An Interview with Susan Midalia
As the Australian Short Story Festival draws closer, we’ll be interviewing some of the writers who will be featured. Our new interview series will give insight into the relationship between writers and the short form, as well as give you the chance to get to know ‘who’s who’ in the Australian short story universe!
To kick-off this interview series, we had a chat with Susan Midalia who is chair of this year’s festival. Susan talks about her role as chairperson of the festival and how her relationship with short stories has evolved.
As chairperson of the Australian Short Story Festival, what does your role entail?
I co-ordinate and chair committee meetings, in which crucial decisions are made about the content, organisation and delivery of the Festival. We have a band of hard-working, enthusiastic committee members, so they make my job easy, and a lot of fun, too. I ensure that we arrive at decisions after a democratic discussion, and I keep meetings relatively short, to save everyone the tedium of meetings in which people endlessly talk because they like the sound of their own voice!
I also co-ordinate the various activities of the committee: the program, grant applications, marketing and venue hire, ensuring that the expertise and experience of each committee member is used effectively. Finally, it’s always important to acknowledge the work of the committee, who have offered their time and knowledge on a voluntary basis over the course of nearly a year!
How are the preparations going for the festival?
They’re going wonderfully well, and we’re very excited about delivering a stimulating, dynamic and culturally diverse program. We’ve secured crucial funding and in-kind support from several generous sources. This has enabled us to pay for the airfares, accommodation and speaking fees of artists from around Australia, and to employ a Festival Manager to deal with the vital logistics that will help to deliver a successful show in October. The money also pays for local artists, because we are keen to promote WA writers, actors, visual artists and musicians.
We have now secured artists, facilitators, events and venues, and are close to finalising the events on the program. We’ve also been marketing the Festival through a range of media outlets over the past few months, and we’ll intensify this as the Festival draws closer. We’re currently calling for those important volunteers who will help run the Festival over three days. Preparations have been time-consuming and sometimes exhausting but always rewarding.
“We’re very excited about delivering a stimulating, dynamic and culturally diverse [festival] program.”
You have conducted workshops on short story writing as well as taught literature at secondary and tertiary levels; how do you explain what short story writing is to your students?
I always begin with a “pep talk” about the value of the short story for both writers and readers; how it shouldn’t be regarded as merely an apprenticeship to novel writing, but as a challenging form in its own right. I make several key points about the aesthetic of the short story: its typical focus on a moment, or moments, in time; its use of a range of strategies to create the illusion of a wider world beyond the relatively few words on the page; its affinity to poetry, such that the use of compressed language creates complex meanings; and its use of “the unsaid”, such that what is silenced or implied in a story reminds us that life is always a contest between the silent and the spoken, the known and the unknown. I get students to put these ideas into practice by using a range of short writing exercises. These exercises are also designed to spark their creative imaginations, and to demonstrate their respect for and love of language.
What aspect of short stories do you particularly love compared to its’ “big sister”, the long-form novel?
I love the aesthetic challenge of writing a short story, because every word must be the right one, and must be deployed in the right order. Readers are usually more forgiving of stylistic lapses in a novel; they might register them, but then move on to keep following its story or discovering more about its characters. However, because of the relative brevity of the short story, readers will more readily notice clichés, mixed metaphors, the misuse of words, a rhythmically clunky sentence – all the sins to which writers can be prone – and thus quickly lose faith in the writer.
I also love the challenge of writing a piece that is short but not superficial. The writer Barbara Kingsolver has described the process thus, by insisting that “a good short story cannot be Literature Lite; it is the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces.” The “trick”, as the writer Amy Hempel puts it, is “finding your way into something big.” And the “trick” for me often entails writing about so-called ordinary people and events in a way that makes them seem extraordinary; to remind readers that no one and nothing is ordinary, if we observe closely and listen carefully to what can lie beneath the surface of the familiar.
“I love the aesthetic challenge of writing a short story, because every word must be the right one, and must be deployed in the right order.”
You have three short story collections published, A History of the Beanbag, An Unknown Sky, and Feet to the Stars, what is your relationship to the short story form? And how has it evolved for you, if it has at all?
When my first collection was published in 2007, I was fifty-five years old and elated; I didn’t envisage writing another collection, and would happily have gone to my grave in the knowledge that I had produced just the one. But the stories kept coming: a walk in suburbs, for example, or a ride in a train, can yield subjects for a story. My own reading can provoke a story. The world is saturated with stories. I found the short form in particular such a pleasure to write because I wanted to capture moments in time, on the understanding that such moments, far from being superficial and ephemeral, can be crucial, enduring and profound.
As a writer, I’m particularly interested in characters, and writing three collections has enabled me to write individual stories from different perspectives: men as well as women; children, teenagers, the middle-aged and the elderly; people from different cultures. I love the challenge of imagining being someone very different from me. Over the course of the three collections, I’ve written longer stories in which I’ve developed characters in more detail. I’ve also more recently written flash fiction: it’s been a joy to try to write something interesting and challenging in just 600 words.
Your latest book, The Art of Persuasion, is a novel. What made you decide to make the switch from short story to novel?
What initially compelled me to write in the longer form was seeing the SIEV X memorial in Canberra. Its commemoration of the deaths at sea of 353 asylum seekers heading for Australia moved me deeply, and made me consider writing a novel about contemporary Australian politics. But I also knew that a political novel runs the risk of being preachy, condescending or ranting, and that the risk might be minimised by representing different perspectives and attitudes on crucial political issues. I also wanted to develop a character in great detail, because it’s the psychology and morality of selfhood that interests me deeply as a writer – it’s where my short stories were heading.
Combining those two elements led to the creation of The Art of Persuasion, in which a young woman – the central character, Hazel – goes door-knocking for the Greens and encounters resistance to her views on asylum seekers and climate change. In the process, she also falls in love with her fellow doorknocker, a considerably older man, and a widower with a young son. So: politics, character development and love, combined in one book. This makes it sound as if the novel was carefully planned; that I’d plotted it in detail and knew exactly where it was going: the what, the how and the why. But the process wasn’t like that at all; as other writers will tell you, writing a novel can be a wonderful encounter with the unexpected. It’s about getting started and seeing where the story and the characters might take you. I enjoyed the process so much that I’m currently writing another novel.
Susan Midalia is an award-winning author. She has published three short story collections, A History of the Beanbag, An Unknown Sky and Feet to the Stars. Her latest book is a novel called The Art of Persuasion. You can find out more about Susan’s books on her website, or read more about her here.