In support of the short story, and specifically those talented writers who are currently “bookless,” which is to say those writers who are at that stage of their career where a collection or novel is a year or more away, I’m doing a new feature called Conversations with the Bookless, of which this is the latest installment. (See also: Kelly Barnhill, Paul Jessup, Rachel Swirsky, Nathan Ballingrud, and [conducted by Rick Klaw] Paul O. Miles, Scott A. Cupp, and Chris Nakashima-Brown) The fact is, if you don’t have a book out, it’s harder to get attention and it’s harder for reader attention to crystalize around you. I hope these interviews introduce readers to some of the great talent that, in the coming years, will be amazingly and bountifully bookful.
Rjurik Davidson is another extremely gifted short fiction writer who doesn’t, as yet, have a book out. I first came across his fiction while browsing Ellen Datlow’s SciFiction, and his story “Passing of the Minotaurs” has stuck with me ever since. It’s the kind of story that’s strange, beautifully written, and immediately makes you aware you’re in the presence of a great new talent. As you’ll read in the interview below, it’s unlikely he’ll be bookless for long…
Where are you, right now, as you’re writing these answers?
I’m sitting in a red vinyl lounge chair that used to belong to my grandfather. It’s a hell-ugly 1970s thing, with footrests that are extendable and it’s far away from the internet, which is the source of all distractions (the path to hell is paved with good connections). The chair is next to glass double-doors that look out onto the back yard, its wooden decking almost completely engulfed by a flowering jungle-like plant.
Actually, when I first moved in to the house–in Brunswick, Melbourne–I noticed a rat running up along the plant’s branches and eating the red flower bulbs at their end. My housemate denied it was a common rat, claiming for it some kind of natural marsupial status–and hence cute. But let me tell you, it’s a damned rat. A little while later I noticed that actually there were two rats. And then about three days later, eight of the things! All running up and down eating the flower bulbs with their bulbous little eyes and long leathery tails. I keep expecting to come home one night to a rat mass meeting, all of them with torches in hand, yelling “Storm the house!” in some kind of rodent version of the storming of the Bastille. It’s good though: it gives my writing that extra edge. I never know how long I’ll be here. Sometimes I think I hear rats in the walls.
What do you like most about short fiction?
I love the density of short fiction. I love the fact that in a short piece no word can be superfluous. I also love the fact that there is greater scope for experimentalism in short fiction. The novel, constrained as it is by commercial concerns, can’t afford quite so many surprises. For me the short story is the home of the truly weird, the truly unusual, the truly surprising. Take something like Kelly Link’s wonderful “The Horlak”, one of the last short stories to really take my breath away. It’s something that you probably couldn’t do at novel length. You just wouldn’t be able to sustain it.
Related to all this is the technical discipline necessary for short story writing. As someone who is fascinated by technique, I’m always intrigued to see the effects that writers can achieve; the short story can have a greater variety than the novel. In any case, it’s no surprise that many writers try a style or voice at the short form first before using in at novel length. If you keep up with the speculative fiction field at its short length, you’re at the cutting edge. (If you were reading Gibson’s short stories when they were appearing, then you would not have been so surprised by the publication and success of Neuromancer.) You’re ahead of the game. You can claim “inner circle” status. Look at the hot writers at the short form at the moment and you’re likely to see some of the stars of the future in novel length. But you’re seeing them create themselves, and you can enter a dialogue with them. If you wait only for novels, you’re going to be five years behind.
What do you most value in the fiction you love?
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of sudden realisation or surprise, the shock of perceiving something anew. I love being led down a particular track by a story, coming to a view of the kind of world or the kind of character that I’m reading about, and then suddenly realising that actually, I was completely wrong. In this process, you suddenly see everything differently and it’s like the world itself has shifted in some fundamental way. It’s almost a drug-experience, like tripping (Speculative fiction is particular adept at this). The writer has successfully confounded your expectations. I remember reading many years ago one of James Ellroy’s novels (The Big Nowhere), and midway through the novel he killed off one of his characters–bam! Just like that–and it took me so totally by surprise. I thought, “Wow–this world is just totally different to what I thought it was.” In short fiction Margo Lanagan does this also, sometimes by having the world viewed through the eyes of a child or an innocent. Another master of the shifting perspective is of course Philip K. Dick, though much of his work doesn’t quite hold together technically. It’s the feeling that many non-SF people experienced when they saw The Matrix. In any case, I love not knowing where a story is headed at all–a kind of feeling of readerly vertigo. The converse experience is that you can predict the entire narrative by the opening act or scenes. Everyone’s had that terrible moment (mostly in film) where you know in advance what’s going to happen.
When did you start writing short fiction and what prompted you to do so?
I think I started at about thirteen or something? Probable my mother would be able to tell you bless her soul. As a sixteen or seventeen year old, my mathematics teacher (bless him too) gave me a copy of Harlan Ellison’s Strange Wine, and my interest was awakened in short fiction and speculative fiction (Ellison is a writer peculiarly suited for the younger reader, his work being at such a high emotional register). Later I remember seriously beginning a story when I was about twenty: a typical Dickian “the whole world is a conspiracy to trick our protagonist” story, which Australian writer and editor Lily Chrywenstrom kindly informed me was a terrible clichÃƒÂ©. I hadn’t read Dick at that stage and thought I was being terribly original. Around that time I read Peter Carey’s stories and a lot more “mainstream” fiction also, and then came my first really serious short piece “She Sees In Different Shades” published in Aurealis in 2000 (though written a long while before). I wrote pulp-stories for money around that time too, but we won’t mention that, except to say that to those who think of me as primarily a literary writer might be surprised.
What issues or thoughts have you been having recently about short fiction? What about the subject is on your mind?
There are various technical things I’m obsessed with. For example, it’s often said that it’s crucial to begin a short with some kind of mystery (you’ll find that idea in Silverberg’s Science Fiction 101, I believe). But something Kelly Link suggested to me when she was out in Australia a year or so ago was that you can also end a short story with a mystery. So that’s one thing that I’ve been doing, and really loving. The idea, as I’ve interpreted it, is to pose a question for the reader at the end of the story, to give them the same experience of “wanting to know” that you do at the beginning, but in the last moment. It really opens the end of the story up in a satisfying way, like a gesture to the future.
Another thing I’ve been thinking about (this was something I spoke about at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival last year) is whether the form has a future or not. This ultimately comes down to why people read short stories, and why they don’t. As a form is it destined to become like poetry, the province of an increasingly small group of devotees? If so what are the preconditions of this? And what indeed, is the future of literature as a whole? It’s a tragedy I think that short fiction writers cannot make a living from it and that collections aren’t bought in the same quantities as novels. When I asked people about this a year or so ago, a common reply was, “I read novels because I want to return to the same world and read about the same characters.” It’s the same reason I think people watch the same TV shows. I’m somewhat suspicious of this attitude. At its most extreme, it’s about not wanting to work to hard to try to orient yourself; it’s about escape into a safe world you’re familiar with. It’s a literature of consolation. You’re attracted to novels because you know how things are in the world, how things are going to turn out–think of the never-ending series that you get in much mainstream fantasy or crime, where it’s the same story (the destiny of a kitchen-hand to become king, or prophesised to be the wizard-saviour, etc) but the configurations are just slightly different. This kind of reading is about trying to escape our world, to take you away from it rather than bring yourself back into it (to rethink it or see it anew). I think this phenomenon may be a reflection of the parlous state of affairs of the world. Who really wants to think too much about the world when the problems seem so intractable: global warming, war, terrorism, poverty and so on? So I think there may be a political precondition for the state of the short story.
Where can we read your fiction online right now, and where is work forthcoming? (online or off)
I think my story “Passing of the Minotaurs” is still up on SciFiction . I’m actually about enter a phase where I might look prolific, but that’s because I have five or six stories I’ve been working on over a couple of years all being finished together. There’s a story called “Twilight in Caeli-Amur” forthcoming in Jack Dann’s Dreaming Again anthology. I also have a story called “The Winding Down of the World” that will be published in a forthcoming edition of Postscripts. But I’m not sure where the rest of the stories will be published–they’re all about to be sent out. A number of my essays on film originally published in Metro Magazine and Screen Education will be available at The Education Shop in the near future, including (for SF readers) essays on Children of Men and Stardust. Fragments of things I’ve written, bits of drafts, personal reflections (on writing, politics and life), and other ephemera can also be found at my blog .
How do you plan to rectify your booklessness?
I have two novels in process, provisionally called Caeli-Amur and Silver’s World. One is set in my New Weird/Fantasy world, the other a far future utopian/dystopian science fiction novel. I have hopes for the first one at least. I’ve a bunch of unpublished essays on New Wave science fiction which I want to get back to one day and might serve as the basis of a book. I also have enough stories to form a collection, but I thought I’d wait a little while to see if I get any bites on the novels. So it’s a case of fingers crossed, but I’m pretty excited about the next year or so–if the rats don’t get me first.