedicated to preventing violence against women and their children.

My background as an actor has set me up with a range of skills that help me to recreate a character on the page. It’s important to me that the reader can actually ‘hear’ the person speak. I listened back to hours and hours of Tayla talking. She’s bright, articulate and very funny so I had no trouble turning her words into text. The greatest compliment was when Tayla’s mum rang me after she’d read the final manuscript and said, ‘You nailed it, Jen – that’s my girl!’

 

QUESTION TWO:

EA: Many writers have to be adaptable and work across different genres. Looking at your publication list – 4 children’s picture books, one YA non-fiction book, and one history book – and your job title ‘submissions editor’ – can you tell me how you describe yourself, and a little of what led you into writing and publishing. If there’s such a thing as a ‘typical working day’, how do your juggle your various roles, and their specific and overlapping requirements

JC: I’ve had a variety of different jobs and worked for years as an actor, but these days I state my occupation as WRITER/AUTHOR/EDITOR. My pathway to publishing began when I started doing summer fill-ins on reception at Allen & Unwin (A&U). This led to me enrolling in the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT. I also began working in a bookshop where I learnt invaluable lessons about who buys books and why. Then Sue Hines took me under her wing at A&U and I started ‘fixing’ manuscripts for authors on her Adult non-fiction list. Finally, I switched departments to books for Children and Young Adults, which coincided with having my own two children. I was working on books during the day and reading books to my kids at night – my personal test audience!

These days the bulk of my job at A&U is assessing new manuscripts that come through agents and through the general public via our Friday Pitch program. The rest of my working life is taken up with freelance projects: either ghost-writing for authors like Tayla or writing books of my own. And after a lifelong obsession with reading crime I’ve nearly finished writing a novel based on my short story that won the Mystery with History prize at the Scarlet Stiletto Awards in 2018.

The most significant ghost-writing experience I ever had was a deeply personal one. My father, a professor of law, was writing a book on the last days of Ned Kelly examining the flawed legal process and the extraordinary amount of media that surrounded the infamous bushranger. Dad really knew his stuff, but he wrote like an academic so I offered to ‘re-focus’ the text so that it would appeal to a wider audience. We’d just made it to the draft manuscript when Dad died suddenly. It was a massive shock, but I was determined to finish the book and in 2005 Ned Kelly’s Last Days hit the shelves. I was so pleased to be able to honour my father in this way; completing a project that had meant so much to him.

I really enjoy the process of ghost-writing. I love immersing myself in the research, drawing out stories from the subject and then making the words on the page sound authentic. It’s great when an author like Tayla freely acknowledges the work you’ve done, but other authors I’ve worked with have chosen to keep my involvement quiet. They prefer their audience to believe that it’s entirely their own work and my name doesn’t appears anywhere in the book. I’m fine with that, as long as I get paid!

QUESTION THREE:

EA: The subtitle of your 2017 children’s book Say Yes is A Story of Friendship, Fairness and a Vote For Hope, and looks at the Australian 1967 referendum and the basic rights denied to First Nations people, compared to those of white Australians. But it is also a personal history, inspired by the long-standing friendship between your sister, Margy who is non-Indigenous, and her best friend Mandy who is Indigenous.

Like the Tayla Harris book, there’s a potent mix of social justice and compelling storylines, written for younger readers. You’ve talked elsewhere about your interest in true crime. To me, both these books are about crimes committed against a section of society, attempting to control and limit how some people live their daily lives, and what they want to achieve. Can you talk a little about the research for Say Yes, what you learnt along the way, your hopes for change, and how you alchemised all these elements into a picture book.

JC: Thanks Emma. I like your insights!

Say Yes! was written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, but the emotional core of that story came from personal experience. When I was at school I became friends with an Indigenous girl whose older sister, Mandy, became my big sister Margy’s best friend. I always thought that these girls and their brothers were so ‘lucky’ to have been adopted by a white family. Years later I learned the truth – that they, along with the handful of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids at our school – had all been stolen from their families and ‘given’ to white people to raise. The longterm legacy of this was clear. Of the five adopted kids I knew, only Mandy is still alive today.

Margy and Mandy’s precious friendship has endured and is the heart of Say Yes! However, the story didn’t speak directly about them. I wanted to express the beautiful innocence of children – and their fierce sense of justice and loyalty as told through the eyes of the white girl.

Once I had done specific research about the era, the words came easily to me. Publisher Erica Wagner showed the story to Indigenous illustrator Paul Seden who did some gorgeous pictures of the girls, and Sandra Nobes’ vivid and sensitive design did the rest. I’m so proud of this book and grateful for the opportunity to channel my younger self and tell my story.

But what of First Nation’s voices? Since 2017 when Say Yes! was published, many more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors have been picked up by publishers. There’s a real thirst among the reading public for their stories.

It’s great to be working at a company that champions First Nations writers. I’m particularly thrilled that two debut projects will be published by A&U next year came through Friday Pitch.

Watch Mandy and Margy talking about their friendship which inspired the book Say Yes! on ABC TV’s 7.30.

ABOUT JENNIFER CASTLES:

Jennifer Castles grew up in Adelaide. She began her working life as an actor, lived overseas for some years and now calls Melbourne home. Her first book was a collaboration with her father about the trial and death of Ned Kelly and since then she has had four picture books published. She now works as a submissions editor and ghostwriter, and continues to write stories of her own.

NED KELLY’S LAST DAYS, co-written with Alex Castles

(Allen & Unwin, 2005)

TINY, A LITTLE DOG ON A BIG ADVENTURE

Words by Jennifer Castles, photographs by Steve Otton

(Allen & Unwin, 2008)

GO JO-JO GO!

Words by Jennifer Castles, photographs by Tessa Bickford

(Allen & Unwin, 2009)

A SONG FOR LORKIE

Words by Jennifer Castles, artwork by Dean Bowen

(Allen & Unwin, 2011)

SAY YES!

Words by Jennifer Castles

Illustrations by Paul Seden

(Allen & Unwin, 2017)

TAYLA HARRIS: MORE THAN A KICK co-written with Tayla Harris

(Allen & Unwin, 2020)

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Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia. Her new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016. See more of Emma’s posts about writing here.

Dreams They Forgot – New Short Story Collection Out Today!

DREAMS THEY FORGOT is out today! Thanks to my publishers Wakefield Press, twenty-three of my stories have been put together in one beautifully designed book.

Dreams They Forgot cover.12 LS.indd

DREAMS THEY FORGOT  is available in paperback and e-book, and is listed on the Sydney Morning Herald’s Books to Read in 2020 and Readings Books to Get Excited About. Read more about it here.

“Ashmere’s prose is precise, almost elusive, reading at times like poetry.” ADAM FORD, July 2020,  BOOKS&PUBLISHING. 

About DREAMS THEY FORGOT

Two sisters await the tidal wave predicted for 1970s Adelaide after Premier Don Dunstan decriminalises homosexuality. An interstate family drive is complicated by the father’s memory of sighting UFOs. Two women drive from Melbourne to Sydney to see the Harbour Bridge before it’s finished. An isolated family tries to weather climate change as the Doomsday Clock ticks.

Emma Ashmere’s stories explore illusion, deception and acts of quiet rebellion. Diverse characters travel high and low roads through time and place – from a grand 1860s Adelaide music hall to a dilapidated London squat, from a modern Melbourne hospital to the 1950s Maralinga test site, to the 1990s diamond mines of Borneo.

Undercut with longing and unbelonging, absurdity and tragedy, thwarted plans and fortuitous serendipity, each story offers glimpses into the dreams, limitations, gains and losses of fragmented families, loners and lovers, survivors and misfits, as they piece together a place for themselves in the imperfect mosaic of the natural and unnatural world.

Praise for DREAMS THEY FORGOT

“Emma Ashmere’s characters are luminescent. These stories drew me into people and worlds so vivid they practically lived on the page.”  — ANNA SPARGO-RYAN, author of The Gulf, and The Paper House.

‘Ashmere’s writing is full of quick insights and telling details. These stories move effortlessly through place and time, entering lives on the point of transgression. It’s an absolute pleasure to travel with them.’ — JENNIFER MILLS, author of Dyschronia, The Rest is Weight, and The Diamond Anchor. 

‘Stories of extraordinary range and depth. Deeply engaging and satisfying.’ — PADDY O’REILLY, author of Peripheral Vision, The End of the World, and The Wonders.

‘Ashmere’s prose is precise, almost elusive, reading at times like poetry. It drills down into certain details while leaving others out entirely. This invites the reader to complete the picture by tying together the story elements that Ashmere has chosen to share…The deft description, compelling emotion and insightful observations… will appeal to readers of feminist fiction and Australian realism, in particular fans of Dymphna Cusack or Fiona McGregor.’ — ADAM FORD, BOOKS&PUBLISHING, July 15 2020.   (Read the full review here.)

“The stories in this strong and varied collection range across urban and rural Australia and beyond, to such touchstones of Australian travel as Bali and London, and to more exotic settings such as Borneo and regional France. Emma Ashmere’s stories are often impressionistic, never laboriously chewing on their material and trusting the intelligence of the reader to join the dots and grasp the underlying feeling. There are some excellent stories about family life, especially those told from the point of view of a semi-comprehending and bemused child or adolescent. But Ashmere’s greatest strength is in her stories of the historical past, especially in Australia. These stories acknowledge the limits of what is knowable to contemporary readers, evoking instead the unrecoverable strangeness and mystery of the past.” — KERRYN GOLDSWORTHY, SYDNEY MORNING HERALD/AGE, 5 Sep 2020.

“Ashmere moves skillfully and seamlessly between eras and places… this variety is also a strength, making each story feel different from those surrounding it…  a thoughtful meditation on the things that can hold you down, and the different ways through.” ELIZABETH FLUX, THE SATURDAY PAPER, 12 Sept 2020.

“These short stories have the compressed clarity of diamonds. From somewhere deep, Ashmere brings these small stories to the surface and sets to crafting them. Every angle and facet is laser cut and polished to perfection. Turn them slowly in your hands. Be dazzled by the light that glances and bounces off their surfaces and be drawn to the shadows that lie within.” JENNY BIRD, BYRON WRITERS FESTIVAL, Sept-Oct 2020 NORTHERLY.

“Generally, an author’s work improves with time, but all twenty-three stories in Dreams They Forgot are of equal quality. In some collections, stories can blur together, but the diverse locations and historical periods utilised in these stories make each piece memorable.” ANNIE CONDON, READINGS MONTHLY, Sept 2020.

The COVER

The photograph ‘Lynne and Carol, 1962’ is by the late Melbourne photographer Sue Ford.  See more of her stunning work archived here.  My thanks to the estate of Sue Ford for kindly granting permission to use her work.

Behind The Book

Q&A with the Feminist Writers Festival about writing Dreams They Forgot.

Catch A Passing Thought’ on writing short stories and Dreams They Forgot.

Author Talk with Theresa Smith Writes.

Chatting to Pamela Cook and Kel Butler on the W4W podcast.

 

Events

Thurs 24 Sept 6.30pm (Melbourne time): ” Women Who Break The Rules” Online Event Readings Bookshop. Join Emma Ashmere (Dreams They Forgot) and Laura Elvery (Ordinary Matter) talking to publisher/editor Jo Case about their new short story collections. Free zoom event – but you need to register.

Where To Buy

Find DREAMS THEY FORGOT (RRP AUD $24.95) at your local bookshop or online:

Wakefield Press (Adelaide)

Abbey’s Bookshop (Sydney)

Avid Reader (Brisbane)

Bookroom at Byron (Northern NSW)

Booktopia (Online)

Gleebooks (Sydney)

Readings (Melbourne)

Imprints Bookshop (Adelaide)

Jeffrey’s Books (Melbourne)

Lismore Book Warehouse (Northern NSW)

Matilda Bookshop (Adelaide Hills)

National Library (Canberra)

Ravens Parlour (Barossa Valley)

Riverbend Books (Brisbane)

Wheelers Books (Online)

Dymocks Books (Online)

*Also e-book available. Please note – the RRP is AUD$24.95. Prices vary wildly on Book Depository,  Fishpond,  Amazon etc.*

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See more posts about  reading and writing short fictions and putting together a short story collection.

About The Author

Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia. Her new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016.

 

Small Rooms, Expansive Views: Mind-stretching Short Reads for Lockdown

When the lockdown first hit, many writers said they couldn’t write. And many usually voracious readers said they couldn’t read. It’s as if there was a mass readers-and-writers block. Whether that’s the case or not, I’ve been reading much more than writing. This isn’t a surprise. Whenever I get stuck with writing I turn to books that will stretch the mind.

So I plunged into Hilary Mantel’s glittering boulder of a book, the final in her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and The Light, but I began to intersperse these long-haul travels with shorter works. I’ve highlighted some of these below. All of them blur boundaries between short story collections, short novels, novellas, and perhaps also poetry. In their brevity, risk, restraint, and precision, they peck away at walls and pick the locks of doors, throwing open the shutters to other worlds.

Short Story Collections

Swallow The Air – Tara June Winch

Yesterday, the Australian First Nations writer Tara June Winch won the prestigious 2020 Miles Franklin Award for her novel The Yield.

I’ve just finished her compelling first book, Swallow The Air, which can be read as a novel, or a series of discrete contemporary stories piecing together the fractured lives of her protagonists.

In beautiful sharp prose, the author invites us in to the physical and emotional realities of May and Billy, whose mother has died. May and Billy take very different uncertain paths, a process echoed in the structure of the book, especially the narrative spaces between each stories. These gaps in time and changes of place illuminate their shattered lives, while conjuring a thrumming absence. There is also a momentum, a focus, an urgency to find belonging and wholeness.

The layering of silence and story offers brief moments of readjustment as the reader orients themselves to each new situation. These pauses exist in the silences of family dynamics, the secrets, the private gains, and losses. They also point to the gaps and denials of elements of the outside world, which doggedly persists in trying to silence Indigenous Australians now, and in colonial versions of history.

Listen here to Tara June Winch discussing her work with another Miles Franklin winner, Melissa Lucashenko, as part of the Talking Ideas program at the State Library of Queensland.

Smart Ovens For Lonely People – Elizabeth Tan

Elizabeth Tan’s new short story collection Smart Ovens For Lonely People follows her acclaimed novel-in-stories Rubik. Each of these new stories tilts the world on its axis as she spins a witty and dizzying line between past, present, future, and messes with the borders between human and technology, despair and desire, humour and tragedy.

In ‘Disobeying’, a writer attends a ‘very white’ literary festival. After negotiating her way through a panel discussion with an interviewer who can’t pronounce seem to her name correctly, she waits at her empty book signing table where she spots a man she possibly knows. Time gallops ahead, or is it backwards, circling and zigzagging into the void.

In ‘A Girl Sitting On A Unicorn In the Middle of a Shopping Centre’ a child begins to understand her place in this shining hollow world-of-things, perched between choice and expectation, childhood and the limited prescriptions of womanhood. In ‘Washing Day’ the domestic ‘anomaly’ of a clothes-eating washing machine sparks a national crisis of bureaucracy and conspiracy. In all these stories, anything ordinary and inanimate threatens to become sprawlingly alive – or is it vice versa.

Astray – Emma Donoghue

Best known for her claustrophobic bestseller novel Room, Emma Donoghue’s far-ranging collection Astray enlists a gleanings from the historical record as a starting point. At the end of each story, there are references to these reported events, catapulting the reader into the often more startling realities lurking behind her fictions.

In the opening story, ‘Man and Boy’, we meet the keeper of Jumbo the famous elephant kept at Regent Parks Zoo in the 1880s. The complicated bond between man and beast is played out before Jumbo is shipped off to begin a doomed new part of his life on the other side of the Atlantic, touring with the infamous showman Barnum.

Set in New York in 1901, ‘Daddy’s Girl’ is spoken in the voice of Minnie Hall. Her businessman father has just died and has been laid out across the hallway. She’s peeved at the flocks of newspapermen and reporters besieging the office, threatening to unmask another side to her father’s life.

In ‘What Remains’, two long-term partners in a nursing home, Queenie and Florence, face prejudices of age and ability, colliding with their sense of who they are and were, as they try to pursue their last wishes. All the stories in this collection hone in on largely forgotten historical transgressions, and the conflicts and surprises which ricochet down the years.

Short novels/novellas

It’s worth reading the classic novellas/short novels if you’re interested in this form. Franz Kafka’s 1915 Metamorphosis famously mixes the respectable ordinary and the supposedly shameful strange, the transformation of human to inhuman, and the hidden and the exposed.

There’s also Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s intense 36 page study of dissolving realities in The Yellow Wallpaper, first published in 1892.

Here are a few more recent short novels.

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

Set in 1990s England, Ghost Wall is told from the point of view of a teenage girl, Silvie, who reluctantly accompanies her parents on a two week archaeological reenactment dig in the countryside. This attempt at time-travelling involves eating gritty porridge, wearing itchy clothing, avoiding the locals, foraging for their own food, and a rising competition between who knows the most about history.

The book opens with a nightmarish depiction of an otherworldly event in an unknown time. Snapping to the present, we slowly learn about Silvie’s doubts, naivete, and knowledge as she navigates this new terrain, and the growing sense of unease as she realizes why she’s there. Running to only 150 pages, somehow Sarah Moss packs in the politics of British archaeological research, family power struggles, issues of distrust, delusion, parochialism, consent, obsession, and solidarity.

 The Fish Girl – Mirandi Riowe

The Fish Girl is an almost fable-like story of a young Indonesian woman’s removal from her tiny coastal village, to work in a house owned by a Dutch merchant. Indonesian words are peppered throughout, details of food, work, and daily life. These add texture and specificity, while asking the non-Indonesian reader to adjust to their own foreignness.

This taut and tense novella is a reframing of W. Somerset Maugham’s story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’, which mentions a ‘Malay trollope’. Miriandi Riowe’s riposte puts her heart-torn, resourceful character at the centre of the world as she faces difficulties and loss, finds beauty and connections, and negotiates her role in a system stacked against her, where colonial hierarchy is enforced and maintained at all costs.

Mirandi Riowe’s latest book  Stone Sky, Gold Mountain is set in the Australian goldfields.

Weather – Jenny Offill

Hovering between short novel,and collection, Jenny Offill’s Weather is a poetic meditation on climate change – not so much on impending events – rather the seeping dread.

The protagonist is a librarian, dealing with her eclectic stream of borrowers and all their eccentricities, demands, and foibles. Each vignette swings from one thought or happening, such as delivering her ‘very small’ child Eli to his ‘very big’ school, or drinking too much on a rare night out. She’s also taken on a job answering questions about climate change on behalf of her jaded environmental activist friend, attracting the attention of denialists, preppers, and the generally overwhelmed.

The novel forms itself as a clever accretion of disparate ideas, massing into a visible whole – a bit like a cloud – as it details universal personal frailties, disappointments, jokes, bemusements, and self-effacing confessions. Jenny Offill’s first novel The Department of Speculation is also an accumulation of moments, dealing with the disintegration of the protagonist’s marriage, and the possible reassembling of those shards.

More to Come…

Who knows how long the lockdown will last. Or when some of us will get back to the keyboard, or the library, or the bookshop. I’ve gathered a stash of books, and will return to being transported by Hilary Mantel’s fabulous Mirror and The Light. But I’ll keep stopping along the way to savour a few new treasures including: Ellen van Neerven’s powerful new poetry collection Throat which follows their award-winning books Comfort Food and Heat and Light; also Laura Elvery’s second short story collection Ordinary Matter about Nobel-prize winners., a follow up to her acclaimed first collection Trick of the Light.

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Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

Three Questions with Carol Lefevre about her ‘devastatingly good’ new fiction

Award-winning writer Carol Lefevre answers Three Questions about her ‘lucid,  exceptional, devastatingly good’ new work of fiction Murmurations.

Based in Adelaide, South Australia, Carol is a short story writer, novelist, journalist and essayist. She talks here about the structure of this deftly constructed multi-layered book, her haunting use of silences and gaps, the inspiration of Edward Hopper’s paintings, influences of other writers working in the short form, and the practicalities of creating this compelling series of interlinked stories.

QUESTION ONE:

Emma Ashmere: You’ve described Murmurations as a novella,  a composite novel, and as a short story cycle. Each ‘chapter’ can be read as a discrete short story. The characters are linked in complex and sometimes random ways, surfacing in each other’s lives either centrally or on the periphery. One major event happens off camera, Erris Cleary’s death, which echoes throughout the book, from the opening story ‘After The Island’ to the final story ‘Paper Boats’. Characters – and readers – peer into the characters’ lives directly, or obliquely via hearsay. Can you talk a little about your use of gaps in the book, how you decide to what to put on the page, and what you leave for the reader to fill in for themselves?

Carol Lefevre: The gaps, or silences, between stories in a short story cycle or composite novel are, I think, one of the most fascinating aspects of the form. In an essay “On Writing Short Books” in Stranger at the Door: Writers and the Act of Writing, Kristjana Gunnars says: ‘The silence itself, which occurs between fragments, must become eloquent.’ To me it is an understated eloquence, and one in which the reader must play their part. Because – aside from the obvious function of shaping a shorter work – the silences between stories invite the reader to participate in creating meaning around the un-narrated events.

In Murmurations, the gaps ask quite a lot of the reader, especially as the death of one of the characters, Erris Cleary, occurs off stage. But while Erris is an important character, the book is really about a group of young couples; it charts their marriages as they do and don’t fall apart, and follows them into later life. To have put Erris’s death on the page in such a slender book would have overshadowed the private struggles and sorrows of all those other characters, and my hope is that by suppressing the details (as Edward Hopper erased detail in his paintings) it becomes more of a haunting than a sensational event.

I also love the fact that, as a form, the novella – which can be read in a single sitting – brings the experience of reading much closer to the experience of looking at a painting.

QUESTION TWO:

EA: Writers are often advised to nail ‘time and place’ from the outset. In Mururmations, time roams about, much like memory, but is anchored by each protagonist and their circumstance.

As for place, the details of the natural world – the woods, the houses, the lakes, the moors, the mosses – are rich and bleak, in sharp focus and yet mirage-like and distant. At the end of the book you mention the book’s setting is not necessarily in one country, and that you’ve used the paintings of Edward Hopper as a spark for the stories. Can you talk a little about drawing on the specificity and universality of Hopper’s work, and how this influences time, place, or structure and characterisation?

CL: I love your perception that time roams about in the book ‘much like memory’, because often in the stories characters are looking back over their lives, remembering what happened and how they got to where they are in the present. The backwards structure of the story “This Moment is Your Life” is one of time pushing deeper and deeper into the past, until it suddenly comes up short in the present moment. Overall, time is anchored at various points, yet by such small details that it would be easy to pass over them, for example the publication date of  The Feminine Mystique (1963), and the short-lived history of disco music (all over by the end of the 1970s). Almost the last thing I did in the editing phase was work out a detailed timeline; I wanted to make certain that everyone’s stories fitted together, and I had to make a number of small tweaks.

Place was much more difficult to manage than time, since I’m a writer who loves the specific details of settings. I’m very aware of the influence of landscapes, how they affect everything, from the way people talk, to the way they dress, the way they hold themselves under the physical, political, and emotional weather of a place.

The first story was written as a response to the Edward Hopper painting Automat, which is so obviously a New York picture, and unfortunately it is a city I have never visited. Then the back-story that began to form around the figure in the painting came to me from somewhere I’d once lived, and it became difficult not to allow that landscape to seep through into the writing. As I began to realise that there would be more than one story, I resolved to keep the overall setting vague, despite Hopper’s paintings being so very American. Once or twice it nearly got away from me, with the mention of specific birds, and mosses, and again with the writing of one character’s homesickness without being able to mention the place she was desperate to return to – that really did test me.

Hopper’s paintings are remarkable for their erasing of detail, which makes them both arresting, and dream-like. It is that dream-like quality that has always drawn me to them, and I like to think that the careful erasing of details in the stories gives Murmurations a similar other worldly mood.

QUESTION THREE:

EA: In your previous book The Happiness Glass, short stories are interleaved with memoir, an act of laying down and yet blurring lines between fact and fiction. In the final story of Murumations ‘Paper Boats’, the protagonist posts off her short story into the darkness – addressed to The New Yorker. She ruminates on the reality that much of writing is about waiting – a common experience, I suspect for many short story writers and novelists. Can you tell us about your process of putting these eight stories into one book. For example, when you finished a new story, did you press on with the next one, or did that newer story affect the earlier ones, prompting redrafts before you continued building the whole?

CL: The writer character in the final story shares some of my thoughts and feelings about writing, as well as my reverence for certain writers. Like me, she takes time to recover from rejection, which she experiences as shame, though she recognises that this is an irrational response.

The stories in Murmurations unfolded slowly but steadily in the writing, and more or less in the order they appear in the book. It was quite a different process to that of The Happiness Glass, in which some of the stories had already been written, and a few had even been published, so that it was more a question of having discovered a new context for them alongside the essays.

With Murmurations, I wrote all eight stories before I considered the cohesiveness of the whole; then, I did move one story back a little bit to make the timing less tricky for readers. Once all the stories were written I also had to track the elusive character of Erris Cleary, and decide whether I had given enough details about her life for readers to be able to imagine the rest. I suppose some readers might wonder why I was so sparing with information about Erris.

In Paul Auster’s The Art of Hunger, the French writer Edmond Jabès says in an interview: ‘To tell a story, in my opinion, is to lose it…But if I say: he was born here, he died here, a whole life begins to take shape, a life that you might be able to imagine.’ I love that quote, and the sense that by erasing detail, as Hopper did in his paintings, readers are encouraged to enter the text, to create meaning by reading through the lens of their own experience and imagination.

***

CAROL LEFEVRE holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide, where she is a Visiting Research Fellow. Her first novel Nights in the Asylum (2007) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and won the Nita B. Kibble Award. As well as her non-fiction book Quiet City: Walking in West Terrace Cemetery (2016), Carol has published short fiction, journalism, and personal essays. She was the recipient of the 2016 Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship, and is an affiliate member of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, where she was Writer-in-Residence in 2017. Her most recent books The Happiness Glass (2018) and Murmurations (2020) are published by Spinifex Press. Carol lives in Adelaide.

Read more about here: www.carollefevre.com

Praise for Murmurations

‘lucid… exceptional… devastatingly good’ Canberra Times

‘beautiful, clear-eyed’ Michelle de Kretser.

beautifully conceived and composed’ Debra Adelaide 

Hear Carol talk about her work Writes4Women Podcast

Thank you Carol for such an illuminating and thought-provoking interview!

***

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

Crafting a Short Story Collection

My new short story collection Dreams They Forgot is out now. Here’s an article about navigating the advice – and counter-advice – on building a house of short fiction.

Much has been said about short stories – as a form. They’re the literary equivalent of practising your scales, limbering up for the novel symphony. Publishers avoid them. Yet continue to publish them. Nobody reads them. Except they do. They’re back in fashion. They never went away. As Jane Rawson puts it ‘the short story is both on hiatus and in the prime of its life.’

When I began thinking about creating a collection, there was plenty of ‘how to’ advice about writing short stories and flash fictions but far less about crafting a compelling whole from various scraps. Maybe because it’s as simple as plonking them into one long document.

Not quite.

Reading like a reader

Herding all my stories into one file was revelatory. I tried to sit on the other side of the desk and read them as a reader – rather than the author. One thing leapt out: repetition of ideas, issues, images – even phrases. Nobody had noticed these little obsessions when I’d farmed them out to different places over the years.

I cut several stories. But how best to tend to the keepers?

Mix tapes, zoos, share houses

Nathan Scott Macnamara compares organising a collection to ‘sequencing an album’ or mixed cassette tape, striking ‘a balance between familiarity and change’ and ‘fulfilling the reader’s desires, while also challenging them.’

Randall Jarrell thinks it’s like ‘starting a zoo in your closet.’ The giraffe takes up all the space. As Valerie Trueblood quips, it doesn’t take long to identify which one is the giraffe.

I started to think of my collection as more like a share-house peopled by a mix of timid, loud, pedantic, erratic, reliable, long-termer tenants and fly-by-nighters. The allocation of rooms was paramount.

To theme or not

Some bind their collections to a distinct theme. When it comes to organizing a linked collection, chronology may have already done the job.

It’s been said themed collections – or ‘almost-novels’ – are easier to sell. Perhaps because continuity of characters/time/events may promise fewer gear-changes for the reader.

Set in a seaside village, Ursula Le Guin’s Searoad is bound by place and divided by intergenerational feuds.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, also in a seaside town, showcases an ensemble of protagonists. But Olive is the star, so too in the sequel Olive, Again.

Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and Light is hived into four parts, a hybrid, blurring multiple realities.

Toni Jordan’s Nine Days interlocks one-day-in-a-life of characters through time.

Apparently Nam Le’s award-winning The Boat was never marketed as a collection. Are these are novels, or collections? Or are they carving out space in between?

 Order in the house of short fiction

If your collection is not overtly themed – the question becomes which stories where? It seems logical to put the published pieces or prize-winners first, or the ones already edited by professionals. But suddenly the frame and the context have changed. Now there are many voices speaking from differently-decorated rooms, some of which will have porous walls. Others boast large windows with views to the gardens, as opposed to broom cupboard-sized affairs overlooking the bus depot.

So, who’s on first?

Macnamara says the opening story must do two things: ‘establish the writer’s authority’ and ‘prepare the reader’ for what’s to follow.

In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Speak to Me’ a quasi-alien whooshes into a fantasy writer’s backyard. The reader has been warned from page one – uncertainty abounds.

Amanda O’Callaghan’s ‘The Widow’s Snow’ invites us into a middle-aged woman’s thoughts during a protracted date. Ambiguity, trust, snap decisions and death, course through the book.

Josephine Rowe’s ‘Brisbane’ begins with ‘and’, pulling us in for the ride in Tarcutta Wake and addressing us mid-sentence, aka in media res.

Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ sets up the skittles with the opening sentence: ‘The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.’ She does. And motors towards a murderer.

However, Daniyal Mueenuddin believes the ‘brightest’ story will entice the reader in. Others plump for the ‘best’ piece with the ‘widest’ appeal.

Find the shape

Matthew Fox offers ‘shapes’ for building collections eg mosaic and hourglass. There’s also the ‘tent pole’ – planting stronger pieces a few pages apart to hold the whole thing up.

As for stories of differing length, opinion seems divided about where to put longer stories (aka ‘the giraffes’). Weight it at the end, like Nam Le’s novella in The Boat, or satisfy early with a hearty appetizer. Flash fictions might flit about the equatorial centre. Recurring characters can inhabit adjoining rooms and whisper through the key holes. If there’s a title story, it may settle wherever it pleases.

The last word

For Macnamara, the last story should ‘make emotional sense of everything that’s come before’ and ‘wrap things up.’ Fox says they’re an opportunity to ‘open up to the world.’ The final page should be like the final page of all your stories. Equally resolved – or nebulous.

 Pitching to a publisher

Any decent proposal takes time and effort. Tease out idiosyncratic themes as well as the universal. Highlight any unusual angles, settings, characters, events.

When it comes to writing a synopsis, there’s plenty of advice about novel synopses, but there wasn’t much online about collections. I asked other writers.

Put your characters up front, one suggested. X does Y in Z.

I read a range of collections – recently published, classics – and scoured their blurbs and reviews, noting which stories were singled out, and the adjectives used ie gothic, gritty, cerebral, mythical, fierce, achingly real.

Before I sent out my collection, I rewrote all the stories, old, new, published, unpublished, long, short. If some were written for a themed competition or journal, I checked whether they still made sense transplanted in their new terrain.

I moved them all about many times in the hope they’d pique – and maintain the interest of a publisher – all the while knowing any potential editor would have their own ideas and strategies about what should go where – and which stories should stay or go.

Finally, I spackled together a log-line, wrote a long synopsis (one sentence per story), a short synopsis (a phrase) – and submitted both.

Rejection

Rejection is part of a writer’s job. There are more writing competitions now – and more writers. Fewer journals – and fewer publishers. Kim Liao famously aimed for 100 rejections a year.

Useful – or prohibitively expensive? Galvanising or soul-crumbling? Kim Liao later revisited her idea in her article about ‘creative failure’. It’s worth reading both.

I tend to send out my most polished pieces to the ‘right place’. By ‘polished’ I mean I edit, edit, edit. Or as the submission guidelines for Griffith Review state: ‘Good fiction writing stands out immediately – polish, proofread and repeat.’

By ‘sending to the right place’, I mean somewhere interested in my kind of work. The only way to discover this is by researching, reading, and subscribing to publications, and learning more about their editors and authors.

Just like rejection, research is also part of a writer’s remit.

Who knows if rejection gets any easier?

Perhaps it’s what you do with them that counts. Early on, a writing in my writing life a lecturer said she dealt with rejection by ‘crying for a day – then getting back to it.’ Natalie Goldberg learnt something similar from her Zen teacher in her famous handbook Writing Down the Bones: if you finish writing a book, excellent. Now, start another.

Whenever one of my stories gets a ‘no’, I’ll either pull the story apart, try another polish, or wait until a themed journal or competition seems a better fit.

The ‘good rejection’ is when an editor takes the time to send a comment along with the no thanks. Their notes might be a critique or an encouragement. Either way I thank them, and ruminate on what they’ve suggested. It might not resonate immediately, but sometimes it’s enough to spark a rethink or an overhaul – or keep me plugging away.

Some recalibrated stories are eventually picked up. Others – never.

I keep various incarnations on files by year, flick through them occasionally, excise the odd sentence or idea, cut false leads, and see if something new emerges.

The best story on rejection closes out Maxine Beneba Clarke’s award-winning collection Foreign Soil.

Allegedly semi-biographical – the protagonist in ‘The Suki-yaki Book Club’ is a struggling writer scratching out a living in her cramped apartment next to a railway track. She amasses her growing stash of rejection slips as ‘literary armour’ against a world she’s been told is not ready for her kind of work. But as Emily Laidlaw points out in her reading notes on Foreign Soil, that this book exists at all proves they were wrong.

Success

So if your collection finally gets the nod – fantastic. You’re one of the lucky ones who’s persisted. You’ve found a publisher who ‘gets’ your work and is willing to invest time, money, and energy into editing, improving, and promoting it.

But what to say when usually omnivorous readers claim they never read short stories? Never? All short stories? Not even by authors they already admire – Margaret Atwood, Emma Donoghue, Ali Smith, Hilary Mantel, George Saunders, Gail Jones, Zadie Smith?

Isn’t that a bit like saying you don’t like music?

Perhaps you’ll try to persuade them and say short stories are perfect for our busy lives – to dive into during the daily commute, to flick through while the pasta boils, or as a welcome distraction in the waiting room.

Or perhaps you’ll smile at your new book clutched in their hands – hoping its contents will surprise, illuminate, entertain, provoke, amuse, engage – and they’ll become so intrigued by your glimpses into your strangely familiar tenants’ minds and worlds – they’ll forget about the type of house you’ve built for them to share.

***

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

A version of this article first appeared in the Bryon Writers Festival magazine Northerly March 2020.

 

Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist: When a story arrives

The Queens Theatre Adelaide, 1992, photo by Delma Corazon.

My short story ‘Nightfall’ has just been published on adda, the online literary magazine for the Commonwealth Foundation. The story was shortlisted for the Pacific region of the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize.

‘Nightfall’ is set in 1800s Adelaide and features the Prado Music Hall at the old Queens Theatre. Apparently it’s the oldest theatre in mainland Australia.

I was actually writing something else when the voice of the protagonist arrived. I scribbled it down, submitted it to a few places, had no luck, cut it by a third, thought why not, and sent it into the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize – and was stunned to hear many months later it was shortlisted.

Since then, my short story collection Dreams They Forgot has been picked up by Wakefield Press and will be published in September 2020. ‘Nightfall’ will be in the collection.

My thanks to all involved with the Prize, and the Commonwealth Foundation.

Thanks also to Delma Corazon giving permission to use her photo.

The 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize closes on 1 November 2019. Entry is free, there’s a diverse panel of judges, and you can submit in a number of languages.

Best of luck!

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

The Bookshelf: Book Reviewing on Radio

I’ve done a bit of book reviewing in the past – in print – but it’s another thing to talk about books on the radio. Being a bit of an avoider of public speaking in the past – this adds another layer. But I do love talking about books.

the bookshelf jun 2019

So it was wonderful to be invited onto Radio National’s weekly fiction program The Bookshelf as one of the reviewers talking about novels with the two Bookshelf hosts Kate Evans and Cassie McCullough. Somehow they manage to put everyone at ease, whether they’re in the studio or calling in from elsewhere – while deftly and wittily dissecting the plot, setting, imagery, psychology of the characters, and the structure and politics at work in that week’s book selection. I kept my trusty reviewing notes on hand – and off we went.

The program will be broadcast at midday today and is also online. There is a fantastic interview with Scottish author Damien Barr, plus links to past programs and podcast extras. A great resource for readers and writers alike.

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

 

Celebrating the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist

cropped-greentypwriter

The 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist has been announced – I am still is shock to see my name on it!

There are over 20 writers to celebrate on the shortlist including from Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, New Zealand, UK, Cyprus, including two translations. The regional winners – from Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Europe/Canada, Pacific – will be announced on 9 May. The overall winner will be announced on 9 July. All winners will have their stories published in Granta. Shortlisted stories will be published online.

My short story ‘Nightfall’ is set in  1800s Adelaide – my home town.

See more about some of the shortlisted writers:

https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2019/04/10/131397/nz-oz-writers-shortlisted-for-2019-commonwealth-short-story-prize/

https://www.radionz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/2018690872/pacific-women-writers-recognised-by-commonwealth

https://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/386841/cook-islander-s-story-shortlisted-for-commonwealth-prize

https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/books/news/2019-04-10-sa-writer-alex-latimer-shortlisted-for-the-commonwealth-short-story-prize/

https://johannesburgreviewofbooks.com/2019/04/10/the-jrb-daily-2019-commonwealth-short-story-prize-shortlist-announced-including-writers-from-kenya-nigeria-south-africa-tanzania-and-zambia/

https://www.thebookseller.com/news/women-dominate-commonwealth-short-story-prize-shortlist-983536

And keep a look out for next year’s Prize. Entry is free. The judging panel is diverse. Stories can be submitted in a number of languages.

You can find out more about all the shortlisted writers, plus more about this year’s Prize from the chair of the 2019 judging panel, Caryl Phillips.

http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/2019-cssp-shortlist/

I’s been 20 years since my first short story was published in the now defunct Australian Womens Book Review. This is a wonderful way to mark that anniversary.

Happy writing.

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in September 2020 by Wakefield Press.

Review of Nicola Griffith’s ‘So Lucky’

The New York Times describes Nicola Griffith’s new novel So Lucky as a ‘compact, brutal story of losing power and creating community’. A genre-blurring, ground-shifting book, So Lucky centres on Mara Tagarelli, who’s just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Griffith, a British-American writer who has MS, is known for her acclaimed novel Hild and the Aud Torvingen crime series.

The opening lines throw us right in:

It came for me in November, that loveliest of months in Atlanta: blue sky stinging with lemon sun, the squirrels screaming at each other over the pecans because they weren’t fooled; they knew winter was coming.

As Mara waves goodbye to her 14-year relationship, she loses her footing on an autumn leaf. Later, when she reaches for a bottle of milk, her hand doesn’t work.

Trained as a martial artist, Mara has fought to become confident in her body and her world. After surviving a violent assault at the age of 22, she turned her rage into strength:

[and] … learned to fight, to smash wood with my hands, to stretch my body, to toughen it, make it harder, stronger. Learned not to be afraid: to break their narrative.

But how to deal with MS, this ‘it’, this ‘thief’, this ‘grinning thing’ that’s come to stay?

The most powerful passages spotlight the reactions of others, the casual and institutionalised able-ism. Suddenly the line between Us and Them has moved. ‘Sufferer. Victim. Was that who I was now?’

Mara’s day job involves running a budget-stretched non-government HIV/AIDS organisation. At first she doesn’t tell anyone about her diagnosis, but there’s the profound exhaustion, the limp, the walking cane, the overwhelming effects of summer heat. On top of that, she has to convince her colleagues their office needs a ramp:

… the pavement wavered in the heat and my cane seemed to sink into the blacktop. A man I passed at the door pretended not to see me struggle. The woman behind the reception desk smiled in a bright Southern way … before the cane she’d greeted me by name.

For anyone whose health has changed suddenly, Griffith deftly captures the disorientation of dealing with new practicalities, the confronting recalibration of identity, the denial, fear, anger, and the seemingly random wins and losses with the medical world. Mara eventually takes the advice to ‘find her people’ and attends an MS support group, which spins into the surreal.

She flies across the US to an annual conference, but this time she needs a wheelchair. While the airport attendants reluctantly organise one, they speak about her – not to her – as if she’s a piece of baggage. Things don’t improve at the conference. There’s none of the usual banter or flirting with the other delegates. Even here, she’s become invisible. The wheelchair has written her ‘out of the story’.

But Mara is having none of that. The next time she travels, she’s adapted her survival strategies:

This time I expected to be ignored, so it hurt less. And this time I saw all those people like me on the periphery: people in chairs, people with dogs, people with interpreters. But I was too tired to manage anything but the conference minimum …

Forced to take leave and subsist on her limited health insurance, she draws on her IT skills, contacts, and new knowledge to establish an online community and a much-needed support service. This is where the novel morphs into a harrowing psychological thriller. Mara’s enterprise is hijacked. People’s lives are put at risk as paranoia, vulnerability, and danger collide.

But So Lucky is also punctuated with flashes of subversive wit and fierce hope. Mara has a nifty way of dealing with able-bodied drivers who hog disabled-reserved car spaces, and there’s a blossoming bond with her shambolic dope-growing neighbour, Josh. As for the avalanche of slick MS drug pamphlets, she detects the familiar whiff of a promise and threat, heaven and hell, showcased in these slick, sanitised parallel realities:

Glossy sales brochures full of pictures of clean-cut, unstressed, middle-class people with white teeth posed with clean and shiny mobility aids, or standing on top of a mountain, or riding a bike … They reminded me of tampon adverts … buy this and magically be able to ride a white horse bareback through a field …

Griffith has said So Lucky is her ‘version of just writing a story I want to write … a way to sort of overwrite the ableist narrative … just give people a different story to replace the old story’. Apparently she didn’t plan to write this book. Suddenly it ‘came roaring out’.

Some readers may find So Lucky an unsettling book. For others its honesty, power, and capacity to destabilise certain assumptions are a welcome recognition and an urgent articulation of familiar realities.

Nicola Griffith: So Lucky published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2018 PB 192pp $21.99

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

This review was first published on Sydney’s Newtown Review of Books.

 

Short & Sharp: Flash Fiction Competitions

fbflashfictioncompblogjun2018Yesterday in Byron Bay, the wild surf crashed and the winter sun flickered. In an upstairs room off main street, a dozen or so keen writers hunched over their notepads writing Flash Fiction. The workshop was timed to coincide with the inaugural Byron Flash Fiction Competition – now open across Australia.

More Flash Fiction opportunities are bobbing up all the time. Some are morphing into multi-platform affairs: animation, sound, postcards, dance etc. But what makes an editor or competition judge decide a piece is ‘good enough’?

In previous posts I’ve mentioned strategies for writing memorable short stories. In my post on microlit there’s a link to David Gaffney’s tips on writing Flash Fiction published in The Guardian. Gaffney has since revisited this. Apparently these ideas have ‘followed him around.’  See also Claire Fuller’s suggestions.

I’ve been sending work to journals and competitions for 20 years. Some stories have been picked up. Most are not. The main thing is to keep going. As Natalie Goldberg says in her classic how-to book Writing Down the Bones – when you finish a piece of writing – and start another.

Writing short isn’t easy. Sometimes the real story only emerges as you hack away the extraneous. Cut too much and the story withers. The great thing is you can go back to a piece years later, change a lazy word, or add a different title. Sometimes you have to take out the fire-bellows to coax a new spark in a piece that’s been slouching around your ‘rejected/needs edit’ file. It’s all about decision and precision. As New Yorker creative-nonfiction writer John McPhee says: ‘Writing is selection… You select what goes in and decide what stays out.’

Some competitions or journals call for a particular theme. With a bit of renovating a dormant story might fit. It might even catch the judge’s or editor’s eye. But once it’s sent, it’s out of your hands. As Priscilla Long says in her book The Portable Mentor – make your work as good as it can be. We only have an allotted amount of writing/living time. So send out your best.

It’s heartening to find some very short fictions tucked away in recent short story collection. Laura Elvery’s ‘Man about a Moon’ appears in her new book Trick of the Light (UQP). Roanna Gonsalves’ NSW Premier Literary Award-winning collection The Permanent Resident (UWAP) includes the short piece ‘First Person’. Mixing up short and longer stories isn’t new. Virginia Woolf’s twin shape-shifting meditations on colour ‘Blue and Green’ were published in 1921. See also Carys Davies’ ‘In Skokie’ in her collection The Travellers (Text), and Janet Frame’s ‘The Linesmen’ in You are Now Entering the Human Heart (Women’s Press).

There are many excellent fiction and non-fiction opportunities in Australia and beyond, including:

Bryon Bay Flash Fiction Competition

Spineless Wonders joanne burns microlit award

https://brevity.wordpress.com/2018/04/19/electric-lit-seeks-flash/

http://www.fishpublishing.com/competition/flash-fiction-contest/

https://mastersreview.com/flash-fiction-contest/

Happy writing and good luck!

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.