Flash fictions: key words and after-images, on Booktopia


On the Booktopia blog today, I discuss flash fiction and short fiction; my own and others’ stories, intentions and possibilities. Here’s an extract:

In a short story, every word must count. What is left out is as important as what is left in. The writer must create and maintain a particular tone, or mood, and create a piece that feels whole (not a fragment) but that may evoke much outside its confines. With my own very short stories (also called flash fictions or microfictions), I want the characters, images, themes to live long in the reader’s mind. I want them to have some impact.

You might compare a very short story to a complex painting – a narrative-based painting – where the symbols nestled in the setting and upon the figures work together to not only suggest a particular story but hopefully move you to feel something, something you may not even fully, consciously comprehend.

I hope you enjoy reading the rest.

Carmel Bird Award shortlist

The shortlist for the 2013 Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award has just been announced on the Spineless Wonders website. These are all excellent, imaginative stories, and I’m so excited that they will be joining those by the invited writers published in The Great Unknown (including Carmel Bird herself). They range from an existential story from the POV of a pet bird (‘Bluey & Myrtle’ by Mark O’Flynn), to two touching stories about women reconnecting with their families after strange happenings (‘Navigating’ by Helen Richardson and ‘Significance’ by Susan Yardley), to two very sharp speculative stories (‘A Cure’ by Alex Cothren and ‘A Void’ by Guy Salvidge) and one very spooky outback tale (‘The Koala Motel’ by Rhys Tate).

Congratulations to the shortlisted authors! The winner of the $500 Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award will be announced soon.

Carmel Bird Award longlist announced

Hello from the heart of the Speyside Scotch whisky trail! I’m working at a guesthouse here for all of September. There are three dogs, and there’s whisky and time to write in the middle of the day. So I’m a pig in shit.

Today I’m excited to announce the longlist for the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award. I’ve had so much fun reading the submissions (and often been truly spooked or disturbed). I could tell that many of you wrote to the brief, as there was a delightful array of stories in Australian settings with strange themes and much more going on beneath the surface. Thank you so much for going to the effort.

The longlist is now up on the Spineless Wonders website! Congratulations to the longlisted writers. You’ve brought me hours of pleasure and entertainment. The shortlist will be announced soon…

The Great Unknown: author reveal + comp closing soon

FRONTAbove: sneak peek at the cover artwork by Michael Vale.

It’s just one week until entries are due for the Carmel Bird short fiction award, and the stories are coming in thick and fast. I’ll be taking some on the plane with me tonight on my way to the UK!

What I want to reveal today, to get you even more excited about entering the comp (and, of course, reading the anthology down the track) is the list of fantastic writers I invited to contribute a story to The Great Unknown. The Carmel Bird short fiction award winner and shortlisted stories will join these authors in the anthology.

The contributed stories are strange, funny, spooky, suspenseful, smart, political, moving, atmospheric, absurd, and feature a range of voices and scenarios. Certain themes and threads are beginning to appear in the collection as a whole. Doo doo doo doo…

So here are some of the excellent ‘down under’ writers whose work will be appearing in The Great Unknown (click through for books, websites, bios):

Ali Alizadeh
PM Newton
Chris Flynn
Paddy O’Reilly
AS Patric
Ryan O’Neill
Krissy Kneen
Damon Young
Deborah Biancotti
Chris Somerville
Carmel Bird
Marion Halligan
Kathy Charles

Great list, yes? It’s been a pleasure working with these talented pros. The Great Unknown will be published by Spineless Wonders towards the end of this year. More soon.

Enter the zone! The Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award 2013

Burgess_Meredith_The_Twilight_ZoneI’m very, very excited to announce that this year I am judging the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award for Spineless Wonders. The winner and shortlisted stories will be considered for publication in the Spineless Wonders annual anthology, which I have already been putting together, and trust me, you want to be published alongside these writers! The winner will also receive $500.

Entries close on 31 July 2013. Please read the submission guidelines very carefully, and do not send stories directly to me. I will be reading them blind.

So what’s the theme?

A woman driving across country sees the same hitchhiker again and again; another woman takes an elevator to a strange, deserted floor of a department building to be sold a busted thimble by a mannequin; the people on a quiet street begin to accuse each other of being aliens after the electricity goes off… these are some of the (trademarked) adventures in the realm of The Twilight Zone.

Watching and being spooked by these stories is a child in a lounge room at the bottom of the world. The settings are familiar, but also slightly strange. The child is used to these accents (except perhaps the way the presenter, Rod Serling, says Zyone) but it is not the way she speaks. She has heard that the water in her toilet even goes in a different direction. She suspects that, on this side of the world, they may be closer to the Zone than anyone suspects.

The ‘fifth dimension’ of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling often said, was also the realm of imagination. And as anyone blessed/cursed with a good imagination may know, fear of the unknown or the inexplicable may not only keep you awake at night, but may compel you to write. Serling, and other writers on the show, developed frightening scenarios, and often with more than entertainment in mind. Episodes of The Twilight Zone are often metaphors for equality, justice, the nuclear threat and more. Though they are just as often pure, spooky fun.

You are being invited into the zone. You are invited to be inspired by it, by its mood, themes, characters, settings, symbols, liberal ideas, strangeness and openness; but you should also ponder the zone in relation to your own particular context. This competition invites zone-style, or zone-inspired stories from the bottom of the world. The ensuing collection will acknowledge the undeniable cultural influence of memorable American programs like TZ on our lives ‘down under’, but it will also engage with the way we appropriate the messages within them in our own context, and our own lives (and in regards to our own ‘uneasiness’). Your story can be set in any era, and any place (though our rich and varied landscape could provide so many great potential zones).

I’m looking forward to reading your stories…

Moments that transform us: AS Patrić on Las Vegas for Vegans

I first met AS (Alec) Patrić when we were both participants in the Overland Masterclass for Progressive Writers, back in 2009. Alec is an incredibly hard-working, dedicated and talented writer. Since we met he has been published in almost every Australian literary magazine, has won prizes and has released two collections of stories. His latest is Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge). He is also working on a novel. I got in touch with Alec to ask him a few questions about his latest collection.

So I want to ask first about your process of discovery. Las Vegas for Vegans reaches far and wide in terms of subject, setting and style. Before we get to the philosophical and psychological elements, can I ask about the process of selecting and engaging with the material aspects of the stories? Why hotel rooms? Why insects and gods?

Until now I didn’t realise how many of my stories are set in hotel and motel rooms. Then there are stories set in a post office and a book shop, rooms in hospitals and shelters, a boarding school and an acting academy, an airplane toilet cubicle and even a spaceship. Those settings open doors to insects and gods, and vitally, the stories themselves. ‘The Eternal City’ takes place in a hotel room in Rome but that material aspect is fundamental to the story. It’s not just a location. I don’t think it could be set in a Melbourne flat. ‘Las Vegas for Vegans’ takes place in a hotel that looks out at the Mojave desert and that’s just as crucial to the characters and ideas in that piece. ‘The Mirage Inn’ revolves around a motel on the edge of the Simpson desert, but the difference between the two deserts is significant. In one, a character has more of a chance to find himself, and in the other, he’s likely to lose himself—one man wants to find his way home and the other wants the opposite. If a story is set in the family home, as with ‘Beckett & Son’ or ‘Daughters of Vesuvius’, it’s because family is the chief feature of those stories. Whenever I write a short story or novel, the first thing I look for is a vehicle for the characters and ideas I want to explore. If you’re asking me specifically, why a hotel room, my answer is because it strips a person down to a fundamental state of transition, and the ways we change, moments that transform us for better or worse, is what interests me most about the characters I’m creating or discovering in books when I’m reading.

I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘in-between’ space of hotels and motels, too, so I really enjoyed those stories. Out of the settings and characters in Las Vegas for Vegans comes a range of intellectual, philosophical and moral enquiries. At least as a reader I was faced with questions about love, family, society, history (and personal history), death and what may or may not come after; space, existence… Do you see the stories like this? Or do you think there is more of a single overarching concern?

I don’t write stories with a theme in mind or to explore a philosophical idea or examine a moral, though I do feel gratified that you found yourself responding to those things in my book. I don’t want to educate my reader, but if there are those features you mention in Las Vegas for Vegans, they arise because what I’m doing is testing my own existence in each one of the stories. (I think that’s why writing can be so hard, even though it seems the simplest of activities—to sit comfortably at a desk and tap away at a keyboard). Despite the highfaluting rationale, the primary concern for me is always the dramatic potential of narrative and vitality of character. Hopefully, this translates to nothing more complicated than a great story and my motivation is as basic as wanting to be a compelling storyteller. Anything else is a bonus.

I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about your interest in flash fiction, or very short stories (of which there are a few in the collection).

A flash fiction might seem an exotic bird but they’re as common as canaries. Any three-minute song you’ve ever enjoyed is a flash fiction. Lyrics have word counts of 500 words or less and they open up the world through a window we call ‘story’. That’d be my technical definition of a flash fiction. Interesting articles in the newspaper might qualify as well, perhaps even a blog post or a weekend anecdote told at work Monday morning. And yet when we’re offered the same creature on a literary page it’s a dodo. A song has a singer and musical instruments (often an accompanying video) to help the story out the window, so it’s not easy getting the same story to fly off the page with so few words and none of those accoutrements. Creating a character, an involving narrative, satisfying beginning/middle/end—with tens of thousands of words—is a lot easier. That’s why many readers think the novel is the only place to find what they’re looking for. I don’t think we’re really interested in birds though; how big or small, how high they fly or how pretty the feathers. It’s still all about the song and what it does to our heart/mind/soul. The only question for me is whether that song gives us another way to fly.

It seems like you do want to play with different ‘effects’ though, in terms of what a story does to heart/mind/soul. Some of the stories in Las Vegas for Vegans are warm and tingly, like ‘Below Zero’; others have a kind of blank emotional tone. Numbness itself is a theme of the story ‘Measured Turbulence’. Are these tonal explorations deliberate? Or do you find it happens organically depending on what mood or state of mind you’re in when you sit down to begin a story?

It’s a lovely irony that the warmest piece in Las Vegas for Vegans is a story called ‘Below Zero’, but you’re right of course. It’s a flash fiction that is essentially a burst of love. It’s about falling for a person before they’re born. I wrote it when my eldest daughter was in the womb and I was delighted to be able to read it to her recently. Summer is almost three years old now. ‘One in a Million’ is at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps the coldest story in the collection. It’s about emotional isolation and so that blank tone was certainly intentional. That sense of ice-cold reality is what I wanted to capture. The emotional tone was primary. Tone is usually secondary to most other stories. ‘Measured Turbulence’ was inspired by Bunuel, Lynch and Fassbinder, and I have found in many of their films there’s a kind of placid tone that drifts along until very disruptive events storm through the narrative.

Tonal variation across a book (whether novel or collection) is vital to me. Many writers choose a narrative voice, rhythm, mode, and write in the same way in story after story, and often, novel after novel. That bores me as a reader. John Updike can be too persistently elegant in the same way that David Foster Wallace can be persistently pyrotechnic. As a writer, I want to do more than lull my reader into a narrative dream (or nightmare). I want to wake my reader up to an experience, jolt them with an idea, shock them with the warmth of an emotion, chill with a realization a few seconds later. And yet variation in tone is only valuable if it can open up the fissures of heart/mind/soul. A sentimental story like ‘Below Zero’ benefits from being very short—also from the brutal emotional tone of ‘The Mirage Inn’ which precedes it in Las Vegas for Vegans, and revivifies a reader ready to move on to the following story. ‘Boys’ is next, and I hope a reader at that point has no idea what might happen. Which is more true to life. And I suppose what I’m hoping is that I can offer a totality of experience with a book. One moment you have a careful hand to your wife’s womb waiting for a movement and the next moment the world breaks in with whatever comes next.

Alec also interviewed yours truly in 2011 for Verity La, an online magazine he founded. If you like our banter, you might want to check that out.

An Emotional Landscape: Laurie Steed reviews The World Swimmers by Patrick West

ICLL, August 2011
available at selected bookstores & through the author ($25, postage free, email: patrick.west@deakin.edu.au)

review by Laurie Steed

Australia’s literary landscape seems scarred by an increasingly commercial approach to what constitutes quality literature. Yes, publishers need to make a profit, but in chasing said profit, publishers close the door on any number of quality writers. All are keen craftsmen and women, and are equally keen to explore a broad definition of Australian literature rather than adhering to limiting landscapes of the national psyche.

The International Centre for Landscape and Language recently published Patrick West’s The World Swimmers, an unabashedly literary collection of short stories. Given the aforementioned centre’s name, one would imagine West’s book covers great geographical distances. West also lovingly evokes emotional landscapes, which are reflected and refracted through their geographical counterparts.

In West’s world, landscape serves to both echo and contrast with a character’s journey. In ‘Nhill’, and ‘U’, West constructs intricately detailed dual narratives: characters define their own limits within a broader, almost limitless landscape. West’s detail in these stories is exquisite, his patience indefatigable as time slows, almost to a standstill. Here, the endpoint is not nearly as important as the journey itself, and if one thing is constant, it’s the inescapable notion of change, that inability to return to a previous state.

Elsewhere West explores emotional escape and generational legacy in ‘Greenwood’ and ‘Shame’. In the former, one of two classmates named Chris reduces his past to a one-word response, and in the latter, a Japanese PhD student explores her country’s opposition to the US military while studying at UCLA. In both stories, the main character is hemmed-in by their past but hoping to create a new landscape, and indeed a greater understanding of the forces that drive them.

Throughout The World Swimmers, the author shows a willingness to write both in and outside of his own experience. Perspectives, settings, and structures change from story to story but they’re linked by philosophical investigation of the highest order. Time, identity and one’s impact on the greater world are all investigated in tight, lyrical prose. When coupled with West’s tender, at times micro-detailed evocation of landscape, a startling vision of contemporary narrative results, framed as it is by experience, one’s own preconceptions and the ever-pressing passage of time.

Such literary gravitas might frighten some but this reviewer appreciated West’s willingness to ask appropriate questions without answering back. Why is this a good thing? Well, I would argue that to reflect life, literature must by willing to at times leave narrative events outside of context. By doing this, the writing creates a dialogue, leaving space for the reader’s own emotions to permeate such rhizomatic narratives. If nothing else, it allows the reader to redefine their own perceptions when it comes to literature, landscape and language.

Laurie Steed is a writer, editor and reviewer based in Perth, Western Australia. He has appeared in various publications including the Age, Meanjin, Sleepers Almanac, and The Big Issue and he is currently studying for his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia. In 2011, he was selected for both Rosebank and Varuna writing fellowships and is a recently appointed member of the Emerging Writers Festival PAC (Program Advisory Committee).


Spineless Wonders: new publisher of Australian short fiction

Spineless Wonders is a new publishing company, founded by Bronwyn Mehan, which specialises in short fiction from Australian writers in any genre and in print, digital and audio formats. Their publications will include single author collections and novellas, an annual anthology published in conjunction with a national writing competition as well as special collections focusing on such genres as crime and speculative fiction and in forms such as flash fiction and prose poetry.

I got in touch with Bronwyn to get some background info on Australia’s newest indie publisher…

Why short stories?

Because I love to read them. I especially like reading collections by single authors for the breadth of the writer’s concerns and literary range they offer. I like Field Study (Vintage) for instance, by British writer, Rachel Seiffert. Her stories range from the title one set in East Germany where a local industry has polluted the town’s water supply to ‘Reach’ a haunting overview of life in a Scottish coastal town and to a certain military incident during World War II, told through the eyes of a nursing home resident. Ryan O’Neill’s A Famine in Newcastle (Ginninderra Press) is another favourite. This slim volume offers a diverse settings and characters from Lithuania to Africa to Australia, as well some excellent examples of this writer’s range of narrative styles.

I also like collections where the stories are loosely linked by characters and location, where there is plenty of room for nuance as well as a sense of how the writer sees the world. A recent standout example is Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (Random House), where the stories are all set around the title character (although Olive has only a walk-on role in one story). The result is a satisfying, composite picture of Olive, her marriage and the small town she lives in. Another example of the linked collection, and a favourite of mine is still, is Fineflour (UQP) by Gillian Mears where the lives of characters and events are linked by the town’s river. (It’s hard to forget the children in Fineflour watching as their father mows right over the white leg bones of the family dog that are sticking out of a backyard grave.)

Another reason I decided to focus on the short story was that, to my mind, there were just not enough outlets for the writers of contemporary Australian short stories that I knew were out there. Sure, literary journals and anthologies offer publication opportunities for individual stories, but the number of collections being published each year is woefully low.

And to top it off, along came Robin Black. Don’t get me wrong, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is a terrific read. But what was Scribe doing publishing this debut collection by an American author? Where were the publishers willing to take risks on Australian debutantes? So, in the end it was probably the arrival on the Australian scene of this one book, with its glowing endorsements by Cate Kennedy and Catherine Ford (both with collections published by Scribe and Text, respectively), that propelled me from idle thought to the Spineless Wonders business plan.

Of course, publishing collections by Australian writers is not a new idea. Our literary history records a steady flow of collected stories by the likes of Patrick White, Jessica Anderson, Elizabeth Jolley, Peter Carey and Carmel Bird. The thing is, most of these collections have been by authors who were already established novelists. That’s what was so revolutionary about Nam Le’s debut collection, The Boat (Australian edition published by Penguin). At last, many of us thought, the Australian short story had finally earned its place in the bookstores and short fiction writers could emerge from the pages of the high quality, low volume literary journals and onto bestseller lists.

In the end there has been no Boat-led revolution. We still only have one national prize, Queensland’s Steele Rudd Award, that is designated solely for short story collections. And we are yet to have a national short story writers’ festival, although the Newstead Short Story Tattoo could prove to be an important step in that direction.

But an important shift in the short story scene did take place in 2010 when Affirm Press announced their Long Story Shorts series. Here, at last, was a publisher actively carving a place in the market for single author collections. They set out to publish six authors and reportedly received around 350 submissions. I think that gives us an idea of the potential out there and the need for an outfit like Spineless Wonders.

Tell us about Spineless Wonders’ first publication, Julie Chevalier’s Permission to Lie.

Our first publication is by Sydney writer, Julie Chevalier, and the stories collected include both stand-alone ones as well as those which are linked by setting and characters.

The stories tell of the revolving door of prison existence, the moral bankruptcy of corporate life and the loneliness and loss that lies behind ordinary lives. But there is plenty of humour in these tales, too. On their first date, Stephanie’s new boyfriend takes her to a nudist colony barbecue. They were as brown as the bangers and HP sauce, Stephanie observes. We were as white as the sliced bread.

Permission To Lie showcases Julie’s literary range from the dramatic monologue ‘Cherry Pie’, to the journal entries of ‘Skim Flat White’, and the stream of consciousness poem ‘Cathie’s Day’. These are layered stories written, as Fiona McGregor says, ‘with deceptive simplicity’ but full of surprises.

Besides being the publisher, will you edit the books? How about design and publicity? Are you building a bit of a team around yourself?

At this point, Spineless Wonders may look like the literary equivalent of a garage band. But while we are only small in scale, our final print product is professional. We use the industry-standard publishing program, InDesign and have partnered with Griffin Press which offers high quality digital printing,

We also have a ‘Spineless’ side to our nature, that is we publish in digital and audio formats. Thanks to the unbeatable combination of SPUNC, Inventive Labs and Readings.com who came up with Booki.sh, our publications are widely available as ebooks. And we can produce broadcast quality audio files, thanks to affordable and portable digital recording equipment and the free editing software.

I have been very fortunate to have had the support of a whole host of talented friends (fellow writers, web designers, graphic artists, editors and copyeditors, musicians and actors) who have given their time and expertise in order to get Spineless Wonders up on its feet.

Who are some of your favourite short story writers? Will you be on the lookout for any particular themes and styles?

People who have been following the Spineless Wonders blog: The Column, standing up for short Australian stories, will have an idea of the kind of writers I like. Our first guest blogger, Ryan O’Neill wrote about experimental short fiction and since then we’ve featured interviews with writers of speculative fiction such as Deborah Biancotti and Rjurik Davidson, crime writers such as PM Newton as well as self-confessed practitioner of the realist tradition, Louise Swinn. So I’d describe myself as fairly eclectic in reading tastes and very happy to be introduced to new writers and new forms. In fact one of the delights of the Spineless Wonders Asks series has been finding out about the short fiction writers that the interviewed authors like to read. (It’s the first question, for those looking for recommended reading.)

I am definitely on the lookout for great writing, on any theme and in any form or style. And I’m defining short fiction as anything from prose poetry to a novella. Our single author collection series is for writers with enough quality stories to fill a minimum of 100 pages. As a new publisher, with few resources and staff, I am not able to accept unsolicited submissions. I will, however, consider proposals from writers whose short fiction has been previously published or awarded and whose writing is recommended or endorsed by a reviewer, blogger, academic, author etc. with a profile in Australian fiction. If you fit this category, email me at bronywn@shortaustralianstories.com.au

We are also running The Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award, judged this year by Sophie Cunningham. All writers are welcome to submit stories up to 3000 words by 31st July. Details here. Finalists from this competition, along with some invited writers, will be published in our annual anthology.

Thanks Bronwyn, and best wishes with Spineless Wonders.

Bronwyn Mehan’s short fiction has been published in the Age, Sleepers Almanac, Meanjin and Southerly. She co-edited, with Sandra Thibodeaux, Bruno’s Song and Other Stories From the Northern Territory, published by NT Writers Centre and launched earlier at the 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Guest review: Sam Cooney on The Big Issue no. 359: Toasty Tales fiction special

359_fictionThe Big Issue no. 359: Toasty Tales fiction special
Available now from street vendors, launched Wednesday 21 July at Readings Carlton
Reviewed by Sam Cooney

For me, The Big Issue is like a tub of Neapolitan ice-cream. It’s reliable. It’s unpretentious and doesn’t pretend to be anything except exactly what it is. You buy it every fortnight, just when you feel that craving slowly creeping on. Each time you marvel at the value for money. It’s to everyone’s tastes, whether you’ve a penchant for light-hearted strawberry-sweet writing, unadorned and honest vanilla-esque insights, or fiendish and indulgent chocolatey pieces. And it’s always soul-affirming stuff, both for its dependably excellent content and the underlying motives behind its publication.

This year’s special fiction edition (the sixth) not only satisfies your fortnightly craving, but exceeds it. Imagine finding your preferred brand of Neapolitan is on special, and is 25% larger (this edition is 8 pages longer than normal) and then you open it and discover that the recipe of each flavour has been improved. Co-editors Jo Case and Melissa Cranenburgh have whipped up a 54-page bumper edition that will keep any reader (over 154,000 Australia-wide) company during these long winter hours. The stories included are varied, from the abrasive and the realistic to the surprising and the magical.

Michael Faber’s terrifically titled ‘Down the Up-Escalator in a Race Against Science’ instantly plonks us into the viewpoint of Zephaniah, a simpleminded ticket inspector in the London Underground on the hunt for a lost child. Zephaniah’s straightforward manner is reminiscent of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, with thoughts like: ‘Other people on the escalators looked at him as though he was waving his willy at them.’ Faber has created a recognisable and believable character who, by negotiating his surroundings and the people in them, shows what it means to be both human and humane.

‘The Vaulting Maid’ by Linda Jaivin lays bare a world that feels instantly familiar, though it’s doubtful many readers have sat around a living room in China and discussed their ‘aiyi’ – a maid – who is rumoured to have been an Olympic gymnast. Without hurry or hustle Jaivin’s characters reveal themselves, bit by bit, and the ending, while not entirely unforeseen, still manages to have an effect.

neopolitanChristos Tsiolkas has a massive reputation, and his story ‘Salt’ demonstrates why he is revered. It really is a cut above, somehow blending the gritty and violent nature of a coal mining town with some elements that might be labelled ‘magical realism’. For mine, ‘Salt’ is the best story in the edition, mainly because of the mounting air of menace that looms as ominous as the black coal clouds; a feeling of approaching threat that plays against its unpredictability.

Samuel Rutter’s ‘Your Father is Disappointed in You’ evokes Roberto Bolano’s writing – a little bit metafictional, a little bit humdrum, and a little bit remarkable – with its tale of a son, a father, a last will and testament, and a South American town. The second-person viewpoint works too: ‘You order a whiskey. You don’t like whisky, but you feel that if you were a character in a story, now would be the time to order a whisky. Double whisky, on the rocks.’ Rutter has recently and repeatedly been identified as ‘one to watch’, and his short fiction is certainly causing people to sit up and take notice. It’ll be interesting to see in which direction he heads – hopefully he continues to combine his fondness for all things Latin-American with his ability to make the everyday extraordinary.

‘They Were Beaching Themselves Again’ by Romy Ash refuses to sugar coat anything – not the attempted rescue of whales, not the notion of travel, not the core of people. Every line is real, grounded, alive, and is a lesson in understatement. You know you’re in the hands of a great writer when character names are unnecessary and each paragraph stirs up a new and deep-rooted emotion.

The other stories in the collection deserve remark: Emmett Stinson’s painfully neurotic narrator would belong in the film Death at a Funeral; Karen Hitchcock’s ‘Blackbirds Singing’ weaves cakes, cattiness and closeted secrets in the men’s clothing section of a department store; Toni Jordan reveals small town scandals in Anytown, Anystate, Australia; and Patrick Allington’s ‘Trumpet’ goes back in time to 1884 Adelaide to give voice to a failed old explorer. Not to forget everywhereman Oslo Davis’ graphic story ‘You, Me & My Grey Hairs’, which manages to express as much as any written piece.

Talking visuals, mention must be made of the artworks accompanying the stories. It’s so easy for such artworks to either distract or diminish, but these carefully strewn illustrations, photographs and collages are complementary in every instance. Of particular note are the pieces by Shaun Gladwell and Stormie Mills. The Big Issue is to be commended for providing, alongside its writers, the opportunity to some of Australia’s best and up-and-coming visual artists.

The editors of this The Big Issue clearly have an eye for quality (although probably unnecessary are the subtitles provided for each story, as they are a tad gimmicky and read like hastily-written blurbs, reducing some of the stories to two-line summaries). Every story within the magazine is a standalone piece of deftly crafted fiction, and each demonstrates, in subtly different ways, the author’s ability to hold back, to not give everything over, but instead allow enough room for the reader to enter each distinct setting, to enter each narrator or protagonist’s mind. In their editorial, Case and Cranenburgh, referring to the 300-plus fiction submissions, say that ‘the quality of this edition can be determined as much by what you don’t see on its pages, as what you do.’ But all we have to go on are the ten stories, so it’s fortunate that they are of the highest quality indeed.

Sam Cooney is a writer living in Melbourne. Having recently completed an undergraduate degree, he spends his days reading, writing and editing. You can find him in various hidey-holes about the internet.

Guest review: Sam Cooney on I Can See My House From Here: UTS Writers’ Anthology 2010

I Can See My House From Here: UTS Writers’ Anthology 2010
Reviewed by Sam Cooney

University anthologies are often pedestrian and insular. Even worse, at times they smack of desperation – you can almost wring it from the pages like water from hair. ‘Here is my story,’ each writer seems to say. ‘This is what I did this year.’

Not so the swish publication from the University of Technology in Sydney, titled I can see my house from here. Edited by students of the Creative Writing course, submissions are open to students from all faculties at UTS, and in this case, the hits to misses ratio is commendable. Whether the seven editors (all female – come on Sydney fellas, pull your finger out) were simply lucky with their submissions, or whether there was some heavy groundwork undertaken, we can’t know, but the result is a collection that triumphantly walks a tightrope between variety and quality.

Nam Le provides the foreword, and it’s a bit of a hurdle. Because of his ‘aversion to the typical foreword’ we are presented with a curious piece of writing. It is annoying yet beguiling, and it left me wondering at its motives (other than his ‘aversion’). Simply put, I simultaneously liked it and disliked it, as it raises a couple of noteworthy arguments but diverts attention away from I Can See My House From Here. Only two and a half pages in length, Le uses most of his foreword to examine the raison d’être of anthologies in general, writing in a self-referential style that is a discordant mixture of semi-pertinent questions alongside opinions that are prone to backflip immediately after they’ve been asserted. He bemoans that ‘the typical foreword end[s] up being about its own author, rather than the main text’ and then admits that he has done the exact thing he is grumbling about. He criticises ‘the ritualised calling out to chosen pieces’, only to do just that in a belated and hurried fashion. (It is only in the final paragraph that he actually discusses this specific anthology he is introducing and its contributors.)

I imagine that Le’s short foreword is not what the editors had in mind when they approached him, but I imagine they realise also the value of having Le’s name on the cover. Hey, at least it’s different, even if painstakingly so; I’m still talking about it four paragraphs into my review, which signals something superior to the usual hemmed-in introductions normal of publications such as this.

The thirty-two short fictions are divided into three sections: ‘I can see’, ‘My house’, and ‘From here’. Although I was initially suspicious that this was just a superficial stylistic choice, the stories in each section correspond thematically with their particular banner, and thus the separating succeeds in adding character to the collection.

I’m not sure if it simply took me a while to become immersed in the anthology, but I found the latter two sections to be of higher quality than the first. Rosalie Bartlett’s evocative story ‘The Navel Gazed’ allows us entry into the world of Camille. Shouldering a severe eating disorder and tied to a hospital, Camille is dumbfoundingly real and believable in her awful quest to lose more and more weight. The writing is spot on and doesn’t lose control, even when describing moments like Camille syringing out the liquefied contents from her stomach that she had been force-fed by a hospital nurse. Throughout the story we are there as involuntary voyeurs:

‘She lifted her shirt and hunched over in a ritual, counting the ribs she could see and checking the protruding pelvic bones and the knobby spine that rose along her back like a heckled echidna, making sure they were still there, that she was still accountable for what she refused, rejected and regurgitated, and that she was still, she was sure, a monster, reprehensible for all of this and everything that could ever come of it.’

Tyswan Slater’s ‘Justin’ tells the first person story of another exceptional character: a mute (and presumed disabled by most, but actually fully cognisant) young man living in a care home. His love for his carer is terrible and beautiful; unable to let her know, he almost falls apart when she takes leave to get married. Slater underpins the surface narrative with a softly spoken conundrum: are we ‘better alive and unhappy’, or not?

The other standout is Georgia Symons’ ‘Character’. The most ambitious piece in the anthology with its atypical narrative and air of inscrutability, Symons grants us a few minutes in the life of the girlfriend of a character actor. The premise is original, and tangents other writers would avoid for fear of plot holes are tackled so that they add to, rather than detract from, the intimacy and enjoyable nature of the story.

Two other pieces that have comparable father characters are worthy of mention, both for their simple familiarity and their implicit understanding of domestic relationships. The narrator of Cybele Masterman’s ‘April’ journeys north on a trip with her dad, to collect and cremate the body of his own dad. The writing is clean and strong, with wonderful lines like, ‘Dad’s signature looked like the screen of a heart monitor in a hospital.’ Kelli Lonergan’s ‘Westaway’ has a dad that is just as recognisable, but in an opposite way: stringent and strident, with no room for negotiation. The fresh-out-of-school narrator is thinking of starting a Fine Arts course; the dad’s ‘lips go tight before saying that doing that would get me nowhere.’

Rather than descend into superlative praise, I’d just like to reiterate that I Can See My House From Here justifies its existence with its content. If you like stories, you’ll like this anthology. Maybe for reasons other than mine, but the depth and diversity of the collection means a win for all readers.

Sam Cooney is a writer living in Melbourne. Having recently completed an undergraduate degree, he spends his days reading, writing and editing. You can find him in various hidey-holes about the internet.