Bristol Prize

Interview with John Arnold, Winner of 2012 BSSP

August 1, 2012   Joe Melia

John Arnold (left) has won the 2012 Bristol Short Story Prize. John began writing stories in his teens. He works as an editor and lives in Brisbane, Australia. Excepting two poems and some journalism, John’s winning story Naked as Eve, is his first published work. Chair of the judging panel, Ali Reynolds, said: “Naked as Eve stood out as our winning story, it shone with quality and depth. It masterfully layers Aboriginal myths, re-told for the tourists, alongside a much more personal trauma, all delivered with humour and a light touch which belies its devastating ending.”

We’re delighted to welcome John to the website:

What was your initial reaction when you found out that you had won the Bristol Short Story Prize?

I was elated and frankly, surprised. It was enough of a shock that I was short-listed. I thought my story didn’t have a chance. I find judging the quality of my work almost impossible. That’s where Christy (my wife) comes in. She has excellent judgement and won’t hesitate to tell me if something’s crap.

In what ways will winning BSSP influence your plans for writing in the future? Will it encourage you to write more short
stories?

Winning the prize has confirmed for me that I should be writing stories with themes that excite and attract me — stories I really want to tell. This seems like rather an obvious point. However, I’ve struggled for several years with what I imagined publishers and judges wanted — and produced many anodyne pieces of writing as a result. Emily Bullock said in her interview last year that she doesn’t write with a specific reader in mind: that it would hamper the process. I think that’s right. At the first draft stage, I need to be carried away by the story. For me, thinking about the reader or publication comes in at the second- or third-draft stage.

The prize has motivated me and provided terrific encouragement. The last year has been a creative dry-spell for me and I’ve had moments (like many writers, I suspect) when I’ve thought, ‘Am I kidding myself? Do I have any ability at all?’ I’ll always write short stories because I love the genre — I love the elegance and precision it requires. I work in a library and am often perplexed by readers who claim they don’t like short-stories. I think there’s a perception that an author can’t engage or move a reader outside of the length of a novel. One of my favourite pieces of writing is ‘The Little Heidelberg’ by Isabel Allende. I can’t read it in public because I invariably cry like a great, big sooky-la-la. It can’t be longer than 2000 words.

There is a strong current of mythology in your winning story ‘Naked as Eve’. Is this a big influence on your work?

Yes. I realised when I was editing ‘Naked as Eve’ that I’d been trying to write this story for years. I can see its skeleton in a number of aborted stories currently cluttering my desktop. The idea of a place of sacrifice and notions of European unease with Aboriginal spirituality, are all there. It wasn’t until I began writing about North Queensland that the story unlocked itself. I’d been trying to write about a Dreamtime story I grew up with: my father was born in a small town called Babinda. There’s a very beautiful creek there called the Boulders — and in the boulders there’s a body of water called the ‘Devil’s Pool’. The pool is reputedly haunted by the spirit of a beautiful Aboriginal girl who drowned there while trying to swim across and elope with her lover. The story is that she lures men into the water and drowns them.  I’m unclear on how much of the story is genuine Aboriginal spirituality and how much is embroidered European ghost story. A shocking number of people have drowned there over the years — most of them, young men. There’s a forest path to the pool and it’s flanked by memorials to the dead. It’s a terrifically creepy place.

One way or another, myths, legends and Dreamtime stories always creep into my work. Occasionally, I’ll put in a deliberate reference but usually they don’t work. More often, I’ll re-read a story at the edit stage and realise I’ve been writing about the Sirens or Tam Lin or something. I don’t always feel in complete control of my writing.

 

The dialogue is very skilfully written, so punchy and alive, in ‘Naked as Eve’. Do you find dialogue difficult or easy to write?

The rhythm of people’s speech seems to come naturally but I always have to guard against overdoing it. The reality is that our everyday speech isn’t that eloquent. My family (immediate and extended) talk constantly. And I do mean constantly. Sometimes I wonder if we have some kind of evolutionary advantage: like a mutated epiglottis or something. I’ve always taken inspiration from them. Like Britain, Australia has that tradition of light, often sarcastic chatter and long-winded pub anecdotes. I found I needed to alter or remove a great deal of local slang, before I submitted the story. Some expressions simply don’t translate.

Ali Reynolds, chair of the BSSP judging panel, says ‘Naked as Eve’ is a “deeply layered and moving story”. How do
you create the effect of depth and multi-layers within such a concise number of words?

I’m not sure it’s a conscious process. Often, something minor about a character will occur to me and I’ll find myself hanging major plot developments from it further down the line. Traditionally, I’ve struggled with plot development. In this story, I had a strong idea of where I was going and that was an advantage. In terms of word length, an acquaintance of mine (an editor) had the legend ‘Learn to murder your darlings’ hanging over his desk for years. It’s good advice. Although, I find it difficult to strike a balance between weeding out filler and going too far — and completely stripping the story of its colour and humour. Occasionally, I’ll begin a story and realise it’s simply a longer story than I have the word-length to tell. I’m beginning to think the best thing a writer can do, is simply sit down and not move until the first draft is finished. Interruptions and long pauses do seem to kill some stories. If I take a long enough break from a piece of writing, I stop day-dreaming about it and then I’m in trouble.

Do you approach journalism and writing fiction in different ways?

Absolutely. There’s more room to fake it if you’re writing objectively. And there’s a million ways to write your way out of a structural problem or skirt the issue. I’m not saying the above is a hallmark of good journalism. However, a piece of journalism will tolerate a cut-and-paste approach to editing, that would kill a piece of fiction.


There is a great short story tradition in Australia. How is the short story viewed Down Under at the moment by readers, writers, publishers?

As I mentioned above, some readers are wary of short-stories. But I don’t think that phenomenon is exclusive to Australia. Several publishers won’t touch them for that reason. Despite this, there are several authors that have published excellent collections recently. Nam Le’s ‘The Boat’ was excellent. ‘The Midnight Promise’ by Zane Lovitt is a series of beautifully written short-stories about one character — they work as individual mystery stories and also as a larger, thematic piece of fiction. It’s an innovative approach.

Which short story writers do you admire?

I love Colette: I love that her voice never varies from story to story. When I read her work, it’s almost as though she’s in the room with me. Bella Vista (with its gender confusion and the fabulously creepy, bird-eating villain) remains one of my favourites. I also love Fay Weldon’s short stories. Her prose is perfect: so elegant and simple. She never wastes a word. I think Roald Dahl was a genius. ‘William and Mary’ is brilliant. The ending is particularly funny with Mary taunting William’s floating brain and eyeball. I think ‘Lamb to the slaughter’ is almost perfect. I’ve always admired Dahl’s ability to make the reader cheer for profoundly flawed or downright vile characters: murderers, cheating gamblers, lechers who torture insects. I read Kate Grenville’s ‘The Space Between’ and Patrick White’s ‘Miss Slattery and Her Demon Lover’ while at uni and for me they still represent what a short-story should be: both stories have a kind of perfect simplicity without spelling everything out for the reader.

Print or ebook?

I find ebooks depressing. I concede they’re most likely the future of publication but I can’t feel any enthusiasm for them. There’s something joyless about them. As someone who rarely leaves the house without two or three books in my bag, I can see the advantage in having an entire library in your pocket. But reading is tactile and I think it’s a great shame to dismiss the physical process of it: I love that old books have a different smell and different quality to their paper. At the moment, I’m reading an edition of Trevelyan’s ‘History of Britain’ that was published in the 50s. The pages have a kind of silky, almost transparent quality — like they’re made of rice-paper. And it smells lovely. Also, I love buying a second-hand paperback and finding scrawled marginalia from the previous owner: sometimes it’s succinct criticism, sometimes it’s insane ramblings. But it provides a link to another reader and to a small degree, you experience the story with their influence. Until, Mr Apple or whoever finds a way to do that with ebooks, I refuse to get behind the concept.

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