"Firstly, thank you to Chris Champion and to semi-retired Admiral Warren Boyles of the good ship Forty Degrees South for the opportunity to launch yet another fine anthology. And thank you, as always, to Chris and Janet for so often providing this maze of possibilities and wonders. And congratulations to Kate Esser for her beautifully crafted, poignant and finally exultant winning story, ‘Crossing Water’.
|John Hale, 2010 Kate Esser, 2012, Chris Chamption, editor|
And that’s why this latest publication is so important, giving the opportunity, as it does, to known and not-so-known writers to put their works ‘out there’/ in here, whether or not they were included between these covers. As Leigh Swinburne says, with his co-judge Rachel Edwards, “We had to leave out some excellent work”.
Back in the days when kindle meant to awaken desire – as in ‘Kindle, kindle me’ she cried and he kindled her’, and when an e-reader was a recognised developmental stage of Early Childhood Education; back when, according to my 1966 left-handed dictionary, George Bernard Shaw – a prolific, some might say prolix, writer (his plays consist mainly of stage directions and long marginal discourses on the few words the actors are allowed to speak) – back then, Shaw, with his tongue in his cheek, defined writers as “purveyors of amusement for people who have not wit enough to entertain themselves".
But surely, we’re all internal writers, as we tell ourselves, ask, surmise, invent, rationalise, reject and elaborate our own stories and stories of others in our heads.
So I ask myself, what makes a short story succeed as these succeed? Their narrative styles vary widely from ‘author as god-like omniscient observer’ to a created ‘I’ talking to a created ‘you’, and all frameworks in between.
I’ve come to the probably obvious conclusion (though I hadn’t highlighted it for myself before) that they are all about coping in one way or another – “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, that stuff – coping perhaps to the point of personal catharsis in the lives of the created characters - even, in one story, coping with turning into a fish.
Speaking personally, some story writing can be cathartic for the writer as well.
Here are some widely ranging ‘coping’ situations from these stories:
*the strength and determination of motherhood to feed and care for her newborn in the face of the implacable and unpredictable forces of nature;
*the determination for selfhood as a painted man struggles out of the prison of his wooden picture frame to return to his first love – the whole story an extended metaphor;
*the need to create a compatible home for oneself in the face of other loyalties;
*the necessity of reconciling unexpected poverty with a lived life of dedication;
*the interplay of one person’s idea of the idyllic being another’s one of embarrassing futility;
*coping with a mental instability knowing it, at lucid moments, to be a mental aberration;
*a docile and ingratiating wife finding strength and metamorphosis - in a severed onion;
*finding the ability to create through the quiet presence of another;
*allowing life to flow by without recrimination or despair;
This collection is a beautifully woven, sparkling tapestry of human endeavour and foible in ninety pages. The stories signify and reflect the wondrous – often quietly wondrous – ways in which we go about tangling and untangling our lives.
And in a sense, the writer is the last person to know.
I remember when the Hobart theatre company Polygon performed the play ‘Wallflowering’ at the Peacock. The female playwright, Peta Murray, came from Sydney to see a performance, and afterwards she said to the two actors, “I didn’t know I wrote that”.
I believe that’s also true of short stories - that meaning is in the reader to discover - personally.
To revert to those short story workshops for a moment, in both was emphasised the importance of the opening line – the bait, the lure, to encourage the reader to say ‘yes, please’.
I expect you’re aware of that old formula for finding out how many pages of a novel you should read before deciding to keep going or not. ( If you’re under 50 you add your age to 50; if you’re over 50 you subtract your age from one hundred. (That means I only have to read 16.))
But what about short stories? For me, reading the first line is very important, particularly if I don’t know what’s going on. The uncertainty is a great stimulus.
Here’s a pretend first line example:
Given the inclement weather I was somewhat surprised to see His Reverence walking through Salamanca market.
Given the inclement weather I was somewhat surprised to see His Reverence walking through Salamanca market completely naked.
But much better - here are some opening lines from this treasure-trove:
It’s cold the day the first eggs hatch.
The old man had felt restless of late.
I hurt. I open my bleary eyes to a grey street and lift my cheek from a wet gutter.
The first thing I noticed was how rough his hands were.
I am pale, with long thin hands that swim in the air when I talk.
It was him. She was sure of it. She could hear Led Zeppelin.
My grandmother was born in a horse and cart. (That’s a story I found difficult to read through my tears.)
In all, then, a magnificent choir of voices over the ten stories – “Here I feed on ambrosia, drink nothing but nectar, breathe incense only, and walk on flowers”.
I wish I’d said that – I didn’t – it was the philosopher David Hume 248 years ago speaking of Paris.
But it fits these stories, and I have the greatest pleasure and honour in launching the ‘Forty Degrees South Short Story Anthology’ for 2012.
Forty South runs an annual short story competition. Enter here.