Helen Garner talks with Cate Kennedy about her latest collection, Like a House on Fire

Cate Kennedy returns to the well-fortified ground of the short story with a new collection,

It was at the Wheeler Centre’s first Gala Storytelling night, when she stood on the Town Hall stage with barely a scrap of paper and rocked a crowd, that I saw what a natural Cate Kennedy is. She has the feel for shape and pace, the mastery of the pause and the undercurrent of complex humour that can only have been born in speech.

‘Everything’s ordinary in my work,’ she says when we sit down to talk about her new short story collection, Like a House on Fire. ‘The whole confessional thing, where you’re always taking your own emotional temperature, is no use to me. I don’t have any lofty ambitions. And I don’t want characters who are larger than life. I live in a very ordinary place, a farm on a river. I listen to other people and I hear what they’re saying. The gift is the ordinariness – things that are well-used, unexpressed, taken for granted. I love to look at those things in a fresh way.

‘People often say there has to be drama in a story, but I think, what about the day after the drama? You’ve had the baby or the bike accident, and you wake up the next morning. I’m really interested in aftermath – what we do with what’s happened to us.’

‘Like the woman in your poem who’s lost a baby,’ I say. ‘Every morning waking is like going through a windscreen.’

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘I’m interested in the way people behave when power has been stripped from them. The way they put themselves back together again. Not so much what they’re feeling or thinking, but what they do. We’re revealed by our actions. I want people in my stories to act, even if what they’re doing seems distorted or deformed by the damage that’s been done to them. That’s what keeps me watching them.’

Indeed, a lot of watching happens in Kennedy’s work. When verbal communication fails, spouses, or parent and child, watch each other. In secret they gaze, helpless, while the other is sleeping, or walking away, or struggling with a social duty. Tender or shattering insights come to them in these moments of pained observation that can break a heart, or mend it – explosions of meaning that will force them to change their lives. A lonely husband, watching through the kitchen window as his driven, manically perfectionist wife sifts sugar onto mince pies, understands that they will never have a child. A woman, dumped by her partner, stalks him at night on the internet; her obsessive search for his traces becomes creative, an act of imagination in which wry healing begins.

There’s a freshness in these powerful new stories, a sense that, as they grow, they are surprising not only Kennedy, but themselves. Within a story’s frame, emotional or psychological pressure will increase to an unbearable degree – then, almost imperceptibly, something shifts, and the paralysed situation cracks open to admit a speck of light, or a relaxation before the inevitable, or a surge of amazed compassion. Yet we never hear the thunderous footsteps of explication. She works with a very light touch.

‘Oh, I can’t stand it when a story feels forced, or laboured,’ she says, ‘when you can see the seams, where meaning’s been retrofitted into it. I want to set my image down quietly, like a butler, and back away on tiptoe.’

In one story, for example, a young mother is about to have tests for suspected cancer. The night before she goes down to the city hospital, she puts the house in order while her husband and children are asleep, sets half a dozen mouse traps, then stays up till dawn to complete her little boy’s school project. In a flood of inspired detail she fashions, as a bulwark against ‘something dark and airless trickling through her bloodstream’, a little world in a cardboard box, using whatever she can find in the household mess – icy-pole sticks, cellophane, playdough, moss. At dawn she walks out into the garden barefoot and surveys her territory. Dew drenches the hem of her white cotton nightdress.

‘I spent a morning,’ says Kennedy, ‘noodling round on the internet looking for an underlying image for this story. I found the Knights Templar. On the eve of battle they kept vigil. They wore white clothes. They would compose themselves, so that in the morning they were ready for whatever they would have to meet. That’s what this character does. She finishes the project, then she goes and looks at her sleeping kids. She’s calmed herself. She’s managed to make peace with the fact of chaos. Of things that you can’t control.’

But all that’s left of the internet research is the white nightdress. We don’t need to know anything about its provenance to sense the mysterious meaning that it radiates.

‘And the mousetraps?’ I ask, ‘that she unsnaps at dawn?’She laughs. ‘They cropped up in the first draft, when I was still working on instinct. I wasn’t going to question it. I just put them in.’

‘You seem,’ I say, ‘to have a vast amount of material at your fingertips.’

‘But it has to tumble around in there for a long, long time before I can do anything with it. I’ve learnt to trust that the tumbling is part of the process.’

‘The waiting is excruciating, though,’ I say. ‘Is writing short stories a way of dividing the agony into bite-sized pieces?’

‘Yes! That inchoate material is like a massive logjam in a river. You turn around and see a gigantic snarl. And it gets worse every day, because more and more stuff keeps coming down the river. All you can do is pull out one log at a time. The short story is a very natural form, to me. You can write one in a day. I love that feeling when it closes at the end, when you’ve hit the right sentence, the right word – the snick of the door shutting – there, that’s enough! That’s all I’m going to show you!’

‘When you wrote your novel, The World Beneath, did you plan, or just wade in?’

‘I had a five-month-old baby. She slept a couple of hours every morning. But luckily the novel was about a walk, so I had a structure for it. I wrote it in pieces, in sections, and sewed them together later. It was really hard. Writing a novel is like spinning a hundred plates in the air. Whereas a short story is just one plate: you can spread out your material and see it in a glance. I think, all right, I’ve got ten pages. So I make it just one thing that happens to the character. The day the dolphin dies; the day he loses his dog. Then comes the discipline part – how to build in the back story.’

‘You’re very good at writing men,’ I say. ‘You like them. You seem to know how they think. Even the hapless or cruel ones you write with compassion.’

She looks pleased. ‘The inarticulate ones interest me, lonely men who are floundering, drowning in their grief and inertia. They have less at their disposal than women do, to get themselves out of their dilemmas. They can’t work out how to re-engage. When they do speak, often their words contradict what they’re actually feeling. They sabotage themselves with what they say.

‘Ordinary people at times of powerlessness are endlessly fascinating to me. I think they deserve more of our attention.’

Perhaps the mother who’s been up all night, putting the finishing touches to her son’s school project before she goes to hospital, is an image of Kennedy the short story writer. Patiently she works hope and blessing out of the modest things that lie close at hand.

‘She crouches by the pile of paving stones. Her fingers search blindly into the damp crevices of the stack. Somewhere in here, she knows, is some moss: cool and velvety, perfect for the distant green hills behind the open gate in that little microcosmic landscape.’

Helen is an extraordinary writer: sharp, original, and bristling with intelligence. She has previously received a Walkley Award for journalism in 1993, and won the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2006. Her latest novel is The Spare Room.

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Cover image for Like a House on Fire

Like a House on Fire

Cate Kennedy

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