Recently, during a major decluttering exercise involving thirty or forty archive boxes, I came across a collection of my undergraduate literature assignments (do I need to mention I’m a hoarder?). As I sorted through them, I was reminded that long before Susan Midalia and I became friends, and writing and editing colleagues, she had been my lecturer and tutor in a unit on Australian Literature and Film—a unit I had loved, not least because Susan is the most inspiring of teachers. I think she has been teaching me, in one way or another, ever since.
Susan retired from an academic career in 2006 to write fiction full-time, and her new book follows A History of the Beanbag (2007), shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, and An Unknown Sky (2012), shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award. She is, or has been, a judge of several literary awards, including the WA Premier’s Book Awards, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the Todhunter Literary Award and the Margaret River Short Story Competition. She is a board member of writingWA, Margaret River Press, and A Maze of Story, a volunteer organisation that encourages creativity in socially and economically disadvantaged children. She is also a regular facilitator of short story writing workshops.
I’m delighted she has agreed to answer some 2, 2 and 2 questions about her new book, the intriguingly titled Feet to the Stars.
Here is the back-cover blurb:
Susan Midalia’s third collection of stories, Feet to the Stars, offers keenly observed details about everyday life, expressed with pathos, tenderness and bracing wit. Subtly rendered and emotionally engaging, these stories speak of the transformative capacities of the human mind and heart, and of the ways we affect each other, sometimes unwittingly and often profoundly. They offer us the pleasure of listening to different voices, and the satisfaction of careful crafting and evocative prose.
Over now to Susan…
Two things that inspired me to write the book
There are two areas of experience that keep returning to me, not always consciously or deliberately. The first is children. This might be partly autobiographical; having helped to raise two adult sons who I love fiercely, I remain fascinated by that complex combination in children, particularly adolescents, of wisdom and naiveté, kindness and self-absorption; by their capacity to enrich and sometimes to burden the life of a parent; by their idealism and freedom from hypocrisy, which reinforces for me, and I hope for all of us, the value of hope in a cynical adult world.
A second preoccupation in my new collection is the need for political engagement as a means of questioning structures of power. I was inspired to write stories such as ‘The hook’, ‘Oranges’ and ‘Exploring’—all of which in their different ways deal with issues of injustice and political self-interest—partly because I’ve been increasingly concerned by what’s happening to, and in, Australia. Like many Australians, I’ve become dismayed, saddened and indeed afraid of the lack of compassion and basic human decency that I believe is beginning to characterise this country. Not that I want to preach to my readers, because good writing doesn’t pontificate or tell the reader what to think. Rather, I try to encourage reflection on the way we treat one another, both in our daily lives and in the wider society, for in the end, that’s what matters most to me.
Two places connected with my book
First, and speaking geographically, most of the stories in this collection are set in Australia. Sometimes the physical settings are integral to the meaning of the story; in ‘Exploring’, for example, a road trip across the Nullarbor and the setting of Cottesloe Beach are used as a means of questioning cultural myths of identity. For the most part, however, the stories are urban/suburban, and here I’m not so much interested in physical space but how ‘Australian-ness’ is manifest in the way my characters speak, think and behave.
I’m very aware that I’m not given to creating literal settings, mainly because it’s not one of my strengths as a writer. I greatly admire writers who make settings seem real, immediate, atmospheric, who offer us either the pleasures of recognition—places we know—and the pleasures of geographical difference. But I’ve decided to leave that to those wonderful writers, and console myself with the fact that this absence in my stories puts me in the brilliant company of Jane Austen, whose novels very rarely create physical settings. Like Austen, I’m drawn instead to inner spaces—to our thoughts and feelings, motives, fears, desires—the whole glorious mess of human consciousness. This is the second element that’s prompted me to write this book: I’m interested in the things people think but don’t always say, as well as in what they manage to say in those moments of confusion, clarity, humility, disillusionment, affirmation, despair, consolation, that constitute our lives. One of my main goals in this collection was the creation of a range of different inner spaces and voices: males as well as females, adolescents and adults, working-class and middle-class. Trying to imagine what it might be like to be someone who’s very different from me is both immensely pleasurable—a bit like being an actor, I guess—and an ethical imperative, an act of the empathetic imagination which for me lies at the heart of writing, reading and being.
Two favourite passages from Feet to the Stars
The first is from a story called ‘Because’. Narrated retrospectively by a woman called Violet, it’s a story centred on her ‘search’ for her mother, Beth, who went missing when Violet was two years old. Here is Violet, recalling the objects once owned by her mother:
What else did my father give me? What scraps and shards, what rags of passing time, through which I might recall my mother? Were there other evidential texts of more, or less, veracity? More, or less, haunting? He gave me objects: a bronze letter-opener; a box of unwritten postcards; a silver hairbrush with an embroidered backing, stitched in crimson and green. All of which I saw, and continued to see, as unexceptional. But I am fond of my mother’s tiny, grey pincushion in the shape of a mouse, which holds for me the pathos of the miniature; and a marcasite brooch in the shape of a bow, fashionable during her time, and fashionable once more. But whenever I look at these objects, touch them, I cannot feel my mother. Perhaps a bracelet or a necklace, something she had worn against her skin, might have made a difference. Or perhaps it is merely the paradox of any object from the past, its presence confirming absence. Like a photograph of the dead: you are here; you are gone.
And here’s an extract from the titular story, ‘Feet to the Stars’. It’s narrated from the perspective of Paul, a middle-aged teacher in a private girls’ school, who has been visiting—at her request—one of his students, hospitalised with anorexia:
At school the girls had made a card for Nell and asked him to sign it. One of those jumbo-sized cards, meant for celebrations and silly occasions, and at the top of the page, a quotation in bright red letters: Clownlike, happiest on your hands, feet to the stars. Sylvia Plath. Bella said it had taken ages to find words that everyone agreed on: some girls just wanted a simple message like get well soon or we miss you, and the school sacristan preferred something from the Bible.
‘We talked about the poem, remember?’ said Laurie. ‘About being a kid, about being happiest, and how we only think we’re happy cos we party and drink and stuff. And how that’s not really being happy, it’s just pretending to be a grown-up.’
‘Nell forgot to put her feet to the stars,’ said Imogen. ‘Or maybe she doesn’t know how.’
And so Paul signed his name, added it to the names of his students, who didn’t always have the language but who certainly understood.
‘We’re giving it to her tomorrow,’ said Imogen. ‘Me and Helena.’
He didn’t say, Helena and I.
‘And Nell thinks the other girls can start visiting her now.’
He told them that their friendship would mean a great deal to her. That it might even help more than all the doctors could. And then, because he couldn’t help himself, because he’d been lecturing students for years, would be lecturing until the day he died, he told them about Carl Jung.
‘He was a famous psychoanalyst,’ he said. ‘He spoke to many troubled, unhappy people, gave them the benefit of his complex theories and many years of training. But in the end he believed he did nothing that a good friend couldn’t have done. Listen. And show they care.’
Helena gave him a puzzled look. ‘So that’s how you pronounce it,’ she said. ‘Jung. I thought it rhymed with dung.’ She beamed at her classmates. ‘I’m reading his work on the collective unconscious. It’s very deep.’
Feet to the Stars will be in bookshops on 1 August 2015
You can find out more at UWA Publishing