This week I’m chatting to Emily Paull, author of the short story collection Well- behaved Women. This interview took place over email, but you might like to imagine us in a buzzing library on a Tuesday morning in the not-too-distant future: the Librarian’s Pick of the Week table resplendent, readers falling hungrily onto books they’ve had reserved for weeks, someone snoring on a beanbag in a corner, and Baby Rhyme Time going off in the kids’ area. Bliss!
ZD: The title of this book is Well-behaved Women, and you expand on this theme in many ways, such as a free-driving mother, a thwarted actress, a jealous aspiring writer and a grandmother whose younger self is still very much present. Did you find that having an overarching theme of women and the cultural expectation that we ‘behave ourselves’ made it easier to focus as you wrote the stories?
EP: I actually didn’t consciously choose the theme. These stories were written over the course of ten years, from when I was an undergraduate studying creative writing through to last year. It was only when I started thinking of my body of work as something that could be turned into a collection that I realised much of what I’d written up to that point mused on questions about what it meant to be a woman in Australia (or the world) today, and what expectations I noticed were placed on womankind. Louise Allan called me a ‘gentle feminist’ in her launch speech for this work and I really loved it, so I’m adopting it as part of my ethos. If I think more deeply about this, it speaks to me about the evolution of feminism over time, that we have got to a point now where my generation can benefit from the thoughts and actions of those who have come before us, so that we grow up with some of the central tenets coming naturally to us. As they should!
Like many, if not most, fiction writers you have other paid work—in your case as a librarian—and I wondered if having a book-related career alongside writing fiction makes it easier or harder for you to write?
It makes it easier to write in that it takes the pressure off, but it makes it harder in the sense that I don’t have as much time. I think if writing was my sole source of income, I’d probably feel more pressure to get everything perfect, and to be selling lots of books, rather than just enjoying the process, because that is the kind of person that I am. But I’ve also struggled in the past with comparing myself to others—I have some very successful friends who really inspire me, and there were a few times before the book was published when I got really down on myself for choosing a creative path because I felt like I was the person in my circle of friends who was the ‘failure.’ This was when I worked in retail. But lately, I’ve gained a new perspective on this too—with everything happening in the world, it’s the people working in shops and making coffee and takeaway meals who are keeping my world going. I don’t think I’ll ever think about retail and hospitality work the same way again.
I’ve gone off on a tangent though! I was in bookshops before I was in the library world, and for me books and reading are so central to who I am that I was never going to be satisfied doing anything else. I’m not a librarian yet, I have about a year to go until I am qualified, and I’d love to work in collection development when I do. I love seeing the way that books bring joy to people’s lives—with the libraries all closed at the moment due to the pandemic, it’s been really interesting to see the response from the public, some of whom seem to be realising just how much libraries matter to them all over again.
Having another source of employment gives me a window to the world that I wouldn’t have if I was just in my office all day every day writing stories. I hope it’s going to keep my work grounded and allow me to write about different things over time.
What is your short story writing process?
I keep a journal and write in it regularly, though not every day. Short stories usually come to me in a burst of information, but that burst usually will bring together two or three concepts I may have been nutting out for a while. I have to write the short story all in one sitting or I never finish it. If it can’t sustain my interest for the length of a writing session, why should anyone read it? Then I put it aside and workshop it later. I’m not in a writing group that swaps work at the moment, but I do swap short stories with my friend Belinda Hermawan from time to time—she’s my ideal reader for my short fiction, and we started Write Nights together!
Which short stories and writers do you particularly love or consider your key sources of inspiration?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—when I grow up, I want to be Margaret Atwood.
I also love the three Kates—Atkinson, Forsyth and Morton.
I loved the story about the man who moves to Paris to write, but finds himself unable to because too much has already been written about that city. It felt very familiar, coming from Perth, that sense of always longing for somewhere more ‘literary.’ Yet Perth also has a vibrant writing community and your writing picks up all kinds of unique local details, such as jacarandas ‘dousing the footpaths in fragrant blossom’ and getting lost while driving down south—can you talk a bit about how Perth in particular inspires you?
Just as an aside, I’ve recently learned that there is a name for what that character, Michael, experiences in Paris—Paris Syndrome! Where the place never lives up to the idea most people have of it in their head.
I don’t know why Perth inspires me so much, but perhaps it’s because I’ve lived here my whole life and have so many good memories. I get a bit defensive, too, when people start talking about Perth being boring, because I am team Perth all the way. I love that we are kind of the underdog, the West versus the rest! Plus we have beautiful weather all the time, and so much variation in scenery, whether you’re in the bush or at the beach or in the suburbs. The place has a character, I think I’ve just been noticing it more through my writing.
Some of these stories have been published in journals such as Westerly and appeared in the Margaret River Press short story anthologies and other places. Do you have any tips for managing submissions and getting your work to the top of the pile?
There are no shortcuts. Only hard work. The more places you send work to, the more chance you have that it will be published.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel about a woman whose husband is killed at the Somme during the First World War, who turns her hand to writing picture books and bush fairy tales and becomes her own person instead of just someone’s wife.
And what are you reading now?
Three things: Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch, The Heart goes Last by Margaret Atwood and Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery.
Zoe Deleuil is a writer from Perth, currently living in Berlin. In 2018 she was shortlisted for our short story competition and published in the anthology, Pigface and Other Stories. Her debut novel, The Night Village, will be published by Fremantle Press in 2021.
Emily Paull is a former-bookseller and future-librarian from Perth who writes short stories and historical fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Westerly journal. When she’s not writing, she can often be found with her nose in a book. Well-behaved Women is her debut collection of short stories.