It was standing room only in the function area of St. Kilda Readings, as Jason Steger, literary editor of The Age and commentator on First Tuesday Book Club sat down with Alec Patric (aka A.S. Patric) and Chris Somerville to chat about the art of the short story.
Why write short stories?
Alec originally started writing novels. He shopped a novel-length manuscript, which was seven years in the making, around to various publishers but he lacked the literary CV needed to garner interest. He initially wrote short stories to boost his CV, but quickly fell in love with the form, admiring the density and virtuosity.
Self-effacing, Chris noted ‘I never really had much of an attention span’. His interest is rooted in the voice. Chris prefers short stories over novel-length works, because short stories have fewer events than novels, meaning the few events can be explored in greater detail in a short story.
Crafting a story: do you know the ending before you start?
While acknowledging that some writers need a blueprint, Alec believes it is better not to know the ending. He believes ‘epiphanies should happen on the page’ and ‘the only way you can surprise a reader is to surprise yourself’.
Chris planned a story once, and it kept going for 11,000 words. He said, ‘I once gave it to my mother—she’s an editor—and she just wrote “no” on it’.
What’s the right length of a short story?
Chris was quick to answer, ‘when it ends’, before clarifying, ‘there has to be some kind of character development, otherwise it can’t end’.
Alec said ‘the beauty of short stories is they can be any length’, but noted that 3,000 words is the standard in Australia.
When you write a short story, is it the voice that drives you?
Chris believes two main elements are required – a voice and something at stake. ‘There needs to be tension, or narrative drive, to pull it along’. Describing his own work to illustrate his point, Chris said ‘usually it’s just awkward young men … feeling awkward’.
Alec, you’re interested more in experimentation?
Alec spent 7 years working on a novel. Once he started writing short stories he realised how liberating they could be. He is excited by the possibilities, of trying different things (one of his stories is filled with unattributed dialogue). Alec stressed the importance of allowing ‘yourself to be free with possibilities’.
How important is character?
Chris noted ‘character occurs to plot, and plot pushes character’. He said ‘plot only happens because characters push them forward’.
Who do you admire?
As a teenager, Chris admired Raymond Carver for portraying ‘normal people … just having thoughts’. He cites George Saunders as infectious, and also listed Dennis Johnson, author of Jesus’ Son.
Alec listed John Updike and Ernest Hemingway, amongst others.
Chris and Alec both acknowledged the American-ness of their selections. Alec suggested this was in part due to the rural mentality of Australian publishers, where publishing interest seems to be restricted to beaches or cattle. Alec believes ‘the American experience isn’t western’, and the ‘American pallet is wide open’.
Audience question: How do you choose what goes into a collection?
Chris quipped ‘start strong, worst last and the middle doesn’t matter’.
Alec added ‘it’s often in the hands of the publisher’.
Audience question: Are short story collections and music albums comparable?
Alec believes short stories aren’t really meant to be read in isolation, that there is an arc of movement from one story to the next.
Audience question: Is it dangerous to have an arc in place for a collection?
Alec recommended going with whatever liberates you. ‘If overarching themes for a collection limits you, then forget it’.
Audience question: If you get to your death bed without publishing a novel, will you regret it?
Alec offered a diplomatic answer, saying ‘there’s a legitimacy now (to short story) that perhaps there wasn’t in the past’.
‘I never imagined my deathbed’, Chris dead-panned.