Tuesday, August 2, 2011
An interview with author Tim Richards
This book is a collection of twenty stories; they're comic in the main, but seldom funny ha-ha. It's pitch black, bizarre comedy... Where my previous books, Letters to Francesca (1996), The Prince (1997), and Duckness (1998) had a strong autobiographical component, these are less immediately so. There are still plenty of personal elements, but the main focus here is on thought and perspective, most particularly the imagination. The stories tend to exist in the space where the creative imagination tips into the red zone and becomes destructive and endangering. Some of these characters may be guilty of spending too much time entertaining dead-end ideas, to the extent that it not only harms their thinking, but also their perception. They're often incapable of seeing the world around them for what it is.
Where do your ideas come from?
You find the seed of an idea that you might want to explore and then you extrapolate. I once heard a segment on Phillip Adams' show about a Scottish doctor who was being prosecuted for murder or manslaughter, I can't remember which, one of his patients having died during the amputation of a healthy right leg, after insisting on the operation because the leg was ruining his notion of being complete. He was going to commit suicide if it wasn't taken off. You bang an idea like that together with the prioritisation of suicide prevention, and you get a story like 'The Enemies of Happiness'... Fifteen years back, a highly intelligent young cousin skipped university to caddy and translate for Japanese golf tourists at a Queensland resort built exclusively for Japanese golfers. So you then wonder what a Japanese resort built exclusively for Australian golfing tourists might look and feel like - hence 'Club Selection'... The approaching death of a much-loved dog led me to consider what it might be like if humans lived life at seven times the speed, and the possible benefits and limitations of a hot-housed existence - hence, 'Dog's Life' ... Speculative fiction is governed by the exploration of 'what ifs'. I don't always start with the intention of taking my 'what ifs' down such dark paths, but almost invariably, that's where they end. Even a story like '(Favoured by) Babies', which appears to celebrate the miraculousness of life, and the sheer improbability of our own existence, is probably a little darker than its very partial narrator might be prepared to acknowledge.
How does a book like this take shape?
I never set out to write a book called Thought Crimes. My central focus as a storyteller is to do my best to serve the particular interests of the story that I'm writing, and the story that I'm writing is the story that I most feel the need to write that day. I scour the notebooks, find different components to bang together, and go with the combination that best ignites my imagination, that suggests a world or a way of thinking that I'd like to investigate. During the quite long period that it took to write the twenty stories collected here, I would have written something like eighty to one hundred stories. In reality, because the nature of the imagination is one of my most constant themes, almost all those tales could have fitted the bill as Thought Crimes, so it was more a matter of excluding stories that might be collected under different themes, and then finding the best balance with the remainder. And balance is critical. I prefer strong narration, and my short stories are often quite dense, so I might have chosen the best twenty available only to find that the whole had no impetus, so you are trying to find ways to shift the rhythms and the styles of 'comedy'. I imagine that it's very much like seeking the correct balance for an album of songs, and in many respects, stories are closer to songs than they are to the novel.
Why short stories and not a novel?
I like novels, and I admire writers who can organise and keep track of that much story material, being able to recall that, the last time you saw him, Petrushka was about to drown himself in the bath owing to some recriminations about the letter he'd written to Glenys, and that thirteen chapters on, you'll need to get back to resolve that matter, Glenys just having returned from Botswana to collect the mail that her parents have been holding for her, with her dad deeply curious about this letter with the nineteenth-century Russian stamp ... There's no way that I can hold all that stuff in my head... I choose to write stories because I believe that they're a better vehicle for the kind of ideas-based narrative that I prefer. Ten to twelve pages, get in, get out. I was inspired to write by the more cerebral, expressionistic tradition of fiction that comes down through Kafka and Borges and Calvino and the '60s New Yorker writers, the tradition that was picked up by the likes of Carey, Bail, Moorhouse, Ireland, Grenville and Murnane in the '70s and '80s, and I would still argue that virtually all those writers - David Ireland the exception - did their best work in short stories. Fine writers in the longer forms, no question, but they were better short story writers. I'd argue that Australian writers have excelled at short fiction. Lots of fine novels, but unquestionably great ones like The Man Who Loved Children and Voss are pretty thin on the ground. Peter Carey's an enormous loss to short fiction. Thank God that Alice Munro never felt that what she was doing lacked consequence, and that Carver never found the time to produce 'a work of major importance' ... The limited scale keeps you honest, and the dream of writing just one really great story, a story as good as Cheever's 'Reunion', or one of Flannery O'Connor's miracles, or even Miranda July's 'Majesty' ... that's what takes you back to you desk. But they do exhaust material. I'd say that five relatively dense stories use up the same amount of story material that a 250 page novel uses.
Are you happy to be at your desk?
Never when I'm first-drafting. I'd prefer a hard morning at the dentist to writing a first-draft. I'm always confident in the quality of my ideas. I think that my instinct for a story is pretty good. But as confident as I am in the worth of the idea, I'm equally pessimistic that I'm about to totally fuck things up in the execution ... Is this the right path to take, and if I travel too far down the wrong path, am I ever going to be able to go back and re-capture the need that drove me to write this story? The best thing that can happen to me while first-drafting is to get far enough inside the story that I lose awareness of process. That doesn't necessarily mean that I'm writing well or badly, but I'm not being murdered by anxiety or self-doubt ... I tend to write quite quickly, so there's a lot of fat to be stripped away. My first-drafts are generally twenty percent longer than my final drafts. But I really love the process of editing and re-writing. That's bliss compared with first drafting. Bit by bit, the work is always improving.
What are your favourite stories from Thought Crimes?
My favourites aren't necessarily the best stories ... Sometimes they're the ones that have most resisted my efforts to serve their interests. I have a special fondness for 'From Studies in Erotophobia', 'The Darkest Heart', and '(Favoured by) Babies'... They're probably among the more personal stories featured here, and they're sleepers. Relatively still on the surface, with quite a lot bubbling away underneath... At least that's what I'd like to think.
What are some your favourite short stories written by other authors?
'The Overcoat' - Gogol
'Concerning Love' - Chekhov
'Metamorphosis' - Kafka,
'Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbus Tertius' and 'Funes the Memorious' - JL Borges
'A Perfect Day for a Bananafish' - JD Salinger
'Good Country People' - Flannery O'Connor
'The Lottery' - Shirley Jackson
'The Spinoza of Market Street' - IB Singer
'Reunion' - John Cheever
'The Axolotyl' - Julio Cortezar
'Me and Miss Mandible' - Donald Barthleme
'Do You Love Me?' - Peter Carey
'So Much Water So Close to Home' - Raymond Carver
'Darling Odile' - Beverley Farmer
'The Owl Bander' - Janette Turner Hospital
'The Battle of Acosta Nu' - Gerald Murnane
'Runaway' (or anything else by)- Alice Munro
'Majesty' - Miranda July
'The Girl on the Plane' - Mary Gaitskill
Thought Crimes by Tim Richards is available from all good bookstores. You can buy the ebook from Readings ebookstore or Apple's iBookstore.
Kalinda Ashton will launch Thought Crimes at Readings Carlton bookstore on Thursday 11 August 2011.