Readings Prize spotlight: Q&A with Amanda O'Callaghan

This Taste for Silence by Amanda O'Callaghan is one of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Here, we chat with O'Callaghan about her road to publication and the power of silence in fiction.


Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction! Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

Thank you! I’m truly honoured to be on the list. My book, This Taste for Silence, is a collection of short stories. It features a fairly even mix of flash fiction pieces of under 500 words and short stories of more conventional length. The stories are set in a variety of countries, including Australia. It’s (mostly) realist fiction, exploring the dilemmas and struggles of modern life, like loneliness, loss, fear and disempowerment. Many of the stories are poignant but there is a little bit of sly humour there also. And a touch of magic, and a good dollop of creepiness.

So Amanda – you’re a debut author, and we want to say congratulations on such a beautiful collection, right out the gate! Can you tell us a bit about your road to publication?

I’m so glad you liked the book. Yes, this is my debut collection. Although I’ve written, on and off, all my life, I started writing for publication about seven years ago. I decided the best route (and of course, it was the hardest!) was to submit my stories to contests in Australia, the UK and Ireland. I got nowhere at first – deservedly so, as the stories were not good enough. However, I learned a lot from the rejections, and from those who did win. I read as much as I could. Slowly, my work made its way onto longlists, then shortlists, then started winning. It was quite a bruising experience at times but there’s no doubt in my mind it was the best way forward for me. In 2016, I was awarded a Queensland Literary Fellowship, which was a tremendous thrill. It’s a big step up on that long climb towards becoming an established writer. The award brings financial and professional support, and attracts the attention of publishers. A long conversation with Madonna Duffy at UQP eventually led to a contract. This Taste for Silence was published by them in June this year.

Your short stories have both deftly drawn characterisations and beautifully rendered depictions of place. They explore unspoken histories, long-buried secrets and eerie, unsettling family mysteries. What drew you to write about these themes? And they all fit together in the collection with ease. What connects these stories to one another, in your eyes?

I certainly did not write these stories with any theme in mind, although once I saw the whole manuscript it was clear that themes were emerging all on their own. It soon became apparent that I liked writing about people with secrets. Your description of “unspoken histories” is perhaps closer to the mark; I do like thinking and writing about characters who, for a variety of reasons, cannot articulate how they feel, or what’s happened to them. Or what they’ve done.

I enjoy creating a sense of place in my stories. Whatever the setting might be – a suburban home that’s become prison-like; a drought-stricken Australian farm; or a barn in Ohio haunted by tragedy – there’s always a careful balancing act, I think, between creating a vivid image in the reader’s mind, and not boring them with too much detail. Often, it’s just one or two tiny elements that can suddenly illuminate exactly the scene you’re trying to conjure. The empty leather chair in my story, ‘Legacy’, is an example of that single, powerful image, I think. A picture of it features on the cover of This Taste for Silence.

Part of what stands out about This Taste for Silence is how your characterisations are so intimate, so finely wrought – so lifelike! Have you always had a knack for ‘writing people’? Are there writers and authors that you have read who inspire/encourage/educate your skill for characterisation?

I don’t know whether I’ve always had a knack for ‘writing people’ but I do know I work very hard to get it right. I think capturing the essence of a character is the most difficult aspect to achieve. As soon as there is the smallest ‘off’ note, the whole story collapses because the reader stops believing in the character. If thinking is writing – and it is, for me – then I spend more time mulling over the tiniest tics or gestures of my characters than anything else. The way an ageing pawn-broker might lean on his counter, how a hoarder might stand at a window, how a city kid might swim in a dam in the middle of the bush – I turn these things over, endlessly.

In terms of other writers who inspire me, two greats come to mind: Alice Munro and Lydia Davis. I thought Colin Barrett’s collection, Young Skins, was an outstanding example of how character can be conveyed by the smallest detail.

Your stories explore, by definition of the title, silences. What is it about the unspoken that you find inspiring?

Silence is very interesting to me; the spaces in life, the things we cannot say. As I mentioned, it wasn’t a deliberate theme for my book but I’d highly recommend it for a short story collection due to its almost limitless range! The stories in my book feature many versions of the unspoken – trauma, violence, grief, even love. Why can’t they speak out? That’s the question that runs through the whole collection.

The story ‘The Painting’, is personally, a highlight of the collection: an eerie ghost story with some beautifully subtle explorations of complicated family dynamics. Can you talk a little bit about this story and how it came to life? Are there stories in the collection that are closest to your heart or do you love all your children equally?

‘The Painting’ is by far the longest story in the book. It took me a long time to get it right. It’s one of the few stories that has no true element to it: no snippets of my life, or of anyone I’ve known. The idea for this story came when I was reading about one of the first photographs ever taken: Louis Daguerre’s 1838 photo of a busy street in Paris, which is believed to be the first photograph featuring human beings. The long exposure time led to all but two people effectively disappearing; only a man and a shoe-shine boy feature in the final shot. Their images survived because they weren’t moving. I was intrigued by this, and something about it lodged in my brain. ‘The Painting’ plays with this idea but also has a second layer to it about what happens to a family when a much-loved member ‘disappears’.

Do I love all my children equally? It’s a hard question to answer. I think I love them for different reasons. ‘The Painting’ is also about favouritism in families, and how damaging it can be, so I’ll have to say yes, I love them equally.

And finally, what have you read lately that you’ve loved? What’s on your to-be-read pile?

I loved Tony Birch’s new novel, The White Girl. What skill it takes to write a story that seems, at one level, to be quite a simple tale, and yet it is an utterly haunting book. I’m about to read Ben Hobson’s Snake Island and Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, to name just two.

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