Susan Midalia is a writer and freelance editor who conducts workshops on short story writing. She grew up in the Western Australian wheatbelt, and has lived in Perth for most of her adult life. Her first short story collection, A History of the Beanbag and other stories, was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards in 2007, and her second collection, An Unknown Sky and other stories (2012), was shortlisted for the 2013 Queensland Literary Award (Steele Rudd Award). Her latest release is Feet to the Stars and other stories (2015). Susan studied at the University of Western Australia and Cambridge University and holds a PhD in contemporary Australian women’s fiction. She has also taught literature at secondary and tertiary levels over many years.
Monique: Your most recent book, Feet to the Stars, is on my review shelf. Can you tell readers a bit about it?
Susan: Feet to the Stars is my third collection of short stories; the ten stories deal with familial and sexual relationships, as well as more explicitly political themes about migrant experience and class difference. The stories are narrated from a number of different perspectives – female and male, adolescent and middle-aged, working-class and middle-class, migrant and white Australian – to capture the compelling, wonderfully perplexing variety of human experience. My focus is often on the inner lives of the characters: their thoughts and feelings, fears and desires, their sometimes clumsy but always admirable attempts to understand themselves and others. The stories vary in tone: tender, melancholy, bleak, celebratory; and all of them are intended to encourage readers to reflect on how we treat one another. For in the end, that’s all we have.
Monique: Is there a particular story or character in Feet to the Stars you are most drawn to?
Susan: My favourite story in the collection is the first one: “The Hook.” It’s a story that brings together a woman’s personal grief – she remains deeply in mourning two years after her husband’s death – and the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who sailed to Ellis Island, the immigration processing centre off the coast of New York. It’s a story about suffering on both the individual and global levels, and how it is both possible and necessary to move from the self-enclosure of grief and feel a sense of hope and renewal. I also have a soft writerly spot for a character called Joe in my story “The Inner Life.” Joe is a kind-hearted, politically aware young man whose life is completely upended when his girlfriend miscarries without him even knowing she was pregnant. It’s a story about being young and the perilous pleasures of sex; it’s about anger, miscommunication and starting all over again. And as a sixty-four year old woman, I loved the challenge of trying to ventroloquise a nineteen-year-old young man. (My twenty-six-year-old son told me that the story made him cry. I was delighted!)
Monique: What feedback have you had about the book so far?
Susan: I’ve had astute local reviews in the West Australian and the literary journal Westerly, and in national outlets such as the Fairfax Press and Australian Book Review. I’m very grateful for the care with which all the reviewers have read the collection, and for the fact that they’ve all, to a woman and a man, understood what I wanted to do in these stories, both thematically and in terms of the way they’ve been written. That’s the best response a writer can hope for: to know that their work has been understood. I’ve also had a lot of feedback from individual readers; it’s always a great pleasure to discover what the stories have made them think about, or the fact that some of the stories have moved them deeply. I’m also grateful for responses that show an appreciation of the way the stories are written and shaped. One of my most treasured responses came from a reader, herself a fine writer, who told me that she could tell how much work had gone into the writing of my stories, while at the same time feeling that the stories were entirely effortless. I’m also gratified by the fact that the stories can be read at different levels, by people with literary critical training and by those who’ve hardly read a book in their life.
Monique: What draws you to writing short stories?
Susan: It’s the desire to pay tribute to the importance of moments in time. While novels work on the assumption that we experience and try to understand our life as a sequence of events that unfold over time, the short stories remind us that we also experience our life in moments. And that far from being ephemeral, moments can be enduring; they can haunt us for years. Far from being superficial, moments can be profound, revelatory, even transformative. They can also be, of course, intensely disillusioning (like James Joyce’s ground-breaking collection of stories, Dubliners… but don’t read it if you’re looking for a laugh).
I’m also drawn to writing short stories because, in providing us with ‘glimpses’ into moments in time, they remind us that our knowledge of ourselves and others, of life in general, is always provisional, partial, elusive. In the words of one of my favourite fiction writers, Henry James: “The whole of anything can never be told.” Short stories are very good at evoking “the unsaid”, very good at reminding us that life is always a contest between the spoken and the silent, the known and the unknown.
Monique: What are some of the challenges short story writers face? Are short stories harder to write? If so, why?
Susan: I love the aesthetic challenge of writing short stories. It’s immensely difficult to write a memorable short story, I think, because you’re always dealing with competing demands: the need to be both concise and resonant, economical and evocative. As well, because readers are inclined to be less forgiving of stylistic sloppiness in a short story than they are in a novel – I know I am; every word has to be the right one, every word has to count, and every sentence has to sing. As for which is harder to write – short stories or novels: I wouldn’t put it into a hierarchy. It’s more a case, I think, of having different ways of thinking and requiring different kinds of skills.
Monique: As a reader, what do you look for in a short story? How is this different when you judge competitions or submissions?
Susan: I’ve judged quite a few short story competitions over the years, and while some people claim that judging is largely a matter of taste (preferences in subjects, form, style), I think there are objective criteria for what constitutes a ‘good’ short story. Any form of imaginative writing, really. Here are my four criteria. One, and most importantly, a writer must have a respect for language: she/he must be able to use language accurately, incisively, evocatively; with an ear to the importance of the sounds of words and the rhythms of sentences; with an understanding of the capacity of words to unsettle, delight, shock, intrigue, wound, console… all the many and wonderful possibilities of the English language. This doesn’t mean that the language must be embellished or adorned; sometimes very plain language can work wonderfully well. Two: good writing is also subtle; it respects the reader’s intelligence, doesn’t tell her/him what to think. Three: it is concrete and specific; it often uses imagery and physical detail to make experiences, characters and places vivid and immediate. This need for specific detail is summarised in a famous piece of advice by the writer Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me that the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Four, good writing doesn’t offer ‘messages’ about life; instead, it shows an understanding that there are no easy answers to the complex business of living.
Monique: How do you start a new story?
Susan: A story can begin with my experience of daily life: observing, overhearing, paying attention to people’s body language, tone of voice, what they don’t say. It can begin with something I’ve read, or a memory, in some cases, memories of events that happened decades ago. Or a story might begin because I like the sound of a single word. But however a story begins, one of the great pleasures of writing is not having a clue where it’s headed, of encountering the unexpected.
Monique: What have you learned about writing over the years?
Susan: That a story is never finished: it can always be improved.
That writers must be willing to learn from the many and marvellous stories that precede us.
That there’s no such thing as originality.
That writing is a product of the unconscious as well as the conscious mind. (One of my sons told me that I had to stop writing about sex; it wasn’t until I checked my stories that I realised he was right. My husband told me I had to stop killing off husbands in my story… again, this wasn’t my conscious intention…)
That memorable writing is the product of hard thinking about your creative choices. Writing might begin with a flash of inspiration, or in the unconscious, but it probably won’t be much chop if you don’t think carefully about the effects you wish to achieve and how you’re going to get there. In short: a good writer is also an excellent self-editor. (As Ernest Hemingway reminds us: “The first draft of anything is shit.”)
That a writer doesn’t ‘own’ a story. It’s up to readers to find what it means for them.
Monique: What other writing-related projects are you working on at the moment?
Susan: My next sentence.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing? What happens when you get stuck?
Susan: Self-doubt is necessary, but too much is debilitating. I have several strategies to deal with getting stuck, including going for walk (there’s scientific evidence to support its efficacy), drinking wine, or eating chocolate or rum-and-raisin ice cream. Sometimes all three at once. I also re-read things I’ve written that I’m reasonably happy with, to remind myself that I’m not as bad as I think. But most importantly, I keep writing, even if I know it’s not very good or just plain goddamned awful. You get better by doing it.
Monique: What’s your typical writing day like?
Susan: I’m enormously privileged because I have a husband who works and pays the bills. I thus have the luxury of being able to write all day, Monday-Friday, all day if I choose. I do conduct workshops, give talks, do editing, but not out of economic necessity. A typical writing day begins at 8am, when I have the house to myself, and it continues until I’ve run out of steam.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Susan: I have a number, but the biggest is my tendency to lack subtlety.
Monique: What has writing taught you about resilience?
Susan: I am not in the least bit resilient when it comes to my writing. I’m always telling others not to take rejections personally, to keep sending their work out, to have faith etc. And then I crumple up and wish to die if I get a rejection or a negative comment in a review. So no… I haven’t learnt a thing about resilience.
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Susan: That writers are special people. Writers are no more intelligent or sensitive, and certainly no more moral, than millions of other people; they just happen to be very good at using words. This Romantic myth about writers as superior creatures set apart from ordinary mortals has been used to justify some appalling behaviour in real life. ‘Genius’ is no excuse for lack of kindness or basic human decency.
Monique: What do you think about the phrase ‘write what you know’?
Susan: What do we ‘know’? Knowledge is accrued not only from personal/autobiographical experience, but from our reading, and from using our imagination. If writers were confined to writing only about personal experience, the volume of literature across the centuries would be radically diminished.
Monique: Which authors/books do you admire the most?
Susan: In the Australian literary context: the novelists Gail Jones and Michelle de Krester, for their grace with language, erudition and formal inventiveness. Mireille Juchau for her poetic, compassionate novels and unsettling insights into history and relationships. The poets Lucy Dougan and Dorothy Hewett for their skill and subtlety. I’m also a huge fan of 19th-century/early 20th-century novelists, including Dickens, Henry James, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Among short story writers: Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Claire Keegan, Janet Frame, Raymond Carver, Amy Bloom, Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Susan: I am currently re-reading Lauren Groff’s novel Fates and Furies. It’s audacious, tender, erotic, angry and ambitious. I’m re-reading it because I’ll be chairing a Perth Writers Festival panel on which Lauren Groff is appearing. I will be awe-struck and gobsmacked.
Monique: Which “must-read” book have you not yet read?
Susan: Might I be permitted two? Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Monique: Describe yourself as a writer in three words.
Susan: Realist. Psychological. Painstaking.
Monique: If I came to your house for dinner, what would we eat?
Susan: A takeaway of your choice. I am a really lousy cook; cordon blah rather than cordon bleu. But I would pour you vats of good red wine and give you many Elephant chocolates.