In my writing career, I have had the triumph of a short story which became a novel – a familiar enough transformation – but also the tragedy of a full length novel which only ever saw publication as a short story. There’s nothing tragic about short stories, of course, but generally a writer doesn’t like to spend twelve years on one.
I found Donna Mazza’s “The Exhibit” a terrifying story to read. It starts with a pregnant narrator, Stacey, in a troubled relationship – ripe drama for a short story – but before long we realise the full picture: as part of a de-extinction project, her baby has been spliced with neanderthal DNA. The ordinariness of Stacey’s concerns about things like an unfriendly radiographer makes the scenario feel so much more real. It happens as it would in real life: the person at the centre of it not being told the full picture, not in control, at the mercy of radiographers and doctors, and quite remote from the scientists driving it. I’ve recently been through the anxiety and hope of my wife’s pregnancy and this story conveyed much of that experience but amplified it so well. It’s great literary science fiction, inhabiting the same dark territory as the Black Mirror television series.
“The Exhibit” appeared in Westerly 60.1 last year, but you can read it online here. Donna’s the author of the TAG Hungerford Award winning novel The Albanian. I’ll be appearing alongside her on the Australian Short Story Festival panel, Voices From the West on Saturday.
One of the panels I’m appearing on at the Australian Short Story Festival is “The Importance of Structure: How to Put What Where”. Structure’s a slippery term, especially when it comes to writing. I need to think aloud about just what it is we’re talking about.
The ABC understands one of the boys was questioned two years ago by New South Wales Police and the Australian Federal Police over an incident at his school.
It is understood that incident involved him refusing to stand for the national anthem at the morning assembly of his school — East Hills Boys High School – in June 2014 when the boy was 14.
When questioned why he would not stand for the national anthem, the boy said “he only stands for God”, “does not respect this country” and “this country sends troops to Afghanistan to kill our men and rape our women”.
The news of sixteen-year-olds plotting terrorism is frightening. But just as frightening, buried in today’s story of the arrests, is the report that police were called to a school two years ago because one of the suspects would not stand for the national anthem. I cannot imagine a better way to radicalise a fourteen-year-old. It’s disturbing that he doesn’t respect Australia, the country he lives in, although it’s unsurprising that he’s upset about Australia’s involvement in disastrous wars overseas. It’s disruptive when people won’t stand for the national anthem. And this boy has gone on to plan violence. But however we regard it, refusing to stand for the national anthem itself must never be a police matter. When it becomes one, we are living in a dystopia. In the “war on terror” we are losing the very freedom we are meant to be fighting for.
Why does structure matter? How does it shape the meanings of a story, and the reader’s response to it?
For one thing, structure gives signals to readers. I break my long short-story “The Zealot” into twenty tiny chapters. It’s quite a filmic story and the “chapterettes” function as scenes. It seemed like a necessary thing to do for a piece like this which is written in the present tense. It’s an intense story through the eyes of an unstable teenage-activist and perhaps it offers some relief for the reader, a containment. On the other hand, it’s also a trace of that story’s origins as an entire novel, and a signal that perhaps it’s not exactly a short story. It’s rare to have a short story which is broken into numbered sections, but it’s quite common for them to be structured with many scene-breaks, marked off with asterisks. I’ve got a misbegotten tendency to think of short stories which are “one take” – no breaks of any kind – as being a purer example of the genre.
I have a confession to make: the beginning of my literary career was powered by coal company. The arts festival presented by Griffin Coal is a big event in the life of Collie, the coal-mining town in the south-west of WA where I grew up. Winning second-prize in the open category of the 1996 Griffin Festival Literary Awards at the age of fifteen – beaten by my drama teacher – made me think I could be a writer.
Later this month, I’m appearing on two panels at the inaugural Australian Short Story Festival, which runs from 21-23 October in Perth. Sue at Whispering Gums wrote about the festival last month. I’m appearing on “Voices from the West” at 11am on 22 October, with Bindy Pritchard and Donna Mazza, chaired by Charlotte Guest. Then at 3:30pm I’m on “The Importance of Structure” with Michelle Cahill and Vahri McKenzie, chaired by Susan Midalia. To celebrate the festival, and prepare for the panels, I’ll be blogging about short stories for the next three weeks – both here as I reflect on stories I have read and written and on my biography blog to contemplate the stories of Katharine Susannah Prichard.