Amanda Curtin is the author of Inherited, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago for the AWW 2013 challenge. I first met her through the Society of Editors (WA) on whose committee she had served for something like 16 years. Amanda is also taking part in the AWW 2013 challenge as a reader and as a reviewer in between editing, teaching and writing. Her next book is Elemental which is coming out in May so you can guess what I will be reading then. You can also read her answers to the Next Big Thing meme about Elemental here. Even better, if you think she is cool, you can meet her in person at the 6th IPEd National Editors Conference in April in Fremantle. 🙂
Marisa: What intrigues you about the short story format? Why did you decide to start writing short stories?
Amanda: I began writing short stories because they seemed possible, manageable, in a way that a novel didn’t when I first began to write. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that they’re easier; they’re not. But, to state the obvious, they’re shorter! You can learn from attempting, and failing, many times with stories, and everything you learn you use when you try your next story, or a novel.
I love the form’s tension between compression and expansion. You work with fragments, with glimpses and moments, and if you get it right, something whole will emerge from them—something that feels true—not the truth but a truth. I think of Walter Benjamin’s observation that ‘knowledge comes only in flashes’. This feels like the short story’s territory: that moment of seeing, of revelation. And I love the idea that we enter a story’s moment (whether that is the space of an hour or a day, or years such as in Annie Proulx’s long/short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’) and then leave it—and its world and its people continue in both directions, just as life does; the story has just cracked a window open for us to see a moment of change.
Marisa: Tell us about Inherited and about The Sinkings.
Amanda: It’s my first and only collection. My first book, a novel, was The Sinkings (2008), which I always describe as a story within a story. The historical strand is based on a character drawn from real life, Little Jock, who was brutally murdered at a lonely campsite called the Sinkings, just north of Albany, Western Australia, in 1882. This strand is embedded within, and woven around, a contemporary (and entirely fictional) story whose main character, Willa, is researching Little Jock. Willa, a reclusive woman deeply traumatised by the loss of her daughter, is drawn to the mysterious circumstances of Little Jock’s murder because she thinks she can see an unlikely parallel between him and her lost daughter, Imogen.
Marisa: Inherited‘s theme is that of what we inherit from and pass on to others that colours our experiences. Do you set a theme and write your stories or do you write them and collect them under a theme that emerges? Are they planned in any way?
Amanda: I didn’t set out to write to a theme, but when I began playing with the idea of gathering my published stories for a collection, and looked at the stories I was working on or knew I wanted to write, it became clear that there were some common threads—inheritance, legacy, memorialisation, grief, loss. These are things I’m interested in, things I think about. They also emerge, I think, in my novels, especially the new one, Elemental, due out in May.
Marisa: Where do you get ideas from for the incidents that turn into these stories? What is it that you collect as a writer that helps you write them? Do you have a favourite amongst the ones in Inherited?
Amanda: Ideas come from everywhere—observations, newspaper articles, words, travel, museums, music, art galleries, things people say, the books on Western Australian history I’ve edited over the years. I jot ideas (often just words) on scraps of paper and keep them in a file, and it’s the ones I can’t forget, that I get obsessed with and keep coming back to, that eventually find their way into stories (or novels). It’s usually the point at which I start to feel a connection between ideas that a story is triggered.
For example, the opening story, ‘Dance memory’, was inspired by the idea that remembering dance choreography constitutes a certain kind of cognitive thinking. Then I began to see possible threads between that and two other things: observing ducks in a neighbourhood street (in some ways, I wrote this story to imagine a happier fate for seven tiny ducklings I watched grow into young ducks); and the question that arises whenever we hear of a disaster that forces people to flee their homes—what would I save if I were forced to choose in a split second?
The car speeds along the highway, through the smoke, through the town. Two women, a child, twelve ducks, a wheelchair.
– Excerpt from ‘Dance Memory’ in Inherited by Amanda Curtin
I’ve had different favourites over time, but I think my enduring favourites are that story, ‘Dance memory’, and the closing story, ‘Gratitude’, which is about a grieving mother keeping vigil at a roadside cross where her seven-year-old son was killed. I like the symmetry of the collection beginning and ending with a story about a little boy, and I have my editor, Linda Martin (UWA Publishing), to thank for pointing me towards that.
Marisa: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Amanda: It was something I used to whisper to myself as a child, but it didn’t ever seem possible back then. So that solid incontrovertible knowledge came later in life for me. I had been working in publishing as a book editor for many years and decided to take creative writing classes at uni to put myself on the ‘other side’ of the editing relationship, to experience that vulnerability for myself and to understand the creative process. I thought it would make me a better editor, and it did, but I also discovered what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Marisa: Do you have a writing routine? Does it differ depending on what you write?
Amanda: It depends on many things. I love it when I’m able to allocate a solid block of time to writing (ideally, weeks), and the best writing experiences I’ve had have been on residencies, which have allowed me great freedom to do this. I know I write best in the afternoons or late at night, so I tend to spend mornings doing other necessary things like follow-up research, editing the previous day’s work, thinking, asking myself questions, experimenting, and so on, working up to that more creative time. The best piece of advice I was ever given was to leave a sentence unfinished at the end of the day. My own version of this is to write a few words or a list, a lightning sketch of what’s on my mind and where I think this might be going. The idea is that when you come back to it the next day, you’re better able to pick up at the same level of engagement.
When I am juggling writing with other aspects of my professional life (editing, teaching), it’s far less structured than this and I just manage as best I can!
Marisa: You are also taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013 and so as a female writer you must think it is important. Has it paid off for you to have your books read and reviewed as part of the challenge? Do you think the books you will discover and read in the challenge will help you as a writer? If so, how? Should more female writers be taking part as readers and reviewers?
Amanda: I am delighted to be taking part in the 2013 challenge, although I have to say that I am already a huge fan of many Australian women writers in the contemporary and YA fiction genres (e.g. Gail Jones, Simone Lazaroo, Brenda Walker, Annabel Smith, Robyn Mundy, Julia Lawrinson, Deb Fitzpatrick—and they’re just some of the West Australians!). I hope to read more widely this year, choosing titles from genres I might not normally read, and the reviews of challenge participants will help me choose. As a writer, I believe every book I read will teach me something about what I love to do.
The AWWC is a wonderful reader-friendly initiative that has great potential to increase the exposure of our country’s women writers to the ever-growing band of committed readers out there who like to share and communicate interactively through online avenues. A resounding win–win for writers and readers alike.
Thank you, Marisa, for reading and reviewing Inherited as part of your (already impressive!) 2013 challenge, and for inviting me to discuss it here.
Thank you to Amanda Curtin for letting me subject her to the interview process. Her next book Elemental is out in May 2013 and you can keep track of it via the Elemental Facebook page and keep track of Amanda herself via her blog.