In 2016, I wrote five Spotlight posts inspired by Annette Marfording’s Celebrating Australian writing: Conversations with Australian authors, and decided that was probably enough mining of her work for my blog. However, with over two years having passed since then, I wondered if it might be okay to do another. I emailed Annette, and she kindly agreed. But, who to choose from the 21 authors in her book? Well, of course, you know from the post title who I chose, so the next question is, why him?
The answer lies in an email correspondence I’ve had with Carmel Bird over the last week in response to my last Monday Musings posts on pianos. Carmel emailed me privately to mention an anthology she edited, Red hot notes, which includes many pieces about the piano. How embarrassing! I actually have that book. Anyhow, that got us talking about short stories and short story writers, including Robert Drewe whose The bodysurfers I have. Carmel exhorted me to read (or, to be precise, finish reading) it. I will, because what I’ve read so far I’ve loved. (Meanwhile, I plan a future post on short stories more generally, inspired by our discussion.)
But now, after that rather long introduction, on to Robert Drewe. Marfording’s interview took place in August 2009, at which time Drewe had published six novels, three short story collections, two non-fiction books and two plays. Since then he has written another novel and short story collection, both of which I have given as gifts in recent years, plus four more works of non-fiction. He has won two Walkley Awards, a Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and several other awards. Wikipedia says that his novel The drowner “made Australian literary history by becoming the first novel to win the Premier’s Literary Prize in every state”. And yet, I have not reviewed him for my blog, though I did post on his Seymour Biography Lecture in 2015.
Given the multiple forms he has written in, Marfording started by asking him his preferred form. He said that he likes them all “at different times – sort of equally” but that at the time of the interview he was particularly enjoying short stories, a form he came to after writing a couple of novels. Now, that’s interesting because many people suggest short stories are a training ground for novels, an idea I don’t much like as I see short stories as a form in their own right. Anyhow, Drewe commented that he was “finding the short story more interesting and more contemporary and of the moment.”
Marfording then turned to his origins as a fiction writer, after his early work as a journalist. He talked about always wanting to be a writer, and what his career as a journalist gave him:
It taught me how to write simple declarative sentences, it took me out of a normal Australian middle-class background and showed me how the other half live, it showed me how courts work and crime and how people at the struggling end of the spectrum live. It was really a fascinating background for a writer.
The discussion then moved on to Drewe’s novels and short stories, and how they reflect or comment on contemporary Australian society, including, specifically, such issues as refugees, the environment, and Indigenous Australians. Drewe makes an interesting comment about using the novel versus short story form:
I’m interested in ideas which I try to get across in a novel, but I’m interested in more succinct, shorter forms like relationships and so forth, and conflicts between people are easier to deal with in a short story …
Not surprisingly, this led to a discussion about his treatment of relationships, before returning to the short story, and what he sees as the essence of a short story. For Drewe,
… a good short story makes you look at something about your own life or experience through the prism of what you’re reading. So a sense of identification or recognition is what matters, really.
I’d have to think about whether all “good” short stories need to do this, but certainly I’d agree that many or most do.
Marfording then discussed his writing process, which is something that interests most readers (or, at least, those who read or listen to interviews with authors), and also a little about film adaptations, given his Ned Kelly novel, Our Sunshine, was adapted for a film which starred Heath Ledger. But, I’m leaving those to move on to their discussion about his work as an editor of short story anthologies.
How, Marfording asked, does he choose short stories for his anthologies. Drewe said that he advertises in all the literary columns in “newspapers and so forth”, and, he said, “the stories arrive in their thousands.” He also reads published stories in literary magazines. He said that half the content will be pre-published stories like these, but the rest will be new – “that’s where the fun is for the editor, discovering new people.” I reckon that’s where the fun is for the people he has discovered as well. Imagine being selected by Robert Drewe!
He commented that some anthologies include “slabs of novels … which goes against the whole point of short story collections.” I have certainly seen that. It’s seems fine if it’s a story that the author later develops into a novel, but to excerpt a novel feels a bit suss to me. However, I don’t want to be absolutist about this because there are always exceptions, n’est-ce pas?
Then, of course, there’s that other question we readers all love, his favourite writers. Drewe’s include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Helen Garner, and Peter Temple. You can see a few short form writers in there can’t you?
Another behind-the-scenes question concerned judging literary awards. It’s not so hard, he said, to choose shortlists, but choosing the winner is something else:
I generally tend to go for the imaginative ones, the ones that strike me as being less like another story than I’ve read before. The more original, the better, really.
A good rule-of-thumb, methinks, though a risky one. It can result in the selection of books that many readers won’t like, and the work may not stand the test of time. But, if award-winners don’t push boundaries, where are we? We need brave judges.
I did say I’d pass by discussing his writing process, but I’ll conclude with a selection of first lines from The bodysurfers which exemplify his comment that “you owe it to the reader to engross them”:
“My father wasn’t in his element in party hats”. (“The manageress and the mirage”)
“It was possibly lucky my mother didn’t marry her first fiancé because he ended up in Fremantle prison”. (“The silver medallist”)
“The murders took the gloss off it.” (“The bodysurfers”)
Would these lines make you want to read on?
Previous Spotlight posts:
Celebrating Australian writing: Conversations with Australian authors
Self published, 2015