Robert Drewe

drewe Robert Drewe is among Australia’s most loved writers – of novels, memoir and short stories. His iconic Australian books include The Shark Net, The Bodysurfers and Our Sunshine. He is also editor of Black Inc.’s Best Australian Stories annual series. Recently, he has revisited the short story himself, with a masterful new collection, The Rip. Jo Case spoke to him for Readings about storytelling.

You write across a range of forms: short stories, novels, memoir. Do you have a favourite? What draws you to short stories as a form?

I don’t favour any particular form, other than preferring to write fiction. No contest: fiction is more fun to do. After writing a long novel – most recently, Grace – I find it pleasurable to write stories next. A book is such a long haul and you have to keep yourself diverted and entertained. It’s like painting your house: after painting three blue walls you can’t wait to switch to a yellow wall.

Short stories have an immediacy and power, and speak to us personally more than a novel does. Apart from its sharper focus, what the good story has over the novel is that it sets up a need in us that we weren’t aware of – and then fulfils it. I appreciate that small miracle.

The stories in The Rip are loosely linked by their setting on the Australian coast, and many of the characters you write about have a deep affinity to the water. Is that an affinity you share? If so, how does it inform your writing?

The Swan River estuary, the lunar West Australian landscape and the Indian Ocean coast were set in my consciousness as a child, and clearly affect my writing, especially my story collections such as The Rip and The Bodysurfers. Like most Australians I prefer to live near it, but in my work I’m not a hostage to the coast. My most successful novels, like The Drowner or Our Sunshine or The Savage Crows, reach a bit further inland. My characters aren’t always going swimming or applying suntan oil.

The Australian environment almost seems to be a dominant character throughout the stories: to name just a few, the creeping reclamation of Leon K.’s hobby farm; the assignment of personality to different aspects of nature in ‘The Water Person and the Tree Person’; the dingoes in paradise in ‘Masculine Shoes’. Was that deliberate?

Absolutely. Good question. The environment, in the sense of a disintegrating Eden, was foremost in my mind while I was writing. Living in the country, as I do now, surrounded by vestiges of what was once lush rainforest known as the Big Scrub, certainly underlined that sensation. My antenna feels much more receptive to elemental things – landscape, weather, wildlife – than it did in the city. You can’t help it when you’re wondering every day whether there’s enough water in the tank. There’s also something very Henry Lawsonish about finding a black snake in the lounge at two a.m.

The fault lines in relationships are a running theme throughout these stories. The protagonists are often surprised by emerging cracks in seemingly solid relationships, or when those relationships collapse ‘as a result of outside pressures. Were you aware of that ongoing theme – the fragility of relationships – when you wrote these stories, or was that something that emerged when you looked back on them? What is it that draws you to this theme, as a writer?

I was certainly aware of that theme: it’s the theme of the book. I guess it’s interesting to me as a writer because it’s also of interest to me as a human, a man, who has experienced the usual share of such fractures and breakages – as a child and an adult. There certainly seems to be a relationship fault-line running through the Northern Rivers of NSW. As uncertain and uncontrollable as the San Andreas Fault, I reckon.

There is a recurring theme here of the city dweller who is drawn to the romance of nature, but disenchanted by the messy reality of it. Is that something you have observed, or have experienced yourself? What makes it rich material for a writer?

Conflict of any sort, the fish-out-of-water business, the clash of cultures, makes for good drama. But I wouldn’t blame messy nature so much as messy humans. In intensified circumstances many sea- or tree-changers don’t seem to handle the actual change as sensibly as they might. Some go troppo. Next thing, a 50-year-old former Melbourne merchant banker is calling himself Zeus, painting pictures of frangipanis and chasing teenagers.

The stories in this collection often surprise the reader towards the end, with unexpected conclusions or revelations. The ending of the first story, ‘The Lap Pool’, is particularly effective. Is that twist in the end something that you consciously work towards, or is it how the stories naturally unfold?

They naturally unfold like that. I certainly don’t go for a sudden O. Henry twist at the end. That’s a bit abhorrent. But I believe a story should have a satisfying ending and strike an emotional chord with the reader – just as the ancient fireside tale of our ancestors did.

Do you have a favourite story in this collection, or one that particularly resonates with you? If so, what is it about that story?

I find that hard to answer. They all represent very different moods and ideas, and I’m too close to them at the moment. But I think the first story, ‘The Lap Pool’, and the last one, ‘The Life Alignment of the Coffee Grower’, are good bookends and complement each other perfectly.

These stories remind me of Hemingway’s adage about the iceberg – that a strong writer only need reveal one eighth of what he knows about that story, and the reader will sense the submerged whole. Many of these stories seem to contain a novel within them, a wider story that is only hinted at. Is that accurate – do you know a good deal more about these characters and their situations than you reveal?

I take that as a compliment, that some of the characters do contain a novel within them. In a way, all fictional characters are facets of the author, to a greater or lesser degree. The men, the women, the teenage boy, the five-year-old girl. So you know more about some of them than others. That’s where the imagination comes in.

You are also the editor of the annual Best Australian Stories series. Who are some of your favourite short story writers, and what attracts you to them?

I was impressed by Chekhov, Hemingway, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro. Nowadays I’m amazed at the talent of a whole lot of younger Australian writers, some of whose work I published in Best Australian Stories. It’s not fair to single people out; readers should check out the series for themselves. And have a look at the new and burgeoning literary magazines that are publishing them.

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The Rip

The Rip

Robert Drewe

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