photo by Tim McLean
Newcastle writer Patrick Cullen’s stories have been anthologised in those bastions of short fiction, Best Australian Stories and Sleepers Almanac, and his novel-in-stories, What Came Between, has been praised many times over. His short story about the friendship between Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff, ‘Carver’s Unkempt Lawn’, appears in Issue One of Kill Your Darlings. Killings asked him to share his thoughts on reading and writing, and the germination of his tale.
Looking back at what I’ve written over the years I’ve probably followed a typical writer’s trajectory: teen poetry that ran on into my early twenties, evolving into prose and a largely autobiographical (and wholly unpublishable) novel, then finding a form to call home, which for me was short stories. Thinking about those earliest days I’d say that every time I sat to write I was as serious then as I am now, though experience tells me that taking writing seriously and having something good come of it are not always correlated. But you keep going regardless, writing whatever you’re fired up to write. Inspiration comes from anywhere and at any time, and much of the creative impulse comes from the challenge of trying to make something out of random fragments that lodge in my consciousness. The randomness of inspiration is probably echoed in the way influences work on you.
I’d say that my strongest influences on my work – what I write about and how I tend to write it – are likely to have come from outside of literature. I think that the deformative years of childhood are very much behind the way I look at the world. That stuff accumulates in your subconscious and no doubt finds its way out onto the page. While some of the writers I’ve enjoyed reading might make sense when you read my work – no prizes for guessing that I’ve read Carver – there are a lot of other writers who I think are better, certainly better for me to be thinking of learning from, but you’d be hard pressed to see them as an influence. Krzysztof Kieslowski, John Coburn, and Arvo Pärt have as much to answer for as Carver does. Each of them has created something substantial, something that I keep going back to because it resonates, something that keeps me at my desk.
‘Carver’s Unkempt Lawn’ is from a collection of stories that I’ve been working on over the last couple of years. They’re all stories melding well-known facts, lesser-known facts, little white lies and outright pork pies. The first of these stories, ‘Kieslowski’s Unlikely Comedy’, was published in Sleepers Almanac No 5 and for each new story it’s been some obscure fact the quickly brings to mind the some sort of plot. What follows is a rapid process of assembling facts and then spinning a web of fiction in which to bind them all. ‘Carver’s Unkempt Lawn’ came about after I’d been reading Carver’s essay, ‘Friends’, about his friendship with Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff. The essay includes the photograph I refer to in the story and the sentiments attributed to Carver, and it got me thinking about friendship in general and how such a particular friendship – between three great American writers – actually comes about. I knew that they met as men in their 30s or 40s but for some reason I started to imagine them as boys. And then from there, you just throw in some late nights…That’s about as much logic as I can retrofit to any of these stories.
I actually read the story a couple of years ago at a short story conference in Ireland. I launched into it and was really enjoying myself but then, as I looked around the room, I came to the realisation that there were people in the audience who knew every person I was toying with as a character in my story. It felt quite awkward then but having made it halfway already, I just pushed on. Tobias Wolff was actually at the conference. I’d been talking to him earlier in the day, so, thinking that word of my reading could find its way back to him, I emailed as soon as I got home. Essentially, I apologised for choosing caricature over characterisation, and he replied a couple of minutes later with some wise words about what a writer owes their impulses.
Like most people, I tend to have a few books on the go at any one time. There’s always something I’ve been at for a while (Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy) and something new (Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It and Carol Sklenicka’s biography of – surprise, surprise – Raymond Carver). Then there’s an assortment of things – poetry, prose, plays, screenplays – that have caught my eye. It’s probably these last things, the things I just pick up impulsively, that really feed my creative impulses. I was really impressed with Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, which is an assemblage of fact and fiction about Buddy Bolden, a jazz musician from the early 1900s. But, as far as showstoppers go, there’s a scene in the novella at the heart of David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide that damn near turned me inside out. It sent me reeling and once I’d regained my footing I went back to my own work feeling like anything was possible.
At the moment my writing is a curious mix of professional, academic and creative projects. I’m working as a web author to pay the bills. I’m also trying to finish of the exegesis that stands between me and my PhD. And, in the no-man’s-land between the end of one day and the beginning of the next, I’m tinkering with rewrites on a couple of stories, scribbling notes for a novel, and working on a treatment for a screenplay that someone’s interested in me writing for them. I’m always thinking, ‘If only I had more time…’, but I remind myself that if I had more time, at best I’d just take more time to get the same amount of writing done, but it’s more likely I’d settle for less.