Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Susan Midalia is a fiction writer and freelance editor. She has published three collections of short stories: A History of the Beanbag, shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards; An Unknown Sky, shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award; and the recently released Feet to the Stars. She is the judge of several literary awards and was recently a peer assessor for the Australia Council for the Arts. She has a PhD in contemporary Australian women’s fiction and has published on the subject in national and international literary journals. Susan has lived most of her life in Perth, Western Australia, where she regularly conducts short story writing workshops. Her two most precious creations are her adult sons.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I began writing fiction in response to the death of my father, as a means of trying to understand my complex feelings about his relationship with me and other family members. The story that emerged from that experience was published in a journal edited by a former university colleague, Terri-ann White. Terri-ann later became the Director of UWAPublishing, and it was she who had the courage and generosity to publish my three books, in the context of a literary culture that tends to devalue the short story. She also happens to be a great fan of the genre, so I’m very lucky to have found the right reader at the right time.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
My latest book is my third collection of short stories, Feet to the Stars, launched in August 2015. It offers a variety of distinctive voices and perspectives on life – female and male, working-class and middle-class, adolescents and adults – as an act of the empathetic imagination: a way of trying to understand people who are very different from me. I’m particularly interested in the psychology of self or consciousness – the stuff that goes on in people’s heads – and with the unspoken – the things people cannot, will not, or feel they must not, say. The stories deal with families, migrants, women’s experiences, tourism, friendship, grief, the sheer pleasure of being alive. A few are more explicitly political, in response to my increasing dismay about the mean-hearted and often irrational nature of politics in contemporary Australia. The collection also explores sexual relationships: one of life’s happier, more heartbreaking and sometimes more ludicrous experiences. My younger son told me, with some consternation, that I had references to sex in every story; I hadn’t realised I was quite so obsessive! My husband simply told me that I had to stop killing off husbands in my stories.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I have a study that overlooks our front garden. I write on a computer, on a large, very cheap pine table. I also have a comfy chair for reading, and three walls lined with books. There are books all over our house, but my study monopolises short story collections, Australian fiction, poetry collections and biographies/autobiographies. It’s a cosy and productive space; I wouldn’t want to write anywhere else.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I have the luxury and immense good fortune to be able to write all day, every day, because I have a partner who works in order to pay the bills. I typically start writing early in the morning and often remain completely absorbed until late afternoon. I have domestic commitments, of course, although my aversion is summed up by the joke that “her idea of housework was to sweep the room with a glance.” I know I’m extremely privileged, and I try to honour that privilege every day.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
Memorable writing is for me the product of hard thinking about creative choices. Although writing might begin in the unconscious or with a flash of inspiration, it only becomes “good” writing through the hard slog of thinking. Self-editing is in fact my favorite part of the process. I tend to proceed paragraph by paragraph, and I’m happy if I can write 500 words a day that I’m proud of. Having said that, however, I also love the unexpectedness of writing, the sense that you often don’t know where a story is taking you. It can take me a month or more of working on a story before I know what I’m really writing about; until I discover a story’s heart, or essence, if you like.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
I write fiction because it’s such an enlivening experience: when mind, heart and body come together, to make something out of nothing, turning black marks on a white page into something to believe in. I write to make some kind of sense out of this messy thing called life: its contradictions, ambiguities, pleasures and suffering. I also enjoy “being” someone other than myself, trying on different roles. I write as an act of communication with imagined readers, through which I hope to encourage people to ask questions about their own lives and the culture in which they live. I also like to make readers cry (just as I love reading books that make me cry), as well as trying to get a laugh. I write short stories in particular because I think we experience our lives not only as a sequence of events – which is the province of the novel – but also in terms of moments in time. Moments that can be revelatory, triumphant, climactic, anti-climactic, uplifting, affirming, intensely disillusioning. Moments that can endure long into the present, that can haunt or console us for years.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
I often get my ideas from observing and listening to people around me (in trains, the dentist, travelling, taking out the rubbish, and so on). I also get ideas from reading. My main advice to people who wish to write is always: read, read, read, in order to learn about the many and glorious possibilities of language and the many different ways to craft a story. Occasionally I write about memories from the distant past; experiences you think you’ve forgotten but which eventually insist on being heard.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Self-doubt is definitely an obstacle. It’s necessary, but too much of it is debilitating. Being a Western Australian writer is also a major problem; I know my WA writing friends will agree. It’s difficult to get much traction in the Eastern states: to be reviewed, to be invited to writers’ festivals, to sit on panels, to be invited to contribute to anthologies. The difficulty for me is compounded by the fact that I write short stories, because there’s still a view in the literary culture that you’re not a “real” or substantial fiction writer unless you’ve written a novel.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
I wish I’d known that, unless you’re a “big name,” a writer has to be shamelessly self-promoting. I’m getting better at it. Like many writers, I’m not in it for the money (just as well), but because I want to give readers the pleasure of language and story, and something on which to reflect.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
My personal goal is to write a novel because I now have a project that requires expansion and development, and which I’ve been thinking about for some time. My professional vision is to help make Western Australian writers more “visible” elsewhere in Australia, and to promote the importance of the short story genre.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
My favourite Australian novelists are Gail Jones and Michelle de Kretser. I also have a ton of female short story writers from whom I’ve learned many things about writing: Claire Keegan, Lorrie Moore, Amy Bloom, Lydia Davis, Anne Enright, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neeven, Mavis Gallant, Helen Garner, Carole Shields…
WHICH FEMALE AUTHOR WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
I would love WordMothers to interview the Western Australian poet Lucy Dougan. Lucy has recently published her fourth collection of poems, and is in my view one of Australia’s best poets.
Thank you, Susan Midalia!
— Nicole Melanson
And thank you, Amanda Curtin, for introducing me to Susan! Read Amanda’s WordMothers interview here
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