Can you tell us a little about what you’ve been up to since your short story was published in the collection Pigface and Other Stories?
My digital novel Little Emperor Syndrome was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards’ QUT Digital Literature Prize (www.qldliteraryawards.org.au/about?a=408403#digital), the outcome of which will be announced in late October. In August, I attended the Electronic Literature Organisation’s conference at Université du Québec à Montréal in Canada, where I presented a paper on J.R. Carpenter’s web-based work The Gathering Cloud (2016). I also spent some time in rural Oaxaca eating tlayudas, sipping—or as the Mexicans say, besando or ‘kissing’—mezcal, and scribbling the outline of what I hope will become another novel(la). I just had a short story, ‘Camel F’, published in Westerly: SA (https://westerlymag.com.au/issues/westerly-sa/), and have another, ‘Gross National Happiness’, that will be released through Verity La shortly. I’m also currently in the final stages of completing my doctoral thesis on Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988).
Your short story ‘Living with Walruses’ could be described as ‘out of the ordinary’. Where did you draw your inspiration from for that particular short story and what influences your writing in general?
For this story, I began with the image of thousands of walruses on an Australian beach. I don’t know where this image came from, but for some reason it seemed charged with meaning and refused to leave. The walruses became the centre around which the story crystallised. More and more, I’m inclined to trust the seductiveness of such entry points: faith in inner visions. Italo Calvino uses the word icastic (an obsolete word in English, meaning ‘figurative’) to describe a literary visibility that prevents the reader’s inner vision from falling into ‘confused, ephemeral daydreams’. So you could say I have faith in icastic visions.
In terms of developing the story, I was uncertain as to what the town of Exmouth’s ‘ordinary’ response to this ‘out of the ordinary’ predicament would be. This uncertainty made the narrative potentially discomforting, and therefore worth writing. I’m inspired by treating the strange as ordinary, and the ordinary as strange. In this sense, I see little difference between writers of the fantastic and writers of realism. Anton Chekhov is as magical as Hans Christian Andersen; Gabriel García Márquez is as real as Émile Zola.
Have you noticed certain threads reoccurring in your work, or do you gravitate towards exploring particular types of characters?
The same way I dislike people who say they’re attracted to a romantic ‘type’, I dislike the idea of ‘types’ of characters. I doubt those who believe in unsurprising, paint-by-numbers romance write (or read) engaging fiction. As a writer (and, I suppose, as a romantic) I still clutch to a classical belief that new characters can be discovered: either fully formed in one’s own life (such was the case with a tour guide I met in North Korea who formed the basis for a character in my Little Emperor Syndrome) or conjured and assembled from bits and pieces of experience, imagination and research (as was the case with the characters in ‘Living with Walruses’).
If there are reoccurring threads in my writing, they’re unconscious. I suppose there is an eschatological dread that tends to crop up. Whether this is a result of a tendency to go to extremes, or the looming threat of environmental/economic destruction, or just a symptom of the current age, I’m not certain. But it does keep coming up.
What draws you to the short story form in particular?
In Jonathan Franzen’s 563-page Purity (2015), writer Charles Blenheim attempts to write the ‘big book’. The narrator notes:
Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.
Of contemporary publishing, I find this both accurate and troubling. I hate the persisting belief that the short story or novella is somehow inferior to the novel, that Chekhov is somehow less than Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, or that The Death of Ivan Ilyich is somehow less than War and Peace. Last year everyone thought it strange when Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story Cat Person became a viral success. But what’s strange is that this doesn’t happen more often. A good short story lightens the density of contemporary life. It’s a focal point in an increasingly blurred reality. In the contemporary age of too much—too many issues to examine, too many associations to make, too many discordant voices to represent, too many competing media and mediums, too many potential readers and readings, too many conflicting ideas and ideologies—the short story is the most appropriate form to adopt.
Who are some of your favourite short story writers?
Here are some of my favourite works of short(er) fiction: Heinrich von Kleist’s The Earthquake in Chile (1807); Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat (or, as Nabokov insists it be translated, The Carrick) (1842); Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853); Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Crocodile (1865); Anton Chekhov’s Kashtanka (1887); Virginia Woolf’s An Unwritten Novel (1920); Gabriel García Márquez’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (1955); Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (1968); Julio Cortázar’s Axolotl (1968); Saul Bellow’s A Silver Dish (1978); Muriel Spark’s The Hanging Judge (1994); David Foster Wallace’s Good Old Neon (2001); Maria Takolander’s A Roānkin philosophy of poetry (2010); Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia (2013); and Roanna Gonsalves’ Curry Muncher 2.0 (2017).
David Thomas Henry Wright will be sharing readings from the Margaret River Press Short Story Collection on Saturday 20 October from 3 to 3.30 pm at the Australian Short Story Festival.
David Thomas Henry Wright was shortlisted the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, Viva La Novella Award, Overland Short Story Prize, and twice for the Queensland Literary Awards’ Digital Literature Prize. He has been published in Southerly, Westerly, Seizure, Verity La, Electronic Book Review and MATLIT. He has a Master’s from The University of Edinburgh and lectured at China’s top university, Tsinghua, where he developed the school’s course in Australian Literature. He is an Electronic Literature Organisation member and presented at the ELO 2017 Conference in Porto and the 2018 Conference in Montréal. He is currently a PhD candidate at Murdoch University.