Fridays with Featherstone, Part 1: Thoughts on literary form
What do writer Nigel Featherstone and the now sadly defunct literary magazine Wet Ink have in common? An unpublished interview, that’s what! When Nigel approached me, with the agreement of his interviewer Susan Errington, asking whether I would like to run the review on Whispering Gums, I of course said yes – for several reasons. Over the last year I have reviewed two lovely novellas by Nigel Featherstone, Fall on me and I’m ready now. Nigel also wrote a guest post for Monday Musings on the relationship between family and children in some recent Australian fiction, including his own. And, yesterday, Nigel won the fiction section of this year’s ACT Writing and Publishing Awards for Fall on me. Then I read the interview – and I enjoyed it. Not only does it provide insight into Nigel’s writing, but he speaks on a range of issues regarding literary style and form and, of course, divulges some of his favourite writers. How could I not take up the offer?
It’s a long interview – magazine essay-length – but it breaks neatly into some thematic sections, so with Nigel’s agreement I am running the interview over a few weeks, followed by an updating interview between Nigel and me. So, with thanks to Nigel Featherstone and Susan Errignton, here is Part 1 …
You describe your latest work, Fall on Me, as a novella, but many current novels are not much longer. What is it about this story that makes it a ‘novella’?
Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to briefly talk about how Fall on Me came into being. In early 2010 I spent a month in Launceston as part of the Cataract Gorge Artist-in-Residence Program. Up until that point I’d spent five years working on a major project that had gone close to publication but in the end it got the red-light, not the green-light. More than a little wounded, I took the opportunity of the Launceston residency to return to where I’d started my writing ‘career’ back in the early 90s: creating short stories. I set myself a goal of writing the first draft of six stories. But there were other goals, too: write by hand, as in pen to pad; write what I wanted to write and what I’d like to read; and take creative risks, meaning don’t censor myself.
At the end of the first week I had the sketchy draft of what I supposed was a very long story, something around the 30,000-word mark. The second week I again tried to write a short story, but at the end of that week I again had the sketchy draft of a very long story around 30,000 words. And so it went until, after a 28-day mad storm of writing, I had the sketchy drafts of three of these very long stories. What had happened to me in that dark, dark Launceston gorge? I remember jumping on the plane to come home and thinking, what on earth am I going to do with these? What I did was keep working on them – editing, rewriting, polishing, editing some more – until, damn the bloody things, they grew in length; I’d had hoped they would go in the opposite direction. But there was something about the length that I really liked: story concentration, but also character expansion, and it intrigued me.
Thankfully Blemish Books, a Canberra-based independent press, was looking for fiction manuscripts up to 40,000 words so I submitted the first two of my novellas. And here we are. In the end, I think, that time in Launceston was all about psychology: I conned myself into believing that I was only writing short stories, and I certainly didn’t want to attempt another novel, so somehow I decided to write in that halfway space that novellas like to inhabit. Of course, there’s more to it than that: as a reader I love a book that can be gobbled up in one sitting, for example Hemingway’s The Old Man in the Sea, or The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. What these two books achieve with a minimum of words is astonishing.
You have also published a large number of short stories, at least forty I think, as well as two collections. What attracts you to the short story?
Short stories are closer to poetry than novels: they’re great at suggesting, rather than explaining every crinkle in the forehead. And they have focus – amazing focus, the focus of poetry. A well-structured short story is exquisite. Although it’s at the longer end of the spectrum, Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is mind-blowing. Or Chekhov’s ‘Gusev’ – what that man achieves with this story, which is one of his shortest works, is truly miraculous. The making of short stories is interesting, too. Sometimes I’ll have an idea logged in my journal for months, if not years. Then something happens – the stars align – and I’m ready to write the thing. I like to write the sketchy first draft in a day, type it up the next day, and then there’ll be months, if not years of rewriting, editing and polishing; one story took five years to find a home in a journal. In terms of short stories, I always come back to that word: miraculous. Short stories are indeed almost inexplicable, especially those that do so much with so few words. Take Hemingway’s classic six-worder: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never used.’ Or Margaret Atwood’s: ‘Longed for him. Got him. Shit.’ See? Miraculous.
What for you is the critical difference between short stories and novels, or novellas for that matter?
I wish I knew. That sounds off-hand, and for that I apologise. But every short story is different, every novella is different, every novel is different – in the writing, in the reading. Every story has its own internal logic, its own ecology, if you will. Established writers say that each time they start a new story they have to relearn the craft, and they’re speaking the truth. However, perhaps we can define the categories, just for the heck of it. If short stories are about brevity, novels are about complexity. So that’s what I might love about working with the novella: they offer the best of both worlds: succinctness and sophistication. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are cases in point. Of course, these definitions of story form are ultimately meaningless: some short stories are about complexity, while some novels use up 200,000 words by saying not much about anything. A story must find its natural length, that’s the beginning and end of it.
Which short story writers are important to you?
I mentioned Chekhov before, and Tolstoy is a hero, too – what he does in The Death of Ivan Ilyich is almost hard to believe. (At heart I’m a melancholic, and the Russians know all about melancholia, don’t they.) Proulx, of course, needs a second mention. I much prefer Peter Carey’s short stories to his novels – ‘The Last Days of a Famous Mime’ has had a huge influence on me because of its playfulness. Speaking of playfulness, the last collection I read that I fell in love with was Shooting the Fox by Marion Halligan – she really knows how to put words and sentences and characters together so sparks fly. But if my house was burning down and I had only a nano-second to make a decision, I’d clamber for my Chekhov and Tolstoy books. These two men strip back life until the truth is almost too much to bear.
Look for Part 2 next Friday …