What draws you to write short stories, and who has influenced your writing practice of this form?
I had never written a short story until I started studying creative writing at university. Writers that influenced me included Tim O’Brien, Janet Frame, Jorge Luis Borges, and Alice Munro. O’Brien’s story, ‘The Things They Carried’ (1990), was a major influence. His capacity to convey common themes through an entire collection made a significant impression.
Initially, my motive in writing short stories wasn’t altruistic. I thought that having my short stories mentioned in competitions was a good way to get my name in front of publishers, and thereby launch my novel. Over time though, as I read more stories and wrote more of my own, I grew more attached to the precision of the story. Janet Frame can achieve so much in a few words. Borges taught me that it’s all right to write intricate stories, and Alice Munro proved the merit of rural life as setting and subject matter.
As blogger of the month for us, you discuss your journey as a writer alongside your career as an accountant, but you don’t divulge what motivates you to write—what has driven you in creative practice?
I think it’s about my right to an individuality that can’t be obtained in the collegiate atmosphere of conventional work, or even personal relationships. There is always a sacrifice, a necessary retreat so that others can represent their views. Every day, we concede. We conform. While the people on the other side of the table endure us.
Commentary and opinion are incessant. So many of us are recruiters for our causes. The personal is political. Identity is partisan, and collective. And regardless of whether you are mainstream or minority, there will be an establishment that sets the rules by which you must abide.
Fiction is a sanctuary. Being able to choose what to write, and read, is the gift that comes with the pursuit of a literary life.
What inspired your award-winning story ‘We’ll Stand In That Place’?
I was walking through the Exhibition Gardens in Melbourne. Distracted by a problem at work, I almost walked into a man who had made a noose out of his belt and had it dangling at his feet, like a cowboy’s lariat.
He said to me, ‘Let’s get this over with.’
Initially I wrote a poem about this encounter, but the poem wasn’t working. I developed the idea of the cowboy and the lariat and started to write some prose around this imagery. I introduced Baby, his loneliness and perception, and his compassion for another broken person. The cowboy on the path in the gardens had a tattoo sprouting onto his neck and hands, which I changed to a tattoo of a magnolia.
But the story had me beaten, I put it aside. One day my partner called me into the garden to observe some bugs on the strawberries. I had to kneel. I felt my too-tight jeans stretching against me and immediately decided that Baby would wear the clothes of his dead lover. I added Andy to the story, along with Baby’s determination to see beauty in all things.
You also mentioned, on the Margaret River Press blog, the difficulties you face completing a story. Having worked with Michelle Cahill, the editor of this year’s short story competition anthology, how did you find the writer-editor relationship and the process of ‘completing’ your story for publication?
Michelle was very helpful. We didn’t make a lot of changes, but her suggestions improved the story.
When I worked as an accountant, I got on well with auditors. I took the view that they wanted to help me. I have the same attitude towards editors. Once your work is out in the world, the editor and publisher are also implicated. A collaborative relationship is essential. You have every right to stick to your position, but if you challenge the experts, you need to be sure that you know more than them.
Usually, I read slowly through the questions and suggestions posed by the editor. Then I go for a walk, think, read again, leave it for a day or two, and then respond. Overall, I find the editing process rewarding. It also helps persuade me that the story is complete.
We have developed an interesting cultural understanding of what success is—that it involves having an adequate amount of money, where adequate means more than adequate. A career as a writer isn’t generally perceived as a means of achieving success in that sense, but many feel driven to pursue it regardless. What advice would you offer writers who aren’t in a socioeconomic position to pursue their dreams in the manner that their counterparts from affluent middle-class families are?
Opportunities for writers in this country favour people from urban, middle-class professional backgrounds. Which is a bit like the tax rules. Because urban, middle-class professionals—the umps—make the rules. And they cheat.
I would like to give a positive answer to the question about how writers who aren’t in a socioeconomic position to pursue their dreams compete with their counterparts from affluent middle-class families. I grew up in a working-poor family of nine children. I could give the patronising answer: follow my path, make money and write your stories when you’re financially secure. But it was easier for me; I had a champion: I had Whitlam, and the path he carved for me. Two free degrees: A Bachelor of Business and a Bachelor of Arts. I had a job in the public service, and access to part-time study leave. That world is gone.
Somehow, you need to find the time and drive to write your stories. For thirty years, I didn’t write much. I lost the stories I might have written. So I don’t recommend deferring your art until you’ve got the security and time you think you’ll need. Because you might never reach that point. And the price: lost stories, is too high.
The umps and their children will always have more money and more opportunity. But the outsiders are the ones with the stories. And these stories need to be written.
Kit Scriven has been published in Island and short story anthologies. He won the Olga Master Short Story Award in 2016 and 2017, and the SALA Short Story Prize in 2016. He has been highly commended or shortlisted in several other short story competitions. Kit’s story ‘We’ll Stand in that Place’ won the 2019 Margaret River short story competition.