Nancy Christie is the founder of Celebrate Short Fiction Day – a day, (the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere), for sharing short stories and enjoying them. I was so taken with the idea of short fiction day that I read Nancy Christies’s collection, Travelling Left of Centre and Other Stories.
The stories in Nancy Christie’s collection are vivid and compelling. The protagonist often finds her or himself in a trap – an impossible relationship, where the only way out is through violence to another, or oneself. In other stories, an event from childhood rears up to ambush the main character. Sometimes these characters are unable to distinguish between the fantasies they have created – for comfort, as an emotional shield – and the world of everyday reality to which they are compelled to return.
In the title story, a mother remarks to her pregnant daughter that, ‘on the highway of life’ she was ‘always travelling left of centre’ – a dreamer who kept dreaming, but never quite achieved her modest hopes, and meanwhile made herself an easy prey. It’s a description that fits most of Christie’s protagonists.
The stand-out stories for me were ‘The Shop on the Square’ where a young man walks into danger out of the hot Mexican sun, seeking only a cool place to lie down; The Sugar Bowl’ where the central image – beautiful, fragile and mysterious – says a great deal about the girl who owns it; and ‘Misconnections’, where the failure of machines is linked to emotional failure that can’t be put right.
In ‘The Storyteller’, a kind woman, who is not allowed to go on telling stories to sick children, does her best to let them down gently. In ‘Anything Can Happen’ a woman’s careful routines crack wide open. Christie’s stories chart the emotional chasms that open up under deceptive everyday surfaces, and pay tribute to the damaged human beings who must cope with them. A memorable collection.
“The winter solstice marks both the start of winter and the shortest day of the year. So why not take advantage of the long winter night to curl up with a good short story?” ~ Nancy Christie, founder of Celebrate Short Fiction Day.
I’ve only just discovered Celebrate Short Fiction Day – a little late, since the solstice has just passed – and on the wrong side of the world, of course, for the shortest day! But why not make the summer solstice an occasion for celebrating short stories too?
I love short stories, and refuse to see them as the poor relative of the novel. So why not mark this solstice, or look forward to the next one, by curling up on a beach with a good collection, or share a much-loved story with a friend?
My two favourite story collections for 2014 are Australian Love Stories published by Inkerman & Blunt, and The Trouble With Flying, published by Margaret River Press. I’d also like to mention two wonderful bloggers who value short stories, Whispering Gums, who reviewed both these collections, and Charles May, whose Reading The Short Story is both an education and delight.
Thanks to Pixel Hall Press for drawing my attention to this wonderful opportunity for celebrating short fiction.
Pixel Hall Press is certainly doing its bit to keep the form alive, as shown in this quote from their website:
‘When we established our PHP Shorts imprint, we predicted, “The market for short stories and novellas is about to experience a renaissance, spurred in part by the proliferation of smartphones, eReaders and tablets. The length of a story is becoming irrelevant. All that matters is that it’s a great story that captures the readers’ interest and imagination.” Whether readers choose to enjoy it on an e-reader or prefer the tactile pleasure of turning the pages, the result is the same: a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction from reading a complete, beautifully crafted story in one sitting.’
Let’s hope that, by the next solstice, we’ll have a Celebrate Short Fiction Day in the southern as well as the northern hemisphere!
I first came across Professor Charles May’s blog eighteen months ago and was immediately struck by the quality of May’s insights into the short story form. May has published 8 books and over 300 articles on the subject of short stories, and I Am Your Brother is the culmination of forty years of teaching and thinking about this often misunderstood and disparaged prose form. True scholarship, in the sense of being heart-felt as well as erudite, is unmistakeable, and I recommend this book both to readers and writers of short stories, and to those who have not, up until now, given them much thought.
One of May’s central concerns is that short stories have suffered in the past, and continue to suffer, by being compared, in a simplistic way, to novels; by being considered no more than bits of novels, constructed according to the same formal patterns and with the same narrative ends in view. He sets out to dismantle these false assumptions and he does so very convincingly.
Short stories have ancient ancestors, and have remained connected to their roots in the sacred parable, allegory and myth. The everday passage of time, cause and effect, the development of individual characters within a social framework are all hallmarks of the novel from the eighteenth century onwards. In the short story, because of its shortness, and because its writers started out with very different aims, time is just as likely to be compressed, or frozen.
In discussing Edgar Allan Poe’s approach to the short story, May points out that it ‘reflects the basic paradox inherent in all narrative: the writer’s restriction to the dimension of time juxtaposed against his or her desire to create a structure that reflects an atemporal theme. Because of the shortness of the short story, the form gives up the sense of real time, but compensates for this loss by focusing on significance, pattern and meaning.’
Important themes for me, in I Am Your Brother, are the sense of mystery to be found in the best short stories, how they give an outer shape to inner meanings, manage to convey what can’t be put directly into words and eschew so-called rational explanations. May quotes Flannery O’Connor who ‘once said that what the short story writer sees on the “surface will be of interest” only as it can be gone through “into an experience of mystery itself.”
From Boccaccio’s The Decameron up to the present day, May illustrates his points with pertinent and interesting examples. My knowledge of short stories and what makes them essentially different from long prose forms, has been greatly enhanced by reading this book.
Above is the text of my Amazon review of I Am Your Brother, but I thought I would add a few more personal thoughts about it on my blog.
Having had eight novels published, and with a ninth (The Fourth Season) soon to be released, I am better known as a novelist than a short story writer. However, a few of my short stories have had multiple publications in anthologies and have found a readership. Two of these are ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’ (Canberra Tales, Below The Waterline, The Invisible Thread) and ‘Two Wrecks’ (Best Australian Stories 2008 and Best Australian Stories – a ten-year collection, 2011).
The success of these stories, coupled with my experiment in self-publishing an ebook collection, Eight Pieces On Prostitution, has got me thinking about the place of short stories in my writing life.
Like many fiction writers, I always know when an idea is a ‘short story idea’, and I always hear, with my inner ear, before I set a word down, the tone of voice I will need to sustain. Needless to say, this is very different from how I begin the project of writing a novel. I have often been criticised, and, I am ashamed to say, too often bowed to the criticism, that my fiction is elliptical and indirect when it should be straightforward. I have often been asked to explain or clarify character and motivation when this was the last thing that I felt like doing.
Reading I Am Your Brother made me feel that my instincts were right all along, and that those criticisms came from perspectives and expectations that were alien to me, and to which I should never have tried to reconcile myself.
My Invisible Thread interview is finally up on youtube. I’m the lucky last in the series that Irma Gold, editor extraordinaire, has made for the anthology, The Invisible Thread: a hundred years of words, celebrating the centenary of Canberra. I’m proud to be included. Both the interviews and the book are marvellous chronicles of writing produced in and about the national capital.
Irma Gold tagged me for the ‘Next Big Thing’. If you haven’t reached this post from her blog post about the next big thing then you can read it here.
What is ‘The Next Big Thing’? It’s like one of those old-fashioned chain letters where authors promote their own work and tag five of their colleagues to create a huge network of linked web and facebook pages about what everyone hopes will be ‘The Next Big Thing’.
1) What is the working title of your next book?
Nine Pieces on Prostitution
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
The book will be a collection of my prostitution stories written over some thirty years, so obviously ideas for stories came from different places; but one, which is a very long story, almost novella length was inspired by a client dying ‘on the job’ as it were, and what the women did with the body.
3) What genre does your book fall under?
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Now that’s a curly one: I can’t somehow see a movie of a short story collection; but one, in particular, I think would make a great movie. It’s called ‘An Artist’s Story’ and is about an architect who’s hired to design a brothel, and her friend, ho becomes involved with the house, and the women who work there. The female lead I envisage being played by Cate Blanchett. The music score would include lots of Tracy Chapman.
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A collection of stories on a theme that has intrigued me for my entire writing life.
6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I plan to self-publish the collection on Smashwords.
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
No single story took me very long, perhaps a couple of months for ‘Where The Ladders Start’, the longest in the collection.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
John Clanchy’s ‘Her Father’s Daughter’ is a collection of stories on the theme of father/daughter relationships, and, since I admire Clanchy’s writing very much, I’ll be so bold as to cite it here. While there are obviously plenty of short story collections based around a theme, I really don’t think there is much of a precedent for my ‘Nine Pieces’.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My first novel, Tunnel Vision is set in a Melbourne massage parlour in the 1970s, and the oldest story in ‘Nine Pieces’ was written in the ‘70s as well. I think it was the extreme oddness of the sex industry in Melbourne at that time, the theatricality and subterfuge and madness! of it that got me in, and that has stayed with me.
10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Some – more than half – the stories are very Canberra. I think prostitution is a great way to write about the underside of our national capital. I would also like to mention that one of the stories, titled ‘Mrs B’ has been chosen for inclusion in Meanjin’s Canberra centenary issue. I’ll be writing about this special issue in a later post.
If you’d like to read more about Nine Pieces on Prostitution you can do so here.
I have tagged Lucy Sussex
Lucy Sussex is a writer, reviewer and editor, whose work ranges from children’s writing to the herstory of women crime writers. She has either written or edited over 20 books, published internationally. Her next big thing, deadline July, is VICTORIAN BLOCKBUSTER: FERGUS HUME AND THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB. It looks at the story behind the biggest-selling detective novel of the 1800s, one which created the market for Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. VB touches on much, from theatre history to a copycat murder, and how a small-press book from the colonies conquered the crime-reading world.
And Margaret Innes, who says,
I have one completed manuscript of contemporary fiction titled A Bracelet of Bright Hair requiring some redrafting. I’m also well into an historical novel City of Men where I examine the life of one of the earliest surgeons, William Redfern. Writing this has proved one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a writer.
Maureen Cashman writes
I have decided to call my first blog post ‘Feelings of déjà vu’ because I’ve recently been back to Canberra, for a book launch and an exhibition opening, and these visits have brought back many memories and images from my life in the national capital. I lived in Canberra for thirty years before returning to Victoria in 2008.
‘The Women who made Canberra’ exhibition, on at the Canberra Museum and Gallery , is part of the city’s centenary celebrations, and open till March 2013. It features women who contributed to Canberra’s political, social, sporting and cultural life over the past hundred years.
It includes a possum cloak belonging to Matilda House, an elder who identifies with the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people of Canberra.
Matilda House performed the welcome to country ceremony at the opening of the 42nd Parliament in Canberra on 12 February 2008. It was the first time a welcome to country ceremony had been held for the opening of the Federal Parliament. As Mrs House explained on that day, “A welcome to country acknowledges our people and pays respect to our ancestors’ spirits who have created the lands…It is a good and honest and decent and human act to reach out and make sure everyone has a place and is welcome.”
Mrs House burned the designs on the cloak, drawing on imagery of the Murrumbidgee River, the Brindabella Range, bush tucker and the wedge-tailed eagle and brolga.
The youngest woman in the exhibition is Lauren Jackson, born in 1981 and now an internationally famous basketball star.
And my writer’s group, 7 Writers, is featured as well.
This is my favourite photograph of us, taken by Brenda Runnegar. The seven are, from left to right: Sara Dowse, Marion Halligan, Margaret Barbalet, me, Dorothy Horsfield, Suzanne Edgar and Marian Eldridge.
The display for the exhibition includes a selection of our books and notes taken by Suzanne Edgar at one of our monthly meetings.
We started meeting as a writers’ workshop in the early 1980s and continued until after Marian Eldridge’s death in 1997. We became known for our longevity and the vigour of our discussions (some of which were televised!) I think we continue to be of interest to the reading public because of a mistaken, but persistent view that Canberra is somehow inimical to the creative life. The myth is fading, but it still pops up in the most surprising places. I’ve written about it in an essay called Disturbing Undertones.
For anyone interested in reading more about ‘7 Writers’ and other Australian literary communities, an excellent book has recently been published called Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia. Our chapter, by D’Arcy Randall, is called ‘Seven Writers and Australia’s Literary Capital’.
While I was in Canberra, I recorded an interview as part of the publicity for The Invisible Thread : One Hundred Years of Words. The anthology includes a story of mine called ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’.
Here is an impressionistic account of the interview. When I sat down to write the account, it came out differently from the way I intended; I think of it as an example of the unpredictable way that memories surface.
Two kayaks are going past, as silently as swans. I am sitting in the shade of European trees, around the corner from where both my children were born, from where the hospital used to be that so spectacularly killed a girl when it imploded. And I think of my son, of whom I am about to speak, who lay desperately ill in that same hospital, only eleven months after he came out into the world inside it. And how long it took him! And how happy and exhausted I was! I am not here to speak about the birth, but about the illness, which gave rise to the story which began my love affair with Canberra. A literary love affair, but that makes it sound too cerebral, too much a matter of the mind alone. My story, ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’, has found its way into an anthology called The Invisible Thread, celebrating a hundred years since the founding of our national capital. A curious word that, ‘founding’ – like being born and yet not like it at all.
I’m here to be interviewed about literary Canberra, and I give my interview, under the shadow of the trees, but in my heart thirty years have lifted off. Thirty years lift off my shoulders and I’m around the corner, with the hospital rising at my back, and my son whom I cannot bear to look at no bigger than a skinny mouse with tubes going every which way, and on the lake an old man in a long coat, going round the edges, looking for a way out…
I’ve written a great deal about Canberra, from fictional and non fictional points of view. But I know that, now I’ve found them again, nothing will ever again replace those earliest images, and the desperation that gave rise to them.