Short and sweet: peeking behind the covers
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.