Amanda Curtin is the author of two novels, Elemental and The Sinkings, and a short story collection, Inherited. Elemental (shortlisted for the 2014 Western Australia Premier’s Books Awards) will be published in the UK in 2016. Her awards include the University of Canberra National Short Story Award and the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award. She is currently the fiction editor of literary journal Westerly.
Interview by Samantha James
What was your journey to publishing like? What parts were the hardest, and what were the easiest?
I began publishing short stories after summoning the courage to enter a few awards—and having some success. That initial encouragement helped me, I think, to begin and then navigate my way through the process of submitting stories to journals, a road always littered with more rejections than acceptances. It’s tough; it takes perseverance. My first publications were in well-established Australian literary journals Westerly and Island, and through them and the awards I began to build a portfolio. This is something I believe is invaluable when a writer is ready to submit a longer work (whether it’s a collection or a novel) to book publishers.
As it turned out, the leap to my first book was easier than I could ever have dreamed, because a publisher (Terri-ann White, UWA Publishing) asked to see the draft and then accepted it immediately. I’m well aware that it’s an atypical story, and grateful for that rare opportunity.
The stories in Inherited are preoccupied with loss, memory, connection and history. What inspired these characters and your focus on the everyday rhythm of life?
These are things that preoccupy my thoughts, so it’s not surprising that they find their way into my fiction and circle through and around much of what I write.
The inspiration for characters and moments can come from anywhere—newspapers, art, music, travel, things I overhear in the street or read in books. Often it comes from Western Australian history because I have, over the years, edited many works of non-fiction in this area. But my stories also emerge from observing the world around me, and wanting to understand or trying to make sense of something. For example, for years I was puzzled by the proliferation of roadside crosses—who put them there, whether they were permanent, whether the motivation was to warn careless motorists or insist on remembrance of the lost, whether they were sacred places to grieving families, why they seemed to be becoming more elaborate over time. The story ‘Gratitude’ (in Inherited) is an extension of all this puzzling, an attempt to explore questions through asking ‘what if?’.
‘[Curtin’s] voice is poetic and convincing, while a gentle metaphorical undertow invites the reader to make connections that may not be immediately apparent.’
What do you think when you read or hear positive feedback such as the above?
Was it your intention to be metaphoric in these stories? If so, why?
Well, it’s enormously gratifying to be appreciated, of course. But it’s equally gratifying to feel that a reader/reviewer has really engaged with what you’ve tried to do, and so a response like that is a gift twice over. It’s also a learning experience to discover what it is that has made a strong connection with readers—whether it was a conscious strategy on your part, or something you did instinctively.
I don’t consciously strive for metaphor, but when you’re trying to pare back something complex, to suggest through association, to paint the whole sky through a few brushstrokes of blue, I think you instinctively turn to metaphor, you think in those terms.
Do you think it is more important for readers to be able to interpret their own meanings from your work, or do you strive for your intended meaning to be conveyed through the writing, and why?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Obviously when I am trying to achieve a particular effect, or wanting to pose a question, I’m shaping the work towards that. But I don’t like stories that bludgeon readers with ‘meaning’. And I recognise that reading is active, and readers will come up with their own interpretations, conclusions, meanings, questions. Of course, this can apply not only to meaning but also to the ‘what happens’ of a story; for example, the ending of ‘Rush’ (in Inherited) is very open-ended and has produced some wildly different responses from readers!
Which do you believe helps a writer more—positive feedback or constructive criticism? Why?
Thirty years of editing experience convinces me that you have to have both. You need a reader who you trust, who has critical skills, who has time to read your manuscript carefully, and who is willing to give you a response that includes what works for them, and why, and what doesn’t, and why. It goes without saying that you should choose your test reader/s or assessor/s very carefully.
Belonging to a writing group consisting of several such readers as I’ve described above has been one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had as a writer.
The settings in your stories are uniquely Australian. What influenced the character of the places in your short stories? The cottage in ‘Dance Memory’ seemed to have its own character, or at least Mignette’s dance room; the setting seems to be one of the ways you evoke memory and its impact on the present in this story. Was this a concerted effort on your part or is that just the way I/readers have interpreted it?
Place matters a great deal to me, and in most of my stories it has meaning for the characters or associations with their inner states. Most of the settings in Inherited are Australian (one is set in the UK and one in Bali), but the settings in individual stories range from the suburban to the rural, across different socio-economic contexts, and with different degrees of significance to the characters.
In ‘Dance Memory’, setting carries a good deal of weight. Young single mother Jo moves into a rundown cottage in a rural town, alongside another cottage that seems identical to hers but has ‘the look of a home that had always been loved’. Her wheelchair-bound neighbour Mignette befriends first Nicky, Jo’s young son, and then Jo herself, and eventually reveals to Jo the memories she keeps in the cottage. For me, the story is about the nature of memory, where memories reside, and what and how we value them; the two cottages could be said to reflect the two women who live in them, and their individual responses to memory and grief.
How did you transition from novel to short fiction and back again? What do you like about long fiction in comparison to short, and visa versa?
I had been writing, and publishing, short fiction for some years before I published my first book, which was a novel (The Sinkings). Inherited, my second book, collected the previously published stories along with new stories I had been working on. The transition to long fiction from short was daunting, but I did it via a PhD program, which gave me an opportunity to challenge myself to take on what turned out to be a very long work of fiction.
I love both genres, and each has its challenges. What draws me particularly to the short story is that you can (if a story works!) explore large ideas through fragments, through distillation, through the oblique. The challenge lies in how: the paring and shaping, the juxtaposition and association, the use of space and silence. I’ve often said that a short story involves a tension between compression and expansion: you aim for brevity but hope the reader will expand the story beyond its frame.
The novel is all about expansion. What is exciting about that expansion in writing a novel is also its challenge: the sheer scale of creating a world in which a reader can feel immersed over a long period of time; creating characters and relationships that are compelling and convincing; finding the voice of the novel; juggling all the elements and structuring the work in a satisfying way; achieving the right pace; handling time…
As a long-term professional editor, how do you approach the editing process in your own work?
The editing process is a separate process from writing. Writing = creation; editing = analysis. I feel I am still learning how to leave my editor-self outside the studio when I’m writing and then call her inside at the appropriate time!
I try to approach my own work as if it’s someone else’s. I know I’m never likely to achieve that degree of objectivity, but it’s what I aim for. If I can leave the manuscript for a period of weeks or months, that helps; for short fiction, this feels especially important. I sometimes reprint the manuscript in a different font, so that it looks slightly different to the work I’m so enmeshed with. (This is also a good strategy when it comes to proofreading your work before submitting it.)
And finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
If you want to be a writer and are just starting out, your focus should be on the writing, and on all that comes with making yourself a better writer—editing and rewriting, seeking feedback and learning from it, submitting work to publishers and competitions (and repeat, repeat), reading widely and critically (good writers are good readers), continually learning about your craft, exposing yourself to new ideas and to all that life has to offer, showing up at the desk. Things like ‘building a social media platform’ and ‘author branding’ are surface accoutrements to the substance of being writer.
The Short Story Interview / Samantha James / 3st January 2016