Authors: Cate Kennedy
Tags: #LCO005000, #FIC003000, #FIC019000
Published by Black Inc.,
an imprint of Schwartz Media Pty Ltd
Introduction & this collection Â© Cate Kennedy
& Black Inc., 2010.
Individual stories Â© retained by the authors.
Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders of material in this book. However, where an omission has occurred, the publisher will gladly include acknowledgement in any future edition.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.
When reading takes up a large part of your time and attention, it's inevitable that its subject matter is also going to take over a large part of your consciousness. The stories I read in search of the ones that make up this collection did more than occupy that mental acreage. They re-surveyed it, subdivided it, and sometimes even built on it. Through the cold months in 2010 I collected short stories in boxes and sacks from my post-office box, lugged them home and approached those waiting stacks like a wine buff might eye a new shipment of Shiraz. Some of them I read in clichÃ©d âeditor' pose: by the fire in a big armchair, a cup of tea in reach. But as more stories kept arriving and the stacks kept growing, they began to co-opt more of my life. I kept a pile by the bed and read at least five a night before going to sleep. I read dozens in trains, and in airport departure lounges waiting for delayed flights, and I knew I was onto a good story when I'd pull it out again in the plane and even in the taxi once I'd arrived back on the ground. I read them late at night as the winter really set in, so totally absorbed in their small universes that at 2 a.m., when I rose to get more wood for the fire, the freezing stillness of the outside world woke me with a cold-steel shock of reality.
As I worked my way through individual submissions, literary quarterlies and anthologies, the stories that stayed with me found their way to a particular pile and I re-read these memorable pieces several times each. I had to â I had over a hundred in there and I knew I'd soon have to make some difficult decisions. It's been said that a writer can't really know how to write a story until they've written it, and in a way the same is true of a selection process. I did not set out looking for anything particular to reward in terms of craft or subject-matter in these stories â I didn't know what I'd find or how it would affect me, I just approached each one hoping to be surprised and moved. Short stories, as Richard Ford said once, are daring little instruments, and they dare you to define them. But there is little to match the pleasurable exhilarating rush, for my money, when we know we are in the hands of a writer with authority. Their power is like a kind of charisma â we allow ourselves to be willingly, absolutely persuaded. They make an arcing sweep of their brush and suddenly a whole scene is painted in, a whole prior, plausible life suggested. They deliver an exchange of dialogue that we know is not really âlifelike,' we know it just possesses the cadence and feel of real talk, but somehow we believe it, and we believe in those people. A writer with authority takes their story events in a direction we could never have predicted but which still feels perfectly right and satisfying, and we're with them every step of the way.
Part of our willing surrender to this authority is admiration for its skill, because there's nowhere to hide in a short story â we writers only have a few thousand words with which to win your heart, and if we have no skill or nothing to say it is immediately apparent. A short story, that miracle of compression and distillation, can't carry any dead spots, clunky machinery or hairline fractures without these flaws being thrown into cruel relief. So when an author pulls it off â manages the highwire act of conjuring up a memorable, revelatory world in just a few pages â we absorb every considered word with faith and gratitude.
The other part of this authority, though, lies in choices which are not about craft so much as instinct. It would be a mistake to call these instincts âunerring,' because the very process of writing is sometimes a dogged struggle to work out why our attention is so caught on something from life, something we feel compelled to try to make coherent. Before we can write it for someone else, we need to write it for ourselves. This intuitive, hesitant process, as an author steps out irrationally onto the wire, putting one word after another without fully understanding why or how, is the real test of intent. Writing tutors are fond of quoting Forster's famous âonly connect' directive, but we forget that was only half the quote. âOnly connect the prose and the passion,' he said, âand both will be exulted.' The stories that made my shortlist, from the longlist of excellent pieces, stayed with me not only because of their technical prowess but also this harder-to-define quality; they tempered something passionately felt into an unexpected revelation that worked its way into my own thinking and stayed there. Stories that galvanised with their energy, and left me feeling â yes â exultant.
It was only at this point my editorial
began to emerge, such as it was: as I read and re-read stories full of admiration not just for their authors but also for the short story form itself, and the way it's capable of containing such huge diversity and vibrancy. From the longer, more intricate plots of Nam Le and David Francis, both dealing in their own ways with the tumultuous, helpless love of family and all it asks of us, to Josephine Rowe's lyrical and elliptical âBrisbane,' which takes only 500 or so words to cartwheel across that highwire in a bravura display of delicacy and distillation, this contrast stands testament to the form's capaciousness. Joshua Lobb's ambitious âlist' story, Ryan O'Neill's hilarious sequence of book reviews and Gillian Essex's âOne of the Girls,' which unspools a tale from one breathless, wondering sentence, all demonstrate this vibrancy of form and the unexpected ways a story can be told. Some stories I wish I hadn't read late at night before attempting to sleep â David Mence's âThe Cliffs' and Chris Womersley's âThe Age of Terror' both spring to mind, and both drive a splinter under the skin with their depiction of dark and complex self-justifications. Some voices â and this is the great yardstick of a skilfully rendered character â followed me out of the room, still talking, pulling at my arm, demanding to go on being heard. Mike Ladd and Michael McGirr's stories, both so deceptively, achingly simple, found a bruise where I didn't know I had one. A few years ago in his introduction as editor to this anthology, Robert Drewe mentioned the âwow' factor in selecting stories; for me this year it was more like the âow' factor â a tender spot revealed, which reminded me that the greatest technical ability in the world is nothing until it is leavened by compassion.
It feels a little reductive to single out stories for praise just because they are different from each other, when their other qualities are so much richer. Suffice to say even selecting with the balance of prose and passion in mind still left me with many more excellent stories than I could include, so the final cut here is shaped to my tastes and my idea of balance and depth. There are still thirty stories in the box â enough for a whole second collection â which do not appear here and whose omission weighs heavily on my conscience. I hope those stories, too, find their way into publication and the wider audience they deserve.
In a synchronicity you'd dismiss as too stagy and heavy-handed for a work of fiction, the day I handed in my final selection for this anthology, after being awash for months in a tide of submissions, the river in my part of the state rose three and a half metres and broke its banks. Gullies which had been dusty holes for the better part of fifteen years were suddenly billabongs full of astonished, gratified frogs; dry, bare paddocks were inundated, roads closed and the river became a deep, noisy flood. The exultant feeling of waking to that glittering world of water and selecting these stories now feels inextricably linked to me. And that river â cutting and shaping new banks, moving with momentum and unstoppable purpose, slaking a drought-stricken landscape â well, there's a metaphor for new stories you couldn't make up.
My thanks to Denise O'Dea, and to everyone who submitted their stories this year. It was a pleasure and a privilege.