Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Tag: short story collection

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.