Patrick Cullen’s short stories have been extensively published, including in The Sleepers Almanac, in Best Australian Stories three years in a row, and broadcast on ABC Radio National. This interlinked collection, What Came Between is his debut full-length publication.
What Came Between takes the unusual – and, I think, very effective – form of an interlinked short story collection that reads like a novel. It has the crispness and the discipline of good short stories, but the ongoing pull of following its characters’ lives, the narrative drive, of a novel. What drew you to telling the story in this way?
I’m pleased you found that the form of What Came Between works. Discovering that form was really an organic process, driven in part by my love of short stories, but equally by the desire to revisit these characters at different points in their lives, just to check in on how they were doing. The challenge with writing a book like this is that while you’re trying to give a little toward the novel form by developing the characters through successive stories and providing some sort of escalation throughout the book, you’re also trying to hold back a little all the time, making sure each story retains its independence without isolating it entirely.
Read any of the chapters out of the context of the book and you’ll find it easy enough to call it a short story. Critics debate this kind of thing at length. I’m completing a PhD on it, and was just reading an interview with Louise Erdrich in which the interviewer tried to draw her into the debate over whether her book Love Medicine really was a novel because it, too, is composed of stories as chapters. Erdrich said that it wasn’t something she ever worried about but she made an interesting point: ‘It’s a novel in that it all moves toward some sort of resolution.’ The thing is, if you can get your head around the fact that a book can actually be two different things at once … Not an easy thought, I know, but it’s possible. If someone had one shelf in their bookcase for novels and another for short stories I’m happy for What Came Between to be on either shelf. And even happier if it’s on both!
This book has a very strong sense of place and setting. Newcastle itself almost seems to be the main character: the 1989 earthquake, the presence (and decline) of the steel industry, the fig trees, the fruit bats, the sea and the surfers. How important was place to you in telling this story?
‘Place’ was a definitely a guiding principle of the book. The character of Newcastle, the physical reality of it and something of its emotional life, was important in that it offered a complementary or contrasting tone. The setting dictated other choices as well, some of which were simply about where a particular story was likely to take place, but the city also influenced the kinds of characters I wrote about. I wanted a realistic cross-section of characters that may have represented something about their different generations: the youngest characters are uni students; the middle-aged are a teacher and nurse; the eldest couple are a librarian and a steelworker facing redundancy with the end of steelmaking in the city. Having these characters living in adjoining terraces meant that they were likely to turn up in each other’s lives in ways that were believable and necessary, rather than merely coincidental. I didn’t want anything too coincidental because it doesn’t take much to remind a reader of the fiction being created.
The stories and characters here are carefully constructed, piece by piece, through the conversations they have, the gaps in those conversations, and a symphony of ‘domestic notes’. The descriptions of making coffee, mopping floors, packing sandwiches and hanging out washing are integral to the atmosphere of the book. How consciously did you accumulate those ‘domestic notes’ and weave them into the stories?
As I wrote each story I made a deliberate attempt to work in specific details and these things often suggested themselves quite clearly, almost imposed themselves at the relevant moment in a scene. But there were other times when I was leaving notes in the text to remind myself to include something ‘FRAGILE’ or ‘DARK’, or ‘HE/SHE IS DOING SOMETHING THEY’D RATHER NOT BE DOING’, or I would make a note like ‘WHERE ARE THE BATS? WHAT ARE THEY DOING NOW?’ Then, during the rewriting I was looking at the repetition of these details and trying to determine whether they were merely duplicated or actually adding something useful. By the time you’re editing on screen you can quickly search for this kind of thing, see where and how you’ve used it, and tweak it if need be.
As reference points, I had a huge number of photographs from in and around Laman Street, photographs of fig trees, terraces, leaves in gutters, photographs of beaches and ships strung out along the horizon. I kept notes on actions and the details usually came from me doing whatever a character was doing – making coffee’s the obvious example, but also mopping the floor – and I’d be really mindful of the process and try and see it as if for the first time. We’re all so intent on getting things done these days that we often overlook the engaging and, dare I say it, sensual moments in any domestic act.
Each story in this sequence introduces something new about the characters, some small element that is built on in later stories and gives the reader the feeling of getting to know them bit by bit, in the way you’d make someone’s acquaintance in life. Was that a feeling you aimed to create?
The way details about characters are gradually worked into the book, and the fact that it might feel a little like the way we get to know people in our own lives is at least partly attributable to the point of view used throughout much of the book. Because it’s mostly written from the objective third-person point of view, the reader is really there as a witness to what’s going on in front of them. In the absence of passages of exposition, details tend to arrive in context – you only find out what you need to know at the moment that it becomes relevant – and this probably does reflect what tends to happen in life.
Characterisation can be a challenge in this kind of book. Consistency is the key and while this wasn’t usually a problem in What Came Between, many of the stories were published separately as I wrote the book and I did occasionally have to remind myself of characters’ occupations! I just finished reading Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of stories (or novel, depending on the flexibility of your definition) and as I moved from one story to the next, I was really conscious how the eponymous Olive was described. At times the description was merely repeating something we already knew about Olive, but other times there really was a rich detail that did much to flesh her out.
The book is anchored to a certain place and time period in part by a string of landmark moments: the 1989 Newcastle earthquake, Halley’s Comet, the closing of the BHP steelworks, the 1999 Y2K scare. Some of these moments are specific to Newcastle; others are broader symbols of what was going on in the wider world. What made you decide to use these moments in the book?
I’ve always been drawn to the moments following an incident more than the drama of the actual incident. That’s when all the really interesting stuff happens, as people are faced with the emotional aftershocks. As I said before, the Newcastle dictated many of the choices I made about characters but it was also influential when it came to plot. The earthquake was a great place to start because it really showed everyday people trying to deal with something that only ever seemed to happen elsewhere in the world.
Deciding to end the book at the end of the century seemed equally logical. I was really interested in all that talk of Y2K having a global impact, but on a much more tangible level people were worried about whether they’d still be able to get money from the ATM, and that the supermarket would still be open, and that the traffic lights would still be functioning. The tenth anniversary of the earthquake fell days before the end of the century, steelmaking was at its end, I felt that all I needed to do was bring in a major change to the lives of the youngest couple and the book would reach a logical resolution without overstaying its welcome.
The title, What Came Between, seems to encompass both the things that come between people, to keep them together or push them apart, and the gaps in knowledge between people, the things they don’t know about each other’s lives. The unsaid, the hidden, the forgotten. Was this what you intended by the title?
Finding a title for the book was immensely difficult for the reason that I knew exactly what resonance I wanted it to have but just couldn’t find the right words. I always wanted something that not only captured the idea of this timeframe bookended by the 1989 earthquake and New Year’s Eve 1999, but on a deeper level suggested all those things about relationships that I find fascinating, all the unsaid things.
I spent hours scribbling away with a thesaurus beside me, just trying to get the right words. At times I felt I was close but the harder I tried the more elusive it became. And finally, as I was talking through my brief for a title with fellow Newcastle writer Ryan O’Neill and his wife Jenni, and we were throwing possibilities around, Jenni said, ‘What Came between’. She’d nailed it, capturing the timeframe and the inner dynamic of the book in those three words.
One thing I love about this book is the idea that this street, these neighbours, these domestic dramas, are part of a wider picture; that all these ordinary lives and relationships are duplicated in the other streets and towns, all of them significant and all co-existing and colliding oblivious to each other. What do you think about that?
There is universality to stories; it’s easy to imagine that although the circumstances of our lives vary greatly we are all living through similar kinds of experiences. Much of what happens in What Came Between could be transplanted into almost any other street or town. You could even overlay the experiences of these characters onto people living in other countries and, with some fine-tuning of the local details, go along way toward having the story appear to have been born of that culture.
This seems to be a very compassionate book. I got the feeling that you loved your characters, even if they weren’t always doing the right thing. They try, they care about each other – and yes, they mess up, but they don’t give up. There are moments of ordinary bravery in all of them. Did you grow attached to your characters? (And was it sad to finish; to write no more stories about them?)
I was conscious that with the point of view I was writing from, I wasn’t really giving myself any chance of judging the characters; they were just going about their lives as they best knew how. By originally writing the book in three sequences – Paul and Sarah’s stories were completed first, then Ray and Pam’s, and finally Lucas and Cate’s – I did enjoy focusing on each couple and felt that I was able to make the most of the attention I was giving them. You do feel that you know a character well when their story is the sole focus of your efforts and they do seem quite real and likeable after the amount of time you spend working on them. As to whether it was a sad thing to finish working with them – I don’t think I’m necessarily finished writing about these characters.
I’m obviously interested in episodic and intersecting narratives so, while I won’t be completing something equivalent to Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy or a John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, you’re likely to see some of my characters turn up in other stories. I’m almost certain that one of these characters will be in my next book as a minor, even off-screen character; and the death of another is possibly going to be the premise of a third book. Neither book would be an extension of What Came Between but I do like the notion of a community of characters out there in the world, co-existing and potentially colliding at some future point.
Who are your literary influences? Who do you like to read?
The most direct influences on my own work are writers and films, the former for style and the latter for structure; the substance of my work comes from life itself. Even though I haven’t read his work for a couple of years, I’d still say that Raymond Carver remains the primary influence – and then you’re only one degree of separation from Chekhov. Tim Winton’s not far off, though, somewhere over Carver’s right shoulder. The community of characters that Winton has created over the years are always a pleasure to revisit: Jerra Nilsam and Queenie Coupar-Cookson keep turning up in places that surprise and delight.
Film influences, ones that really have me thinking about the way multiple narratives can come together are things like Krzysztof Kieslowki’s Decalogue and his Three Colours Trilogy, and the three films written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu: Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. Films like Lantana and Bobby weave their narrative strands together in different but equally impressive ways.
My reading continues to focus on short stories and that can be almost anything from the latest to a classic but I do head back toward old favourites. Every now and then I like to re-read Tim O’Brien’s story ‘The Things They Carried’ from the book of the same name, John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’, or Tillie Olsen’s ‘I Stand Here Ironing’ to remind myself of what’s possible.