An Interview with Luke Johnson
Luke Johnson is a writer and lecturer from NSW. His stories have appeared in places such as Griffith Review, Overland, Island, Westerly, Going Down Swinging, Mascara Literary Review, The Lifted They have also been listed or won such prizes as the AAWP Chapter One Prize, Josephine Ulrick Prize, Elizabeth Jolley Prize and Katharine Susannah Prichard Prize.
We had a conversation with Luke about his novella “Ringbark”, his writing influences, and what he loves about the short form.
What is your relationship to the short form? Was it the first form of writing you experimented with?
No, in the early days, poetry was about the only kind of writing I cared about. So much so that when I got to uni in 2005, I was quite put out by my creative writing teachers who insisted I write in at least one other form as part of the degree. I remember being in a prose workshop and being told by one of the other students that since this was a prose class maybe I should try writing a little more prosaically and a little less poetically – a criticism that was echoed by the tutor who wrote something along the lines of “You should pay more attention to your peers’ feedback” on my final assessment. I was incensed, until I realised they were right.
In 2015, your manuscript “Stories From An Other Place: A Collection of Short Stories” was shortlisted for the Publisher Introduction Program. Can you tell us a bit about the short stories in your manuscript?
They were written as part of a PhD. I was reading a lot of Lacan at the time, for the scholarly portion of the thesis, and while I wasn’t consciously setting out to aestheticise these ideas, they inevitably bled through into the prose – hence the title: the ‘Other’ place it refers to is, in one sense, the unconscious origin of each story.
Your novella, “Ringbark”, was part of Going Down Swinging’s Longbox. Can you walk us through the process of writing “Ringbark”, and the idea behind it?
Before prose came poetry, and before poetry came shearing. I’d worked as a shearer in rural NSW for a number of years prior to enrolling fulltime at uni, and this is where the story takes place – its geographic and cultural milieu, if you like. Actually, the novella is really an extended excerpt from a novel called On Dead Highways, for which I’m still hoping to find a publisher. It’s concerned with colonialism, heredity and masculinity (although, I could just as easily say it’s concerned with point of view, narrative circularity and tense). As far as the process of writing, it was incredibly physical – my gut would ache just thinking about what needed doing each day. Or maybe it was remembering all those unshorn hoggets that caused it to ache. Either way, it was tough going.
“Before prose came poetry, and before poetry came shearing.”
What books and authors have influenced your writing?
I think there are two kinds of influence, conscious and unconscious. I could probably go through all of my stories and tell you the writer, if not the exact text, I was consciously trying to emulate at the time of writing. But what’s most interesting to me is how weakly this often comes across in the finished work. There are times where I feel that I’m being embarrassingly derivative, and yet no one says a word. Maybe they’re being kind. Or maybe it’s because the unconscious influences tend to subsume the conscious ones. I know this doesn’t quite answer the question, but the alternative was just a big list of names, which, looking up at my shelf now, begins with Adichie and ends with Zola.
As a teacher of Creative Writing, how do you encourage young writers who are new to the writing and publishing industry?
Firstly, I try to take them seriously as aspiring writers, and I encourage them to take themselves and their craft seriously too. Secondly, I try to set texts that will challenge the way they think about literature and about their own authorial potential. Thirdly, I ask them to pretty, pretty please put their phones away while we’re talking about writing.
At the Festival, you will be in conversation with Julia Prendergast and Sarah McNeill about the differences of the short and long form. What aspects of short stories do you particularly love compared to the long-form novel?
For me, the best short stories do the same thing as the best novels and the best paintings and the best works of theatre and the best pieces of music and so on. They set traps. As a reader, I sometimes find myself caught up in one of these traps (get the sense I’m being used as bait even), but this isn’t quite what I’m getting at here. What I’m after, as a reader or viewer or listener, are those moments where the text’s symbolic matrix snaps shut and catches hold of something else. I’ll call this ‘something else’ the real, after Lacan, though this is just one name for what has been a pretty stable part of Western metaphysics since Socrates at least. The difference between short stories and novels is just a difference in approach, different kinds of traps as it were. How does this play out practically? Short story writers have less time, for one thing, so tend to be more aggressive and more confrontational. I suppose it’s fair to say that this means a smaller margin of error too, which can make it more exciting to read and to write short stories. But really, I have no particular preference for one form over the other.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
Yes, I have a novel and a couple of short stories on the go. And I just finished writing an essay on the short story ‘Cat Person’.
“For me, the best short stories do the same thing as the best novels and the best paintings and the best works of theatre and the best pieces of music and so on. They set traps.”