Your story, ‘Walking the Dog’, published in The Trouble With Flying and other stories skillfully blends a personal tale of loss with greater meditation on compassion, duty and the caring of the needy. And yet if anything the story seems to posit that we are all, in some way, needy of such compassion. Was this your intention with the story, and how did it develop over time?
‘Walking the Dog’ was written after I’d returned from spending a week or so with my parents, who are elderly. At the same time I’d been reading Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, a novel that affected me emotionally and mentally, and the narrator’s voice was still in my head. When I got home to Australia – my parents live in South Africa – I wanted to write a story using a similar voice, and this piece, based on my father and where he lives, came out, needing little redrafting. So, yes, it reflects my feelings of compassion for the elderly, and also for the people who care for the elderly. But to be honest I didn’t set out to write the story with that intention; I think these things work away in your subconscious.
As people, are we as much defined by those we’ve loved as those that are still with us, do you think? I think specifically ‘Walking the Dog’, in which neither father or daughter are able to talk meaningfully about Peggy.
Oh, definitely. The people we’ve loved and lost are always with us, whether alive or dead. And some people are able to discuss the ones who’ve gone quite easily; other people have a lot of trouble. My father, as it happens, is presently in Frail Care in a retirement village, talking without too much difficulty about his expected-at-any-moment death. He has been going downhill for some time, and I think it is therefore easier to discuss his death because we’ve had a long time to get used to the idea of his not being here. Peggy, in the story, left the protagonist and his daughter without that opportunity.
You’ve also won a number of short story prizes over the years. How have these prizes, and your early publications, such as ‘Walking the Dog’, helped develop your career as a writer?
I haven’t really won a lot of short story prizes – I’ve won two, and come second in a third – but those results have given me inspiration and validation and there’s no doubt it helps to have these things on your C.V. I’d been writing for over fifteen years when I won the Hal Porter Short Story Award back in 2009. Winning that inspired me to go on, but what really developed my writing career was going back to university as a mature-age student, and doing a degree in creative and professional writing. Up until then I’d been struggling with attaining any success. Going to uni seemed to be the impetus I needed to push myself further. And the Creative Industries teaching staff at the Queensland University of Technology are wonderful: inspiring, supportive, and encouraging. I am back there now, doing a Master’s research degree in Gothic Literature.
How important is a sense of community when it comes to writing? How exactly does it help, given most of one’s writing is done as a solitary pursuit?
Very important! It is less lonely if you have other writers to share your ups and downs with, to commiserate with when a whole day has gone by and you haven’t managed to get a single word on the page. It’s not that other writers make the writing easier – you still have to get the story down – but it makes it more companionable, less solitary. A while ago my writing friend Andrea Baldwin and I interviewed several writers for an article about writing buddies for WQ, and we found that nearly every writer – published or unpublished – has a writing buddy (or buddies) in the wings. I have several. I have a group of writers on Facebook with whom I talk writing and swap drafts, and I have two close writing friends, and then another two or three I can call on when I need to.
Which Australian short story authors have impressed you in recent times? What is it about their short fiction that speaks to you?
I recently read The Big Issue 2015 Fiction Edition pretty much cover-to-cover, because I’m finally (and proudly) at a stage where I have writing friends who are regularly being published and I like to keep up with what they’re writing. And of course then I find new voices that thrill me. This time it was Mark Smith and his story ‘Old Man’s Country’, which was a double delight because I consequently discovered that Mark and I had both been published in The Trouble with Flying and Other Stories.
The first Australian short story I ever read was David Malouf’s The Empty Lunch-tin, a haunting story I’ve never forgotten, partly because it speaks of ‘the other’ and coming from South Africa as I did when apartheid still ruled, and being a migrant, I identified with this. A South African friend once told me that she didn’t like Australian fiction because it was too coarse, too blunt, and had no prettiness, but these are the very things that appeal to me about Australian writing. In my opinion, more often than not the writing is a direct reflection of the landscape.
At the moment, most of my reading time is taken up with my degree, and any spare time I have is spent reading the newspaper and doing the crossword! I also love taking photographs and I spend a bit of time doing that, and mucking about with Instagram. I like to think of my pictures as little short stories without words.
Kathy George has a BFA in creative writing and was the winner of the Queensland University of Technology Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize in 2011. Two of her short stories have been published in Margaret River Press collections. Her Gothic manuscript Sargasso was selected for the QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program in 2013, and she was recently short-listed for the Emerging Writer/Unpublished Manuscript Award in the 2015 Queensland Literary Awards. She blogs at email@example.com and has an Instagram account at @georgiakatt.