After the launch of The Sleepers Almanac No. 9 at Bella Union earlier this year, I had a drink with the Sleepers Publishing team in the pub across the road. As a person who specialises in asking strange questions, I asked Lou and Zoe whether all writers are strange people. They said that many are, but then some aren’t. Take Luke Thomas for example, they said. No one could have guessed that he would turn out to look like he just stepped out of The Farmer Wants a Wife.
‘Which one was Luke Thomas?’ I asked, trying to recall all the people who were at the launch.
‘He’s just over there,’ they said.
I surreptitiously leaned to the right to look at the guy sitting with his friends in the booth adjacent to ours. There he was – the 007-like plaid-wearing chef and short story magician from Queensland.
Luke and I have very different writing styles but we’ve become good online friends since the launch. Besides The Sleepers Almanac, he has had fiction published in [untitled], page seventeen and Award Winning Australian Writing. In 2012, his short story collection, Home Mechanics, was shortlisted in the Queensland Literary Awards for a Manuscript by an Emerging Author.
Luke recently asked me to participate in a blog hop. It involves answering four questions about my writing process and then nominating others to do the same. You can read Luke’s responses here. I also highly recommend reading his piece on Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ over at Laurie Steed’s blog.
Here are my answers to the four questions.
1. What are you working on at the moment?
A capsule collection of new short stories for Spineless Wonders, a longer short story collection, and a novel about the smartest man in the universe.
2. How do you think your work differs from that of other writers in your genre?
I’m a writer of literary fiction but an editor recently told me not to admit this if I ever pitch to mainstream publishers because the genre is synonymous with “boring” these days. In reviews, my work has been described as absurdist.
Even though I write literary fiction, I sometimes unintentionally dabble in other genres. My latest published story in Kyoto Journal is paranormal fiction and I’ve been told that the novel I’m writing is leaning towards speculative fiction, in a similar vein to some of the work of Margaret Atwood (which she prefers to call “social science fiction”).
People have said that my work reminds them of Roald Dahl, Haruki Murakami, early Peter Carey, Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis. Dahl and Murakami are clear influences but I’m not yet well-read enough to have an opinion on the others. Eva Lomski drew my attention to this website, which has concluded that I write like David Foster Wallace. Try it. I’m sure it’s accurate.
3. Why do you write what you write?
I write fiction because it involves a magical blend of elements. Fiction can be philosophical, logical, political, emotional and wildly imaginative all at once. Writing fiction gives me the freedom to work alone on self-directed projects that allow me to use my brain in the way it works best – synthesising ideas and experiences in unexpected ways. Researching my novel has led me to learn about topics as wideranging as perfume, botanical art, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and aeronautical engineering. Although this research is in service of the story, it is also an excuse for me to learn a little bit about a lot of interesting things.
I write the sort of fiction I write because it helps me to sort out what I think of life. Right now, I think the world is crazy, and this is reflected in my work. There are always autobiographical elements in my fiction but only people who know me well can distinguish between the parts drawn from real life and the parts that are invented. It’s common for authors to write about the same things over and over again. So far, it appears that the recurrent theme of my work is entrapment. I also tend to be more comfortable writing from a male point of view. It may be time to see a psychologist.
The subject matter of my work tends to be contemporary but what motivates my writing is a pretty old-school aesthetic. In high school, I loved studying the work of Jonathan Swift, Aldous Huxley and Joseph Heller. It helped that I had a fantastic English teacher in my final years of high school – we still catch up for lunch every few months. He often says to me that it’s good that I’m pursuing writing because, even if it doesn’t work out in the end, I’ll know that I at least tried to live the dream. Anyway, there were a whole bunch of writers on whom I had extracurricular crushes during my school years—Vikram Seth, Michael Ondaatje and Yasmina Reza were frontrunners—but Swift, Huxley and Heller stand out as the writers who really shaped my current style. They gave me the ability to see the modern world more clearly. I walk through life now and look at situations and think ‘My God, that’s just like Brave New World.’ I like the idea of being part of a literary tradition that helps us to examine and understand the systems, ideologies and power at work behind the situations we encounter in our daily lives.
I didn’t study creative writing at university, vaguely thinking I would end up being a lawyer/filmmaker. I took first-year English literature classes intending to major in English but I got bored. I’d wanted to find a tertiary version of Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society but none of my lecturers made me want to get up on a table. They didn’t even take me out to kick soccer balls. In second year, I dropped English for a double major in Government and a minor in Political Economy. I learnt about Waltzian neorealism, nuclear deterrence and neoliberalism, instead of how Shakespeare’s sonnets taken as a whole suggest that he was gay. (I wasn’t overly interested in Shakespeare’s sexual orientation – I just wanted to learn how to read a sonnet.) By changing my academic focus, I unintentionally rewired my approach to literature. In one of my classes, for instance, I was asked to write an essay using Orwell’s Animal Farm as a case study for the analysis of power. As a result of this very specific type of education, the preoccupations of my fiction include politics, neoliberalism and power dynamics.
I also write the sort of fiction I write because it allows me to be unrestrictedly creative. As a kid, I had a rich imagination. At one point, I was captain of the fictional ship, the Dawn Treader. I drew up this map for my Polar Tropic Expedition and wrote diary entries about the voyage.
I was trained early in formal approaches to creativity. In primary school, I was introduced to Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats and “po”, and participated in the creativity-focused Tournament of Minds. It took me a long time after the constant essay writing of university and full-time work as a corporate lawyer to get back to that state of high-level creativity. People think that creativity is a gift but everyone can get in touch with it if they give it space to flourish. I overcame intense writer’s block using The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which is a book I recommend to everyone who asks me how to start writing, and who isn’t militantly atheist. Rule of thumb: if you’re the sort of person who’ll pick up a pebble and exclaim that it’s a sign from the universe because you’ve recently been thinking about rewatching every episode of The Flintstones, then the book is for you.
These days, I rarely get that feeling of wonder I used to experience as a kid when I discovered books that told unusual stories that took my mind into new territories. I aim to write fiction that recreates that feeling for adults. In recent years, I’ve done some reading on the structure of fairytales and fables because I like to think that I am writing new ones specifically for adults – odd, dark stories with hard edges.
4. What’s your writing process and how does it work?
I write like the least organised person you know. In terms of short stories, I generally wait until a deadline approaches, pick up a story idea, elaborate on it, and submit it at the last minute. Because I work this way, and because I don’t have a writing group, the first people to read a story of mine are publishers or competition judges. If I get an acceptance, then flaws in the story are fixed at the editorial stage.
Part of the reason I’m so disorganised with my fiction is my day job as a tender writer for NGOs. It’s a flexible, work-from-anywhere arrangement but it can also be unpredictable and deadline-driven, which means frequently working nights and weekends, and not having set hours to write fiction. My boss and I decided recently to set particular hours for me to work on tender writing. So now I work until late lunchtime each day, with the afternoon and night set aside for fiction. We’ve only just started this arrangement, so we’ll see if it works.
In terms of where I work on my writing, I have a writing studio in an artists’ warehouse. I like hearing bands rehearsing downstairs, and people strumming guitars outside my window. When I need a break, I drop into other artists’ studios for a chat. I’ve barely been at my studio recently because of the aircraft noise, which interferes with the increasing number of teleconferences I need to dial into for tender writing. Sometimes it’s also more time efficient just to get up in the morning, take three steps to the desk in my bedroom and start working. I’m hoping to get to my studio more often as my tender writing hours become more stable.
I don’t know if this works for other people, but watching Sandra Bullock rom-coms has done great things for my fiction. I discovered this one night last year, when I was feeling creatively stuck. The Proposal happened to be on TV, so I sat down and watched it (for about the third time). The movie made me so relaxed that my brain began operating at its highest level, just like it does when I’m in the shower. After the film, the overarching plot for my novel—which is the complete opposite of a rom-com—came to me in an instant.
Since then, I’ve been plugging in details between the key plot points and have begun to map out each scene, leaving room for improvisation along the way. I’m also going to hire an editor to look over my novel before I submit it to publishers. I am being much more methodical with my novel than with my short stories, mostly because I want to know that every part of the plot works before I really get stuck into such a big writing task.
One of the most useful disciplines that has influenced my understanding of plot and structure is screenwriting. I’ve read some of the classic screenwriting books—by Syd Field, McKee and Vogler—and I sometimes attend screenwriting seminars to learn more about story structure. I don’t tend to apply screenwriting principles directly but I’m sure some elements eventually work their way into my stories.
One of the great tips that has stayed with me was something the screenwriter John Collee said in an AFTRS seminar a few years ago. When he’s working on a story for the screen, he goes around with a set of 30 to 40 index cards. The heading on each card is a plot point – one line describing a key plot development. Going through the cards in order allows him to tell the story in simple form, and to shuffle the cards around to see which order works best.
Collee keeps telling this story-in-progress to people he meets and, after each plot point, he asks them if they want to know what happens next. He says that when you can keep a person wanting to know more right up to the end of the story, you know you’ve got a story that works. You can then build research and complexity into each plot development. I remember Collee’s process whenever people ask me what I’m working on. I sometimes take the opportunity to recount for them the plot of my novel-in-progress and watch for the points at which they start getting bored. Then I decide if the relevant plot point is indeed weak, or if the person just has a short attention span. The better I am able to tell the story to friends, the more refined it will be when it’s down on paper.
The writers I’m nominating to participate in this blog hop are two lovely short story stars from Melbourne: Pierz Newton-John and Tara Cartland.
Pierz Newton-John’s stories have been widely published in literary journals and magazines in Australia. His debut collection, Fault Lines, was published by Spineless Wonders in 2012, to critical acclaim. Pierz is a former psychotherapist, a web developer, musician, and a faculty member of the School of Life, Melbourne. He is currently working on a novel. His blog can be found at www.pierznj.blogspot.com.
Tara Cartland writes short stories, creative non-fiction and, occasionally, essays about pop stars. She won the inaugural Overland and Victoria University Short Story Prize and was a 2013 SOYA Written Word Finalist. Her work has appeared in Best Australian Stories 2013, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Big Issue, and Seizure Online. She is currently working on her first short story collection. taracartland.com
Check out their blogs in the coming weeks to read their responses.