What was it like to be on the other side of the writing process and to edit the collection of short stories for the Margaret River Short Story Competition?
I’ve done a bit of editing work before; I was one of the fiction editors for the Melbourne literary journal Etchings a few years ago. While I don’t think an editor has to be a creative writer, I do think it helps. I’ve had my own work edited, and I know what the process feels like and try to bear this in mind when editing another writer’s work. An editor and a writer have the same goal in mind: to make a piece of writing as good as it possibly can be. The editor still has to be careful not to change the story into one they would have written, but to help the writer fully realise the potential of the story they have written. It is never pleasant when an editing relationship breaks down. Fortunately, the editing process for the anthology was entirely positive. All the writers were very open to edits, while also having a clear sense of what their story was, which made editing the collection a pleasure.
Did you learn anything from the editing process that you’ll apply to your own writing?
I hope when I am being edited that I am always as open to possibilities as the writers in the anthology. In terms of my own writing, I think the process was just a reminder to me of how a story can always be improved and the importance to any writer of engaging fully with the editing process.
You mentioned in the introduction of ‘Pigface’ that your selection process involved multiple readings of the short stories. What do you think are the elements that give a short story longevity?
That’s a difficult question. There are many fantastic, little read short stories (Kipling’s for example), so luck and changing tastes always have their part to play. But for me a memorable story is one that has a sense of energy, and a vividness in characterisation, setting and style. It’s one where there isn’t a wasted word or a wasted line, and all the parts come together perfectly – and yet somehow the story is more than the sum of its parts. I suppose the short answer is, if I knew what gave a short story longevity, I wouldn’t tell you; I’d keep the secret for myself and write only brilliant short stories!
There are recurring motifs woven throughout the individual short stories. Did you deliberately seek out common themes when selecting the short list?
While it was fascinating to see themes emerge, entwine and overlap in the shortlist, I didn’t actively seek out any themes. I think common themes inevitably arise in any anthology, whether by their presence or their absence. What is especially interesting when reading an anthology is seeing how different writers deal with similar themes.
Tell us a little about you chose ‘Pigface’ as the winning entry, and why it stood out for you as a short story.
As soon as I read it, I knew that ‘Pigface’ would be the story to beat. And though there were many excellent stories in the anthology, that feeling remained after I had read every story in the longlist. The confident narrative voice immediately drew me in, as did the sharp characterisation, and the vividly evoked setting. ‘Pigface’ does what the best short stories do: it lifts the reader up with the first page, and sets them down with the last, so smoothly that they don’t notice the jolt. It is beautifully written, and brilliantly observed.
There are some humorous, even bizarre, stories in the collection. Do you think there has been a revival of sorts in absurd, weird and whacky stories being published?
I think there definitely has been a revival in humorous, absurd or satirical short stories. Two examples of such collections are Julie Koh’s ‘Portable Curiosities’ and Patrick Lenton’s ‘A Man Made Entirely of Bats’, which are simultaneously hilarious and thought-provoking. There seems to be more appetite for stories that are out of the ordinary in style, theme or form from both publishers and readers. I think this can only be a good thing. I don’t think that every short story published should make you laugh, but when no stories are published that make you laugh (as it has sometimes felt in Australia) then there is something wrong.
What struck you the most about the submissions for the short story competition? What are your thoughts on the short story scene in Australia?
Having judged the MRP short story competition, and some other competitions in the past, I am always surprised and delighted at the sheer number of people who are writing short fiction. It is very encouraging to see that the form is alive and well for writers, and hopefully for readers also. I think the current short story scene is incredibly vibrant and becoming increasingly diverse, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings for the form in Australia.
Last, tell us, what’s next on the cards for Ryan O’Neill?
My next book, to be released in July, is called ‘The Drover’s Wives’. The title is a play on words of Henry Lawson’s classic Australian short story, ‘The Drover’s Wife‘. In my book, I retell Lawson’s story in 99 different ways, from a cartoon strip, to a cryptic crossword, to a movie review.
Ryan O’Neill is the editor of the 2018 Margaret River Short Story collection Pigface and Other Stories. He has had his short stories appear in numerous journals and anthologies. His books include The Weight of a Human Heart and Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Writers, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award and won the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. Follow him on Twitter @kanganoulipo1