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The Short Story – Linda Brucesmith

Published 3rd June, 2016 in Writing

Your story, “Bedtime Story”, published in The Trouble with Flying and other stories, rests gently on the divide between children’s need for the truth, and their competing need for comfort. Is this the first time you’ve explored the reality of a child protagonist?

Isn’t that interesting… I had to go back and check. In the twenty-five or so stories I’ve written – including one in-progress novella – children appear in just over half.  I don’t set out to write about children; they just seem to step into a tale when truths need showing. I think that’s because the voices of children, and the questions they ask, are so pure. They cut to the quick of things. There’s such clarity. Such a calling of things exactly as they are, and such a seeing into the hearts of people around them. It seems to me that if a child is going to assess someone, it’s likely to be on much fairer and more compassionate grounds than the judgements sometimes handed out by adults.

I think that when you allow a child protagonist to react to an adult character’s actions in a story something wonderful happens. A third space opens somewhere between the child’s world and the adult’s world and the reader is pulled into it. It’s a thoughtful space, a feeling space which bridges the divide between adults and children. It reminds us of another way of seeing – the child’s way – and how powerful that would be if only we were able to channel all our adult knowings through it. Readers sitting in the third space created by stories working with the relationships between children and adults experience a little of the child’s-eye view. In real life, I think not enough of us do.

Thinking about it further, I’ve realised that all the children who have stepped into my stories are fundamentally good. They are straight-talking little people who invite readers to enter dusty rooms which would otherwise be locked up tight.

Competition judge Richard_Rossiter described the adult/child divide in your story as “The gap between innocence and culpability”. Are such terms so mutually exclusive, or can parents fall into both categories, do you think?

Before she died four years ago, my mother gave me the dozens of letters she had written to my father – and the dozens my father had written to her – while they were briefly separated. I’m astonished, now, to think those letters which flew between Germany and Australia were written almost fifty years ago. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read them all just yet but in those I have, Dad’s innocence shines bright as a flame. In meticulous detail, he describes the places we would eventually live – the places which hadn’t been created yet – and exactly how he would make them happen. I was amazed to realise the homes and places he talked about were just as I would one day live in them – precisely as I had lived them in the past, when I read the letter. It made the young-man-my-father very real as I read and, as a woman two decades his senior in that moment, I was able to look back via the connecting thread of the oh-so-familiar handwriting, to the child in him. All his dreaming and planning and determination. It was the first time I had understood him quite like that. The tantrums – all his little rebellions – came after he had taken a multitude of cuts in a myriad of circumstances years after that letter was written.

Adults are vulnerable too. This great wash of noise we swim through on our journey from childhood to adulthood programs us. Children, thankfully, haven’t been configured by all that swimming; tantrums come and go in a blaze of tears and time out. Perhaps adults – parents – are just grown-up children caught up in bigger issues prompting bigger and badder tantrums. Some foot-stamping is okay. Some emotion is okay. In adults and parents, though, neither is okay when it steals the tools other people need to live their own lives.    

In addition to writing realist fiction you also write speculative work. What type of subjects and environments do you explore in these stories, and how do they differ from stories such as “Bedtime Story”?

I have four short stories which have absolutely, positively, not a squidgin of magic in them. I have two or three which are set in fantasy worlds. I also have a few which were set in England’s Oxford, where ideas are everywhere.

The rest are set in Brisbane and throughout south-east Queensland, past and present. I have a special fondness for this part of the world – how could you not? Our skies are wide and blue. The light is like diamonds and the colours under this sun are as bright as can be – right now the city is filled with springtime’s blossoming jacarandas and poincianas and mango trees, with possums and nesting magpies. The Brisbane River weaves its way through it all, the Pacific and white sand beaches are just a hop away. We have our markets and our cultural life and our creative hubs and our laneways filled with curios.

And so, I’ve set stories in West End – an inner-city Brisbane suburb known for its mix of alternative, vintage and multi-cultural style – and followed the adventures of a cat which changes the fortunes of the local Latin dance academy. I’ve worked with the West End lizard – a landmark statue on Boundary Street. I have also published a story about the Byron Bay lighthouse, which decides to switch itself off after being deprived of the sight of substantial-sized ships for far too long.

Mostly, I like to take an ordinary situation – where all is as plain, as plain can be – and write in a tiny impossibility. Or to give an existing landmark a little something extra. I like to work with what is already there, then give it the kind of magic which might be there – could possibly be there if we just acknowledged the possibility, if we had the courage to view it through the eyes of a child and ask, “Why not?”

Tell me a bit about your background outside of creative writing and how it fuels your creative practice.

I have a small public relations business which I set up in 2000. Before that, I worked along the Australian east coast in corporate public relations and journalism.

I enjoy public relations because it’s about working with different forms of communication through all kinds of media – images, text, graphics, art, events – anything that will piggyback a message and carry it successfully from point A, to point B.

I love journalism because, at its best, journalistic writing is crisp and clean, robust and honest. I had a long-standing love affair with Hemingway’s work.

Public relations and journalism take practitioners behind the scenes to investigate how things work, then ask them to communicate it. My work has taken me up in helicopters and down coal mines, into prisons, backstage, through farms, factories, markets, resorts, and commercial kitchens. It’s shown me there’s significance in everything, and everything is fuel for a fine story.

Do you have a favourite story from The Trouble with Flying? What about it appeals to you?

Ruth Wyer’s “The Trouble With Flying” uses the image of the seagull anchored by the fishing line – “pecking worryingly at a knot it can never hope to work loose” – as a magnificent parallel for the central character’s situation. The metaphor was completely original and made the story unforgettable.

Linda Brucesmith’s work is forthcoming with Inkerman & Blunt (Melbourne), Tiny Owl Workshop (Brisbane), and Black Beacon Books (Brisbane). It has appeared in The Big Issue, Melbourne Books’ Award Winning Australian Writing 2014, The Review of Australian Fiction, the Margaret River Press 2014 The Trouble With Flying short story collection, Ricochet magazine, Black Beacon Books’ 2014 Subtropical Suspense anthology, Askance Publishing’s 2013 Homes anthology (Cambridge), and The Fiction Desk’s 2013 New Ghost Stories anthology (London), among others. She won the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Mornington Peninsula Prize 2013, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Aeon Awards (Ireland).

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