My two favorite things about “No Other Men in Mitchell” are the voice and the setting. And the worldbuilding (make that three things). I think people who enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road are going to love this! Can you tell us a little about where the story came from?
I might lose my citizenship for admitting this, but I haven’t seen any of the Mad Max films! But I think trucks and the desert are firmly entrenched in the Australian psyche. My husband used to work for a drilling company and drove road trains (three trailers) full of drilling equipment between work sites all over Queensland and South Australia. He’s got some crazy stories from that time, and I just write them down. I’m sorry to say the exploding cow is a true story. And his window was open.
In the Simpson Desert in northern South Australian, there are these gibber plains, just miles and miles of red rocks and not much else. We used to go there on family camping trips. Playing I-Spy on that part of the highway is pretty repetitive: S-sky, R-road, G-gibbers. The landscape sort of gets burned into your memory once you go there. I have to work hard not to set all my stories in the desert.
So I had all these vignettes and characters, and at the same time, I was thinking about the story of Martin Pistorius, a South African kid who had locked-in syndrome and lay in a hospital bed for twelve years before anyone realized he was conscious. The voice that ended up narrating the story came pretty naturally—it’s a voice that’s both familiar and foreign to me. Dylan’s a guy I feel I’ve met a hundred times before, a good person who’s lonely and alienated by rigid class structures, who has funny ideas about how a woman is going to save him (and maybe cook him dinner). And I was thinking about how ghosts seem to turn up when there’s something rotten in the world, but they’re essentially powerless.
Last summer, you attended the Clarion writers’ workshop in San Diego. As a Clarion West alumnus, I know how intense and transformative that can be. Nearly six months out, has that experience affected your writing and process?
Intense and transformative—that’s an accurate description. I think it will take longer for me to really understand the effect Clarion has had on my writing. For now, all I can say is that I’m more committed. I’m getting up early to write, and I’m more able to push through the pain when the story starts beating me up. At Clarion, for the first time in my life, I wrote things that made me feel physically ill, things that made me cry, things that made me feel afraid of how they’d be received. And everyone else was doing the same. Now I am only interested in writing stories that make me feel uncomfortable. Maybe the most important thing I learned at Clarion was that stories are too important to just churn out and publish for the sake of publishing. They have to mean something to you, even if you don’t know what that is.
In addition to your short stories, you’re also an accomplished poet, and you’re working on your first novel. Do you approach each form differently? Do you enjoy writing (or reading) one more than the others?
I approach short stories with fear. It takes a huge amount of will to finish when I start one. The best—and worst—thing about short stories is that you can say things that are difficult to say. One of my favorite stories is “Singing My Sister Down” by my Clarion instructor Margo Lanagan. It’s the words that are left out that make the story so powerful. It says something difficult without ever saying it. Short stories can quietly rip your guts out and send you crazy—see any Shirley Jackson story—or they can shatter your view of the world and make you question yourself, like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula le Guin. My favorite stories are the ones that really stick the knife in. I don’t read short stories to be comforted, put it that way, but I read plenty of novels for that purpose.
Novels are probably my main love, and in terms of reading, they have the power to change my thinking in the most significant way. There’s no other art form in the world that can take you so far inside somebody else’s head, or analyze humankind so deeply. My Clarion classmates would start talking about mirror neurons at this point, but whatever. Writing a novel is a bloody slog, though. It’s not as if you can get it done in a burst of inspiration over a couple of days. I’m rewriting my entire novel at the moment, the whole 87,000 words. It’s heartbreaking.
I’m totally uneducated when it comes to poetry. Every time someone likes a poem of mine, I’m convinced it’s a fluke, even though it’s the form I’ve been working with the longest. I won a prize in 2014 and immediately came down with a case of imposter syndrome. I haven’t written a poem since. I don’t remember how to do it.
You were one of the winners of the first South Australian Hachette Mentoring Program, a unique chance to work with a professional publisher on your novel. What has that been like?
So far, it’s been fantastic. My mentor is a publisher at Hachette and was formerly a literary agent, so her insight is unparalleled. She read the second draft of my manuscript and we had a long conversation about plot and character, instigating the enormous rewrite I mentioned. She understood my story and protagonist right away. In fact, she articulated the story better than I could, that it’s an answer to road trip stories that exclude women. I think every emerging writer could do with a mentor. I wanted one for a long time, but I didn’t feel that I had the right to ask somebody to mentor me. This program that the South Australian Writers Centre organized with Hachette was a huge opportunity and I put everything into my application. I feel so lucky to have been chosen.
What are you working on, and what can readers expect to see published soon?
The novel that I’m workshopping with my mentor is a work of contemporary fiction set in Melbourne, Australia, where I used to live. It’s about a downwardly mobile middle-class woman who moves into a caravan in a city alleyway in an attempt to be free of societal expectations. Writing the first draft was a lot of fun and a great excuse to set sex scenes in a caravan. If I manage to finish the final draft this millennium, I’ll rewrite my other Clarion stories (“No Other Men in Mitchell” was the first story I wrote at Clarion), but until then, I’m mostly writing caravan sex.
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