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Cate Kennedy, the competition entrant’s best friend

Okay, the fantastic Peta from has posted a request for me to speak about Colette, and she went above and beyond to lend me a thick collection of the authors works. While I am going through and reading the stories, I thought I’d just revisit the work of Cate Kennedy. I know this is the third time I’ve spoken about Kennedy on this blog, but for study purposes competition wise, studying her work is the school equivalent of sneaking into your teacher’s office during lunch time and photocopying the answer sheet.

Kennedy’s work shows up everywhere in Australian print compilations. It is no surprise to find a short story of hers in any Australian anthology published in the past ten years. I am surprised that she doesn’t have more of her own story collections in publication. Looking online for some of her work however, I could only find two stories by her. I would think that the online environment could be quite useful for the short story writer. If one could have a few award winning stories around online, I would have thought it would increase sales of work. I know that many copyright holding industries are still trying to get their head around what operating online means, but I would have thought the ability to read short fiction online would lend itself to the form of the short story, perhaps even revive it commercially in some forms.

Of the stories I did find of Kennedy’s online, one is her story, Black Ice, which was published in the New Yorker. Being published in the New Yorker is a tremendous achievement for an Australian writer, but I believe Kennedy has written better than the one they printed. Perhaps the story doesn’t feel completely Australian; it feels more American. Perhaps that is why the New Yorker chose it, and I have difficulty relating to it as much as some of Kennedy’s work that is set in Melbourne.

At any rate, you can read it here,

and it certainly features some of Kennedy’s trade marks, such as her clever similes, and ways of circling round a topic.

Perhaps what makes Kennedy so good to study for competitions, is that she is one of the few writers who restricts herself to under 3000 words, the amount many Australian short stories dictate as the maximum word count. She would have learnt her style from entering many competitions herself, and it shows through. Writing anything under 3000 words can be very difficult as stories tend to demand much more space. In the 3000 words her action is compacted. Sometimes her characters are waiting for what will happen, be it the results of a medical test, or the time when they have to reveal a secret to someone.

Her use of dialogue is particularly good in such a tight space. Her characters talk to each other often, but they never say all that much, as though the mundanity of life is just as important as anything else that could be said. I’ll leave with a link to the only other story of hers I could find online, if anyone knows of some legally accessible free stories by Cate Kennedy online, let everyone know in the comments section. I wish that Kennedy had a website of her own, linking to her work.

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Posted by on May 23, 2011 in Kennedy, Cate, Uncategorized


Reading Raymond Carver at night in the pillow factory

I have been unemployed at numerous times in my life, but only twice, unpleasantly so. Once was when I was young, the other after I had moved cities.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t planned for the move, I’d been considering it for a long time and had made contact with the Melbourne branch of the place I worked with in Sydney. They assured me that there would be work when I headed South. However, on arriving, I found the company branch in Victoria was a small, two person operation, and the promise of work had been exaggerated for reasons unknown.

I couldn’t return to Sydney. I was running from a situation I had created for myself, and had no desire to return. Not that I could anyway. I’d spent the last of my money on my car engine so it could handle the drive along the Hume and even so, had to stop at a small town called Yass along the way to buy two new tires.

On finding that my employment had fallen through, I set about for applying for whatever I could. My lifetime of avoiding any meaningful skill or qualification factored against me though. I had no special licenses, tickets or certificates that I could draw on. There was nothing that I could do, that couldn’t be done just as easily by someone who wasn’t me.  Added to this, I didn’t know anyone in Melbourne, which though that was part of the reason I had chosen to move there, it did make it harder for me, not having some kind of support network.

I managed to get interviews with some labour agencies. This turned out to be a bitter pill. They would offer me work, and I would take it, but it would never last longer than a couple of days. Factories would be behind in their quotas, and would hire an extra person for a day until the numbers were back on target. I would unload shipping containers in warehouses, pack bags of onions, ready dental supplies, but once the work was done, that was it. This was different to what I was used to in Sydney where I would go to a place for a day, and wind up being there for six months.

The worst place was a factory that made pillows and quilted mattresses. I went out there numerous times, but never for more two days in a row. The place had three shifts, and stayed open twenty four hours. Apart from one occasion though, I was only ever called out to work the night shift. This started at 11:30pm and ran through the night until 6:30am. This would have been fine, but I would only get the call to go in for the shift around 9pm when a machine broke down, or they were behind their quotas. Sometimes I hadn’t worked in a week, and would jump at the chance of something. Other times I’d have spent that day working for someone else, but felt I couldn’t refuse because of all the loadings that were added to the wage.

Loadings, the government required an employer compensate someone for coming in at such hours. That was because of the havoc it wrecked on someone’s family’s life. I always wondered how many union workers had to get their skulls busted to get that law through. It was at times like that I was thankful to all unions had done, and felt the most guilty that I had never joined one.

I was never prepared for the night work, always getting the call out of the blue. I would work in a haze. The machines were noisy, and I had to wear ear plugs. The workers came from a mix of nationalities, many didn’t have English as their first language.  Conversation was impossible over the din anyway, and the machine operators would communicate to us through a series of whistles and hand gestures, such as a thumbs up.

The work was brutal only in that it was repetitive. Sometimes, we would have to sticker bags the entire time. You would put on sticker after sticker, your mind would go numb, but checking your watch, you’d find only five minutes had passed.  You’d have to control your mind like a Buddhist. Count the minutes to the next break. You got ten minutes at 1:45am. Half an hour at 4am.

It was then I could read my copy of ‘Where I’m calling From’ by Raymond Carver. I’d sit in the lunch room reading as a game of football played on the tv on the wall. Outside the air would be still. While I read, I drank instant coffee so I’d be alert enough not to crash my car into a pole driving home at 6:30.

I had read Carver before, but there was something about reading him at 4am in a factory, that let the work loom larger than it ever had before. ‘Where I’m calling from’ covered the span of his life’s work. It takes in the famously, tightly edited works from collections such as ‘Will you please be quiet, please,’ through to a series of stories that featured in the New Yorker and were not included in any other collection.

Each one of those stories was perfect, at least viewed through the sleep depraved, tired brain of someone working through the night.

There is considerable debate in writing circles, whether Carver’s early editor, Gordon Lish was correct in his heavy editing of the stories he was given. For an example of the depth of the cuts, one need only look at the New Yorker before and after version of ‘what we talk about when we talk about love.’ I don’t know myself how to feel on the debate. What exists is what exists. I love the heavily edited stories, but I also love the stories that came later, when Carver was such a force that no one could dictate to him what to leave in and out.

It’s hard to pick favourites in the collection. I used to have favourites. ‘Collectors’, where a man who is unemployed is visited by a vacuum cleaner salesman who has come to speak to a Mrs. Slater. Though it is clear that the man is unrelated at all to the former occupant, and is unable to buy a vacuum cleaner, even if he wanted to, the salesman proceeds to go through the complete demonstration. Another which I have read so many times, that I have worn the shine off it, is ‘Nobody said Anything’ where a young boy skips off school to go fishing in a creek.

These two stories were both from his first collection, ‘will you please be quiet, please,’ and one would think that I was biased towards his early work, but a night shift in a pillow factory is a great leveller. I fed off each and every story there, particular the later ones, some of which I’d never read before.

They say Carver’s work descends from Chekov, I don’t know exactly what this means, I think it means how Carver presents short scenes from lives without trying to pass judgement on them. His characters have lived tough lives, and often find themselves in tough situations, but they are normal people. In a ‘small, good thing,’ a baker who works sixteen hours a day, harasses a couple with crank phone calls after they fail to show up to collect a birthday cake, only to find that their son was killed in a hit and run, and they had been at the hospital by his side until he finally lapsed. In the titular story, two alcoholics talk on the veranda of a drying out clinic.

I don’t know what it was, but I held onto that book like a raft during those shifts at the factory. No matter how tired I was, how much my shoulders started to hurt, I would have the comfort of those stories to reach for.

Just as no good time lasts forever though, no bad time lasts either. I was eventually able to find a better situation. My love of Carver however, never dimmed. He only lived to 50. I wonder if he ever knew how great a story teller he was. There is no great honour in being post humous recognition. I can only hope that somehow he tweaked to the fact that he would join the ranks of the great 20th century short story writers.

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Posted by on April 3, 2011 in Uncategorized


Victory Burlesk — Margaret Atwood – the collection Murder in the Dark

photo by Geishaboy500

I love when something grabs hold of me and won’t let go*. Having in my last post looked in depth at one of Margaret Atwood’s prose poems, I couldn’t help myself from looking more closely at some of her other short, short stories. At the local library I sat down and started going through ‘Murder in the dark’ by Atwood. It’s hard exactly to pinpoint what you would call her short, short fiction. Prose poetry? Vignette? Flash fiction? Some of it reads like memoir, but you can’t be entirely sure if she is just presenting facts that never happened for effect.

In The Victory Burlesk from Murder in the Dark, the narrator goes along once, or maybe twice (she can’t quite remember) to a strip tease, a particular daring thing for a woman and her friends to do. They laugh at the absurdity of the night, but the narrator thinks that the women are talented in the way they spin their tassels or undulated their stomachs, and she compares it to the performance of a plate spinner or some other act.

She is watching however, when a woman comes out in a black evening gown with her back to the audience, and the narrator realises that the woman is reasonably old and is about to take off her clothes. The narrator becomes horrified that the audience of men will jeer the woman, but then begins to wonder if the joke is, and wonders whether the woman on stage knows that it is coming.

When the woman drops her clothes, and the audience sees her aging body, they go dead quiet.

I would suggest Atwood’s vignettes are perfect for anyone trying to write so-called flash fiction (pieces under 500 words) they are not trite at all.

One common strategy people seem to apply with 500 words is to have the whole story build to some late minute twist at the end of it, which sticks out like a beacon on a black night. Atwood’s pieces aren’t like this.It’s tough to decipher exactly what the message is in her stories, but they are strongly written, with wonderful respect to the use and order of words. Atwood punches at some essential truths. Her voice comes across so powerfully, which is incredible, given the short amount of space she has. Oh, and did I mention they’re quick to read. Always a bonus in our time conscious society.

* The police, of course are excepted from this broad, general statement.

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Posted by on March 31, 2011 in Uncategorized


In Love with Raymond Chandler – Margaret Atwood

A while ago I was speaking with some folk about their favourite short stories, and it was recommended that I should look at the short stories of Margaret Atwood. Each time I visited a library since, I have idly looked through the books by Atwood, hoping to find a collection. Usually I find only novels, such as The Blind Assassin. However, while waiting for a haircut at Northcote the other day, I decided to pop across the road to the library (yes, my life is a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action and adventure) and found a book of hers, which was full of one or two page stories (I later found out this was a volume of her prose poetry). One in particular stood out, not just, because I too am a fan of Raymond Chandler, but it is both shocking and accurate.

In, In Love with Raymond Chandler, Atwood describes how, what really comes alive for her, is Raymond Chandler’s description of furniture in his stories. How he understands that furniture says so much about people. She goes on to describe an orgy between her and Chandler, where they would run around in a motel room sniffing the furniture, rubbing their fingers along it, rubbing themselves over it. It is wonderfully sensual and cheeky in tone. I also love the line she uses, ‘the eyes of his cold blond unbodied murderous women, beating very slowly, like the hearts of hibernating crocodiles’.

The piece itself is very short, and someone has decided to put it up on their own blog, so here is a link to the text.

Also the piece has been read out by a guy on youtube for some reason. (Yes, that’s right, a guy, I would have much preferred to hear the author herself read it, but this was what I found.)

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Posted by on March 26, 2011 in Uncategorized


A hypothetical

A hypothetical
3242008 by elleinad

photo by Elleinad

Let’s suppose you live in Australia and want to study short stories for the purposes of entering them into competitions (a noble-ish ambition). You head down to your local library, but on reaching the hallowed shelves, you realise you’ve left the stove on and need to race back home … or you find that there’s only five minutes left before closing time because you’ve slept until 3:30pm; whatever the reason, you only have time to find one book.  What do you pick? What do you pick?

Myself, I would go with the Cate Kennedy collection Dark Roots. It’s a slender volume, so you’re not going to struggle under the weight, you can put it in your pocket even (that is, if you have big pockets and don’t mind slightly creasing the corners.) All the stories have won competitions and have been set in Australia. There is a great range of craft on display. First person, second person, third person perspective. But the stories are all around the 3000 word mark, which is the word limit set by many local competitions.

Now, people might argue there are better stories out there, and possibly that’s true (though I enjoy the stories in the collection and find them well written and polished). However, it’s a horses for courses thing, sure Tolstoy might have written War and Peace, but he couldn’t go entering it into the Banjo Patterson Short Story Competition, because a) it’s over 3000 words and b) it’s not set in Australia.

This is the book I recommend reading if you’re only going to read one collection before sending something off within Australia. You can find it in any library (I don’t know this for a fact, but I think you would be pretty hard pressed to find a library in Australia that didn’t have a copy) so you can borrow it, read it and return it. It’s not long, you’ll be able to get through the 17 stories with possibly renewing it once.

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Posted by on March 19, 2011 in Uncategorized


To Build a Fire – Jack London – First Published 1908 in The Century Magazine

Man by the Stream by Andrey Pivovarov

Man by the Stream by Andrey Pivovarov

It seems the modern trend in short stories is to pitch something that makes you question and think. And the story To Build a Fire certainly makes you think. But it is also one heck of a gripping tale. Jack London doesn’t make a good tourism advertiser though for the Yukon trail. Possibly because the author lived and worked in the Klondike in 1897.

A man sets out with his husky dog along the trail on a -75 degree Faherient (-60C) day. It is colder than anything he has experienced before, and his dog certainly knows it’s not a good idea for them to be out and about, but the man presses on. He is walking along the top of a frozen creek, but there are parts where springs push non frozen water up, forming pockets which one can fall through. Unfortunately this happens to the man, and he winds up falling through up to his knees. The water will turn into ice and stop his walking, so once he gets out, he has to start a fire to melt the extra weight off his legs. His entire life depends of lighting the fire, but his fingers have gone numb. He is barely able to hold the matches. He is so desperate, at one stage he thinks of killing his dog and thrusting his hands inside into its intestines to warm them up. Does he manage to get the fire going and save his life? What do you think?

This is a terrific story, man vs. wild style, from the days before Bear Grylls taught us all what we’re meant to do in such situations. Jack London may seem to be a tough sort of guy, but he doesn’t thrust a masculine message on us. Even though the main character thinks that the old prospector who had warned him against travelling alone at such temperatures is ‘womanly’ for his concern, the main character reconsiders the man’s advice as he comes nearer and nearer to freezing to death.

Whenever I’m procrastinating (which I seem to have down to an art form) I should think about how hard Jack London worked on his stories. He is the ultimate model of disadvantage and hard work, at least for a white male of the species. Whenever I am slacking off, I should remind myself, what would Jack London do?

As copyright has lapsed on the story, you can find it near anywhere on the net. Below is a link if you want to read the story.

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Posted by on March 16, 2011 in Uncategorized


The Swimmer – John Cheever – First published in the New Yorker

The Swimmer – John Cheever – First published in the New Yorker
Fresh Journey by Stefano Mortellaro

Fresh Journey by Stefano Mortellaro

A lovely, lovely story. Neddy Merrill, a resident of a wealthy neighbourhood, works out that he can make the distance from his friend’s house, back to his own house, by swimming from one neighbour’s pool, hopping out, climbing the fence and swimming in the next pool. By doing this all the way, he can effectively swim the distance to his home.

As he goes though a strange shift seems to take place. When he left his friend’s house, it was clearly summer, but a storm comes in, and the air starts getting cold. When he finishes his swim it has become winter, and Neddy is not sure how long ago things happened.

Look, I can’t describe adequately how good this story is.  What I can do though, is say that this is available from the New Yorker fiction podcast (available free on itunes.) Anne Enright (herself a short story writer) discusses Cheever with the current New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Triesman before she reads the story, in its entirety, out aloud. Make sure you listen after the reading as well, as further discussion takes place. I think if you look up the story on Wikipedia, as well, there is a link to the full text of the story there.

The Swimmer has been described as being both naturalistic and surreal at the same time. The conversations, Neddy has with any neighbour who happens to be home, present ordinary (though wealthy) people, yet as Neddy carries on, the edges of reality start to blur slightly, he can’t seem to remember that an old friend of his had a major operation, and that he himself, might be in trouble.

I was planning to carry on my Australia bent, but this story sort of slipped in and interrupted it. I can’t stop thinking about it, although I’m not sure what techniques I can take away from it. If the mix of naturalism and surrealism wasn’t perfectly pulled off, it would seem silly, and any editor would reject it offhand.

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Posted by on March 11, 2011 in Uncategorized