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.