Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Category: Short Stories

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.

***

Emma Ashmere’s short stories have been widely published including in the Age, Overland,Review of Australian Fiction, adda Commonwealth Writers Magazine, NGV Magazine, and shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, and 2018 Overland/Fair Australia Prize. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA award. Her new short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published on 1 September by Wakefield Press. 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.

www.carollefevre.com

Praise for Murmurations

‘lucid… exceptional… devastatingly good’ Canberra Times

‘beautiful, clear-eyed’ Michelle de Kretser.

beautifully conceived and composed’ Debra Adelaide 

Buy Murmurations

Ordering from your local book shop supports book shops and also draws attention to new books. Or you can buy direct from the publisher Spinifex Press.

Hear Carol talk about her work Writes4Women Podcast

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

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Emma Ashmere’s short fictions have appeared in the Age, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review, and shortlisted for 2018 NUW/Overland Fair Australia Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, and 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize. Dreams They Forgot will be published by Wakefield Press in September 2020 and is listed on the SMH/Age Books to Read in 2020.

Read more of Emma’s posts on reading and writing short stories here.

Crafting a Short Story Collection

My new short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be out in September 2020. 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 short fictions have appeared in the Age, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review, and shortlisted for 2018 NUW/Overland Fair Australia Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, and 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize. Dreams They Forgot will be published by Wakefield Press in September 2020.

Read more of Emma’s posts on reading and writing short 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’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.

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’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.

 

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.

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’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.

 

 

Small big worlds: Writing microlit

final micro worlds for blog sep 2017

From the inkstone to the smartphone, some writers will always be drawn to brevity. Here’s a quick look at the increasingly popular short form – microlit.

Microlit. Microfiction. Flash fiction. Micro non-fiction. Sudden memoir. What are they? And how do they differ from the good old short story? It must be all about the word count, right?

Yes. And no.

Word count is everything

Microlit is the umbrella term for very short pieces of writing – fiction, prose poems, non-fiction. The term was coined by the Australian publishers Spineless Wonders, although not everyone agrees on the word limit for each sub-species. As a rough guide, microfiction/nonfiction hovers around 200-500 words. Flash fiction/non-fiction is up to 750-1000 words. Short stories range from 1,000 to 10,000 words before straying into novella territory. But one thing is certain. When you’re submitting to a microlit journal or competition – stay under their set word limit.

Word count isn’t everything: control, illusions of space, gaps

In short stories, every word must pull its weight. In microlit – every syllable counts. Control is paramount, as Cassandra Atherton emphasises in her introduction to the microlit anthology, Landmarks. But it’s not the kind of control that stifles or dulls a work. It’s a suppleness, exactitude, and restraint. Paul Hetherington refers to the ‘TARDIS’ qualities of microlit. They may look small and unassuming on the outside, but once inside, they defy the usual conventions of space.

If every syllable counts – so do the gaps. As Spineless Wonders publisher Bronwyn Meehan says, ‘in the best flash fiction, there is no spoon feeding, the … writer trusts the reader to fill the gaps, to sit with unresolved endings and ambiguity.’ Karen Whitelaw puts it this way: ‘Things don’t have to be explained, merely implied. This is the beauty of the form, that behind the words a whole world is peeping through.’

Perhaps that’s why many poets have taken to the form. The boundaries between poetry and microlit seem intriguingly blurred, elastic, porous. Both experiment with rhythm, and seek to distil complexity. Anyone who’s tried their hand at haiku knows the challenge of creating something personal yet universal, regulated but surprising, tiny but expansive.

A thimbleful of history

Like haiku, versions of microlit have been circulating for centuries as fables, pithy sayings, and commentaries. In the 1330s Japanese Buddhist priest Kenkō sat at his inkstone for several days, ‘feeling strangely demented’ as he jotted down ‘at random whatever nonsensical thoughts’ entered his head. His series of witty, precise, sorrowful snippets became Essays in Idleness. But perhaps the most notorious western 20th century microfiction is Ernest Hemingway’s six-word haunter: ‘Baby shoes. For Sale. Never worn’.

Then there’s the Man Booker-winning Lydia Davis who’s been publishing bracing short fictions for decades. Her 700 page Collected Stories reads like one drip-fed mini-drama at a time. Davis says she draws on ‘humour, language, and emotional difficulty’ rather than focusing on what her stories might be ‘about.’

Joy Williams’ new book Ninety-nine stories of God is a dazzling mosaic of funny, harsh, tragic, shards of imagined and recorded lives. Some pieces seem beguilingly smooth. Others lacerate. The famously non-computer-owning Williams typed out a list of 8 Essential Attributes for the aspiring microlit writer, the first being: ‘a clean surface with much disturbance below.’

So how to go about writing it?

Ask the locals

Several successful local microlit writers have shared their thoughts in a series of interviews on the Spineless Wonders blog.

Moya Costello: ‘I draft and re-draft a lot. I also work by imitation (intertextually). I love working with language over narrative/plot.….If you get the right first line, you are often away on a short piece.’

Nick Couldwell: ‘there are no rules. Unlike a novel or traditional short story where there are obvious points that need to be covered like plot, character building and the ending… microfiction has to drag the reader in in only a couple of lines.’

Stevi-Lee Alver: ‘Short sentences must be carefully placed together to convey meaning and paint emotion, like pieces of a puzzle… I often spend a great deal of time exchanging words, with similar meanings, until the words right sound.’

Barnaby Smith: ‘I wrote one in 10 minutes whilst visiting my sister in Stockholm, after being reminded of an experience we shared as children – and very quickly jotting it down – it was a fairly spontaneous, impressionistic thing. I’m not one for ‘stories’, more imagistic fragments. I see them as prose poems more than flash fiction.’

Whatever a writer’s style, technique, ‘rules’, intent, or content – microlit in all its many guises continues to morph, sending out its tendrils, snaking into people’s lives via phones, audio, social media, zines, and film animations.

Read/hear

If you’re interested in writing microlit – read and listen to as much as possible. Australian journals include: Canary Press, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Mascara Review, Pencilled in, Peril, Seizure, Snap Journal, Spineless Wonders, The Lifted Brow, Suburban Review, Voiceworks. Competitions: Avid Reader Miniscule comp, Big Issue comp, joanne burns/Newcastle Writers Festival microlit award, Odyssey House, Outstanding, Peter Cowan Writers Centre comp, Wyndham Writers comp.

Starting (and ending)

South Coast writer Susan McCreery set herself the challenge of creating one piece of microlit a day and ended up with her book, Loopholes. She says of course you must ‘work hard at whittling away unnecessary words, rearranging sentences, chucking out flabby bits….’ But other pressures are at play. ‘There’s not much time to set a scene, or introduce character… Implication is crucial. The title is vital. Endings shouldn’t be too neat.’

‘Start big, end small,’ says David Gaffney in his 6 point how-to list, who also advocates starting ‘in the middle’. As for endings – avoid cheap punchlines. The last line should ‘ring like a bell’.

Twists, changes, shifts

Hillary Simmons suggests successful microlit ‘must combine efficiency of text with immediacy of imagery and neat narrative twists, all in a space small enough for a single reading.’ Emma Marie Jones says, ‘Microfictions are, after all, still fictions: they need, even in their brevity, character, setting, action, conflict, a shift.’ This ‘shift’ or ‘turn’ might be as imperceptible as a shadow creeping across a room, or a horizon-tilting quake. Sue of Whispering Gums took her first dive into reviewing microlit via Angela Meyer’s collection Captives, and noted a pattern: ‘the protagonists confront a challenge, a change, a decision, or they create worlds that suit themselves.’

The aim of the microlit writer then, is to construct convincing, compelling, contained worlds – or shards and slices of micro-worlds.

All writing is rewriting…

Even if your piece arrived fully formed in a burst of clarity (as suggested by the term ‘sudden fiction/memoir’) it still might need reworking. Identify loose threads and pull them out. If the piece still hangs together, you’ve cribbed another micro-inch to stitch in another sentence, idea, nuance, glimpse, or layer. If less really has become less, rethink. Editing microlit is not so much charging in with the pruning shears, but more your dexterous tweezer work.

…with one eye on the wordcount

If a story still can’t manage to limbo in under a 200 word count, perhaps set it aside for a 500-750 word-er. A themed competition/journal might cast a new light, giving sharper focus or stronger direction to an earlier wandery draft.

Microlit becomes microlisten

Before pressing send, consider reading your drafts aloud – a kind of microlisten. This can detect any stumbles, unintended repetitions, slumps, clanging notes, and clumsy rhythms. Better to find those misbeats or hollow notes before your piece wings its way to a publisher – to double-check you’ve paid attention to the small big things. The glimpses. The control. The tension. The rhythm. The precision. The twists. The gaps. The expansiveness. And of course – the word count.

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.

This article was first published in the Sept/Oct 2017 edition of Byron Writers Festival magazine Northerly.

 

 

 

Writing Outside Youth: Two Uneasy Pieces by Janet Frame and Ali Smith

janet frame PortraitBlogMay2016 121 (2)

A few months ago I was asked to choose a favourite piece of writing that captured ‘the essence of youth’. This got me thinking about being a writer of a Certain Age who occasionally writes younger characters, and the process of drawing on – or strategically remembering and forgetting – the ‘other country’ of my youth. The young characters who grip me in fiction are usually outsiders, so I turned to two of my favourite writers to see how they do it.

Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’ dazzles because it’s about being young and old – literally – at the same time. In Janet Frame’s short story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’, the protagonist is probably younger than ‘youth’, but there’s a link between the two stories – the moment these characters discover they don’t fit in and are forced to make a decision about what that means.

Here are my thoughts on these two uneasy pieces.

‘Writ’ by Ali Smith

There’s a razor sharp exchange about the vantage point of age in Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’. A middle-aged woman finds her fourteen-old self scuffing about her book-lined house, lolling in front of the blaring television, perfecting the art of looking needy, bored, and beautiful. There’s so much to say – and not say – to this girl as she smirks, shrugs, advances, and retreats.

For a moment they find a patch of common ground when they talk about the Romantic poet John Keats whose writing she’s/they’ve studied at school. But the chasm soon opens up again. ‘He did die unbelievably young, you know,’ says the woman. The girl fires back, ‘No he didn’t … He was twenty-five or something.’

This is trademark Ali Smith, snapping the elastic of time and place, thrusting a two-way mirror between the other and the self. Just when you think she’s writing about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all youth – you begin to suspect it’s more about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all middle age.

‘Writ’ appears Ali Smith’s 2009 collection The First Person and Other Stories.

***

‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ by Janet Frame

When it comes to crystallising the tensions between individuality and conformity, belonging and alienation, loyalty and betrayal, I can’t go past Janet Frame. In her story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ a girl learns her place in the world during a visit to her ‘Cultured’ cousins.

The cousins have ‘good trellis work’, a garden full of flowers, and fine lacy clothes. For the girl, it’s an ‘alien world’ where nobody fights, or yells, or sings dirty little rhymes. Her mother seems ‘far away’ and ‘high up’ as she perches at the aunt’s ‘white and ready’ kitchen table. The girl watches how her mother begins to say ‘really isn’t that just so fancy’ about everything she sees.

The girl feels ‘sad and strange’ as she stares at the cooked turnip waiting on their plates. She wants to go home, where she can run wild in the fields and yank turnips out of the ground, and eat them raw under the friendly gaze of ‘an approving cow’. But then she realises. She is the poor cousin. She must do as her mother does – hide her ignorance, oddity, and shame. So she eats her cooked turnip, shows interest in her cousins’ fine lacy clothes, and begins to say ‘just so fancy’ to everything she sees.

‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ appears in Janet Frame’s 1983 collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart.

***

For more recent short story collections exploring the tricky terrain between various worlds and (not necessarily) fitting in, I heartily recommend Paddy O’Reilly’s Peripheral Vision, Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil.

***

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.

 

New short story in the Review of Australian Fiction

I am very pleased to have a new short story published in the latest edition of the Australian Review of Fiction. It’s a great opportunity for newer writers – as the editors pair an established writer with an emerging writer. The much-published local RAF_VOL16_ISS_5Lisa Walker has her story ‘Romantic’ in this edition, along with my story ‘Seaworthiness’ which is based on the last sailing ship to carry wheat from South Australia to England in 1948.

You can see the stories here:

http://reviewofaustralianfiction.com/issues/volume-16-issue-5/

Happy holiday reading!

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.