Australian author Michael Giacometti’s debut short story collection My Life & Other Fictions is a penetrating and original book. Awash with intricate and beautiful sentences, bold and alluring voices, and a range of intriguing characters and settings, it’s a collection to savour.
Its 20 stories sound the depths of human experience—and yield more treasure with each reading. Themes of entrapment, hubris, wreckage, failure, suffering and desire are explored with insight. There’s also a wry playfulness at work. As Michael says in the essay that accompanies his new collection, ‘After the unresolved stories of suffering of the first half of the collection, and the introductory transition of “Sisyphus”, the second half offers increasing relief and transcendence.’
My Life & Other Fictions will be launched by Spineless Wonders in early December. In this Q&A, which is part of the official blog tour, Michael talks about his fascination with Ned Kelly and other underdogs, the benefits of fallow periods when you’re writing a story, the challenges of crossing the Simpson Desert on foot, yoga, satire, and crafting first sentences that give readers ‘a hard slap’.
How did crossing the Simpson Desert, solo and on foot pulling a cart weighing up to 170 kilograms for 24 days in July 2008, turn you into a writer? What happened out there?
I could say that I had a mystical visitation out there on my own in the desert. There was no one else there to confirm or deny that claim. But I wasn’t visited by a flurry of lights. No eagle’s wing brushed my cowlick. And no devil met me at midnight amid the spinifex and sand ridges. What did happen was the daily expression of doubt and hope, only to be shattered again by another day of physical, mental and emotional bloody-minded slog. Doubt and hope in unequal measure. Day after day after day. Until what originally seemed possible (even if only remotely possible) in theory became probable.
What was I doing out there? I was attempting to do something that no one had ever done before, something that had never been attempted before (or since)—an unsupported east-to-west traverse of the Simpson Desert; something that other desert adventurers thought was impossible, that I was embarking on a fool’s quest that would end in absolute failure. I doubted myself almost every step of the way, but if I never thought it was possible to make it I never would have started, I never would have spent nine months preparing for it. And then, when all that effort comes to a successful conclusion, well, then maybe anything is possible.
I lost something out there and, when you lose something, you gain the space for something else to fill the void.
Is there still a strong connection for you between walking and writing? If so, where do you mostly walk now, and how does it fuel your creativity?
I am an embodiment of Alberto Giacometti’s (no relation that I can determine) famous L’Homme qui marche (The striding man). Walking defines me as a human being and, if I could not walk, I would not be alive.
Walking (anywhere, but preferably in the mountains, deserts, natural places well away from obvious human intervention) allows my mind to wander and process at its own (slow) pace in a way that cycling and other forms of self-propulsion don’t. Walking allows things to come up and be forgotten again, only to come up some later time in a slightly altered form, maybe. I don’t capture these walking thoughts and inspirations as I walk. Instead, I allow my silence, and the sounds of the bush and my passage through it, to be the witness.
You have been described as a brave writer, and it’s a perception this collection reinforces through stories like ‘The Unnameable’, ‘my abbr.d life’ and ‘At Failure Creek’. What gives you the courage to broach hard topics and write stories inspired by Australia’s ‘fearsome interior’?
Other’s perceptions of us are often different to our own view of ourselves. The perception of being a ‘brave’ writer is not intentional—it is not something I actively cultivate. I don’t sit at my desk and think I must write a story about an abused and deceased Aboriginal girl. I do, however, think that cultural icons need to be challenged and, in so doing, readers need to be challenged too. This means that nothing is off limits as subject matter or character or point of view.
The ‘fearsome interior’ or ‘dead heart’ is a myth invented and propagated by European-Australians who thought that the Aboriginal people were stone age relics little removed from the flora and fauna, that it was a place where no man (or no ‘civilised’ man) could survive, let alone choose to live there exclusively. It is a place where that hypocrisy can be explored and exploded.
‘The Hangman and the Hanged Man’ is a chilling story with an eerie voice and ending. Where did your fascination with Ned Kelly come from and are you finished with him yet?
Kelly is someone that I would probably not be friends with if I lived during his time, but he is someone that I have, as far as I can remember, been fascinated with. The anti-hero. The underdog. The rebel. I have not finished with him, nor him and his proteges with me. He is the silhouette that my next full-length writing project will study in a novel in stories.
Desire, fate, unbreakable cycles and transcendence … many of your characters are either caught in cycles of suffering or are attempting to break free from them. Do you think of these stories as having a moral purpose—perhaps as revelations or warnings to others? Was writing the stories part of your spiritual practice? If so, can you tell us more?
Whether the stories have a moral purpose, well, that is for others to interpret. But I am not displeased with them being read that way, as exegesis: history, allegory, moral, and prophecy. Just like a gospel. Or apocrypha.
The writing of the stories was not part of my direct spiritual practice, but spirituality and religion inform them strongly. In a way, everything we think and everything we do in life is part of our spiritual practice (whether we intend it to be so, or acknowledge that it is so). And some of the final redrafting of the manuscript and drafting of the essay was done as (or in lieu of) Karma yoga— the yoga of conscious action— at Rocklyn Yoga Ashram near Daylesford, Victoria, in December 2016.
‘The Uncoupling of Eduardo Martinez’ is an amazing story—and perhaps my favourite. It features fathers and sons with the same name doing the same job, generation after generation, for the railway. Eduardo is ‘uncoupled’ from this history through an accident. His son bears his name and works for the railway, although he does ‘a new task’. What makes it so hard to free ourselves from certain cycles of entrapment—especially familial ones?
Familiarity. Comfort. Proximity. Our parents will always see us in part as their baby or child, just as our siblings retain vivid memories of us when we were all children and teens. Despite growing up, leaving home, travelling overseas, perhaps making a family of our own, our family holds us to be what we were and do not easily recognise or accept the transcendent part of us like they would with a stranger. Too many years of karmas and samskaras. Maybe that’s one reason why my partner and I have not lived in the same city as our parents and siblings for close to twenty years. We are free to define and redefine ourselves without the shackles of what we once were.
In ‘undersize’, a boy and his father go fishing, and it’s a short but insightful story. It was written when a disgruntled boy narrator spoke to you and you took dictation, but then you cut him off short to finish the story for a deadline. Later, in rewriting, the boy whispered the words you’d refused to listen to before. How do these ‘channelled’ stories differ from the kind you write over a longer period, shuffling the jigsaw pieces to make a whole? Which process do you trust or enjoy most?
I don’t differentiate between the so-called ‘channelled’ stories and the ‘jigsaw pieces’ stories, because developmental methods overlap and interrelate. The narrator is me and at the same time also not me. The jigsaw pieces themselves, the fragments of narrative or inspiration, where do they come from if they are not channelled? They come when they come.
I followed your essay suggestion to listen to ‘Misere mei, Domine’ sung by the Tallis Scholars as I read ‘Ulysses of the Pacific’, and I felt the music open your marvellous, seafaring tale to me in ways it hadn’t before. How did the music inspire you or support you as you wrote the story? What makes you confident that readers will encounter the magic released through the pairing of your words with Allegri’s music (and the psalm it illuminates)?
This is a case of the strange and previously unknown paths that wide-eyed research can lead me down. I had never heard the Miserere being sung before re-reading Dante’s Purgatorio. Music is an important part of my cultural landscape. And music unlocks and makes connections in our brains so much quicker and easier than mere words on a page. The psalms as used in the story become an aural soundtrack.
Imagine it like a talking book. It is magic! I listened to the Miserere many times on repeat as I wrote the final part of the ‘Ulysses of the Pacific’, and I am listening to it again as I respond to this question. That final line, the ‘tunc imponent …’ gives me goosebumps every time. I can’t see how anyone who listens to this piece while reading the story could not be affected in some way— it is that powerful.
What role does satire play in My Life & Other Fictions?
More than I intended and less than readers think … or vice versa. It has its place—and more so in some stories, such as ‘At Gallery cV3’ and ‘Revelations of Leonardo’—just as black humour is endemic throughout. Satire and black humour lighten some of the heaviness of the themes and characters and situations.
Which story do you never get asked about but you wish you did? Why?
Or the question could be: Which story do you always get asked about but you wish you didn’t?
The stories are so diverse in tone and voice and situation that each receives some attention somewhere. But to answer a different question altogether, I think that ‘The uncoupling of Eduardo Martinez’ is the most representative story thematically in the collection.
You wrote in Cracking the Spine: ten short Australian stories and how they were written (Spineless Wonders 2014) that the first sentence of any story should be ‘a cattle prod. A hard slap.’ Two of my favourite first lines from this collection are My ma is a self-mutilating alcoholic (from ‘my abbr.d life’) and Last month, sometime and somewhere between leaving for work in the early morning and arriving home in the gathering sunset the Minister for Lost went missing (from ‘Minister for Lost’). Can you choose another first sentence you like from this collection, and tell ABBW readers how it came to you and why you like it?
Sir, a bony finger tapped in Morse on the back of his hand (from ‘The Unnameable’).
It starts with an action, and an anticipated response. For the reader it is a macro visual scene but, for the two characters, it involves entirely another sense: touch; and it also implies by the use of Morse code a lack of sight, and possibly a need for silence. We soon learn that one of those two men is blind, yet it is implied in that first sentence.
I wanted to rely more on non-visual descriptions for the blind man, so what he experiences is told through what he hears and smells and touches. By beginning the story by using the sensory capabilities in a non-visual way, it prepares the reader for a story that is in part concerned with altered forms of communicating, reading and interpreting.
I have never learnt Morse code so I am not sure where that came from, but I began to develop that story in Tennant Creek (Northern Territory) and part of the history of that place is the Overland Telegraph Line (between Adelaide and Darwin) repeating station seven miles north of town.
Some of these stories had long gestation periods. How easy or hard is it to let stories lie fallow? What purpose does this fallow period serve? What improves with time?
I might not be the best judge of when a story or poem that I write is completed. For example, ‘The Hangman and the Hanged Man’ was first conceived in 2002. It has been altered and finished and sent out to competitions or publishers eight times, and has had two name changes.
This is a different form of fallow period to one that is used to update an unfinished draft of a story, but it is just as indicative. When is a story finished? And how does it change with the iterations of time? How would Walt Whitman respond to these with regard to his Leaves of Grass that grew from a slim volume of poetry on first release to a massive tome by his death?
What changes with time? Attachment (or more precisely, detachment) and objectivity.
I tend to not be personally attached to phrases or aspects of the text, and I may discover bits that need improving because I see it more objectively, like I am reading something written by somebody else. I can also be surprised by what I have written, and wonder where did ‘that bit’ come from, and be affected by the power of the prose. That is important to me. To be affected, even after many years and many rewrites and amendments.
In your essay ‘Reflections of Shadows’ in My Life & Other Fictions you write: ‘I don’t know why in Australia we have to make such a distinction based on word count—American stories do not suffer from this same handicap; in fact length is encouraged, expected.’ What can Australian writers do to encourage Australian publishers to give space to longer short stories?
I don’t know if writers can do much about the situation except write stories to the length and form that each story requires, whether that is 2,000 words or 12,000 words. It is more up to literary journals and short story competitions that limit word counts for submissions to 2,000 or 3,000 words to expand their criteria. We focus on the short and not the story. And the term ‘long short story’ for those behemoths of 5,000 words or more doesn’t help. They are all stories. Just stories.
At the end of the essay you urge the reader to go back and read your stories again because the narratives ‘should shimmer with a somewhat altered appearance’. You are a repeat reader yourself. Tell us about one story you’ve reread in 2017 that altered and shimmered with rereading.
For me, the literary discovery of 2017 was Yuri Herrera’s Signs preceding the end of the world translated by Lisa Dillman. I read it in, maybe, February and again a couple of months later after listening to a podcast interview with Herrera recorded at Adelaide Writers Week. Had it altered in the second reading? It was still astonishing.
I have heard Richard Flanagan say that he rereads books such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina ever second year. There is something to be gained by rereading, by being able to go deeper into a story when you already know how it will end.
There is so much time and effort that goes into the writing of stories, so much more than the writing of a song. And yet people will listen to a song many, many times. You hear people say ‘I read that’ but you don’t hear them say, ‘I read it again and again, I finished it and went straight back to the beginning and started reading it again.’ If they did, you’d think they were a little obsessive. But a song? Put it on repeat. Sing along.