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.

2 thoughts on “Spineless Wonders: new publisher of Australian short fiction

  1. Aviva Tuffield from Scribe says:
    Good to read about the impressive venture that is Spineless Wonders, and kudos to Bronwyn Mehan. I was a little disappointed to see the criticism of Scribe for publishing Robin Black’s short story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, and I wanted a chance to respond or at least defend myself. I am a huge fan of the short-story form, and Scribe has published a number of Australian short-story collections including Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots, Patrick Cullen’s What Came Between and two collections of New Australian Stories, in the course of establishing our fiction list. However, Scribe (like most Australian publishing houses) also buys rights from overseas (as we also try to sell rights to our authors’ work, too) and so if I discover an outstanding story collection by an overseas author, I will try to acquire it, and we will publish it as well as we can, getting endorsements from local authors etc. Short-story collections are a hard sell in all markets these days, for many reasons, which I could discuss at length another time. Thus whenever we publish a short-story author, it’s a risk, and I don’t think we should be attacked for bringing short stories to readers, whatever the country of origin of the author. For example, Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us is a quirky collection by a talented US writer with a really distinctive voice, and I’m very proud to have published her in Australia.

  2. Wow, another Australian writer making it on the mainstream. This is good stuff and I will surely read one or all of the books. A Famine in Newcastle really is special because I can relate with Maggie and her feelings regarding African poverty. – Mario Romano

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