Interview with Victorian Writers Centre magazine, July 2007

1. Can you talk a bit about how you got started as a writer? How did you first get published?

There was a long time between getting started and getting published. I had been writing seriously for well over a decade before my first piece of fiction appeared in print. It was a story in Overland magazine. A lot of my writing up to that point had been experimental, for want of a better word. I had at that stage not yet grasped a clear concept of The Reader, or more particularly my reader—nor what, if anything, I wanted to communicate to them. I was still finding out, from the inside, what this writing thing was all about. I wrote a lot of words, and scrapped or changed most of them. This habit has stayed with me. I now readily acknowledge the existence of The Reader but all of my writing is still an experiment, to some extent.

 2. What are some of the similarities and differences for you between writing short stories and novels? Do you prefer one over the other? Do you approach the writing in the same way?  Do they require different writing techniques?
One reviewer of my first long work of fiction, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, called it ‘a short story that got away’. I took that as a compliment, though I’m not sure it was intended as such. But it does beg the question: what is a novel? My first book was just under 50,000 words. My second is about the same. Each, in its own way, is ‘a short story that got away’. So I’m not even sure if I write novels. I certainly don’t write those big fat things that fill up the shelves in the shops. Everything I write is a variation in some way on what we traditionally call ‘the short story’: some are very short (200-1,000 words), some shortish (2-5,000 words), some long (6-10,000 words), some, like the ‘novels’, very long indeed.  

3. What do you think makes for a good short story?  What do you like to read in a short story?
A surprising first sentence, a vivid realisation of place, an unexpected narrative voice, a sense of something unfolding or unravelling—but above all some kind of music. I am never quite sure what this music is but I always know it when I hear it. As in life, certain moments are experienced more intensely and therefore more vividly remembered when they are underscored by music. (Think driving into the sunset with your favourite song on the radio.) Short story writing is about capturing this kind of concentrated, intensified experience. Slackness, sloppiness, blah-blah-blah-ing is unforgivable in a work of short fiction—everything should be working towards a squeezing, a tensioning, a tightening. Making music, in other words.
4. Do you have any tips for those trying to get their short stories published?
Buy lots of stamps. For many years I have kept a record, on hand-ruled sheets of A4 paper, of all the stories I have submitted to literary magazines. There are four columns: the date sent, the magazine I sent it to, the name of the work and finally the date I received the rejection (or, on occasion, the acceptance). This record shows that I have sent a total of 31 pieces of short fiction to 16 different magazines on 101 separate occasions for a total of 17 pieces of short fiction accepted. Of the pieces of short fiction I have had accepted all had been previously rejected at least once. I have, on occasion, resubmitted a story to a magazine that had already rejected it under its former editor and then had it subsequently accepted. On one memorable occasion I resubmitted a story to a magazine that had rejected it seven years earlier, under the previous editor: the story was, in the intervening years, rejected by another seven magazines. The new editor of the magazine that had originally rejected it then accepted my story and published it, up front, unchanged, in the very next issue. Put it in an envelope and send it out again.