Jo Case interviews Charlotte Wood about her cracking new anthology Brothers and Sisters.
The stories in Brothers and Sisters were all specially written for this anthology. What made you decide to commission new works rather than anthologise existing stories?
It was initially my publisher’s idea – Jane Palfreyman’s – to commission entirely new stories, and as soon as she said it, the whole project became much more exciting. Somehow, the writers agreeing to write to a theme injected the anthology with an element of risk, and therefore of energy, that I don’t think it would have had otherwise. There was always the danger that having agreed, one might find one had nothing to say, so I suspect some of us had to work really hard, pushing our work in new directions in order to discover a way into the topic. I know some of the writers (including me) found the whole process much more confronting than they’d expected.
I think the commissioning of new works also had the unexpected side effect of giving the anthology a cohesion it might not otherwise have had. Obviously an editor’s personal literary tastes come into play in choosing contributors like this (rather than existing work choosing us, as it were, simply by relating to the topic), so I think some common ground between the writers – a precision with language, a reflectiveness, a kind of smokiness – lies beneath the collection as a whole.
I’m so proud of this book, and proud to be associated with a publisher who suggested taking the riskier path. It shows how committed A&U are to new work, and to producing a collection that we hope will have a long life as a work of art, not just a Christmas stocking stuffer.
The writers in this anthology represent a terrific mix of emerging writers (like Virginia Peters), celebrated new voices (like Nam Le) and established favourites, like yourself and Robert Drewe. How did you go about deciding which writers to include?
One of my aims was to gather together exactly this range of experience – Roger McDonald and Rob Drewe being our most experienced contributors, and Michael Sala and Virginia Peters being the newest, with the rest of us covering the spectrum between. We wanted an equal gender split, because we thought men and women might approach the topic quite differently, and I wanted to push these writers up against each other, which I hoped might result in some surprises for the reader. I didn’t want a predictable list of names, and hence the newer writers became a particularly crucial part of the book. But in my mind there was only one essential criteria – all the contributors in this book would, first and foremost, be beautiful writers.
You deliberately asked your writers to submit longer than usual pieces for this anthology. What was the instinct guiding that decision? Do you think we need more venues in Australia to publish longer short stories?
Yes, I do. I knew from the start that I didn’t want too many works in this book, because sometimes I think anthologies can become overcrowded and therefore uneven - quieter stories can be lost, new writers can be ignored in the sheer volume of material. So the decision to have fewer writers then instantly created more space, and while we weren’t prescriptive about it, we did ask that the writers submit longer pieces if it felt right for them, suggesting a rough length of around 5000 words. The resulting stories range from around 4000 to 11,000 words.
I think it’s had a very strong effect on the work, in that they were given space to really enter into the life of their stories and sort of swim around in them. Unless a writer is particularly drawn to the very short form (such as Paddy O’Reilly’s utterly flawless ‘Breaking Up’ in Scribe’s New Australian Stories) my view is that short stories can sometimes feel as if the writer is skating over the surface of things too quickly. So in this collection I think the stories have a depth they might not otherwise have, simply because there is this luxury of space and time in which to thoroughly explore what they’re saying. Short story competitions in this country mostly limit the works to 3000 words – which automatically eliminates some of the best short fiction we have. I’d actually love to see someone establish a literary prize for a short story collection, because there are more and more good ones being published these days.
In your own story, ‘The Cricket Palace’, you beautifully illuminate how childhood patterns of sibling relationships endure into adulthood and old age, with your 60- and 70-something sisters. Was that something you wanted to explore?
Because I’d already written about siblings in their 30s and 40s in The Children, I worried that I had nothing more to say. So I shifted my gaze to old age, and thought about what it might be like for two very different siblings to be left with each other at the end of their lives, when some of the other beloved people and defining structures of their lives had fallen away. My main character Wendy is still defining herself, rather snobbishly, by what she sees as her superiority to her sister Ruth, and her difference from Ruth. But in the end, she needs her sister more than ever.
Many of the stories in this anthology explore dark territory – though the overall emotional effect for me, on finishing it, was admiring respect for the tenacity of the sibling bond. It’s a deeply unsentimental, and deeply affecting, anthology. Do you think that dark thread, leavened with warmth (and often dark humour too), reflects the writers, their subject matter, or both?
I reckon these stories are like blue cheese, or dark chocolate – complex, layered with contrasting tones, with bite. They’re not for readers who want simple emotions on the page. The risk with an anthology about love – which ultimately is what this is – is that it can topple into sugary gush, and that’s one of the reasons I approached writers who each had a powerfully unsentimental eye, whose previous work had a smoky intensity I found riveting. Happy stories about happy families – well, there’s no story there, really. And it isn’t honest. Which is not to say that the works in this collection aren’t redemptive – there are happy endings, and moments of great beauty, and of deep, ferocious love. I think the whole book, in the end, is suffused with tenderness. The kind of tenderness that comes after a bruise, perhaps, but that makes it all the more truthful, all the more interesting.