Fiona McFarlane is the author of 'The Night Guest', she very kindly accepted our invitation to launch our short story collection at Gleebooks on Saturday, August 23rd. Here is the full transcript of her launch speech.
While reading these stories, I encountered Wes Lee’s description of ‘the gloaming’, in his story of the same name: that time between day and night, that twilight zone, when the light changes and we become aware of thresholds. His narrator, Frank, speaks of ‘Those minutes when everything is in flux. The day bleeding into night. Where things felt possible...sacred in some way.’
It occurred to me, as I read these words, that this might also be an excellent way to describe a short story: a moment of flux, of bleed, of possibility, set apart – made sacred – from the longer narratives of a life. The best short stories are both compact and expansive, a contradiction that’s well-served by the image of evening: it’s neither a beginning nor an ending, and, if we’re attentive, it can be so suggestive of the mysterious, the unlikely, and the irretrievable. This is the time of day when lights come on in houses, but curtains aren’t yet drawn, and we see into other lives; those of us who are writers – and therefore probably nosier than most – take the extra step of imagining ourselves into those briefly illuminated lives.
These stories, the best of the 2014 Margaret River Short Story Competition, are beautiful illuminations. They deal in moments of clarity, desperation, respite, decision and grace. They deal in many voices. Some of them are headlong and furious; others are tender and circumspect. It’s impossible not to notice some common subjects among them: the body as it ages or changes in sickness; motherhood; sexual love; regret and the shape of other lives. The collection’s recurring preoccupations don’t mean these writers lack originality; it means these are the messy tangles that draw every writer again and again, because they will always be mysterious and transformative; all the disorder, joy and horror of being human.
These writers also know that to be human is to taste, touch, smell and see. Isabelle Li’s highly commended story, ‘Red Saffron’, is about a seduction, and is itself a seduction to the reader, via food; she writes of beetroot and asparagus as if they’re not only vegetables but weapons, kisses, chemicals and provocations. Paulette Gittins, in ‘Chef’s Special’, describes an Indonesian street with its ‘furious bubbling of hot oil, yelling vendors, tubercular beggars, and queue of diesel buses frothing out greasy exhaust.’ There are a lot of bowels and bladders in these stories; they’re a scatological bunch, these writers, which is just as it should be – Shakespeare would approve. To become sick, or to age, doesn’t just bring their characters face to face with their own mortality; it brings them into conflict, or sometimes a kind of hypnotized, horrified fascination with the facts of their own failing bodies.
The stories of motherhood are clear-eyed and complex. They tell of struggle and satisfaction, particularly in infancy. Lauren Foley, in the gorgeously titled ‘Squiggly Arse Crack’, has Tara declare that ‘there is nothing she has ever done better than carry and bear Squig.’ Annika, in Cassie Hamer’s limpid, thoughtful ‘The Life in Her Hands’, also highly commended, recognizes that ‘another minute in that room’ and she ‘would hurt either herself, or the baby.’ She escapes, along with baby, into a dreamlike night on the beach which dawns into a very real day – this night is Annika’s gloaming, full of possibility, and refuge, and mercifully short-lived. Other stories suggest all the ways in which the ties of motherhood might snare and support a life. Particularly poignant are the stories of mothers whose children – and husbands – have left, and who must decide what their bodies mean, how to shape their desires, how to exist in the world on their own terms. And fathers aren’t let off the hook; in Kate Rotherham’s ‘Potholes’, Les must learn how take pride in his son’s unorthodox modes of expression.
Adolescence is another twilit sort of period – those years when everything is in flux. Francesca Sasnaitis’ ‘Summerlands’, also highly commended, charts that beautiful, cinematic moment when a girl’s first kiss becomes tooth-clunking, lip-mashing, significant and sandy all at once. Rachelle Rachichi, who won the South West Prize – the prize for the best story by a South West resident – writes tenderly and honestly of May, a daughter whose childhood literally goes up in flames.
This year’s winning story, ‘The Trouble with Flying’ by Ruth Wyer, is also a tale of adolescence: of growing up, of becoming, of discovering what it might mean to fly. Wyer’s portrait of Rita is a meticulous, compassionate study in introversion. I’ve heard people say, often, that passive characters aren’t interesting characters. ‘The Trouble with Flying’ is proof this isn’t true. Rita’s passivity is mobile, engaging, and realistic. Her understanding of her own limitations is beautifully achieved. Her moments of discovery – through music, in particular – are more precious because until now she’s never imagined anything so substantial. Even the language of the story – breathless, long sentences, a sense of momentum and acceleration – suggests the headfirst nature of growing up; you’ll see what I mean when Ruth reads in a moment.
‘The Trouble with Flying’ is a wonderful story, and it’s in excellent company.
This book is a delight to read. It’s strange and unexpected. In it you will find, among other wonders, a tethered seagull; the roof of a Sultan’s palace transformed into the flight of a hundred bats; a woman who dreams of meeting her father at a Market for the Dead; a wife who walks fully-clothed into the sea, looking for a path to the moon; fruit trees that burn like candles; a weary daughter hoping to assist at a birth 35,000 feet in the air; a husband harvesting prickles from his sleeping wife’s bed; an inspired accountant who starts a craze for urban guerilla gardening; an indigenous academic sowing revolutionary firesticks; a woman protecting her lover, at sea on a yacht, by driving his motorcycle through stormclouds; the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants transformed into a sea goddess; a World War II veteran, trapped by dementia, who mistakes a new friend for an old enemy; a house where every spider is named Lester; another house where a moth called Sebastian is also a butterfly, a prayer and a disaster; and a woman who discovers that dying is like falling into a frozen lake and finding the temperatures, after all, bearable.
Buy copies and savour them. If you know one of the writers included in the collection, offer them your congratulations, respect, and support for this difficult thing they do, and do so well. If you’re one of these writers, thank you. Your hard work has been worth it. There’s more hard work ahead, and it too will be worth it. You probably already know that days like today, when your work is celebrated out-loud and in-person, are the smallest part of what it means to be a writer – the very best moments, when you’re alone with your satisfying work, or a reader is alone with a piece of your writing that matters, that moves, that becomes not just words on a page but a way of seeing, have no spectators. But – that’s no reason not to enjoy every minute of this afternoon, of this achievement, of this physical object with your sentences in it. Congratulations to all of you. I can’t wait to see what you do next.
Left to right : Isabelle Li, Cassie Hamer, Susan McCreery, Caroline Wood, Fiona McFarlane, Ruth Wyer and Zacharey Jane.