Josephine Rowe is a Melbourne based writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Her recent work appears in Best Australian Stories, Best Australian Poems, Meanjin, The Iowa Review and Harvard Review. She is the author of short story collections How a Moth Becomes a Boat (Hunter Publishers, 2010) and Tarcutta Wake (UQP, 2012).
Is writing in the short-form something you plan or is it more organic than that? Is there a reason for the brevity? Can you describe your process for me?
A lot of my fiction is poetically-influenced, and in some ways my methodology for fiction writing—the polishing of fragments, the assembling followed by the endless paring back—is not dissimilar to the way I construct poetry. But I’d consider myself as a fiction writer foremost, whereas poems for me are mysterious creatures that come largely unbidden, and I might only write a handful of them a year.
That fragmentary element is a constant, whatever form I’m working in (non-fic included), but beyond that, the processes differ depending on the piece. Within my shorter stories, or those strange beasts that exist in the space between poetry and fiction, it’s what I call ‘cold drip’ writing; a slow filtration process where the end result is very dense, very sensory; ‘overfull’ (‘Atlantic City’ might be a good example).
More recently I’ve been writing longer stories (long for me is a few thousand words), and I think that in part, the length corresponds to how deeply the story is rooted in a particular landscape (‘TarcuttaWake’, for instance). Something about that geographical grounding invites sprawling. I’m thinking of the root systems of trees here, their relationship to the canopy.
As for brevity, I’ll be honest and say I don’t know the reason for it beyond instinct. Perhaps it can be narrowed down to two basic things: a dislike of waste, and a dislike of condescension—I can’t stand fiction that overexplains.
Raw. Honest. Exquisite. Emotional heart. I’ve read your work and in my opinion these are all accurate descriptions. When you sit down to write are you writing for yourself, for the sake of the story, or do you have an audience in mind? Do you have an ‘ideal’ reader?
‘For the sake of the story’—that’s wonderful, I haven’t been given that option before! For the sake of the story, always. A question that’s often asked is ‘what should a good short story do?’, and I don’t believe there is a form-specific function, or if there is, it’s so broad as to be meaningless (to entertain, to move, etc., etc.). The beauty of the short story as a form is how open and adaptable it is, and I think readers are more willing to go into unfamiliar territory—be it stylistically, linguistically or thematically unfamiliar—purely because of that brevity. Look at Eudora Welty’s ‘Where Is the Voice Coming From’, which is an incredibly brave and troubling story told from the p.o.v of a thoroughly reprehensible ‘other’. No way would you want to spend a whole novel with that narrator, but to spend those few pages with him, that’s manageable.
In regards to readers, I’m mindful of ‘a’ reader, that the story has to be communicable. But no, I don’t have a particular audience in mind when I write, nor an ideal reader.
Do you ever suffer self-doubt? How do you deal with/push through it?
My self-doubt is highly-evolved, and has the astonishing ability to adapt to any environment. Did I say the right thing? Do I actually take X up on her invitation to drinks/dinner/etc., or was she just being polite? Is this the right brand of tumeric to buy? It’s a running joke, old enough to be funny despite the real and measurable setbacks.
When it comes to writing, it is certainly the biggest inhibitor. A bad morning or a bad day is small change; I might try to shake myself out of it with a walk, a phonecall to a friend or a visit to a gallery. Or I’ll put on some music or the radio and try to do boring admin things, so at least something productive gets done (again, that dislike of waste—what was it that Hemingway said about wasted days?)
But sometimes that doubt proves unshakeable, and it might settle in for a week or even months. I’m getting a little better at riding those dry spells out. They used to terrify me; I thought I’d never write another good thing. But the older I get—well, ha, I’m twenty-eight but please humour me—the older I get the more time I feel I have, the more time I feel I can and should take, and any urgency comes from outside; from deadlines, commissions and such. I sometimes see those unproductive periods as almost a sub-conscious intervention, a kind of opening up to let the rest of life in.
Do you think there is still a market for short stories? Give your reasons.
Are we talking about the Australian market or the global market? We do seem to have it a bit trickier here. I certainly think the short story is still valued in Australia, but ‘short story market’ is something of an oxymoron. Nobody puts out a short story collection in response to the demands of the market—rather, the market demands to know why you aren’t writing a novel. But short stories are still being written and published and read, and will continue to be written and published and read. I do two of those things avidly, and I’d do all three if I had the funds. My advice is to ignore the market and write for the love of it. Let the marketing folks worry about the market.
What are your thoughts on the publishing industry at this time? Indie vs Mainstream? Paper book vs ebook?
I haven’t known the publishing industry at any other time, so I don’t have the strongest grounds for comparison, beyond what I’ve read and what I know from older writers and artists. But I get the sense that the same crises are on something of a rotating roster—the novel has been dying for decades. There has never and will never be a market for short stories. There has always been a treacherous smoking chasm between industry standards of pay and actual pay*, so why don’t we all just burn our manuscripts and take up law?
As mentioned in the last question, I don’t think all that much about markets and the state of the industry (which can’t be all that miserable if million dollar book deals are becoming passé). I just write as well as I can, and try to maintain some perspective—nine years of writing, that’s an eyelash. I plan on sticking around long enough to be painfully embarrassed by everything I’m writing now.
Recently, I came across a quote from Dorothy Hewett in a 1998 interview with Overland: “…there will always be little presses, I believe this. There will always be people who believe in us, in creativity, who set up with virtually no money and just enthusiasm and idealism, to get out books.” That’s still very much the case, fifteen years on.
I don’t see paper books as being in competition with ebooks; the two are simply different platforms for the same content, both with their own limitations and possibilities. I am a paper book buyer and borrower, and imagine I always will be. But I appreciate that ebooks allow for greater accessibility, so I’m not going to launch bottle rockets into the e-camp. It doesn’t have to be an either or.
Name the last five collections you have read. Which was your favourite and why?
Alice Munro The Love of a Good Woman
Ali Smith Free Love
Stephanie Vaughn Sweet Talk
George Saunders Tenth of December
Chris Somerville We Are Not the Same Anymore
Let me clarify/fess up by saying that these are the five collections I am currently jumping between. It’s rare that I’ll read a short story collection straight through, unless it’s for review, or it’s my sole companion on a long-haul flight, or I have to give it back to someone very quickly. All the abovementioned authors are wonderful, but George Saunders… I think anyone who has read or is reading Tenth of December will appreciate my hesitation to talk too much about him here, lest I gush. So I’ll just say that this is the best collection I’ve read since Alistair MacLeod’s Island, and that it is nothing at all like Island, except inasmuch as both works show astounding generosity and humanity, even when dealing in the devastating and the mediocre.
*actually, if there was less of a treacherous smoking chasm between industry rates and actual rates of pay for writers, that would be great. Jennifer Mills has a great post about it here.
Learn more about Josephine here.