What a year 2022 has been for short stories. I began my reading year with Rashida Murphy’s powerful collection The Bonesetter’s Fee (Spineless Wonders), and since then I’ve had the pleasure of reading another two outstanding collections: Mirandi Riwoe’s The Burnished Sun (UQP) and Fiona Robertson’s If You’re Happy (UQP). I’m now reading (I like to have more than one on the desk!) Andrew Roff’s The Teeth of a Slow Machine (Wakefield Press) and Ben Walter’s What Fear Was (Puncher & Wattmann)—brilliant, both of them.
I’ve also just finished Susan Midalia’s collection of very short stories, appropriately entitled Miniatures (Night Parrot Press). Having experienced a personally challenging few months, I found this volume of more than 100 stories a joy to read: many of them had me laughing out loud—usually having been taken by surprise. One consists of nothing but a title! I’ve often said that Susan is one of the wittiest people I know.
Miniatures also reflects other qualities I associate with the author: empathy, a preoccupation with language and what it can do, and a strong interest in compassionate politics and the environment.
Susan Midalia happens to be the director of the 2022 Australian Short Story Festival, which is being held this year in Western Australia, at the Fremantle Arts Centre, 28–30 October. Among the participants are visitors Fiona Robertson, Andrew Roff and Ben Walter, as well and Rashida Murphy and Susan Midalia, mentioned above, but do take a look at the full list of writers. I’m delighted to be taking part in a session on ‘Writing Fremantle’ with fellow writers Rita Tognini and Josephine Clarke.
The festival is extremely reasonably priced, at $20 per day for Saturday and Sunday. The full program is here.
What a great pleasure it is to introduce a new book by Susan Midalia on the blog today. Susan is well known in the Western Australian writing community—and beyond—as a writer, editor, workshop presenter and mentor, and is usually, I’ve found, the wittiest person in the room! I have valued her friendship over many years, and have many times been grateful for her careful eye and sage advice.
The work we are discussing today is Susan’s new novel, Everyday Madness.
Life sucks when you’re a vacuum cleaner salesman facing redundancy, and your wife of nearly forty years fills your days and nights with incessant chatter. But when Gloria suddenly and alarmingly stops talking, the silence is more than fifty-nine-year-old Bernard can bear.
In desperation, Bernard turns to his ex-daughter-in-law for help. Meg has issues of her own, and her bright and funny daughter Ella sometimes wonders if her mum is trying so hard to keep her safe that it stops both of them from spreading their wings. Will Meg’s suspicious nature thwart her chance encounter with the kindly but enigmatic Hal? And is there still hope for Bernard and Gloria on the other side of silence?
AC: Susan, some years ago, when you were talking about one of your short fiction collections, I remember you saying that you’d set yourself the challenge of writing from many points of view, trying to capture the voices of people of different age, gender, background. I thought of this when reading your new novel, which is told from four alternating and very different points of view: married couple Bernard and Gloria, their former daughter-in-law, Meg, and their granddaughter, Ella. Could you please talk about the challenges involved in creating, and sustaining, four distinct voices in a longer narrative?
SM:I’ve long been fascinated by the complex psychology, indeed the irreducible mystery, of different forms of selfhood. I’m what the writer Zadie Smith describes, in less high-falutin’ terms, as ‘an equal-opportunity voyeur’. Creating four different perspectives in Everyday Madness was certainly a challenge, particularly because the characters are in many ways unlike me. I had to think about the content of their interior monologues and dialogue: what, for example, might a middle-aged man think about being thrown out of work? What are the preoccupations of a ‘typical’ housewife? I also thought of them as individuals with their own distinctive voices. Bernard is an arrogant cynic; Gloria is dejected and bewildered; Meg is a jaded divorcee and an over-anxious mother; and Ella is a smart and lively twelve-year-old. Capturing their voices meant considering their outlook on life, their characteristic vocabulary and use of syntax, even the rhythms of their sentences. I also had to modify their voices as their perceptions changed, while maintaining the bedrock of their character. As just one example: Bernard’s increasing capacity for self-doubt and self-criticism is shown through the use of questions and self-mockery in his later interior monologues.
I created those four voices in the same way that I create all my fictional material: by wide reading, close observation of people, attentiveness to popular culture, and remaining politically informed. Another crucial part of the process was reading my drafts aloud. I do this regardless of the book I’m writing, but it’s particularly useful for any writer who wants to practise the art of ventriloquism. The voice has to sound plausible, distinctive and engaging.
I must say that capturing Ella’s voice was the toughest challenge of all. It’s a long time since I’ve been twelve years old! I received some really helpful feedback from a friend’s granddaughter, and I re-read a couple of Sonya Hartnett’s YA novels for her brilliant evocation of adolescent anxiety and thwarted desire. And I used the internet, of course, to find the right cultural references for a young girl living in contemporary Perth: her taste in music, her leisure activities, the ubiquitous presence of the mobile phone. I belong to a generation in which the telegram was the fastest form of technology!
What ‘madness’ isn’t
AC: Mental health issues, and the stigma surrounding them, are prominent in the novel, in several ways. Could you talk about how you handled these?
SM:The most explicit example in my novel of a mental health issue is Gloria’s diagnosed depression. I had two important aims in writing about her illness. One was addressing the misconception that depression is nothing worse than an occasional case of ‘the blues’, by showing the serious nature of Gloria’s symptoms. Her depression begins with protracted insomnia and an inability to eat, then spirals into visual and auditory hallucinations and near-catatonia. I wanted readers to feel the lived experience of her illness: her intense fear, her sense of bodily assailment, the anguish of her isolation, her irrational sense of shame. My second aim was to de-stigmatise clinical depression by using a medical, not a moral, model to explain its cause. Gloria’s depression is diagnosed as exogamous—environmentally caused—instead of being seen, as it sometimes is, as a sign of weakness or self-pity; and her recovery is effected by medication. Importantly, too, I wanted to show the therapeutic value of understanding and compassionate friends in Gloria’s road to recovery.
In writing about Gloria’s illness, I remembered, and re-read, William Styron’s book about his terrifying descent into clinical depression. His Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness ends with tentative words of hope: ‘[w]hoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair against despair.’ And while Styron understands that different people respond to different treatments, he’s adamant that medication saved his life.
Other characters in my novel experience ‘madness’ in less frightening, non-clinical ways: anxiety, abjection, self-aggrandisement, unfounded suspicions. I’ve explored the process through which so-called ‘normal’ or rational people can become irrational under the pressure of social or personal circumstances. Losing a job, being anxious about a child’s safety, a burning desire for approval: these are the experiences that make my characters lose their capacity for sound judgment. As my novel’s title suggests, I wanted to show how a lapse into irrationality by normally rational people is common, indeed a defining characteristic of our selfhood. The eighteenth-century writer Jonathan Swift summed it up perfectly: ‘Man [sic] is not a rational animal, but a creature capable of reason.’
Unlikeable characters and second chances
AC: I was interested to read that Everyday Madness has its genesis in a previously published short story of yours (‘Working It Out’, in the collection Feet to the Stars). You say that the character Bernard (Alan in the story) offered you ‘the challenge of making an unlikeable character capable of change’. I found this idea fascinating—almost a ‘sliding doors’ scenario, with the character taking one path in the story and another in the novel. It also made me wonder about the question of likeable/unlikeable characters. I’ve often heard readers say they haven’t liked a book because they didn’t like/couldn’t relate to a particular character, or any of the characters. I confess I’ve occasionally said the same thing myself! And yet isn’t fiction full of, and enlivened by, unlikeable characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
SM: I’ve always considered my short stories self-contained or complete, but for some inexplicable reason, the character of Alan kept asking me to give him a second chance. So I gave a cynical, self-pitying, arrogant man the opportunity for redemption over the course of an extended narrative. I made a deliberate decision to begin my novel with the voice of this highly unlikeable character as a way of confronting readers with the reality of human nastiness and frailty, and in the knowledge that readers of novels always have an expectation of character development or change. I wanted readers to ask: why is Bernard like this? What’s his backstory? Where might he go from here? An unlikeable character, then, can pique the reader’s curiosity, animate the plot, generate strong emotions and encourage readers to reflect on their own values and beliefs. These seem to me highly ‘enjoyable’ aspects of the reading experience. I must admit that I don’t understand the tendency in contemporary culture to dismiss books with unlikeable characters. After all, some of the most complex and compelling figures in literature have been thoroughly despicable or repulsive women or men. Iago, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Uriah Heap, Hannibal Lecter…there are thousands more of such beasts. But I ‘enjoy’ their characters, and the books in which they appear, because I admire the aesthetic skill with which they’ve been created; for the way they drive or complicate a plot; for the insights they provide about human psychology and the society they inhabit.
I’m also disconcerted by the current desire for ‘relatable’ characters. I don’t want to dismiss it entirely; I think it’s important for readers to know that their experiences have been respected by a writer. Some readers might ‘relate’ to Bernard when he loses his job. Others might ‘relate’ to Gloria’s experience of depression or Meg’s experience of divorce. This kind of reader identification can be comforting or consoling; as the novelist C.S. Lewis observed: ‘We read to know that we are not alone.’ But on the other hand, I feel very strongly that the readerly desire for ‘relatable’ characters can lead to a narrowing of our interests, a diminishment of our imaginative capacities. I like to think that reading can expand the limits of our world, complicate our beliefs, help us to learn about other cultures and periods of history. And I would, quite frankly, be bored if I kept reading books that were merely a reflection of my own experiences; of myself.
That’s how I feel about writing as well. What impels me as a writer is imagining someone who’s not me. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a means of understanding difference instead of merely judging it. Consider, for example, Gloria, a mother who doesn’t love her child. Because I love both my children deeply, it would be easy for me to assume that a mother like Gloria is morally deficient. The much more difficult task for a writer, as well as in our own lives, is to ask why. Why might a mother feel this way? Why might a woman like Meg be an over-protective mother? Why might a girl like Ella feel estranged from her father? The novel as a genre is one of the best art forms we have for charting the evolution of characters over time; for helping us understand the choices people make and who they might become.
Men changing themselves
AC:You offer us various negative versions of masculinity throughout the novel—a cheating husband, a patriarch at times careless and at others emotionally abusive, a superior, entitled son, a father who stares at young women at the beach…The most positive of your male characters is rather an enigma, and I don’t want to introduce any spoilers, but could you talk in general terms about where the heart of positive masculinity lies in the novel?
SM: As a feminist, and I hope as a decent human being, I abhor the systemic sexism and misogyny that continues to violate, demean or trivialise women, and to deny them justice. And yes, there are several examples in my novel of men behaving badly, with varying degrees of severity: references to rape and paedophilia; a husband’s emotional and psychological abuse of his wife; and casual, everyday sexism. But as a feminist, I also believe in the possibility of and necessity for social change. For me, this means a commitment to social activism and political writing, but it also means believing that men have to change themselves. They have to learn to be more self-reflective and self-critical, to treat women as equals, to listen to women instead of deriding or silencing them. There are two important examples in my novel of men who change for the better. And yes, to avoid spoilers, I’ll respond in general terms. One of the male characters learns humility, the other acknowledges his shame. Humility and shame—two qualities traditionally gendered ‘feminine’—and which ultimately enable the male characters to develop more honest, more expansive ways of being in the world. While my novel never loses sight of the reality of toxic masculinity, I also wanted to honour those men who are willing to be ‘feminised’—willing to become good men.
In writing a feminist novel, I also wanted to avoid the ‘blame game’ that automatically casts men as the oppressors and women as their victims. My treatment of the experience of adultery is a case in point; in my view, simply labelling a man an ‘adulterer’ does little to address the complexities of human relationships. My novel also recognises that women can be self-victimisers as well as victims. Using Meg again as an example: her investment in an ideal of maternal devotion results in smothering her daughter with ‘care’. And while she’s a good feminist who knows that a woman shouldn’t be valued for her sex appeal, Meg continues to feel anxious about her sexual desirability. This raises an important point about the nature of ideology: that it is both propositional and performative. Thus, feminism ‘proposes’ that a woman’s appearance has nothing to do with her worth. Women know this, rationally. But the images of sexually desirable women with which we’re constantly bombarded ‘perform’ on our emotions, fuel our desire to look beautiful. To compare ourselves to other women. To fear growing old. Bah, humbug, I say. When I’m able to think rationally, that is.
AC:Female friendship is a strong element of the novel. We have the adolescent girls—three firm friends, and the destabilising effect when a fourth is introduced. We have the older women, Gloria and Donna, and the younger, Meg and Hanna. And then, the cross-generational, in-law friendship of Gloria and Meg, a relationship rich with opportunities for conflict and misunderstanding, but which for me shines through as one of the most interesting and most uplifting elements of the novel. Where did this come from, Susan, and how did you go about developing this strand of the narrative?
SM:Yes, female friendships are important in my novel, as well as in my life. I wanted to show how such friendships can be emotionally and psychologically nourishing and a source of political solidarity, as well as capable of accommodating differences. And I’m so pleased, Amanda, that you particularly warmed to the intergenerational friendship between Meg and her former mother-in-law Gloria. It’s one of my favourite relationships in the novel because it involves transcending the superficialities of personality and recognising the value of character. Meg has long been irritated by Gloria’s garrulousness and her apparent vacuousness, but she comes to learn that Gloria is far more astute than she’s given her credit for; that she’s kind and thoughtful, and without a shred of self-pity. One of the most difficult sections for me to write was the ‘reconciliation scene’ between the two women. I didn’t want it to be overly sentimental or implausibly transformational; I hope I’ve avoided those pitfalls.
In developing this relationship, I drew partly on my own inclination, as a highly educated woman who values the life of the mind, to be an intellectual snob. So in this sense, Meg is like me: she has to overcome her arrogant assumptions about Gloria and recognise the woman’s essential goodness. I also had in mind Jane Austen’s novel Emma, in which the heroine is given a right royal lecture about her public humiliation of the garrulous, irritating spinster Miss Bates. Badly done, Emma! Mr Knightley declares. It was badly done, indeed! It’s the classic conflict between head and heart. Do we value intelligence more than a generous heart? Emma, like Meg, comes to understand that intellectual snobbery is both a grievous misuse of one’s intelligence and a profound moral failing.
These specifics aside, I also developed the Meg–Gloria relationship in the same way that I’ve developed all the relationships—marital, familial, platonic—in both my novels. I don’t begin with a plan; I never use a plot summary or even the rudiments of a narrative arc. I have hunches; vague outlines; a few fragments of speech; a name; an occupation. Then I begin to develop the characters, give them a story, by imagining what they might think, feel, say or do in a given situation. I make many changes over the course of many drafts until I reach what I had no idea would be the end until I arrive there. I know some novelists are meticulous planners who summarise the content of each chapter, but I can’t, nor do I wish to, work in that way. One of the reasons I love writing fiction is encountering the unexpected: characters who refuse to act in ways I’d intended; intuiting the need for a new character; even ending up writing a comic novel that I thought would be much darker.
Valuing interior space
AC: I realised when I finished reading that I didn’t have a strong sense of the time and place of the novel, other than a general idea that it was contemporary and set in Australia. Does this reflect a conscious decision on your part—a kind of de-identification—or are time and place simply subordinate to the role of characters and relationships for you as a writer (and perhaps as a reader)?
SM:A realist novel like mine needs to create some sense of time and place to make it convincing for readers. I’ve ‘signposted’ my novel’s historical context by referring in the opening section to Australia’s Mandarin-speaking prime minister (Kevin Rudd); and then, towards the end of the novel, I show Bernard’s disillusionment with the same prime minister’s lack of action on climate change. He also refers to the possibility of the country’s first female prime minister (Julia Gillard). These details allow readers to work out the novel’s time frame for themselves. I’ve also included some descriptions of suburbs (Dianella, Mt Lawley) and interior settings to provide a sense of physical location.
But the absence of a strong sense of time and place in my novel wasn’t a conscious decision. Instead, it simply reflects the kind of imagination I happen to possess. It’s auditory and empathetic rather than visual: I’m attuned to conversations and voices, and I seem to be intent on imagining what it might be like to be someone other than me. Many other writers are endowed with the same kind of imagination. Here’s Jane Austen, again! Her six completed novels rarely describe what places look like, and when they do, it’s usually in generalised terms. Her novels rarely specify the historical period in which they are set, but their depiction of the class structure, customs, social activities and conversations makes their social and historical contexts seem vividly real. While I wouldn’t for one moment presume to elevate my writing to lofty Austenian heights, I think my novelworks in the same Austenian way. It represents contemporary Perth less as a physical place and more as an atmosphere, with its own recognisable rhythms, textures and ways of life.
It’s also certainly the case that I’m more interested, as both a writer and a reader, in psychological or interior space than external space. I’m particularly drawn to the reality that people are essentially unknowable or opaque. How can we ever know, with any certainty, what someone is thinking or feeling, even when they tell us? This concept of the self is a distinctly western and relatively recent historical phenomenon, and it’s one that’s had a huge impact on both the content and mode of contemporary literature. In my novel, characters often read people’s external signs as symbols of their inner life, but they are often denied the satisfaction of ultimate revelations. I also wanted to show the capacity of my characters to be surprised by others, in ways that can be either affirming or unsettling, elating or confronting. It’s rich terrain for a novelist, offering as it does the possibility of misunderstandings, misrecognitions, conflicts—all the drama of human existence, in tragic or comic guise.
The concept of ‘unknowability’ is also enacted in my novel’s mode of narration. Instead of using an omniscient narrator—the kind who tells us precisely what’s happening in a character’s head—I’ve used four different narrative perspectives. In this way, the reader gets a kaleidoscope of views, a jostling of opinions, as characters try to work each other out. Which is, after all, what real life is like.
Language as psychological action
AC:One of the concerns in your novel is the nature and functions of language. Tell us how this interest weaves its way into Everyday Madness.
SM: As a writer focused on characters and their relationships, I’m particularly interested in language as a form of psychological action: on what people do to one another with words. Sometimes the action is destructive: Bernard, for example, uses sarcastic jibes to humiliate his wife, and perfunctory responses to her questions as a means of avoiding intimacy. But language can also be healing. In my novel, the simple, sincerely meant words ‘I’m sorry’ are, in the context in which they’re used, a plea for reconnection.
Language can also be an assertion of power, or an expression of powerlessness. Gloria, for example, a run-at-the-mouth irritation to her husband, later tells him that ‘[w]hen people don’t see you, you try to make them hear you’. Language is also a means of overcoming isolation. My novel uses Meg’s studies as a speech pathologist to show how meaningful verbal communication can create a sense of belonging, and a life-enhancing reciprocity between self and other.
I also enjoyed using a language other than English in my novel: German, which I grew up speaking. Bernard is a postwar immigrant, and his retention of some German words is both a nostalgic yearning for his childhood and a commitment to the present, as he begins teaching the language to his granddaughter Ella. It also gave me the opportunity to have a bit of fun with those unbelievably long German compound nouns. How could we not fall in love with Freundschaftsbeziehung?
But English remains my one true love. One of my early memories is my father’s purchase of a huge Webster’s Dictionary—obscenely fat, dauntingly weighty—with helpfully indented marks to show the letters of the alphabet. The size of that dictionary was an irresistible invitation to discover a multitude of words. The English language has more words than any other, partly because it has so many linguistic influences, and partly because it’s so highly connotative. How could I not be a reader? Or a writer?
AC:And finally, Susan, let’s get to the really in-depth stuff. Why do you think the world has gone crazy over flamingos over the last few years?
SM:This is astonishing to me, Amanda! Before I even conceived of my novel, with its various references to flamingos, a friend gifted me a carry bag covered with images of that very same bird. I also bought myself two flamingo treats: sturdy bookends, and a doorstopper. Maybe I have prescient powers! Since posting news of my novel’s release, I have been given flamingos in the form of congratulatory cards, a pencil-holder and a pair of socks. Now, whenever I go shopping, I see those birds on so many items: pyjamas; men’s shorts; umbrellas; lanterns; even a chardonnay called ‘The Magnificent Journey of Mimi Flamingo’! So why the current rage for flamingos? I think it’s a combination of their gracefulness, their colour—which varies from a soft, lovely pink to an intense orange—and their endearing way of tucking their heads into their necks. And maybe people are fascinated by the fact that, as one of my characters says, no one knows why flamingos stand on one leg. I might use this as the title for my next novel: No One Knows Why Flamingos Stand On One Leg. Subtitled: How years of scientific research have failed to arrive at a definitive answer, plus a raft of other puzzles and conundrums that variously inspire, intrigue or piss people off.
Susan Midalia The Art of Persuasion
Susan Midalia writes exquisite prose, and is looked up to by many as one of Australia’s leading exponents of the short story genre. She is equally well known as a teacher, editor and mentor, and I am only one of many writers who have benefited from her knowledge and generosity. She is also a friend, and a delightful human being, and I’m thrilled to feature her new book today.
The Art of Persuasion is Susan’s first novel, a work with many of the characteristics of a Susan Midalia story—compassion, wit, warmth of spirit, attentiveness to language, characters with a distinctive voice. And there are some surprises, too—a modern love story with the feel of a comedy of manners from another time, a story arc involving a political campaign in an urban Australian setting.
Here’s a little more about Susan…
Susan Midalia is the author of three short story collections, all of them shortlisted for major literary awards: A History of the Beanbag, An Unknown Sky and Feet to the Stars. She has been the judge of literary awards such as the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition. She has also been an assessor for the Literature Board of the Australia Council. She is currently a board member of writingWA and Margaret River Press, and takes great pleasure in working as a teacher for A Maze of Story, a volunteer organisation that encourages creative writing by socially disadvantaged children. Susan has lived in Perth for most of her adult life, and is blessed with a husband who works to pay the bills so she can enjoy the luxury of writing. She has two adult sons, of whom she is inordinately proud.
And here is the blurb for The Art of Persuasion…
Twenty-five-year-old Hazel is reading the classics, starting with ‘A’. It’s one way to pass the time when you’ve quit your job and lost your way. But then she has a chance encounter with an irresistible older man. When Hazel is partnered with him on a political campaign, her attraction is deepened by the strength of his convictions. Adam seems to be attracted to her too—but why is he resisting? And what does Jane Austen have to teach a young woman about life, love and literature in the 21st century?
The wonderful Michelle de Kretser has described the novel as ‘a witty and tender comedy of manners that also has political bite’. And Ryan O’Neill, winner of last year’s Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, says it’s ‘a perfect modern romance’.
Over to Susan…
2 things that inspired my book
I was impelled to write my novel after seeing the memorial to the SIEV X, on the shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. SIEV stands for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel, a term which describes, in dehumanising militaristic terms, a boat carrying more than 400 asylum seekers that was heading for Australia in 2001. When the boat capsized, 353 people drowned; four subsequent inquiries undertaken by both major political parties absolved the federal government of any responsibility for what was described, in chilling Orwellian Newspeak, as ‘A Certain Maritime Incident’. I won’t go into details here, except to say that the credibility of those inquiries has been widely disputed. The memorial to the largely forgotten SIEV X, completed in 2007 in the face of strenuous opposition from the conservative government, was the work of the Uniting Church, the writer Stephen Biddulph and hundreds of children from across Australia. It comprises 353 white poles stretching out on an incline like a wave, and many of the poles are inscribed with the name of the identified dead. Others are anonymous. On each pole there are also paintings by children of the many joyful experiences, including rainbows, flowers, kites and birds, which have been lost to the asylum seekers. It takes a long time to observe each pole; to reflect and try to take in the enormity of the experience. Seeing the memorial four years ago reduced me to tears, and has stayed with me ever since.
A second and very different impulse for writing was my love of Jane Austen’s novels, and the pleasure of teaching them. In particular, I wanted to explore what Austen’s moral concept of love—falling in love with a person whose values and conduct one admires—might mean to a young woman living in a highly sexualised contemporary culture in which what matters is surface appeal. I also wanted to model my mode of social and moral criticism on Austen’s, using wit to mock vice and folly, to entertain instead of lecturing the reader. The genre of comedy also enacts an optimistic vision of the world; and while there’s every reason these days to despair of corruption, self-interest and bigotry, it’s crucial to retain a belief in progress and the fundamental decency of people. It was a challenge to write an optimistic novel without lapsing into sentimentality or smugness; to affirm the value of kindness without being self-righteous or naïve.
2 places connected to my book
The physical setting is Perth, in 2014, and it’s primarily a political space. Based on my own experience in political door-knocking campaigns in the western suburbs, I’ve used ‘place’ to reveal the complacency, indifference, cynicism and just plain ignorance of many people I encountered. And that was in the more educated suburbs of Perth! My city also has a ‘laidback’ atmosphere and ethos; as one of the characters in my novel remarks, our low crime rate, lovely beaches and clean air make it a great place to bring up children. The ‘downside’ of this middle-class idyll is a hedonistic insularity and blindness to the suffering of others. (I’ll always remember the former Prime Minister John Howard describing his vision for Australia as ‘relaxed and comfortable’, as if Australia was a giant Ugg Boot instead of a nation committed to social justice and equality.) The Perth setting of my novel is also an attempt to contest the Sydney- and Melbourne-centric view that prevails in Australian literary culture. It’s difficult for many West Australian writers to gain traction over east: to be invited to writers’ festivals, have your work reviewed, get reasonable sales figures. Setting my novel in Perth was thus a way of insisting that West Australian writers have something of value to contribute to the national literary culture.
The other important space in my novel is psychological: what happens in the space of the mind. I’m a writer of character and consciousness who enjoys imagining what it might be like to be someone who is very different from me. I’m a woman in my sixties pretending to be 25-year-old Hazel West: a millennial who’s unemployed, aimless, mildly depressed and looking for love. (We do, however, share a sense of humour and a deeply irritating tendency to self-pity.) The Art of Persuasion is a third-person limited narration, so it was a challenge, as well as fun, to ventriloquise Hazel’s voice and evoke her state of mind and cultural milieu. I sent the unpublished manuscript to my younger son, who was twenty-seven at the time, for feedback, and he told me I had the voice and the cultural references of his generation just right. Using Hazel’s perspective was also a way of contesting the stereotype of young people as narcissistic, lazy and irresponsible. I know from my experience as a parent and teacher that there are many admirable young people who are committed to social justice and the viability of the planet, and who wish to make a useful contribution to society.
2 favourite things from my novel
Hazel is my favourite character because of her complexity: she’s both feisty and self-doubting, acerbic and tender, a young feminist pining for love, and with the capacity to learn from experience. But I’m also fond of the novel’s romantic hero, Adam. His literary antecedents come from Jane Austen: he has the moral solidity of Captain Wentworth (Persuasion), the hidden past of Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), and, like Mr Knightley from Emma, he’s considerably older than the heroine, acting as her guide or mentor. I’m interested in what makes for a ‘good’ man in the early twenty-first century; ‘good’ both in his personal life and in the wider community. Adam is also sexually attractive, but in an understated way, and I’ve used this to make fun of the hypersexualised romantic heroes in pulp fiction. I wanted to remind readers, as Austen’s novels do, that subtlety is far more erotic than blatant displays of masculine sexual prowess. Unlike Austen’s heroes, however, Adam is a widower with a five-year-old son, and it’s partly this complication that acts as an obstacle to the consummation of his relationship with Hazel. Romantic comedies rely on an obstacle to the union and the erotics of deferral: I wanted the reader to keep asking how long it would take until Adam and Hazel finally ended up together in bed!
In a favourite passage from my novel, Hazel’s lifelong friend and flat-mate Beth is ranting about women who succumb to the very ideas that reduce them to decorative objects. She and Hazel—who’s trying hard to keep up with her garrulous friend—are also slightly drunk (that was part of the fun of writing it).
Beth started waving her glass about because she’d just seen something truly disturbing, she said, an ad in the local paper, set out in huge pink font: WHAT’S THE DESIGNER VAGINA? She’d nearly toppled over when she read it, she said, all the stuff about tightening this and rejuvenating that, collagen and creams, making women feel even more ashamed of their bodies than they already did … almost spilling her wine now, denouncing all the women, thousands there were, having surgery on their bums because they wanted a perky one like Pippa Middleton’s. That kind of thing drove her nuts, she said, and who the hell was Pippa Middleton anyway? Hazel tried to explain but Beth said she already knew and that’s not why she was angry. She was angry because Pippa Middleton was only famous for having a sister who was only famous because she’d married a prince who seemed like a nice enough guy, cheering up disabled kids and all that, but that wasn’t the point, was it, about the monarchy? An accident of birth, unearned wealth and privilege and the next girl who told her they adored Kate Middleton because she was so pretty and wore such stylish clothes and had such a cute baby was in serious danger of being punched. Hazel was confused for a moment because she thought Beth wanted to punch the baby, and then she wondered aloud what they could have for dinner.
Please join Susan in celebrating the novel’s entry into the world:
Tuesday 10 April, 6.30pm Centre for Stories, 100 Aberdeen Street, Northbridge
The Art of Persuasion will be in bookshops on 1 April 2018
More at Fremantle Press Follow Susan on her website
Issue 2 of the special volume of Review of Australian Fiction featuring writers from Western Australia is out now, with wonderful new stories from established writer Susan Midalia (who also talks about her new story collection, Feet to the Stars, here) and emerging writer Josephine Clarke.
Susan’s story, ‘Imagine’, begins:
Everyone’s checking out their phones, as usual, eyes down, scrolling or texting, or eyes closed listening to their iPods. I reach into my I Survived Heart of Darkness calico bag and take out my book, feeling out of place, out of time. But then again, since no one’s actually looking at me, maybe I don’t really exist.
Josephine’s story, ‘A woman who went to town’, opens:
All that remained of him was the smell of coffee and his empty bowl in the sink. It was Sale day, and he had already driven off in his ute. Lena couldn’t help herself; she left the dishes and went outside to her garden. She’d been waiting all week for a chance to look over the roses. Her shoes darkened with the wet dew. It was delicious, the freedom.
RAF publishes two stories every two weeks, delivered in mobi (for Kindle) or ePub (for iPhone/iPad, Kobo, Nook, Readmill) format. Individual issues of RAF are $2.99. A subscription for six issues is $12.99.
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
Author of KATHLEEN O’CONNOR OF PARIS (narrative non-fiction), ELEMENTAL and THE SINKINGS (novels) and INHERITED (short story collection). looking up/looking down is an occasional blog about writing, reading and watching the world...