“I see no reason why short stories have to be small. I think they can be large. I think they can be big experiences.”
Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction with the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For March that debut is Wayne Marshall’s short story collection Shirl, out now from Affirm Press.
In Shirl, Wayne Marshall takes a range of what-if scenarios to their fabulist and comedic extremes. Superbly inventive and powerful, these fourteen stories skewer contemporary Australian society—particularly the crises of masculinity and national identity—in insightful and yet hilarious ways, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Our First Book Club host Ellen Cregan asked Wayne a few questions about the collection and his reading and writing life.
Our April First Book Club title will be The Adversary by Ronnie Scott. Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’.
Read Ellen Cregan’s review of Shirl in our March Books Roundup.
Read Wayne Marshall’s Shelf Reflection on his reading habits and the writing that inspires him.
Listen to the Wheeler Centre’s ‘Rough Diamonds’ podcast which inspired Wayne to enter the VPLAs.
Read ‘The Hearing’, a story from Shirl, in New Australian Fiction 2019.
Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!
Alice Cottrell: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m KYD Publisher Alice Cottrell, and today I’ll be bringing you our March First Book Club recording. This month’s title is Shirl by Wayne Marshall, out now from Affirm Press. Shirl is a brilliantly inventive short story collection that skewers contemporary Australian society in insightful yet hilarious ways, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. An early draft of Shirl was shortlisted in the Unpublished Manuscript category of the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Our First Book Club host Ellen Cregan sat down with Wayne to ask him a few questions.
Ellen Cregan: Hello and welcome to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. My name is Ellen, and I’m the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club host. I’m here today with author Wayne Marshall, whose book Shirl is our First Book Club pick for the month of March. Hello, Wayne, how are you?
Wayne Marshall: Hi, I’m really good, thank you Ellen. Thank you so much for having me.
EC: That’s alright. We’re going to start off with a bit of a reading, from ‘A Night Out’, which is one of the stories in Shirl.
WM: Fantastic. So this story, where I’m going to read from is a little bit into the story, so we have started with…a friend of Geoff’s being invited to Geoff’s to meet his new girlfriend. I guess that’s sort of where we’re at, at this point in the story. So this is called ‘A Night Out’.
I took off for Geoff ‘s in the late afternoon. I felt like a bit of a dill dressed in the light red (not pink) collared shirt and cargo pants Tracey had given me for Christmas, but I ﬁgured I should make an effort for Geoff’s big night. On the passenger seat was a bouquet of flowers, picked from our garden. Tracey had shoved them at me as I headed out the door.
‘Give those to Geoff’s girlfriend,’ she’d spat. ‘And be nice to her, for God’s sake.’ I felt her eyes on me all the way to the car. ‘Still don’t understand why I can’t come. After all, I’m about the only one who encouraged him to try his luck again after Jacki.’
I played a straight bat, telling Tracey I’d see her later in bed.
‘I’ll be making those bookings while you’re gone. Flights, accommodation.’
‘What? who said—’
‘You wanna leave me at home, that’s what’s happening.’
I yanked the car door open and tossed the flowers inside. ‘Yeah, well maybe I won’t come back then.’
‘You always have done.’
I spent the hour-long drive convinced Geoff was making a massive mistake. Although I’d never told him in so many words, over the years I’d hinted a number of times that it might have been for the best that Jacki took off the way she did. Because as humiliating as it must have been, the whole ﬁasco had left him a free man. The lucky bastard had no one to answer to. No one nagging him to ﬁx this, or mow that, or try on such-and-such a shirt. On weekends he could sleep in till whenever he liked. He could watch as much footy and cricket as he could handle. Best of all, he never had to suffer through any excruciating get-togethers with in-laws.
Taking the exit to Geoff’s town, I figured this new girlfriend of his would have to be one hell of a woman to make him throw all that away.
When I pulled into Geoff’s driveway, I checked my teeth, nose hair and moustache in the mirror, collected the ﬂowers, then walked onto the sagging porch of his battered old weatherboard house. I didn’t even have time to knock before the screen door whipped open and Geoff bowled out.
‘Mate!’ He shook my hand as if I’d just won the lottery. ‘Good to see you.’
‘Yeah, you too,’ I said, glad to see him, but a bit miffed he hadn’t gone to any effort whatsoever to dress up. I hadn’t expected a three-piece suit or anything. It was Geoff after all. And here he was—the same old Geoff. Same grubby blue Bonds T-shirt hugging his beer belly. Same discoloured, torn jeans. Same patchy stubble and unruly mop of greasy black hair. I wondered what kind of woman his girlfriend might be.
‘Shit, mate, you didn’t have to do that,’ Geoff said, seeing the ﬂowers.
‘They’re from Tracey.’ I shook my head with a look that said it all.
I was surprised to see that nothing much had changed since last last time I was there. The place didn’t have a woman’s touch, that’s for sure. If anything it was more of a pigsty than usual. Cobwebs thick as wool spread across the ceiling. The walls were grey from cigarette smoke. Old racing guides were strewn across the carpet. And everywhere these dark balls of what appeared to be dog shit, even though it had been years since Geoff last owned a dog.
‘You got a dog again, mate?’ I asked, following Geoff into the kitchen.
‘Nope. Why’s that?’
‘Oh, it’s just—’
Before I could finish, Geoff put a finger to his mouth and gestured for me to stop. So I stopped, watching him trot ahead to the ratty wood-beaded curtains that separated the kitchen from the rumpus room out back.
‘Love?’ Geoff said, sticking his head between the the curtains. ‘It’s time to come out now. The fella I was telling you about’s here. He brought you ﬂowers. They’re real pretty. They’re—’ Geoff swung back to me. ‘What kind of ﬂowers are they, mate?’
‘Roses? Daffodils? Daisies? What, mate?’
‘I don’t know, Geoff. Tracey picked them.’
Geoff’s head burrowed again between the curtains. ‘Yeah, not sure what type of ﬂowers they are. But they smell nice. Carn, love. Come have a look.’
There was the sound of someone moving forward from the back of the room.
I held up the ﬂowers. I made sure I had a welcoming smile.
Then through the curtains I saw it: a whopping great kangaroo up on its hind legs.
‘Mate.’ Geoff ‘s face swelled with pride. ‘Meet Shirl.’
The three of us sat in silence at the kitchen table. To my right was Geoff, hunched forward, eyebrows furrowed, picking at the label of his beer. Across from me was the kangaroo, sitting tall in a chair, its tail plonked on the lino, its huge dark eyes staring at the ash-stained table. Above us on the wall a clock carved out the seconds. Somewhere in there Geoff said something about the weather. I agreed with him, whatever it was he’d said. Things went silent again and we sipped our beers.
Eventually Geoff burst to life, clapping his hands and announcing, ‘Alright, Shirl, how about we chuck on those party pies! Liven things up a touch, hey?’
The kangaroo rose from its seat and hopped dutifully to the fridge. It proceeded to empty the pies onto a my, load the tray into the oven and shut the oven door. It then hopped to the pantry and collected three plates and a bottle of tomato sauce. When the kangaroo noticed me watching, I averted my eyes and asked Geoff how things were at work.
‘Yeah good, mate, good.’ He swivelled in his seat and waved his empty stubby in the direction of the kangaroo.
‘Another beer please, love. Actually, make it two. Our visitor must be dry after his long drive.’
I tried telling Geoff I didn’t need another beer. But his beady eyes were twinkling and he was leaning back in his seat, telling me about the night he met Shirl.
‘I was on the Murray, mate—at the same spot we camped at last Cod Opening. Anyway, one night I thought I’d go for a bit of a drive, you know, take a look around, see what was out there. Lo and behold, maybe half an hour in, Shirl comes bounding out of the scrub, right into the glare of my headlights. I looked at her. She looked at me. As they say, mate, it was love at ﬁrst sight. Wasn’t it, Shirl?’
I flinched when I realised the kangaroo was standing above me.
‘Shirl decided to move back with me that same weekend.’
The kangaroo held out the beer to me with its meaty paw.
‘Few teething problems initially, mate. But otherwise things’ve been fantastic.’
‘I have to piss, I blurted out, squeezing by the kangaroo and hurrying through the dark hallway. I wrestled open the toilet door (the top half was completely off its hinges) closed it behind me and stood trying to gather my thoughts.
I hadn’t made a lot of headway on the topic when there was a knock at the door and Geoff asked, ‘Everything alright in there?’
I flushed the toilet and opened the door slowly.
Geoff’s ruddy face swooped in from the darkness. ‘You okay, mate?’
I nodded, forcing a smile.
‘So,’ he whacked a playful hand against my ribs. ‘What d’ya reckon?’
I made out like I didn’t know what he was talking about.
‘About Shirl, mate.’ Geoff’s face couldn’t have been more than thirty centimetres from mine. His ragged stubble was all wet and glistening with beer.
‘What I reckon, Geoff,’ I said as gently as possible, ‘is you’ve gone and shacked up with a kangaroo. Domesticated the thing too by the look of it.’
Geoff reeled violently away, as if I’d stuck a knife in him.
‘Oh drag your mind out of the gutter, you blind bastard.’ He lingered in the dark for a while, hands on hips, his arms a grisly mess of cuts and scratches. The only sound was the clatter of plates and cutlery in the kitchen.
‘Look, Geoff, I’m sorry, mate. But—’
He wheeled back around at me, his eyes hurt. ‘You remember what you told me the night I knew for sure Jacki wasn’t coming back?’ When I said I didn’t, he pointed a ﬁnger in the direction of the kitchen and said, ‘You sat with me in that room and told me there’d be plenty more fish in the sea.’
‘Yeah, okay. But what’s your point?’
‘My point is, mate, I’ve found her. I’ve landed the catch of the century.’
‘Geoff,’ I said. ‘It’s a bloody kangaroo.’
‘Jesus!’ Geoff stabbed me in the chest with his ﬁnger.
‘Just because you’ve got Tracey driving you into the ground over there, don’t take it out on me.’
‘Tracey? What the hell’s this got to do with Tracey?’
Things went silent between us.
‘Get here,’ Geoff hissed eventually. ‘Want to show you something.’
I followed him to the kitchen door, which was slightly ajar.
‘Now look at her.’ A ball of Geoff’s spit landed on my cheek. ‘All that rubbish you were going on with—not looking her in the eye, not accepting the beer she brought you—you’ve hurt her feelings, mate. Look. Go on. Look at her.’
I peered through the gap at the kangaroo. Sure enough, it did look pretty downcast as it stood hunched over the sink, washing the dishes.
‘Give her a proper chance. For me, mate. And for you too. You’ll see.’
EC: Thank you, that was great. I wish we had a round of applause! Can we edit that in? (APPLAUSE). So, tricky for a collection of short stories, but how would you summarise Shirl for the people listening who haven’t yet read it?
WM: Yeah, sure. So, I mean, Australiana satire would would come close to it, with fabulist elements in there. So there’s a lot of what ifs posed in the collection, that the sort of, the stories all start out from big what-if questions and sort of go into this crazy world from there, as in the story I just read. So, um, I guess that there’s also an element of the yarn style in my stories, which, yeah, comes from, I grew up in outer suburban Melbourne, so it’s very big part of my upbringing, so I’ve only realised just recently how big a part that style has played in my writing.
EC: Absolutely. And it’s not just this one, but a number of the stories in Shirl are kind of concerned with what it is to be a man, and more specifically an Australian man. So in the context of your writing, how do you kind of define that Australian male energy, that you do kind of rip to shreds in this a little bit?
WM: Yeah…how do I define it. I guess, coming back to the question of what the stories, of the fantastical elements, I like to place weird things in there such as the kangaroo in the story to get at these things, to test these guys out, to sort of, the weird things really are only meant to shine a greater truth on the man, and the masculinity of, in these stories. How I’d define them, um…yeah, I’m not so sure, I’m sorry, I don’t have a great answer for that one.
EC: No, that’s okay. I think they’re all kind of, like, you do see a different side of that masculinity with with these kind of curve balls you throw, so you’ve got mermaids and alien wives, and things that come in, and it does it does show another side of the men, because if you go on in that story, ‘A Night Out’, he kind of, he does soften to this kangaroo and he has a really nice time.
WM: Yeah, that was one of the things too, that as this the collection went on, I was really trying to take it from pure satire—I didn’t want to be just taking the piss out of these guys. So as the stories go on, there’s a sort of a deeper emotional world that’s revealed about these guys. And that came in drafts six, seven, eight, nine, way down the track, but that sort of deepening of them to be, you know, fully three-dimensional guys that, um…you know, have feelings and react to these things and are really run through the, through the mill by these things, yeah.
EC: Absolutely. In ‘A Night Out’, which we just heard from, it is kind of implied that, that this man Geoff would sort of rather be married to a kangaroo than a human woman. Is that kind of a, I thought that was quite a sharp criticism of men like that, like the kind of yobbo, sort of rougher men out there.
WM: Yeah…I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what, what’s at the bottom of that story. But sure, that’s one of the very valid interpretations of, um, the sort of man I grew up under, the mateship thing was a more valuable relationship than with the partners they were married to, and was that what they were really looking for? Yeah, it wasn’t purely about that, but that was one of the things that was on my mind, the sort of things that play out in that story. Yeah, were those guys after something different? I don’t know. Yeah.
EC: Mmm, absolutely. Where do you sort of, what do you take from the Australian literary canon, specifically, in Shirl?
WM: Sure. So I’m hugely influenced by Peter Carey’s early short stories. So they’re 40 years old now, but I remember reading those in my early twenties and just being rocked by them. It’s just in sharp contrast to the kind of solemn, minimalist realism that dominates a lot of Australian short story writing, and that was something completely else. And then later, when I started to actually work on the collection, I came into contact with a number of great Australian writers. Ryan O’Neill, Jane Rawson, Wayne McCauley, Julie Koh, who were doing the kind of things that I was just starting to consider doing—the strange, the fantastical, the humorous. Tackling big things, still very much engaged with the culture, but with a bit of a lightness of touch and strangeness, was really, and they were, they were my influences, absolutely.
EC: I’m really glad those are all so contemporary as well, that’s, that’s really nice.
WM: Yeah, yeah, like, so I really, um, I gave up writing for a while, and I didn’t start again until about 2013, and so…and I was really frustrated by looking through the stories that were published, that just, because they just, I just didn’t feel like they were for me. And then I found these writers I just mentioned, as well as another story magazine called the Canary Press, which was just…hit me, you know, that was such a momentous time and it came at the right place for me, and they were the right kind of stories, and Robert Skinner with his editorials articulating these same frustrations about Australian short story writing just changed my life. Absolutely.
EC: Because all the things you’ve mentioned, and of course the stories in Shirl are quite, like, big, bright, vibrant stories. They’re not that kind of really quiet suburban, like…
EC: …Gardening story or whatever. Not to say that those can’t be beautiful, but it’s a different thing.
WM: No absolutely, absolutely, and that’s, I’m not trying to say that either, as well. It’s just you’re attracted to certain stylistic things, and that was what I was attracted to.
EC: Yeah, and it’s good to have like range in a scene as well, in that way.
WM: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, there’s a whole theory of short stories, that they are like, I’ve heard it said that it’s like a piece of sand through your fingers, or they’re just tiny moments in time. And again, that’s fine. But I want stories, my short stories, and I love other short stories that are larger than that. And I see no reason why short stories have to be small. I think they can be large. I think they can be big experiences. Yeah.
EC: Absolutely. So just to sort of shift to a bit of shop talk, I guess, what was the book’s journey to publication? Because it’s kind of an interesting one, isn’t it?
WM: Yeah, sure. So I’d sort of worked on the stories alone for four or five years, had a few of them published in magazines, which was, which is just a major thing, and having the work there gives you confidence—and I saw that the VPLA, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript were accepting entries. And I only had 37,000 words at that time, and so it really wasn’t on my radar. And I stumbled across a Wheeler Centre podcast called ‘Rough Diamonds’, where three previous winners, I think, got up and spoke about their experience of the whole thing of winning it. And Melanie Cheng has spoken about Australia Day, and she’d submitted almost the same word count that I had. And so I thought, well, I may as well. I’d been in a bit of a rut, I’d only written one story in the previous year. And so I submitted to that, and I was lucky enough to be shortlisted, and the very same day that you’re shortlisted you hear from publishers, and you hear from agents—and I’d heard all these stories, and, and it’s, it’s as real and as crazy as everyone says it is. Yeah.
EC: What does it feel like to have your work acknowledged through something as, like, prestigious as the VPLAs?
WM: Oh, massive. If having a story published in a magazine that I admire, such as Kill Your Darlings, like, is a massive confidence boost, something like that? I barely slept for the six weeks that, like, the shortlist was announced through to the winner being announced. It was such a great thing. Like, I mean, everyone in writing at some level is searching for validation that their work is actually half decent. So it meant the world to me, and so I needed to, I was aware that the collection was slim, and I was going to need to write more stories, it was going to be published. So that shot of being shortlisted, I went away and I was able to write again for the first time in ages. So it was good.
EC: That’s so nice.
EC: And this is, like, a prise that has brought about a huge number of commercially successful books, so like The Rosie Project, The Dry, The Nowhere Child, which is another Affirm book…
WM: Yeah, yeah.
EC: And actually one of our recent First Book Club authors Alice Bishop, her book was, I think shortlisted, or…
WM: It was.
EC: …A mention. Do you sort of feel like you’re in quite good company, being in that cohort?
WM: I do, I do. I’m still pinching myself that actually happened. The night that I got the phone call about that, I was at home and I was cooking dinner for my kids, and I sort of—there’s these stories that go around that you hear a week out from a shortlisting, and it sort of had passed that, and I’d sort of mourned and given up, and then a phone call came in at five o’clock at night while I was cooking dinner, and it was just a real few moments where, out of body, I didn’t believe it would happen. So yeah, and being in that company is just amazing. Yeah.
EC: So back to the kind of surrealism of the stories, many of the stories in this collection are quite surreal—what sort of makes you lean towards this kind of writing, not even just in that Australian context, in a more broad literary context?
WM: I just think that’s the way my imagination goes. When I was young I read a lot of the, I read all the Paul Jennings short stories when I was a kid, which all take those turns, you know, all have the huge twists at the end, and are quite humorous, and I also absolutely fell in love with Gillian Rubinstein’s Space Demons and Skymaze, about a bunch of kids that are literally pulled into a video game and it becomes real. And I guess my imagination was shaped, and I don’t know, I’ve tried to write another ways, it’s just the way it comes. As far as the surrealism thing? Um, I guess I’m not, with the stories I’m not so much into out-and-out surrealism as really trying to ground them in a recognisable reality so it’s all believable, and you know, like, the Magic Realists, that was one of their big premises, of everything being super grounded in almost mundane reality. That’s, I want the stories to be real, that is feel real for me, I want them to feel real for the readers, I think you just buy in more of a story that’s just not over-the-top crazy. And I know there’s stacks of over-the-top crazy in my book, but it’s always those later drafts is trying to rein that in and just bring in some sort of reality and logic to the world’s.
EC: Absolutely, and they’re all presented, these crazy situations, in quite a, as you say, in like a bit of a mundane way—like just going over to your mate’s house for dinner and there’s a kangaroo wearing a football jumper there.
WM: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And just getting in all the details of that world that the stories are about, because they’re almost more about those things than the weird twists. As I said before, they’re to shine a light on suburban backyards and those houses like the one that I read from, and that world, it’s sort of trying to tip it upside down and see it anew through these strange ways. And the stories that have succeeded, the stories that have made the book are the ones that have that deeper resonance than being purely just a strange story, I think? Yeah.
EC: Mmm. Now that I’m thinking about it as well, they are, they actually are kind of like grown-up Paul Jennings stories in a way. Like, I’ve never gonna forget that.
WM: Yeah! Yeah, like that’s totally real. I read those to my girls, I read those to my girls.
EC: They’re so good.
WM: Oh, I still love them! It’s all there. It’s…I sort of drifted away from adult fiction, and when I was reading I was reading lots to my girls, and I think it fed into the work. It really really did.
EC: Totally. Oh, I think it definitely did. I hadn’t thought of it until before you said that, but now I can’t, yeah, it’s there. You sort of, in the last story of the collection, you blur the lines between reality and fiction quite, in a quite an interesting way. What happens in this story? And why did you choose to write it in this, in this very specific way that you did?
WM: Yeah…so this, the story’s called ‘Weekend in Albury’, it was the last story that I wrote for the collection. When I signed with Affirm Press we needed four stories in about four months, and so I dove in, and I was very aware that I’d came to the last one, and I was sort of stalling, and I needed another story. Um, I had wanted to write about an Australian female writer for a while. A, you know, it’s a very blokey collection, I just wanted a bit of gender balance there, but I’d just been attracted to this story about a writer called Wendy. And I tried it in a lot of different ways, very magic realist, very…and I just couldn’t bring in that reality that I was talking about. It just didn’t, it just didn’t work. And then somehow, um…there’s a story in the collection called ‘Gibson’s Bat ‘n’ Ball’, which is about a sports theme park and the operator’s troubled relationship with his dad, I guess, and that was reviewed, that was in a Going Down Swinging, and it was reviewed, with the first story that I had reviewed. And the writer had said that the theme park was ‘a monument to a broken marriage’. And the truth of that, the eloquence, but the truth of that struck me too. And the thought that, maybe this is where I’ve been heading all this time, because my parents broke up when I was 15, and somewhere along the line, the Wendy the Australian Writer story wasn’t quite working. And I was out walking one day in Yarraville with my girl in a pram, and it was sunny and nice, and I was feeling good, and somehow the voice of putting myself into the story, making it metafictional, blurring my family history with this fictional Australian writer, Wendy Alice Thompson, and I just started writing it into my crappy phone, and it just poured out. And it was, I’ve never had a story before that has flowed out like that, and it wasn’t until I’d finished the draft, and it was in the best shape that a first draft I’ve ever had, that I started to worry about, what the hell have I done, you know? It’s, it’s fiction, but it’s also, it also touches on a lot of things that really did happen, and real people, and so I got a little bit terrified. Obviously, you know, my mum was my first person that I showed that story, to get the okay, and she loved it, and so that was a massive relief, because I loved the story and I would have hated to have canned it. And it was just on a totally different angle than what I’ve written with the VPLA shortlisting, totally different story, and I just felt like the collection needed, needed that, to close with something very different, but brought it full circle almost.
EC: Yeah, because it is a total change of pace.
WM: Yeah, it is.
EC: And how did Affirm feel, getting that, that first sentence that says, ‘You have four months to write short stories for Affirm Press.’
WM: It’s so weird, right? So when I signed with them, they, the thing was, Martin Hughes said to me, ‘go as crazy as you like, and we’ll reel you in if necessary’. And so I wrote the story—and I should also say that as part of that story, so I’ve made up this whole fabricated history of books that Affirm Press have published that don’t exist! And, and I, I got pretty terrified the week that I had to submit to them. And I don’t know, I half expected a call to say, ‘yeah, we’re reeling it in, this is the time.’ Um…but I don’t think it’s ever really being discussed that much. It was just, I sent it, and I received a few phone calls of how much they love the newer stories, because there were a few, there was another one, ‘Levitation’, that is in a completely different way, again, against the tone of the rest of the collection, and I was really worried about how they were going to receive those two stories. It was really worried, I felt like the stories were strong, but they were totally different, but no, they’re fine. And then, as part of the whole fabricated publication history for a book that doesn’t exist, Affirm were also cool with making up a forthcoming book at the back of the collection, and they went ahead and made the cover, and like, they’re just amazing. Like I said, I love working with them, there’s a freedom there that’s just great.
EC: That’s lovely. Was there a favourite story in the collection to write, for you?
WM: Yeah, I really love ‘Gibson’s Bat ‘n’ Ball’. I’ve been waiting to, like, everyone has their favourites, and so far that’s not anyone’s that I’ve spoken to. But, nah, I just felt like the imaginative scope, it took a long time to write. And it was a story that I’d been wanting to write something with that scope for a long time, and it just felt like more of a feat in terms of craft, maybe, than the other stories, other people seem to like other stories for different reasons, but in terms of just the writing, the craft, the accomplishment of it, I really love that one. That’s the sports theme park story.
EC: Brilliant. And I know we’ve spent a lot of time on ‘A Night Out’ in this conversation, but I have to ask you about the cover of the book…
EC: …Which—can you describe, because it’s a podcast, can you describe it?
WM: Yeah, so there is a man and a kangaroo dancing. Um, they’re in an embrace, their faces are quite close, there’s a glow coming off a television in the background, and if you look quite closely, you can see that it’s actually a football game that’s being shown and it’s a really old school television with a VHS player at the bottom with a coat hanger for an antenna, and um, it’s a really strange image and I love it. I was presented with two potential images, and both are really strong—Guy Shield is just a super, super talented artist, and…but this one with the man and the kangaroo was just so striking, and so perfect for it, that it was just a no-brainer—that’ll be that.
EC: And I know a lot of people have had quite strong reactions to it. I think it’s brilliant, but I’m also very unsettled by it.
WM: (LAUGHS) Fair enough.
EC: Why do you think that it causes such a, such a strong reaction in so many people?
WM: I don’t, I mean, it’s just a truly bizarre image. And it’s being played for real, I think—I think that’s the strange thing. I think that’s what was so great about the artwork, is it’s comic but it’s also for real, the kangaroo and the man are quite serious in this scene. So I think that maybe that’s unsettling some way too.
EC: It’s a very tender moment.
WM: Yeah it is. That’s the contradiction, right? Like, it’s a crazy, silly thing, but there is something that transcends it that is tender about it, which is great. I’m so glad that they were able to achieve that.
EC: Absolutely, it’s yeah, it’s quite remarkable. And this is going to be perhaps a dreaded question, but are you working on anything new now?
WM: Yeah, I am. I mean, it’s so embryonic that I don’t even know what form it’s going to take yet, whether it’s going to be a novel or a bunch of short stories linked, um, and it’s still really early. I started work on it in the middle of last year. But yeah, when the promo stuff winds up for Shirl, I can’t wait to get back and write. It’s been a little while since I’ve written a story, so I just can’t wait to fall back into that world and find, you know, the next dream to fall into. Yeah.
EC: And for people who have read the book, what do you think that they should be picking up and reading next?
WM: Of someone else’s?
EC: Yes, someone—oh, you know, someone else’s, because you don’t have anything else out yet! (LAUGHS).
WM: No, that’s it. Of someone else’s…I read, what have I been reading? I read Joan Smokes by Angela Meyer the other day, and I love her work. Yeah. Um, what else have I been reading? I read Sean O’Beirne’s story collection, which is really funny, really playful, all the things that I love.
EC: That’s kind of in a similar vein to this, in terms of like the satire, and the Australiana…
WM: Yeah, it really is. Yeah, there’s some sort of kindred spirit there.
WM: Yeah, and I just love the playfulness of it, and it reminds me a bit of the formal experimentation of, say, Ryan O’Neill’s work, and his story collection The Weight of a Human Heart, which I absolutely love. So yeah, I really enjoyed that, and I’m reading Dominic Carew’s, on the train here tonight, story collection, No Neat Endings, which is great too, similar terrain. So it’s weird that there’s this flood of story collections right now.
EC: Mmm, there are.
WM: But it’s exciting, I mean, you know, that the publishers are taking on story collections, and really promoting them well is a fantastic thing.
EC: It’s really great, and sometimes there’s a strange resistance to short story collections, which I just don’t…I don’t understand or appreciate?
WM: (SIGHS) Oh, I don’t either! There’s so much! That’s, you know, you hear it from booksellers that you would hear it all the time, like, ‘I just don’t buy short story collections’. There’s so much that they’re missing out on, there’s so much great, great stuff. It’s such a shame that people are just—some people—are switched off.
EC: Some people, some people.
WM: Yeah, yeah. Not everyone.
EC: Because they’re perfect for busy people, and it seems to be people saying ‘I’m too busy to read short stories’, which, you know, you can pick it up, put it down, you don’t have to make a huge commitment.
WM: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And they’re just different beasts than novels, they’re like a different art form. So they have different things to offer, I think. They’re not just tiny cuts out of what might have been a novel, I think they can do really powerful things and stand on their own. And there’s you know, a huge argument that people publish a short story collection and it’s merely a stepping stone to something longer, and I don’t really see it that way at all. I love the form, and I want to stand up for it, I really love it.
EC: Well, I think that’s a really nice note to end on. Thank you so much for coming in today Wayne, it’s been really nice talking to you about the power of the short story.
WM: Thank you so much.
EC: And these are powerful short stories.
WM: Thank you, Ellen, thank you.
AC: That was the March First Book Club edition of the Kill Your Darlings podcast. We’ll be back soon, but while you’re waiting you should drop in on the Kill Your Darlings website for new commentary, criticism, memoir, interviews and reviews. If you’d like to support independent Australian publishing, why not take out a subscription while you’re there? See you next time.