Interview by Samantha James
Prior to publishing your debut novel in 2013, your short stories were featured in several journals and newspapers and in February this year your short story collection was published. As a writer, did you start out preferring short stories, or was the format you chose based on the content and intent of what you were writing?
My earliest experiences of narrative were short stories: children’s books, fairytales, Bible stories, stories in the magazines my grandmother read. When I was about seven years old, an aunt gave me a copy of The Little Book Room by Eleanor Farjeon – wonderful, strange, fantastic stories for children.
I’ve written for as long as I can remember, and as a child I wrote the kind of things I read – so, I wrote short stories. Once I encountered novels (my parents read aloud to us, a chapter a night of the Narnia series), I played at writing novels, too; my earliest effort, at age six, had eleven (very short) chapters.
So I’ve always loved short stories and always written them. I suppose they’re my first narrative love. I wrote many of the stories in The High Places while I was writing my novel The Night Guest; even now I’m working on a new novel but writing stories at the same time. The Night Guest actually began as a short story, but it became clear very quickly that a story couldn’t contain it – I needed a whole novel to produce the effect I wanted, to bring the reader along with the gradual deterioration of a mind, to honour the narrative arc that made sense for my protagonist. Stories choose their own length, and for me that choice has a lot to do with the time of the reader – what reading experience does the story I want to tell require? Some stories need a concentrated, intense reading experience; others need the luxury of more time.
What influences your writing focus and/or style? Do you take inspiration from other writers, or do you take pride in having a unique style? Do you think you’ve been able to develop your own style or is it a continuous process?
As I’ve been reading and writing for longer than I can remember, every book I’ve ever read has had an influence of some kind on my work. I’m the result of my reading; but my reading is also the result of me, because my sensibility is singular (everybody’s sensibility is singular; we all experience the world differently) and so I’ve made associations, leaps, connections, discoveries that are particular to me. Imitating the writing you love is a natural and important part of teaching yourself to write – as a child I wrote my own versions of Little House on the Prairie, as an adolescent I wrote (terrible) poetry in the style of T.S. Eliot, in my early twenties I wrote (or tried to write) magic realism with the linguistic flair of Nabokov. Gradually, something of my own emerged.
As far as style goes, I like (and share with my writing students) this advice from Verlyn Klinkenborg: ‘Pursue clarity…In the pursuit of clarity, style reveals itself.’ Too many aspiring writers worry about finding their own ‘voice’ – but style will develop, it will change, it will adapt to meet the story you’re trying to tell. It’s a continual exploration.
What is your writing process from idea to the page?
It changes. Sometimes I have an idea in mind for some time, and I sort of gather things in to this idea as I encounter them; then something will spark an actual sentence and I’ll sit down and start to write. This is how The Night Guest came together – from reading I’d done about Victorian nursery rhymes, other thinking about the uncanniness of houses, my experiences with people suffering from dementia. Other times, something unexpected – and often very small – prompts me; I don’t know where it’s going, but I’m curious to find out. So, the story ‘Unnecessary Gifts’ – the earliest story in The High Places – came out of a friend explaining to me that sea lilies were animals that looked like plants: I saw, immediately, a small boy pretending to be a sea lily. When I started writing that boy, I had no idea what was going to happen to him.
Do you enjoy workshopping early work to improve from draft to draft, or do you keep your writing close to your chest until you feel comfortable letting it out into the world for feedback?
I tend to be very private about my early work and only look for feedback once it feels strongly rooted.
You completed a PhD on nostalgia in American fiction. What was behind your interest in nostalgia, and what made you choose to focus on American literature as an Australian? How do these themes creep into your work now, or have you found new themes and direction since completing your PhD?
My PhD topic was, in many ways, an accident. I moved to England for the degree and arrived with a completely different topic in mind, but abandoned it for various reasons (including a terrifying class in Renaissance palaeography). I’d never lived away from Sydney before and was terribly homesick, and that got me thinking about nostalgia as both a bodily and a literary experience. When I started thinking about nostalgia as a textual effect, the first two examples that occurred to me were American (or adopted American) – the end of The Great Gatsby, and Humbert’s unsettling nostalgia for a younger Dolores at the end of Lolita. Desire for the past is very complicated, and I figured there was something interesting and particular about the way American literature negotiated it; the thesis grew from there.
Nostalgia still interests me; time interests all writers, I think. As a writer, it’s the Australian relationship with time, memory and history that I want to explore.
What do you think is the hardest part of writing a short story, and how do you overcome it?
This changes for every story! But most often it will be how to begin or how to end. I have to give stories time to come clear, whether they’re short or novel-length. Some of the stories in The High Places were written over many years; I would work on them and then leave them for months or a year before coming back and seeing them in a new way.
You’ve said in other interviews that you always wanted to be a professional writer. Would you say it was everything you ever dreamed of? What do you love about it as a day job?
Yes, I’ve always wanted to be a full-time writer, although as a kid I really had no idea how unlikely that was; I thought you could just choose. I know how lucky I am to have the time that I do to write, and I love that I get to spend so much of my time with words. My eight-year-old self, however, would probably be appalled by the complicated taxation involved.
Where did you get the inspiration for your short story collection, The High Places? The stories are about interactions, relationships, life change and/or the way the past influences the present. Were they inspired by experiences you’ve had, something you read or saw, conversations you had, or long-standing preoccupations with themes/topics?
These stories came from all kinds of places. There’s a story about a malarial marine biologist who hallucinates a friendship with Charles Darwin – that came from so many sources, including the autobiography of Ingmar Bergman, my Anglican upbringing, an in-joke I had with a friend about squid, and the Marlon Brando Mutiny on the Bounty. ‘Art Appreciation’, a story that to my eternal surprise and delight was published in The New Yorker, came out of a piece of family history I’d never heard: my great-grandmother once won the lottery. Who wins the lottery? Nobody! But my great-grandmother did! (Unfortunately not a very big lottery, or I suppose I would have heard about it.) It came out of that and out of the fact that I was living in Texas, of all places, and needed to write Sydney street by street. The story ‘Man and Bird’ came out of a photograph I found in an online archive of a Reverend dressed all in black, a very respectable looking fellow, with an enormous sulphur-crested cockatoo on one shoulder. What was a man of God doing with such a bird? Why did he look so comfortable with it? Was the bird in fact the Holy Spirit?
I could tell you histories for each story. I suppose the connection is that each time, I followed something that made me curious and wrote towards the mystery of it.
And finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
Write all the time. Don’t be afraid of a bad first (or tenth) draft. Be patient. Write about things that excite you, frighten you, and make you curious – trust your own interest in a story or a subject. And read constantly.
Fiona McFarlane’s first novel, The Night Guest (2013) was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, an LA Times Book Prize, and translated into 19 languages. Her short stories have been published in The New Yorker, Zoetrope: All-Story and Best Australian Stories. Her collection The High Places was published in Australia in early 2016 and will be released in the UK in May. She lives in Sydney.
Samantha James is an Australian journalist, creative writer, avid reader and sometimes-artist. She graduated from Curtin University with Honours in Media, Culture and Creative Writing. As a student she volunteered at creative literary journal dotdotdash. After working as a journalist for a few years, she moved to South Korea to teach English, opening up whole worlds of possibilities. In 2016 she is planning to leave behind her life of structure to focus on creative writing, hoping new travel experiences, impulses and cultures will inspire her words on the page.
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