Alumni Feature March 2016

Alumni Interview: Michelle Michau-Crawford

Interviewed by Diana Jenkins, Alumni Features Editor

Michaelle Michelle-Crawford Perth-based Alumna Michelle Michau-Crawford joins us in the Alumni Interview Suite this month, to share how one prize-winning short story became the basis of her debut collection. Talking to Michelle has been a wonderful reminder that Varuna’s community encompasses talented writers from all over this vast country of ours, so I’d like to extend a particularly warm welcome this month to all our Varuna Alumni and readers from Western Australia and other distant states and territories. It’s great having you with us.

 

 


 

DJ: Michelle, your debut collection is a series of interlinked short stories told across three generations of one family. Did you set this creative brief for yourself from the outset, or did you begin by writing one story, then another, until you sat back and thought, ‘Hang on…’?

Leaving Elvis cover MM-C: I completed the short story ‘Leaving Elvis’ and felt that I was not finished with it, but wasn’t sure quite how I would proceed. After sending the story off for the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize - the competition that really got the ball rolling for me – I began toying with the idea of linked stories. Earlier stories I began to write – and set aside as the collection took form – include stories told from the point of view of a boy who leaves town; a school-teacher; the Matron of the hospital; a woman in France who’d had a relationship with Len’s father in the first World War, and of Olive’s school friend, Hazel.

At some point I had that ‘Hang on…’ moment and realised that I was moving towards writing a closely linked number of family stories that spoke directly to the others stories in the collection. I culled those that were not told by family members or went off on tangents and continued with that focus.

Six Bedrooms cover DJ: I feel like the single-author short story collection is enjoying a long moment in the sun, a kind of niche trend that in Australia might arguably be dated to Nam Le’s The Boat in 2008, continuing through to Varuna’s Tegan Bennett Daylight/’s acclaimed Six Bedrooms last year. What particularly attracts you to the short form?

MM-C: Interesting. I always feel I’m a bit daggy and out of touch with trends. I’m the person who still wears flares when everyone else has moved onto skinny jeans. But maybe I’m now actually on-trend for once in my life!

diorama It is not easy to make a neat précis of what attracts me to the short form, because in all honesty, many of the same things that attract me to a story in any form attract me to the short story. Sometimes, though, the short story is the perfect form to condense a moment or experience and examine it deeply. I think of short stories as complex little systems, a bit like those dioramas we used to make in old shoeboxes in school, of small, self-contained moments of science or social history where an entire imagined world exists in the space of that little box. Those dioramas exist as both carefully developed systems and magical fantastical places of the imagination.

Five Acre Virgin cover I was of course aware that fewer single author collections were being published in Australia particularly in the early 2000s. But the Australian single-author works I read and reread throughout the decade prior to publication of Nam Le’s collection seem timeless, and I never really felt there had been a noticeable absence of new short fiction works by Australian writers. Writers such as Gillian Mears, Gail Jones, Joan London, Thea Astley, Tim Winton, Elizabeth Jolley, Deborah Robertson and Kate Grenville, to name just a few, were publishing fabulous single-author collections in Australia from the 1970s to early 2000s, and I read and reread them all (and still do).

Retrospectively, I am able to recognise that one of the things that drew me to those short stories at that time was that they had an intensity and complexity that made me contemplate the stories deeply. I was busy throughout those years raising a young family and often read in short grabs. The short story allowed me to read deeply, go away and contemplate the story as I went about the rest of life, and return when I was able to for more intense reading.

DJ: The idea of related stories is always fascinating to me, not least because at some point, you’ve made a deliberate choice not to turn these interwoven threads and substantial word count into a novel. What can you tell us about that part of your thinking and process? Why do you think presenting the overarching story as a series of discrete short stories works best?

MM-C: For this particular collection I was interested in part in exploring silences: the gaps in understanding between what is known and not known, and the notion of a family life fragmented by a layering of secrets. I wanted to explore separate but interconnected journeys following an incident. Once I got underway, it became impossible to ignore the fact that life is comprised of a series of incidents that don’t always feel hugely significant in the moments they are being experienced. I wanted, at least early in the process, to give those silences, gaps and secrets around the various incidents their own distinct spaces.

DJ: I’ve just completed the Faber Academy’s Short Story Masterclass with the American writer and academic Robin Hemley, who’s also been a guest speaker at Varuna. I find short stories very challenging to write and have never had one accepted for publication (though I’ve had a couple of near misses, the frustration of which I’ve documented in previous features). Can you share any practical tips you’ve picked up along the way?

MM-C: I’m not sure I’m a good person to ask about this, but I’ll have a go. I try to ignore everything I have ever read or learned about the art and/or craft of writing short stories and just get on with doing what feels right at the time. I tend not to write ‘to’ a competition or publication. I write first then worry about making sense later (for the book I played tricks on myself, told myself I was ‘just writing’ until I moved past the uncertain formless stage). I write about a gazillion drafts of every story to reach some kind of understanding of where I’m going; even then it often ends up being something other than I thought. I rewrite umpteen times.

Towards the end of the drafting process, I try to distil the essence down to around nine words (an old trick from a playwriting workshop I did many years ago). With each review, I ask if each page is adding to that distillation of the story, then each paragraph, each sentence and word. I cut much more that I keep. I discard more writing than I complete.

DJ: See? That’s really helpful. There’s some very practical advice embedded in that process, Michelle. Now, ‘Leaving Elvis’ won the prestigious ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize in 2013 and lends your collection its title. Why that story?

MM-C: I did play around with other titles for the collection, but while working on it affectionately referred to it as ‘The Elvis Thing’ and actually quite liked that name by the time I was nearly done.

That winning story was in effect the ‘core’ from which I developed the entire collection. I worked outwardly from it and ultimately it seemed the most obvious choice. Also, at one point (I’m not sure how it stands now) I was informed that ‘Leaving Elvis’ was the second most downloaded work on the entire ABR website, so from a marketing perspective I guess it was a logical choice.

DJ: My husband hates it when I enter stories in competitions, he thinks they’re a waste of time, so how significant was it for you – developmentally, psychologically, financially – winning a major national prize for that story?

MM-C: I can understand your husband’s view. There have certainly been times over the past 15-odd years where I’ve felt similarly. I maintain a healthy scepticism; there are some competitions that do seem to serve little function other than to line the coffers of the organising body. I don’t enter many, and when I do I research them very carefully and ask myself if I think my writing will benefit, should my work happen to be recognised.

I have always maintained that if I am going to pour my heart and soul into writing, then I will be selective about where the finished work goes for consideration. Maybe I am a little too precious, as I truly don’t send much out. I haven’t entered a competition since I won the Jolley, though may do again if I feel I have the right story ready at the right time. There is no need at the moment, thanks in no small part to the flow on effects of the experience.

Despite all we know about competitions being subjective and the chances of recognition being slim and so on and so forth, the fact is winning was a significant experience for me developmentally and psychologically. I hadn’t published anything since 2006, when I had a poem published in Westerly Journal. I recall a moment when I realised that I wasn’t writing and felt like a fraud. I decided there and then that I had to find a way to reclaim that passion for writing, or find something else to do with my life (and so far nothing else had really been a good fit). Revisiting the short story I’d tinkered with over a number of years, falling back in love with writing by reworking that story over a couple of months, and deciding to send it off was part of a series of life-changing events.

ABR cover Paris I was delighted to be long-listed, I felt that it was enough to have my writing recognised amongst all those other entries. I was obviously over the moon at being shortlisted, and knew that whatever the outcome I would be published in Australian Book Review. As a subscriber and reader of many of the works reviewed in ABR, that was as good as it got for me. The shortlisting was more than enough to remind me to keep chugging along and believing that I really was doing what I was meant to be doing with my life. Financially, well, I thought about the fact that $5000 first prize could buy me X months of writing time and I’d feel like a real writer at last. But I decided to be frivolous, as winning such a competition would probably occur once in my lifetime. The money took me to Paris, where I fulfilled a fantasy by wandering aimlessly about with a notebook while looking suitably writerly.

DJ: What an excellent idea. If ‘Leaving Elvis’ was the start of it all, how did you go about creating the main characters in this collection and how did you decide upon their individual triumphs and sorrows?

MM-C: I’m quite interested in the period of late childhood and early adolescence, where the choices and mistakes the young make, when they really are too inexperienced to be held entirely accountable for their actions, seem huge and life-changing. That was my starting point.

girl In my own life those years were tough, and I drew from the emotional traces that remain within me to imagine a young, socially isolated teenage girl being raised by her grandmother in a new environment, ending up in a position that really did lead to a huge and life-changing experience. How would she deal with it? How would those around her deal with it? That led to all the other more obvious questions: Where is her mother? Her father? Where do they live? Why did they have to move house? What about all the other big events that shape the other lives? How do they impact upon the individual and family? How does it impact upon the present? … Essentially I was following a question trail and the characters and their individual triumphs and sorrows evolved from that process.

DJ: I’m interested in the chronology of the collection and how you dealt with the overall shape of the book as the stories came together. How did you approach the business of order?

MM-C: I wrote the stories out of order as the stories came to me, sometimes with two or more on the go at once, and until I had the collection close to complete didn’t allow myself to overthink the structural details. I simply kept writing until I felt I had the bare bones of a collection. I found this to be the only way I could keep the flow.

I played around with various options: all Louise’s stories together, followed by those of the other family members; Leaving Elvis first/last; reverse chronological order of main events and so on. Once I made the decision to arrange them in the order I chose, I began reworking and tweaking details where necessary. Through that process, several new ideas came knocking. I wrote several more stories and for a while did a two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance until I was ready to send it to the publisher.

DJ: I always wonder this about people who write enough short stories to compile a collection: do you develop a rhythm and a kind of inner ear once you’re on a roll? Does it get easier the more you do it – especially in this case where the stories do speak to each other – or does each story present its own agonies and challenges?

MM-C: I think that with this particular project I did develop a rhythm, but it took a while. I knew that these stories had to speak to each other, though originally I anticipated more tenuous links. Each story presented its own challenges. I wanted them to be considered as stand-alone stories first, and as part of a cohesive, overarching narrative second.

As the project developed, it grew more complex and challenging. In the first story I wrote, I had already built an imaginary world spanning 30-odd years. I knew that story would somehow inform the collection, but wasn’t sure how. Initially I had to consider each story on its own terms and write it as though it stood alone. But as the collection developed, the original world I had imagined kept expanding and shifting and new stuff kept appearing. I was constantly revisiting another story (or stories) to change details. When writing one short story, it is not such a big deal if, for example, you decide to shift a significant date a few years one way or the other. But to do it in this collection, once it began taking a cohesive form, meant I was continuously rechecking and tweaking every story. Even then I managed to miss a few key details. Luckily, I had an amazing editor.

DJ: To what extent is your fiction autobiographical? Robin Hemley has a liberating attitude toward incorporating non-fiction elements – do factual and personal details appear in your stories?

MM-C: I do meld the two, but factual (for want of a better term) information tends to form part of the scaffolding that supports the stories rather than the main events. I truly did, for example, spend time in a café in Wales, waiting and watching people, and the coffee in the café was abysmal. It actually may have been called the Pumpkin Café, now that I think of it. But I was not waiting for my soon-to-be lover. I was waiting for a ferry to take me to Dublin, where I stayed in an odd hotel, not unlike the one I imagined Louise might have worked in.

I often listen to music that has significance to me, or flick through photographs I’ve taken as creative inspiration when I am stuck, so it is inevitable that real places and experiences find their way into my writing. Generally I tend to draw from the memory traces of my personal experiences, rather than the experiences themselves, and use those as an entry point.

As far as personal details, while I don’t deny that I explore emotions, memories and inner truths and fictionalise them, at this stage I’m actually quite mortified at the thought of writing experiences into strongly autobiographical fiction.

DJ: Inventing different people from different eras: what role does research play in your writing, particularly when it comes to creating a male character who’s a war veteran from another generation?

Dr. Blake MM-C: I think I enjoy research as much as writing. My current project involves reading and learning about times and lives unfamiliar to me in a country that is not my own, entailing research that is a bit more formal in that I am reading a lot of texts written in another century to learn about everyday life. For this book though, I started with an era that was quite familiar to me, having been around the same age as Louise in the period she was a teenager, and drew from my memories as a starting point. I suspect I have read enough books and watched enough movies of the various periods in the book to get an overall sense of what life may have been like. For the fifties, for example, I reflected on the house my paternal grandparents lived in. I have to confess too that my slight crush on Craig McLachlan led me to watching the Dr Blake series on the ABC and in hindsight, that house may have informed the physical setting for the stories involving Evelyn and Stan Wilson.

digger I intentionally wrote first, researched later. The research tended to be relatively straightforward and was more along the lines of checking dates of events in history during a particular year; the music and fashions of an era; what people ate; refreshing my knowledge of government policy of the day and that sort of thing. I found Len the war veteran quite easy to create. I drew from what I knew. In the period I began writing the stories for book, the ANZAC centenary was looming. Hearing the individual stories of those who’d served in all the wars seemed to be foregrounded more than in the past, so perhaps that thread took on a new energy partially because of [the timing].

Narrow Road cover I knew from the first story I completed that Len was a war veteran, but hadn’t intended or wanted to explore it in any depth. I felt that we’d probably had enough stories about veterans for a while. But I went overseas and took Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North with me and read it late into the night my first week away, while my sleep patterns were thrown out of whack. My dreams, when I managed to sleep, were quite bizarre, and I wrote them down upon waking. Before I knew it, the story that eventually became the first story of the book, set in 1948, where the impact of the war experience is touched upon, started forming in a café in Montmartre, in faraway Paris, of all places.

DJ: Not so frivolous a trip after all, Michelle. I was fascinated by the inclusion of little contemporaneous details in ‘Leaving Elvis,’ such as mentions of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership. How much emphasis do you place on situating your characters within their historical moment, as it were, and having some degree of political commentary embedded in the text?

Gough Whitlam MM-C: The embedded political commentary that flows throughout the stories taps into my general interest in the social and political development of Australia. To ignore or avoid exploring those threads would have felt untrue to my experience of being Australian. I was only 7-years-old when Gough Whitlam was elected. I remember seeing snippets of the campaign on television and the elation of my working class relatives at his election. And 3 short years later, the thrill of being in a room full of adults hurling abuse and responding with tears and outrage as Sir John Kerr did the dastardly deed. I’ve since been told that I couldn’t have remembered it accurately, but nobody has denied the truth of the way that I have curated the memory.

Julia Gillard The Julia Gillard thread appeared one day towards the end of writing the title story. It was such a turbulent time in Australia and that day of her apology just happened to come while I was reworking that story and feeling close to seeing an end point. I simply couldn’t avoid referring to the events of the time as it was evident we were immersed, for better or worse, in a particularly ugly and memorable political period.

DJ: How much do you regard place as a living character in your work? There are details in ‘Leaving Elvis’ that are so vivid I felt I knew the place, even where it doesn’t resemble anything I’ve ever seen.

Pilbara
Image by Hugh Brown
MM-C: As far as I know, that region where many of the stories are centred or hark back to does not exist except in my head, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one day I turn off a highway and the town [is] spread before me, and halfway up a hill there [is] a funny little house where Louise is still trying to live the best life she can. I drew inspiration from some of the places I have lived and visited and melded various elements together. There are a couple of places in other stories that are more directly inspired by real places: the Pilbara setting in ‘The Light,’ for example, was inspired by a very real setting, and one that has a past marred by a tragedy such as that I spoke of in the story.

While I didn’t consciously set out to make place a living character, I realised, reflecting on the writing process, that I actually didn’t make any real progress until I had imagined a strong sense of the physical setting for each of the stories.

DJ: You write, teach and research – what’s the current lay of the land professionally and how do you manage the need to earn against the need to create?

MM-C: I am not certain of the current lay of the land. I loved teaching, but it was all-consuming. I am a 200% effort person. I seemed to be exhausted at the end of every semester, particularly in recent years, when class sizes seemed to double or triple. When the opportunity arose, I decided to take a semester off, then another, and currently I’m not teaching.

I decided before I took that first semester off that the need to create must be prioritised. No matter how many organic vegetables I eat, life is still finite. I am fortunate to have the support of my partner. Our kids are grown, and for now at least, we can live on one wage while I pursue a lifelong dream. In some ways that puts more pressure on me, but it would be very ungracious to dwell on that when so many don’t have that opportunity in a lifetime.

DJ: Are you from Perth originally? I feel like Western Australia produces a disproportionate share of the country’s creative talent and I wonder what cultivates that, culturally as well as geographically?

MM-C: No, I am not originally from Perth, though I have lived in Perth for the past 12 years and in WA for 35 years in total. Wow, big question. I don’t know…we’re constantly told how eastern states-centric the Australian publishing world is, so perhaps living in the most geographically isolated city in the world pushes us that bit harder? But I do agree that, yes, there are a lot of very talented, creative people born or residing in WA. And though I don’t necessarily identify as a local, despite having given birth to and raised children here, I do feel my heart swell a little each time a WA writer is recognised.

End of Love cover DJ: I feel that happens quite a bit. Tim Winton’s obvious, but Yvette Walker won Varuna’s Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship for her debut, Letters to the End of Love, a novel that certainly penetrated the east coast’s collective consciousness, and of course at the established end of the spectrum, Joan London continues playing her masterful part – not to mention author Kim Scott, whose projects to recover and preserve Nyungar/Noongar languages are drawing increasing national attention. And now you’ve made your own debut, joining an extremely distinguished group. Congratulations, Michelle. That must feel lovely after a lifetime of reading the work of local authors.

So what was your book’s path to publication? How did it all happen for you? What were some of the hardest obstacles to overcome and practical and/or technical challenges you faced?

MM-C: This book came about partly as a result of a book that failed to come to life despite many years of trying. I met with my now publisher to talk about that troubling manuscript, which she had very generously offered to read. She’d had it a while and I had started working on some more stories in the meantime. Throughout that discussion I enthusiastically raised the stand-alone-but-linked short stories I ‘seemed to be writing’ and she asked to see them. I put the other work aside and sent the stories along singly, or sometimes two at a time, in fairly raw form. Once I had enough, we met to discuss publishing a collection. Then I went off and spent a few months polishing the existing stories and writing a few more. I was fortunate enough to be paired with my dream editor. It was an amazing and supportive experience all round.

DJ: That sounds like a dream run, all right.

MM-C: I am aware that I was very lucky with this book; the challenges were so few that I have to remind myself that it wasn’t just handed to me on a silver platter. I had worked at writing for many years without achieving major publication before this book came together.

DJ: Good for you. I love seeing years of hard work paying off for a writer. Few things bring me as much pleasure and satisfaction. Tell us a little bit about your writing practice, Michelle: where, how and with whom you work, and any writing rituals you can’t do without.

MM-C: I work mostly at home in my attic writing room [DJ: swoon!], but sometimes I prefer to relocate to the kitchen table or outside on the deck if it’s not too hot. I try to write daily, but sometimes manage to lose a whole week without putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I no longer beat myself up about that; the ‘not writing’ time is equally important to my practice. Besides, I tend to make up for those non-writing periods when the writing really gets underway and I can be found at the computer at all hours of day and night.

I work alone, and have learned from experience that it is not beneficial to my writing to discuss it at length, show my work to anyone, or seek feedback until I feel ready (usually right near the end). I scribble in notebooks daily, but don’t call it journaling as I have notebooks all over the place and grab the nearest one and go for it and often don’t look at it again for months or years, anyway.

I go through periods where I think I need to write with a particular pen, but again that changes largely because I am messy and . scatterbrained and often lose that pen and waste time trying to find it. I sometimes listen to classical music or instrumental music such as Dirty Three as I work.

In the early writing stage, when I just want to get words on the page, I am partial to the Ommwriter program to help me focus. Even though I have much more time alone nowadays, I find time away from the home environment beneficial and I like to go away for periods of time on my own every so often.

DJ: What role has Varuna played in your development and success?

MM-C: I’ve made the trek from WA three times and I’ve met a wonderful circle of writers, all of whom I remain in contact with. Through those contacts, I have made other writing connections and each has enriched my life.

Varuna gave me the space away from the everydayness of life to think, to reflect, and to explore my own wants and needs in terms of what I wanted to achieve in my writing life. I didn’t necessarily recognise that at the time, for then I was hell bent on getting words on paper. Having space to ‘be’ at Varuna allowed me to consider what success meant to me, and helped me to recognise that while publication is a rewarding part of the process, for me success is not measured purely in those terms. For me, although I work long and hard while there, Varuna is a little like going away for renewal, something like a health spa/retreat for the writerly part of my being.

DJ: Yes, I think many alumni will recognise that feeling. Literary journals, printed and online, remain the home of the short story; what are your thoughts for the future of the form, given funding cuts and alarmingly low subscriber numbers?

MM-C: I do worry that the extreme funding cuts will have a detrimental effect on the form. I know several journals are madly fundraising and taking all sorts of creative options to keep the money rolling in to help stay afloat, and I sincerely hope they do well. But of course many of those with a vested interest in the journals are writers themselves, and we all know that writers are often not in a position to spend significant amounts of money.

Cleo cover DJ: When an iconic mainstream publication like Cleo has to close its doors, I shudder to think what these modest literary journals face. They don’t generate significant profit, so without government support, which is increasingly wily, it’s got to be very difficult for such publications to operate. I’ve let my subscriptions lapse this year; I must dig a bit deeper and renew at least one of them. Finally, Michelle, what’s next for you?

MM-C: As I mentioned earlier, I am immersed in some research and pre-writing that is taking me to another period in time. It is early days and I am reluctant to speak further at this stage. I’m also tinkering at the edges of a collection of related pieces including essays and short fiction focused around a particular theme. I am sorry to sound all ‘Secret Squirrel,’ but I am taking on board and embracing something Kate Grenville said (in ABR, 2015). When questioned about what, if anything impedes her writing, she replied: “Being in a hurry to understand. Forcing the writing to make sense or add up to something before it’s ready. Thinking it has to be perfect on the first draft (or the twenty-first). Talking about it too much.” Words to live by.

Thank you for having me!

DJ: Thank you for playing. Best of luck with the classified material, Secret Squirrel.

 

 



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New Works by Alumni

 

Leaving Elvis cover

Leaving Elvis and other stories
by Michelle Michau-Crawford
(UWA Publishing, February 2016)

A man returns from World War II and struggles to come to terms with what has happened in his absence. Almost seventy years later, his middle-aged granddaughter packs up her late grandmother’s home and discovers more than she had bargained for. These two stories book-end thirteen closely linked stories of one family and the rippling of consequences across three generations, played out against the backdrop of a changing Australia.

Read about other Alumni books online at Alumni Books.

 


Alumni Profiles

 

In the past month we have added profiles for Michelle Michau-Crawford and Kimberley Zeneth.

Read other profiles online at Alumni Profiles.


 

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