Short and sweet: peek­ing be­hind the cov­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­len El­liott

Cracking the Spine: Ten Short Aus­tralian Sto­ries and How They Were Writ­ten Edited by Julie Che­va­lier and Bron­wyn Me­han Spine­less Won­ders, 187pp, $22.99 THIS slen­der book stole on to my desk with­out fan­fare. Cracking the Spine, with its cover of flat grey on flat­ter grey and fire-en­gine red let­ter­ing, is striv­ing to­wards anti-allure. Mod­esty would be its hall­mark.

But crack the spine and there are th­ese 10 im­mod­estly bril­liant sto­ries. Each is fol­lowed by an es­say in which the writer de­tails the cre­ative process that re­sulted in the story. With­out ex­cep­tion they are il­lu­mi­nat­ing.

Julie Che­va­lier and Bron­wyn Me­han teach cre­ative writ­ing. They also have a blog called The Col­umn that is all about writ­ing. When they no­ticed that read­ers were most re­spon­sive to posts ex­plor­ing the process beyond the story, Cracking the Spine was born.

Che­va­lier and Me­han step away from the clas­sic Q&A Paris Re­view in­ter­view where the au­thor is led by ques­tions from a foren­sic in­ter­viewer. They’re chas­ing the cre­ative process from a dif­fer­ent an­gle, things re­lated to the au­thor’s deep­est “pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and con­cerns”. Th­ese are the nervy, bor­der­line il­lu­sory items of cre­ativ­ity, pres­sure, dreams, images, mem­ory, metaphor: ev­ery­thing to do with the pain and ex­hil­a­ra­tion of fash­ion­ing some­thing from noth­ing. The re­sult is in­tense. Their au­di­ence is se­nior high school and univer­sity but this col­lec­tion will be a rev­e­la­tion to the gen­eral reader.

The ed­i­tors se­lected for a range of styles, sub­ject mat­ters and themes so read­ers will cer­tainly find them­selves parked on un­known grids. There’s a fan­tasy story, Twi­light in Caeli-Amur by Rjurik David­son, that purrs along in dream­like fash­ion, am­bush­ing in a se­ries of minia­ture det­o­na­tions. Game of Thrones has done much to dis­pel sneers at fan­tasy lovers but David­son’s glit­ter­ing, sen­sual tale is a beau­ti­ful rev­e­la­tion. And Jen­nifer Mills’s Ar­chi­tec­ture, a cool, de­cep­tively ca­sual flick into a fu­ture world, is a jolt for those who wouldn’t dream of read­ing spec­u­la­tive. What pre­cise in­tel­li­gence is this, you ask, flush with the plea­sure of read­ing. Pa­trick Wests’s Nhill, a lin­ger­ing and de­tailed story of a young cou­ple with a prob­lem­atic re­la­tion­ship walk­ing through the Lit­tle Desert, is see­ing new worlds, in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal, through mag­ni­fied lenses. In his ex­plana­tory es­say West talks about “still life” — about slow­ness ap­plied to writ­ing much as it can be ap­plied to phi­los­o­phy. Noth­ing seems to be hap­pen­ing, but looked at this way, ev­ery­thing is hap­pen­ing.

My Abbr.d Life, Michael Gi­a­cometti’s heart­stop­ping story, lobs into your emo­tional land­scape and you fin­ish dis­traught. Then you read the es­say and must start read­ing over again. The story about a dead six-year-old takes three (per­fect) pages. Maria Takolan­der’s Three Sis­ters is four times as long but as exquisitely wrought. It is about three sis­ters in a road­house on an Aus­tralian high­way. In her es­say she notes that in­spi­ra­tion came from Chekhov. The ter­ri­ble in­er­tia and silent pain of un­lived lives makes a tale as dev­as­tat­ing as its name­sake.

The open­ing story is An Aus­tralian Short Story by Ryan O’Neill. O’Neill, who is Scot­tish, ar­rived in Aus­tralia only 10 years ago and knew lit­tle about the lit­er­a­ture. His ex­act­ing es­say dis­sects just how he got from here — ig­no­rance — to here — a story crafted en­tirely from lines nicked from other Aus­tralian sto­ries. The list is ex­haust­ing. It looks im­pos­si­ble but this ter­rific story co­heres. O’Neill has used ev­ery­one else’s lines and fash­ioned them into his own voice. And, mys­te­ri­ously, it isn’t tricksy. Mys­te­ri­ously? Not at all — that’s the func­tion of the hard work of art, as O’Neill’s es­say re­veals.

Then there’s the bleak and vul­ner­a­ble voice of the wed­ding guest in Claire Aman’s fine What I Didn’t Put in My Speech. Her es­say is another il­lu­mi­na­tion, es­pe­cially about the uses of magic and day­dream­ing to those who in­tend to write. Andy Kis­sane, who writes about chil­dren’s lives in a Cam­bo­dian rub­bish dump in Good Rub­bish, also of­fers a fab­u­lous es­say on writ­ing what you do not know. He re­jects that old ad­vice to write only what you know as “mis­guided and point­less”. Kis­sane has never been to Cam­bo­dia and it was long time since he was 10. He also makes the point that, in a story, some­thing must hap­pen; oth­er­wise it re­mains a vi­gnette.

Yet Mar­ion Hal­li­gan’s Wed­lock is almost a vi­gnette. Two girls turn into two women and the re­flec­tion is on the dif­fer­ent paths they have taken. And who might be the hap­pier? Hal­li­gan in her es­say Brows­ing Around in my Own Head is use­ful in clar­i­fy­ing how a writer trans­forms au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ma­te­rial, as is Tony Birch in his lu­cid, and very Mel­bourne Car­tog­ra­phy. His es­say re­flects on ob­ser­va­tions of his own daugh­ter with her friends, his com­pas­sion and con­cern for chil­dren on the mar­gins and how not to be pa­tro­n­is­ing when faced with the need to be kind. And how is he to ad­dress th­ese con­cerns in fic­tion?

As Amanda Lohrey, a great short-story writer her­self, says in her in­tro­duc­tion, th­ese sto­ries need no ex­pli­ca­tion and the es­says, bright with the hu­mil­ity of the se­ri­ous and hard­work­ing artist, stand as another ver­sion of the story in hand.

Only rarely does a re­viewer come across a per­fect col­lec­tion. If this is the state of Aus­tralian short fic­tion the hori­zon looks spa­cious. Mod­esty, the com­mon­al­ity of voice in th­ese sto­ries and es­says, is in­ap­pro­pri­ate. Ev­ery­one who is in­ter­ested in the depth, breadth, so­phis­ti­ca­tion and vi­tal­ity of writ­ing to­day needs this slen­der lit­tle book on their desk.

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