Our recently-crowned 2019 winner, Cameron Stewart, lives in Sydney, Australia. He has had short fiction published in Subtropics, The London Magazine and the 2019 UTS Writers’ Anthology – Infinite Threads. A graduate of Western Sydney University (BA Performing Arts), he is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing, at the University of Technology, Sydney.
We took the opportunity to find out more about Cameron’s writing and his winning story, Black Snow, which chair of the judging panel, literary agent Kate Johnson, says is a “brutal yet tender story about one boy’s coming-of-age in Australia, as he learns that kindness and beauty come in unexpected packages.”
What does it mean to you to have won this year’s BSSP?
It’s been wonderful. As a writer, you wrangle with a story for months, send it out to various journals or contests for judgement and hope for a positive response. Sometimes you hear back, often you don’t. Being shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize and knowing I’d be in the anthology with other writers from around the world was very exciting – that was enough for me. To win is amazing. It tells me that my best writing can resonate with people. This will drive me to keep creating and write stories that move people.
What impact do you think it will have on your writing?
I’m encouraged to continue writing the best fiction I can. My initial goal is to publish a collection of short stories to be proud of. I hope that winning the Bristol Prize will bring me closer to that goal. This year I’ve also wrapped my head around the concept of writing something larger and am about ten thousand words into a novel. Still much to do!
Black Snow is a disturbing, powerful story. What drew you to the subject matter?
This question intrigues me because I didn’t find the subject matter disturbing at all when writing it – I don’t know what this says about me! I was never sent to live with an uncle at the other end of the country but there are aspects of the story I’m familiar with – risk-taking and moving around a lot as a child gave me good material, a backdrop at least, to place my main character in. I’m interested in notions of judgement and communication, or lack thereof. In Black Snow, I decided to follow a young boy on that pivotal journey between boyhood and becoming a man.
I wanted to explore the idea that children are often unaware of the reasons for things happening to them, but then there are also times when they are more aware of what is going on than the adults around them assume them to be. The moments growing up when you realise your parents aren’t perfect and there is unjustified cruelty – this can have positive and negative effects. Children inherently look for guidance, approval, love or just for someone to be there for them; these are universal yearnings. The character of Uncle John, for example, may seem small, but his few acts of kindness have a massive impact. Despite some of the bad things that have happened to the boy, he now knows that love exists. It’s not enough to talk about love – the idea of love means nothing unless it’s backed up by action. I suppose being the father of two boys sharpens my interest in this area.
Many writers find short story endings hard to accomplish? Black Snow’s finish, especially the last line is brilliantly done; how much time did you spend on it?
Funnily enough, I quickly settled about where to finish this story and the final line came easily. If you’re never experienced seeing glow worms at night, I’d recommend it –– they’re magical and do appear to be a microcosm of everything. The final paragraph itself took hours to get right but I’m very hard on myself in getting things just so. I have a tendency to over-write and I constantly reflect and revise. Some sections flowed easily. Others, such as the one paragraph passage of the plane flying into Cairns took constant reworking over months. I can be rather slow!
When did you start writing?
Writing short fiction is relatively new to me. I began as an actor and have always been interested in story telling and the creative process. Acting was my main focus but I’ve felt myself recently gravitating more and more towards writing. I’ve spent many years, in various writing groups or by myself, working on theatre, television or film projects with varying success. Eight years (yes, eight years!) were spent co-writing and making an unfunded feature film, The Land, which we finally finished this year and are now entering into film festivals. Two years ago I decided to put a concerted effort into fiction and enrolled part time in an MA in Creative Writing at UTS Sydney, which I am nearing the end of.
Which writers have influenced you the most?
Shakespeare wasn’t too bad! Sam Shepard, the playwright, was influential in terms of imagery, dialogue, broken people and toxic relationships. I tend to gravitate towards the dark, hopefully with a sprinkling of beauty. My influences are eclectic. If I scan the book pile near my bed and my bookcase, Chloe Hooper, Lucia Berlin, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, Claire Keegan, Tim Winton, Per Petterson, Helen Garner, Hakuri Murakami, Anthony Beevor, Chekov and Annie Proulx stand out as having impacts on me. I also admire good journalism – well researched, clear and objective. Chloe Hooper wrote a wonderful non fiction book, The Tall Man, about the death of an Indigenous man under police custody in Queensland. Her clean writing style and attention to detail is profoundly moving. In fiction, Truman Capote’s, In Cold Blood, exhibits a similar style. Like many lovers of fiction, I’ve also enjoyed such classics as: To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord Of The Flies, The Catcher In The Rye, Birdsong, Catch 22, Vanity Fair, Tender Is The Night and Pride And Prejudice. I’m even partial to a good yarn such as Papillon or the Godfather. I don’t consider myself as widely read as I should be and have a long list of reading ahead of me.
In accepting your 1st prize, you wrote “In a time when many leaders show little sense of listening or understanding and turn their backs on truth and science, literature is a lovely antidote.” What role do you think writers and stories can play in these turbulent times?
Nobody enjoys being slapped across the face with writing that is overly didactic. I’ll leave it to the great journalists, informed activists and non-fiction writers to shine a light under the bed of what’s rotten – and rightfully hold various people, companies and governments to account. Like many of us, I’m outraged by much that I see and read, about when power is misused and how those without, are often patronised and ignored. The dumbing down of politics, the manipulation of truth and the tendency to ignore science, horrifies me. It does my head in when I hear world leaders talk about the power of prayer, while at the same time willfully continuing down obvious paths of destruction. Our world is complex and calls for intelligent and varied responses from writers from all walks of life.
Fiction can be a sanctuary from the madness, however politics is in everything we write. When we examine why a character behaves in a certain way and how they respond to the world around them, politics, in all its nuanced forms, comes into play. How were they raised? What is their living situation? Can they find work? Is it full time, contractual, itinerant or criminal? Does it take them away from their loved ones? Do they have health care? Do they have a voice in their community? Is there access to clean water? What’s the state of the environment they live in? Can they vote? Do they even care? Are they victimised because of their gender, ethnic background, religion, sexuality, their economic circumstances, because they went to a different school? How do they see their future? These are all questions that impact the stories and characters we write about and can’t help but reflect a writer’s response to what they see happening around them.
Apart from being transportive and joyful, I hope good literature, as well as great music and art, can galvanise people be more aware of the things that bind them together and not drive us apart.
Cameron’s winning story and the other 19 stories on this year’s shortlist are now available in our brilliant new anthology which can be ordered from Tangent Books.