March 2010 (Australia)
Gravel is Peter Goldsworthy’s new collection of short stories – amusing and moving – covering a range of predominantly white middle-class characters in conflict with their own egos. But there are also stories exploring erotic awakening (something Goldsworthy did well in Everything I Knew) and others where the drama is suspenseful, sad and intense. The amusing stories, though, are so memorable. What would you do if a stalker was secretly and gently stroking your ego? What if you were a teenage woman who genuinely fell for an older man? What if you were a happily partnered woman who welcomed the flirtatious attentions of a female shop assistant?
Goldsworthy’s excellent earlier collected works, The List of All Answers, is one of my favourite books, and I found Gravel to be a rewarding, entertaining read. I was happy that Goldsworthy agreed to answer a few questions for LiteraryMinded. Enjoy.
If you met someone unfamiliar with your work, and they asked about what you do, where would you start? Novels? Plays? Opera? Short stories? Poetry?
I’m just a writer. All these forms have their own different freedoms and constraints. Each offers something to the others. I learn about the power of narrative structure from film and theatre; from poetry I found a way of writing the dense, resonant and economical prose I like best. The clarity and simplicity of songs helps poetry. In writing novels I learn about character. So there are always lessons to learn and take across the boundaries.
Gravel features some very amusing stories where characters are in conflict with themselves due to the unsolicited attentions of others (‘Mirror, Mirror’, ‘The Fourth Tenor’, ‘Get a Life’). Why is this a topic of fascination for you?
I enjoy seeing people – especially the pious, and self-righteous – hoisted on their own petards. That includes me in my most pious moments, as painful as it has often been. I like stories that tell us about ourselves, even if we don’t want to hear what they say at first; stories that speak to our hearts even before we understand them with our heads – or that we resist with our heads, even as they fuck with them.
Many of your stories had me asking, as a reader, ‘what would I do?’ Such as, ‘what would I do if I feel for the person I babysat for?’ or ‘what would I do if I had to choose between the farm and my old dog?’ Is this often how the stories come to you?
Well – I guess those emotional trajectories we have all lived, even if on a smaller scale, or in parallel situations. There aren’t many new stories in the world; maybe ‘Shooting the Dog’ is one.
You’re skilled at capturing that moment of erotic awakening, in ‘The Nun’s Story’, and also in Everything I Knew. It’s the kind of topic that draws the reader in through memory, the senses and the imagination. Is the best kind of art, for you, something that stirs the intellect, emotions and physical body all at once?
Exactly. Too much literary fiction is pure confection – all head; too much popular fiction is cheap emotions – all heart. There are great exceptions; there is nothing human – nothing of the heart – in Borges’ best stories, and they are wonderful. But he knew to keep them short; he would never risk boring us with a novel. I want – unhumbly – to speak to all the organs at once. I’ve often written about this – as essay called the Biology of Literature, for one – how writing can make us weep and laugh of course, but can make the goosebumps rise (Robert Graves’ test of great poetry), or make our hairs stand up on end, or fill us with awe, or stop us sleeping for days.
Which story in Gravel was the most difficult to write, and why?
Hard to say. They are always a mixture of pain and pleasure. ‘Sometimes pus, sometimes a poem – but always pain’, the poet Yehudi Amichai wrote. ‘Shooting the Dog’, perhaps – a story that was given to me by my wife Lisa, from her days as a young teacher in the bush. Or the last one, on the love between a middle-aged man and a school girl.
You’ve produced quality work consistently for many years now. Can you tell us a bit about your writing practice? How do you know what form an idea will take? Do you draft a story quickly? What is the best thing about writing?
I write each morning starting about nine. I practice medicine each afternoon starting about two. It’s a perfect balance; they are complementary in many ways. Ideas eventually find their ideal form, although sometimes they try out another form first. I keep a log of story ideas as they come to me, but they generally need to wait for their time, till they are ready, or for some other ingredient, or missing piece of their puzzle. The unconscious usually connects these over time.
Have you discovered many of the newer Australian short fiction writers, such as Patrick Cullen, Tom Cho, Steven Amsterdam, Cate Kennedy or Paddy O’Reilly?
I’ve been enjoying the work of Kennedy and O’Reilly for many years; the others more recently. I was pleased – even ift was at the expense of a novel of mine – that Nam Le’s stories won the PM’s literary award last year. The short story is, after all, our strongest form historically, and I suspect – along with poetry – it still is. If not the most perfect, it’s certainly the most perfectible.
What is escape or relaxation for you – someone with an obviously active, creative mind?
The usual. Family, friends, food, films, football, and one or two other things that start with f.