TM: To inspire writers new to the short story form, can you recommend a few of your all-time favourite short stories or short story collections?
AP: There is an impeccable anthology Jeffrey Eugenides put together called My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead. Well known masterpieces like ‘Lady with the Little Dog’ by Chekhov and ‘The Dead’ by Joyce are in the book but equally brilliant are lesser anthologised stories like ‘Some Other, Better Otto’, ‘We Didn’t’, ‘Lovers of Their Time’, ‘How to Be An Other Woman’ and ‘Yours’. Aspiring writers will discover a whole cadre of elite contemporary authors.
TM: As an award-winning author of both short stories and novels, how do you decide whether an idea lends itself best to a short tale or should be developed into something longer?
AP: Before any story ideas (long or short) is a more basic need to write. And that desire might seem directed only outwards, understood as an act of communication. But I think if it is just pure expression then it’s boring to both reader and writer. Because it’s already known. We’ve ‘seen it all before’. So the creative direction is initially inwards, bringing the art of the world into the mind, soul, heart, psyche, etc. The intention then might be to get rid of all the rubble and dirt so you can find a clear, living story. Alive because it’s rising from the same surprise of life as you are. How to best draw that story out then really becomes a question of how not to kill it. If it doesn't have enough muscle and movement, the story will collapse. Too much fat and flailing about, the story suffocates. The desire to write isn’t about manufacturing long or short forms of fiction. If an author is clear on that deeper need, then it’s much easier to see how a story wants to move and how it might breathe. The principle of life will animate your words, naturally shaping short or long stories.
TM: Your upcoming workshop in January, ‘Short Story Method and Art’ aims to help writers develop their skills in writing characters and narrative unique to the short story form. In what ways do writers need to think differently for short stories as compared to longer form pieces?
AP: If writers want to think differently, the first thing I’d ask them to understand is that while novels are the most popular form of literary expression, they are not the primary form. The word ‘novel’ is simply the French word for ‘new’ and in the history of letters, novels are still a recent phenomenon. If you are a writer that believes the structural integrity of a literary structure depends on Beginning/Middle/End, then there’s no better place to examine the blueprints of anything you’re making. If it’s a question of the writer’s voice finding unique resonance and expressive quality, a 300 page novel isn’t necessary. If a writer is in possession of real literary virtues they can be seen more clearly in what the author can do in 10 pages. A writer will see themselves more honestly in ten pages than a vast landscape of hide-and-seek. Getting to grips with the story is about having a firmer grasp of all the principles of narrative craft, and from there the writer can explore literary expression more effectively, whether that be in short stories and novels, or indeed, screenplays, poetry, journalism, etc. Returning to the story will bring you back to elemental storytelling.
TM: The workshop will also give students a practical knowledge of the current Australian literary market. What are some of the best ways for emerging short story writers to have their work published?
AP: There are strategies for publication and tips I will give in my workshop but I won’t be teaching a publishing hack. There’s no ‘trick’ to writing but there is a method. A writer might seem at the mercy of trends and market forces, the whims of mercurial publishers and literary cliques, yet writers continue to be in total control of their words. Those writers that do somehow manage to find a short cut into print, often find that their work disappears only a few months after the book launch. A writer that finds a devotion to the written word will find publication eventually, but more importantly, will stand a better chance of producing work that lasts on bookshelves for years. Without that authentic connection to our literary purpose, applause can only ring hollow. Success or failure out in the world are fundamentally irrelevant to our deepest desire, which should be to master our craft. Ultimately the only article of faith writers can hold onto is that we will continue to develop our craft until our work is so good that it can’t be denied.
TM: Short stories lend themselves particularly well to audio and performance. What impact do you think the exploding popularity of podcasts is having on short story writing?
AP: Articles have recently been written about how well collections of stories have been selling. That they’re winning major awards and broad critical acceptance and appreciation. Part of that reinvigoration is no doubt being propelled by the performance options now open to short stories and not to novels. Selected Shorts is an institution now for short story performance, but there’s been other podcasts like This American Life that are not exclusively short story performance broadcasters, yet feature incredible performances of short fiction—opening up the form for readers and listeners. Niche writers like Lydia Davis and Etgar Keret suddenly become superstars of the new medium. There’s a cultural revolution happening through the continuing evolution of all things online, no doubt about it. Long form narratives of 60,000 words or more might very well become far less appealing than a perfectly told piece of fiction that is only a few pages long.
TM: Are there any common mistakes that people make when they first start experimenting with short stories? What advice would you give to people trying to avoid these mistakes?
AP: The advice I would give is, make all the mistakes. Don’t avoid any of them. The worst thing you can do is try to write in a way that is safe, that is a comfortable fit for a publisher. You can think of every draft you write as a process of eliminating mistakes, but at the most basic level, mistakes are simply unavoidable. You cannot learn without seeing what works and what doesn’t. Mistakes often turn out to be surprising new options that redefine and reinvigorate you as a writer. I’d add that what aspiring writers are getting involved with isn’t like the prose of novels, only less pages. They are moving into an independent literary evolution—a far older tradition of storytelling that can take you all the way back to the world’s mythologies, which were all essentially short stories. And yet they are generally the sharp-point of the literary avant-garde as well (where longer form expression is often commercially preoccupied). So, while shorter fiction is still the most modern of literary mediums, at core it continues to be the most primal of expressions. The story is atomic. Beginning and end.
About AS Patric
A.S. Patric's debut novel won the 2016 Miles Franklin, but before Black Rock White City won Australia’s most prestigious award, he published two story collections: Las Vegas for Vegans (shortlisted in the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards) and The Rattler & other stories. His stories individually are winners of the Ned Kelly Award and the Booranga Prize and twice published in Best Australian Stories. In November 2018 he published his third collection The Butcherbird Stories.