Best Australian Stories 2014, ed. Amanda Lohrey

best australian stories 2014I’ve really enjoyed reading this year’s Best Australian Stories (which includes my story ‘Too Solid Flesh’, originally published in Island 137). One commonality I found between the stories, which reminded me of the power of fiction (what it can do), was an emotional complexity that can only be ‘shown’, not explained. For example, in Julienne van Loon’s ‘Bring Closer What is Left to Come’ there is a moment where the protagonist, a married woman who desires her colleague, thinks she sees her crush from behind on the stairs:

‘and she watched the way he walked and the desire sparked in her so fast and so quick it was almost painful to keep walking…’

But by the end of the paragraph she sees the man she desires in the office and realises that the person on the stairs had been someone else. The protagonist’s feelings are not elaborated upon and the reader takes on the complex emotion of such a case of mistaken identity. There is also a minor epiphany that occurs regarding the directionless surge of the woman’s desire. And this is only one moment.

The story is framed by the woman’s cycling commute to and from work. Time shifts, and there are references to speed, the bike in time: descending, airborne, stuck. The structure relates to the woman’s psychological state, but there is ambiguity: again, making the story emotive rather than explanatory.

In the beginning, the reader is at a distance from the woman as the woman herself is from others and from herself; the reader is then drawn in closer but the constant shifts indicate uncertainty (which relates to us: we cannot really know what we want, we are caught up in desire, we will have moments of pedaling backwards). I can see why editor Amanda Lohrey opened the anthology with this powerful story.

There are so many that stood out for me, but two that have resonated in particular are ‘The Panther’ by David Brooks and ‘The Green Lamp’ by Leah Swann, which follow each other in the book. I loved ‘The Panther’, which is about a panther in a painting that becomes real for the writer in the story. There’s a mood hanging over this story: elegant, haunting; a lounging loneliness. And it’s unashamedly self-conscious. The ending produced in me a shivery thrill.

Swann’s ‘The Green Lamp’ is a genuine and empathetic story which captures in micro a contemporary masculinity. It’s about a young tradie who gets laid off and takes a job in a pizza shop. He lives with an older, intellectual woman. At one point he blunders when something happens to a young women he works with. Throughout, the reader has access to his thoughts, and they reveal a curious and poetic soul who is unable or reluctant to articulate his deeper self. They also reveal someone-in-becoming; through these small experiences in the narrative he is finding out what he thinks and feels. And relevant to the contemporary climate there is a complex mix of arousal, self-loathing, knowing, not knowing, wanting and not wanting. Besides this excellent study of character, the story overall reminds the reader that you never truly know what is happening in someone else’s head.

I won’t mention every story but there were so many that gave me shivers or that I found myself thinking about hours or days afterwards. From the sense of uneasy desire in Lucy Neave’s ‘The Horse Hospital in Dubai’ to the overanalysis of self (to the obliteration of self) in Nicola Redhouse’s ‘This is Who You Are. You’ll See’. Claire Corbett’s story-essay ‘Snake in the Grass’ is rich—a story in which you can wallow. Fiona Place’s ‘Now I See’ lingers long due to its deliberate calm execution.

Kate Elkington’s ‘The Interpreter’ is deft, moving, and sneaks up on you. Arabella Edge’s ‘The Peacock’ is a great lesson in giving the reader ‘just enough’. The peacock at the centre of the story is a symbol—something about the way we attach/what we are attached to, in a crisis and more broadly in our lives. JYL Koh’s ‘Civility Place’ is a welcome foray into the speculative/surreal: Richard Yates meets Philip K Dick, about the inescapability of commerce. Ryan O’Neill’s ‘The Stories I Read as My Mother Died’ definitely gave me shivers. It explores the different ways emotion is expressed, and inadequacies of language (what can be told and what can’t, having words but having none). Kirsten Tranter’s ‘Pet Name’ is a story about curiosity (the curiosity itself revealing layers about the character) and is fascinating and alive. Don’t read ‘Blood and Bone’ by Lisa Jacobson if you have to do anything afterwards, it’s absolutely weighed down with grief. So beautifully sad.

Lohrey has pulled together a very strong anthology with much emotional resonance. I’m absolutely honoured my story is nestled among the above. I’d love to know what your favourites are, if you’ve read the anthology. I’ve got Best Australian Essays 2014 and Best Australian Poems 2014 sitting here too…

Captives reviewed in Cordite

CaptivesFCR (1)Jo Langdon has written a beautiful and perceptive review of Captives for Cordite Poetry Review.

‘The space beyond the stories is essential, and the words themselves appear with an illusory ease and simplicity.’

Read the rest here.

Captives is widely available, including from the publisherReadingsBooktopiaAvid ReaderFishpond (free worldwide shipping), or your local bookstore. The ebook is available on KindleGoogle Play, iBooks, Kobo & more.

Review of The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion in The Australian

The Rosie Effect reviewI reviewed The Rosie Effect, Graeme Simsion’s follow-up to The Rosie Project for the Weekend Australian. It’s a warm read, and a successful sequel. Following is an extract from the review.

As with the first book, these incidents are humorous and cause cringing; the reader observes the miscommunication, the unravelling, and longs to step in as an interpreter. This is enhanced by the first-person point of view: we experience each incident through Don’s eyes and can only imagine what the other characters are thinking […]

There is genuine emotional intent. Don grappling with the idea of a baby and how it will fit into his and Rosie’s lives is relatable on a broad level: trying to find some structure when life is changing shape or feels chaotic.

The Rosie books are partly about control. Life events take their course, and it is sometimes difficult to confront the idea that we have no control over them. We can relate to Don’s desire to be prepared for the birth, to play a part and to understand. His ineptitude makes us laugh, but his failure to recognise his partner’s needs strikes on a deeper level.

Read the rest of the review here.

Here you’ll find an interview I did with Graeme Simsion for The Big Issue on the release of The Rosie Project in 2013.

MWF 2014, Flashing the Square, Memory Makes Us

Melbourne Writers Festival has been fantastic so far. Stimulating keynotes from Helen Garner and Chris Hadfield, and I really enjoyed yesterday’s panel ‘Crossing Cultures’, about cultural hybridisation. There were some great insights into contemporary China from Zhang Tianpan: contemporary China is very complex, but also very simple. There are many commonalities with the West—’we all love beauty and freedom’. The Chinese are ‘so clever they can make simple things complex’, and there are two Chinas: the real China and the one on the internet. Which is more beautiful? The one on the internet, Tianpan said, as it is ‘vibrant, free, and active’. Tianpan was born the same year as me; I found him informative and also very warm and funny. I’m a bit sad I missed the Beijing panel as well. I’d love to go to China one day.

FTS

But what I meant to come on here and tell you about are two events at the festival next weekend. I’m helping to launch Flashing the Square, which is both a book and an audiovisual project, featuring pieces of microliterature. I helped to judge the joanne burns competition, and the winner and shortlisted entries are included in the anthology. I was also invited to contribute a piece myself. My piece and many others have been made into videos, which are being projected onto Fed Square during the festival. Keep an eye out for them! The audio recordings are available for a limited time for free on the Spineless Wonders website. The launch is on Saturday 30 August at 7pm in ACMI’s The Cube, and I’ll be in conversation with Flashing The Square’s curator, Richard Holt, writer/ critic Cassandra Atherton and writer, A.S. Patrić.

I was on a panel about microliterature yesterday, too, with Oliver Mol, chaired by Samuel Cooney. I was delighted to find a very healthy tweetstream afterwards. Thanks to Sonia Nair and Veronica Sullivan for recording the following quotes from yours truly:

‘I want to be an artist. Not just a writer. Different ideas can take different forms.’

‘I would never tell people which of my stories are fiction or nonfiction, because it doesn’t matter.’

It was great to sign a few books afterwards, too, including one for an author I admire very much, Meg Wolitzer.

I’ll be a guest on The Morning Read session on Friday 29 August at 10am, alongside Lauren Beukes (yay!), Chris Flynn & Mark Henshaw.

And the other MADNESS in which I’m participating is a live-writing event called Memory Makes Us, alongside Paddy O’Reilly and Nicholas J Johnson. My subject is ‘desire’. From 10–4 on Sunday 31 August we’ll be in the Atrium in Fed Square, constructing stories from our imaginations and your prompts. Contribute on the day, and here. Also, bring me whisky and images of Benedict Cumberbatch.

Review: Slush Pile by Ian Shadwell, for The Australian

Slush Pile

Sometimes an author will have one big hit and then … nothing. When we meet Michael Ardenne, the antihero of Ian Shadwell’s Slush Pile, it has been more than a decade since he won the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel Ephesus. Now, he is ‘as dry as an old dog turd’. Instead of writing, he pseudonymously occupies message boards about his own book, watches porn, drinks his cellar dry and leers at the teenage girl next door.

Read the rest of the review here.

Review: Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool in The Australian

summer houseSummer House is a dark satire, scalpel-sharp and more cohesive than The Dinner, with a more complex unreliable narrator, a compelling structure, and a sutured but festering wound of themes.’

Read my review of Dutch author Herman Koch’s disturbing novel Summer House with Swimming Pool here.

I also reviewed his previous novel, The Dinner, for The Australian.

Flash fiction is like a good dram

Cross-posted from the SA Writers’ Centre blog. I wrote this post ahead of my flash fiction workshop at the SA Writers’ Centre in Adelaide (this weekend: 22 June, book here). I also have workshops coming up at Writers Victoria (see also my interview), the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre, and at Byron Bay Writers’ Fest!

Glencairn_Whisky_Glass

On my desktop is a whisky wheel, a device that’s supposed to help you with your tasting notes when sampling single malts. Does your drink have a touch of black pepper on the nose? Or is it orange blossom? Is it lactic or nutty on the palate? Is the finish more toward the end of mint or tobacco? And how long does it linger on the tongue?

Those who know me have probably realised I’d eventually get around to using whisky as a metaphor for writing. Flash fictions—stories under 1000 words—are like a good dram. You savour them, roll them around in your mouth, are left with resonant remnants.

Here’s a little guide to tasting flash fiction:

The nose

The tone, voice or mood is set in the first few lines. Or if it’s a really short one, in the first few words. Some flavours the opening might go for: intriguing, dark, buoyant, amusing, suspicious, arresting. Or, indeed, honey, smoke or cloves.

The palate

We’re into the story now. There’s a character or characters. Something happens, has happened or is about to happen. The flavours (if it’s a good dram of story) are working together to create a cohesive effect. Something could be coming through very strong, like smoke or desire. The flavours are setting off little pings of association in your brain: your childhood, your fears, his garden, her lipstick.

The finish

All good things come to an end. But there’s a lingering in a good, complex dram or story. Did it slide down smoothly? Or is there a hint of bitterness left at the back of the tongue? Are you experiencing a jolt of sweet sherbet? There might be a warming in your chest, a sudden clarity, or a fading melancholy.

How powerful some flavours are: fresh cut grass, wet dog, roses, butterscotch. The flavours themselves, and the associations they uncover, can remain in the memory long afterwards.

With flash fiction, you have so few words to work with – 30ml worth, perhaps. There are many different types of flash stories, though a series of them from one author might take on a certain flavour profile (like single malts from a single region). Reading a range of stories from different authors will help to build your palate, help you to find out what you yourself can do.

Join me in the bar and let’s enjoy a dram or two.