Laurie Steed is one of two authors at my first Stories on Stage event for 2016 (he’s sharing the stage with Susan Midalia on March 16 at Koorliny Arts Centre). The Patricia Hackett Prize winning author of You Belong Here, his work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in Best Australian Stories, The Age, Meanjin, Westerly, Island, The Sleepers Almanac and elsewhere.
He teaches Advanced Fiction for Writers Victoria and is a member of the Editorial Board of Margaret River Press. In 2014, he became the first Australian writer granted fellowship in the history of the Sozopol Fiction Seminars and, in May 2015, was selected for The 2016 Bernheim Writers Residency in Kentucky, USA.
Monique: What draws you to writing short stories?
Laurie: For me, life has always seemed fragmented, made up of moments rather than an uninterrupted narrative. I started writing short fiction to map some of the territory and at the same time to intentionally limit the scope. Emotions, people, life have always felt daunting to me. By limiting each story to place and time, I’m able to acknowledge an emotional truth at its purest. Any longer than the length in which it comes and I fear such truth may evaporate, or change due to other factors.
I’ve noted over the years that certain truths recur within stories. Thus, I keep writing short stories in the hope that I may one day find answers, of a sort, to some of the more difficult questions.
Monique: What are some of the challenges short story writers face? Are short stories harder to write? If so, why?
Laurie: I don’t know whether short stories are harder to write, so much as different. The level of intensity and focus can vary in different types of short story, so you can imagine the differences between a single story of fewer than 5,000 words and a novel of 60,000.
The greater challenges a short story writer faces in today’s society are often external. I’ve been told many times that short stories don’t sell, and yet it’s not as though Australian publishers make them a priority. It’s an irony not lost on me that I hear the oft-cited argument about sell-ability, and yet it’s these unsellable stories that have taken me to Bulgaria, Iowa, and all around the country.
Monique: As a reader, what do you look for in a short story? How is this different when you judge competitions or submissions?
Laurie: As a reader, I’m looking for something different. This doesn’t mean the subject can never have been touched on before, more that the voice and approach bring something new to the form. It’s easy, as emerging writers, to be too guided in regards to what is and is not acceptable in the short form. Really, most things are acceptable provided that the story works.
With that said it’s important to master your craft, first and foremost, and, in addition to innovation and experimentation, I’m also looking for mastery and confidence in the story being told, whether that’s a reader, editor, or competition judge. Confidence comes from making hundreds of tiny decisions in regards to language, format, and structure that help the story be realised in the best possible way.
Monique: How do you start a new story?
Laurie: I often start a new story from a place of frustration, particularly in the types of stories I sometimes read. If put into thought, it would be, No, it’s not like that. It’s like this. Given so much of my fiction is about understanding and exploring thoughts and emotions, it’s often the case that these first drafts are a little rant-like, as though I’m trying to prove a point. In subsequent revisions, anything that feels loaded or biased gets stripped away, and I’m left with a truth, or something approximate.
Monique: What have you learned about writing over the years?
Laurie: I’ve learned a couple of things about writing. First and foremost, I’ve learned that you have to stay true to your vision. If you don’t have an altruistic vision as a writer (i.e. your writing is as much about ego as it is about exploration) then you may as well ride the boat where it takes you. If, however, your writing is intrinsically linked to a greater sense of self then the only thing you must do is stay true to that, because your integrity, once gone, is the one thing you won’t be able to get back.
I’ve also learned that writing is a lifelong choice and that there’s always more to learn about craft, and in stretching yourself as a writer. Such stretching can be geographical in terms of literature, literary theories, and personal experiences; it can also be as simple as writing outside of your comfort zone, in the hope you might illuminate a shade of gray you’d not previously encountered.
Monique: What other writing-related projects are you working on at the moment?
Laurie: I’m currently writing The Bear while polishing my first book, You Belong Here before submission. The Bear was conceived during my stay as a fellow of the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. I realised that I’d placed certain limitations on myself (and had others imposed) while writing You Belong Here. The Bear is its stark opposite: a funny and sad two-hander about success as it happens to two guys, more boy than man, as they look for the perfect film location.
The idea is to infuse it with love, and hope and memory. The Bear is a purer space when compared to the fear-based threads of You Belong Here.
Monique: Tell me about your work with Margaret River Press.
Laurie: I was invited to the editorial board of Margaret River Press in September 2014, and since then I’ve been involved in reading and assessing fiction manuscripts and representing the press at various events such as The Perth Writers’ Festival and The Margaret River Readers and Writers’ Festival. From June 2015 onwards, I’ve been Project Manager for the press, coordinating website content, organising the upcoming Australian Short Story Festival, and, more recently, judging the 2016 Margaret River Short Story Competition.
Monique: Where did your desire to write spring from?
Laurie: I was discussing this with a friend just the other day. I think it has at least partly been that inability to deal with reality on its own terms that led me to pick up the pen. Some early trauma, coupled with humour as a coping mechanism led me to express my emotions on the page, and in turn, find others who have feelings and experiences similar to my own.
My impulse initially was to find a space for clear, unmitigated exploration of emotional realities. In time it’s become less about that and more about saying, ‘This to me, is what life’s like, and maybe it’s like that for you too.’
Monique: You run workshops and teach Advanced Fiction. Why is it good for writers of all levels to do workshops?
Laurie: I think it’s easy to stagnate as a writer if one does not vigilantly seek out perspectives, style and narrative theories to those often published and populated. While not every writer necessarily wants to be Raymond Queneau (nor should they), there’s much to be admired in his spirit of experimentation.
A good workshop is equal parts inspiration and innovation, reminding us of blind spots in our own work and approach that we might not otherwise pick up. It’s also a great way to share a love of stories and the people who write them, regardless of one’s stage, approach, or level of success.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing? What happens when you get stuck?
Laurie: I’m lucky to have pretty much the cutest boy in the world as my son. Oscar, now two and a half years old, often cheers me up on a tough writing day. While he doesn’t always spur me on to my next story, he’s always there to remind me to stay in the present, always a challenge for one as prone to rumination as myself.
I rarely get stuck, as writing is a must-do for my sanity if nothing else. In writing, I find a purer self: a deeper well of compassion and understanding not otherwise available to my day-to-day self. Although with that said it’s more and more available these days; it seems in all this writing that the edges bleed from life to writing and back again.
Monique: What’s your typical writing day like?
Laurie: Fairly busy. As writing has become less of a task to be done at the beginnings and ends of working days, writing-related work (assessing, workshops, and freelance work) has begun to take up more of my time. If I want to work on my own writing, I often have to do it first thing in the morning or late at night, or sometimes on the weekends.
This wasn’t the case when writing You Belong Here, which was written as part of my Ph.D. During the Ph.D., I’d write from 9 through to 12, have a break, and then write again from 2-6 Monday to Friday. Oh, for those days to be back again!
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Laurie: Myself, I think. In early drafts, the anger, sadness or joy that fills the story can overpower the narrative. Revision, for me, is always about stripping ego away so that what’s left says nothing about little about my influence on the work, and far more on the authenticity of the story at hand.
Monique: What has writing taught you about resilience?
Laurie: To keep going, always and to always back yourself. There are plenty of imitators, self-flagellators, and masturbators that get published…but that in no ways means that you have to write to a pre-ordained style or common readership. Rejection will be part of it, and hopefully success too. In short, it’s taught me that it’s in aspiration without expectation that we truly succeed as writers.
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Laurie: That it’s easy. It’s never been easy, now even more so. It’s still a choice to be a writer, but it’s by no means an easy one.
Monique: What do you think about the phrase ‘write what you know’?
Laurie: I think it’s helpful advice to a point. I also think one should not take the advice literally. Writing ‘what you know’ is open to all manner of permutations. Perhaps you know the characters but have placed them in a different setting. Or you know the time, but not the people that inhabit it.
Writing is about taking risks. Write too much of what you know and you’ll only prove how little you know.
Monique: Which authors/books do you admire the most?
Laurie: Admiration is often different to enjoyment when it comes to authors. I admire Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style and Carver’s story ‘Cathedral’, although I’m not sure I enjoyed either of them all that much. There are only a few authors I enjoy and admire: conveniently, my colleague in this event, Susan Midalia is one of them. As for the rest? Well, that’s probably a subject for a longer feature.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Laurie: I’ve just finished The High Places, the debut story collection from Fiona McFarlane for a Perth Writers’ Festival panel, and also Find Me, by Laura Van Den Berg. Both were excellent.
Monique: Which “must-read” book have you not yet read?
Laurie: I’m one who’s known to shun the modern canon to some extent, so, as embarrassing as it is to admit, now’s probably the best time to state that I’ve never read The Rosie Project…not that I think Graeme would be too worried about that!
Monique: Describe yourself as a writer in three words.
Laurie: Passionate, considered, and redemptive.
Monique: If I came to your house for dinner, what would we eat?
Laurie: I’m vegetarian (and have been since I was 19), so probably no meat! I was a chef earlier in life, so probably something pretty decent and excessively well plated…