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The Short Story – Ali Jarvey

Published 30th June, 2016 in Writing

Your story, ‘Relic’, published in The Lost Boy and other stories, has a brutality in its language that stands out from the other more lyrical stories in the collection. Was this intentional, and do you have effective strategies when it comes to pairing language with subject matter in your own work?

I struggled with the brutality of Minny’s experience, namely how to convey it with the respect and empathy it deserved. Initially she had flashbacks in which Coop was more of a character, than the past-tense-presence he eventually became. I couldn’t hold onto these memories of Minny’s. I started playing with language; trying to find more of a balance between the violent reality of her situation, and the quiet joy you sometimes experience at points in your life when you realise you’ve fallen into safe hands.

In terms of strategy, I often relied on profanity and blunt language to give passages a sharp edge, like the moment when the narrator ghosts through early in the story when describing the “nasty” apartment, or when Minny lets out her “nonsensical mantra”, which is a curse on Coop, and really the first and last moment of pure contempt she shows for him in ‘Relic’. The language, then, was quite intentional – matching hard words to hard content.

Still, I wanted curb the dark tenor of the piece with something more peaceful. Sentimental even. Writing this proved so much more difficult than imparting a quick, cathartic curse, but I believe I found it in Harry’s silent keening for his broken daughter, in the matriarchal dry wit of Madge, and in Minny’s respite by the creek with her boys under the giant red gum.

Where there any particular authors or short story writers that helped you discover your own style? Those that spoke to you or to the way that you see the world?

‘Relic’ started off as an escape from the novel I was writing. I jumped in, sweated through ten to fifteen drafts, and started to feel almost content. That was when the real work began.

I was lucky enough to workshop ‘Relic’ with my PhD writing group and one of my mentors, Dr Robyn Mundy. Back then there was a chaos to the story, which mirrored those early struggles with character and memory. Robyn helped me concentrate on the breadth of the narrative. To realise that it could share the same complex ambition that drives a novel, but needed to be delivered in a morsel. Her advice reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s quote: “A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” This need for brevity and soul spoke to me.

You’re a PhD student at Edith Cowan University in Bunbury, Western Australia. What’s the experience of studying regionally been like? Is there a potential for greater connectivity in regional spaces than in urban environments, do you think?

I remember wanting to study regionally because it gave me a way to stay connected with my South West roots. This was a difficult aspiration to have in my early 20s, when many people my age were moving to the city or interstate or overseas. I’d tried the latter, but returned home to study writing and art at ECU. For me, it was about connection. About having constant creative access to the people and natural environments I knew by heart.

While these well-established connections never failed, my studies built new ones. It started slow, with the transformation of my childhood love of reading and art into the actual practice of it. But it picked up pace as I connected with artists and authors from across Australia, became part of a writing group, journeyed north to the Pilbara to explore where my story began, and even travelled to the Eastern States to nerd-out with research students who shared a similar hunger for words.

There’s undoubtedly a great opportunity for connectivity within regional spaces. Whether or not that is greater than in urban environments is difficult for me to judge. There is, however, something tantalising about regional study hubs like Bunbury, which can so easily become the point around which creativity and scholarship naturally gather and disperse.

You’re also working on a novel at present. Tell us more about that and its current stage of development.

I grew up with books like Melina Marchetta’s On the Jellico Road and Markus Zusak’s The Messenger. I loved how the characters in them seemed to skim the surface of an adult-knowing, but always remained accessible. They were never too mature or too juvenile. My novel evolved out this fondness, alongside a keener fascination with belonging and place.  It’s a young adult realist novel that follows the story of 18-year-old Nev Isles, who works at her gran’s art retreat in the Perth hills. Nev loves living and working there, but is unable to reconcile certain differences she has with her mum. She eventually runs away, set for her dad’s place in the Pilbara. Along the way she is forced to relive the roads she used to adore when she was little, back when she had nothing but love for her nomadic and spirited mum.

I feel like the story is nearing the slow crawl towards completion. I’m learning to leave it be, much to the delight of my supervisor, Dr Donna Mazza. She keeps me grounded. Among the many things she’s taught me over the years is that in choosing a life that hinges on a passion for storytelling, I can’t always control what bleeds out.

Do you have a favourite story in The Lost Boy and Other Stories, other than your own? What about it resonates with or speaks to you?

I would have to say Carol McDowall’s ‘Bringing Home the Ashes’. It’s not often that you come across young adult short fiction. To find one that’s able to maintain that vulnerable, yet humorous teenage voice, within such a short space, is a gift.

And I really enjoyed ‘Ash Miss’ by Claire Aman. There’s a quiet carriage to the story and you’re at the end before you know it. It’s one of those stories where you finish and get lost in a sweet phase, where bits and pieces bubble into your mind. You know you need more. This was my experience with Aman’s story – and many others in the collection. I wish I knew more about Neila, young Jayden and the cinnamon-grey budgerigar.

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