SJ Norman on ‘Permafrost’: First Book Club

The Kill Your Darlings Podcast
The Kill Your Darlings Podcast
SJ Norman on 'Permafrost': First Book Club

Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For November that debut is Permafrost by SJ Norman, out now from UQP.

This brilliant collection of short fiction explores the shifting spaces of desire, loss and longing. Inverting and queering the gothic and romantic traditions, each story represents a different take on the concept of a haunting or the haunted. Though it ranges across themes and locations—from small-town Australia to Hokkaido to rural England—Permafrost is united by the power of the narratorial voice, with its auto-fictional resonances, dark wit and swagger.

Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’. Sound production by Lloyd Pratt.

Further reading:

Read a review of Permafrost in our November Books Roundup.

Read about SJ’s favourite books and reading habits in this month’s Shelf Reflection.

Permafrost is available now from your local independent bookseller.

Stream or subscribe: Apple Podcasts / Soundcloud / Google Podcasts / Spotify / Other (RSS)

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 November First Book Club interview. Our pick this month is Permafrost by SJ Norman, out now from the University of Queensland Press. SJ Norman is a writer and visual and performance artist, and they were also the winner of the inaugural Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award. Permafrost is a brilliant collection of short fiction that inverts and queers the Gothic and Romantic traditions, with each story representing a different take on the concept of a haunting or the haunted. First Book Club host Ellen Cregan spoke with SJ to ask them about the book.

Ellen Cregan: Hey SJ, thanks so much for joining me today.

SJ Norman: Thanks, Ellen. Lovely to be here.

Ellen Cregan: So can you give a brief summary of your book Permafrost, for those who haven’t had a chance to read it yet?

SJ Norman: Permafrost is a book of spooky stories, spooky, queer stories. It’s a book of hauntings, seven in total in the collection—it was more than that, there was, I think, originally ten stories in the original manuscript, I took a few out and reserved them for what will hopefully be a follow up project. But yeah, seven stories about ghosts, you know, in the broadest definition of that term.

Ellen Cregan: So when you were bringing this collection together, how did you curate it? Was it stories you already had in your arsenal, or was it stuff that you wrote for this particular project to all live together, together?

SJ Norman: Look, I wrote Permafrost very slowly over the course of the better part of two decades. I started writing this book when I was 19, and I’m 37 now, and I wrote the bulk of the manuscript in my early 20s and then sort of let it sit for a very long time, and then resurrected it fairly recently. So I have to kind of cast my mind back a fair distance in time to think about how to answer that question. I think I definitely did write these stories with a sense that they were going to be a collection, for sure, or at least I started—I started working on maybe one or two of them, some of the earlier stories, and noticed some themes and some common concerns arising, and so I definitely proceeded with the notion that they would be a collection, yes. And there are certain formal constraints and thematic concerns that unite every story in the collection. So, I think I was definitely thinking of them as a corpus of work for sure, from the outset.

Ellen Cregan: And as well as your writing, you have other art practices that you make. How does your writing practice differ from the other art that you make? Or maybe how is it the same as well?

SJ Norman: Mm. It’s tricky to answer that question, because I don’t know, it’s just a question with a few different answers. And my answer to that question can change from day to day, you know. On the one hand, there is no distinction—you know, my creative practice is my creative practice, and all of the things that I produce are limbs on the same tree. They all come from the same reservoir, they generate, you know, they’ve generated largely from the same basis of, kind of, abiding concerns for me, they’re all part of the same body of research ultimately, even though it’s quite ostensibly quite disparate. But at the same time, the practice of writing is very, very, very different to the practice of making performance or making visual art. So I have to inhabit that practice very, very differently. So…I mean, there’s always been a deep entwinement between the two, you know, there’s always been my performance practice, which is arguably what I’m better known for, has always involved text, and has always involved writing, writing has always been really central to that work—but not storytelling so much, my performance work is not text based, it is body based, I don’t use spoken text or recorded text or any performative text elements at all in my work, unless it’s being used in a very kind of concrete way. But a lot of my body-based work is accompanied by lengthy companion texts, a lot of the time, that are part of the work. So there is a relationship there between a writing practice and my physical practice. And likewise, my work as an author of fiction now is very strongly driven by the body, and by embodiment, and sort of, somatic space. So, yeah.

Ellen Cregan: I think one of my favourite aspects of the stories and of the book was the really strong visual, sort of, aspects you have in each of these stories. You write really vividly, and especially about the body. Now that you said that, I’m just kind of thinking back and you write really vividly about the body. How do you in your writing practice get yourself to that place within the text, so you can bring your reader there so successfully?

SJ Norman: Oh, look, there’s no craft to that. I couldn’t tell you. (Both laugh) I couldn’t tell you how I do that, honestly, I’m very intuitive in my practice. I don’t have, I don’t have a really kind of honed methodology as a writer. I follow my instincts. I think, you know, I can only write as close to my own skin and bones as possible, and hope that that makes it onto the page, you know. And it seems to be, it seems to be doing that. So that’s, that’s great to know that it’s landing for people in that way.

Ellen Cregan: So you talk a bit, you just spoke a little bit about writing from your own intuition. You do use a first person perspective throughout the whole collection, and I think that’s something that we don’t often see sustained through an entire collection of short stories. Why did you choose to use that eye?

SJ Norman: Mm. I think part of it was for wanting to achieve a certain degree of immediacy, wanting to, wanting a reader to really inhabit a story, to really inhabit a story, I guess, and make space for, you know, the reader to really step into. Which is a tricky thing to do with that kind of, with that first person narratorial voice, because you kind of, there’s a bit of a dance about how much you reveal about the narrator, you know, and how much space you make for the reader to inhabit the narrator’s experience, right. So I guess that was something that, that was a kind of knife-edge state I was walking in a lot of these stories. It was kind of formally interesting for me to play with. So that’s one reason. I think I also have a degree of distrust, or even repulsion, maybe, to the omniscient narratorial voice. I find it irritating in fiction a lot of the time. I actually, I have to confess, I don’t read a lot of fiction—as a reader I’m not generally drawn to fiction. I rarely if ever read novels, I’m not particularly interested in the novel as a form, I find it—no shade to novelists, and I’ve read many wonderful novels, but I find the novel to be kind of an artefact of the 19th century, you know—and is a short story, but in a different way. But there’s something about, yeah, the omniscient narratorial voice and all of those kind of received conventions of the Western literary canon that irk me. (Laugh). And as a… I don’t have a good critical answer as to why that is. All I know is that I am generally someone who, you know, I read a lot of essays, I read a lot of autofiction and ficto-critical writing, you know, I enjoy the first person voice. And, as a reader, you know. So that’s another reason.

Ellen Cregan: Again, my experience of reading this book, you manage to really balance that, the intimacy of the eye with the almost like the anonymity of the eye. We don’t really learn too much about our protagonists or narrators, and I think you’ve done that in such a beautiful way. It just has that little tinge of mystery, which I think you also said before.

SJ Norman: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting, though, because a lot of…I think the book was billed as being autofictional, or people have used the word autofictional to describe it, which is kind of peculiar, and I think it was Declan Fry that wrote a review, who, and I think, I’m pretty sure he called that out as a fallacy, which I would agree with. There is one work in the book that I would describe as autofictional, and that is ‘Unspeakable.’, which describes, that piece describes events that were, that truthfully occurred. And I would say that that’s the piece in the collection that…that’s me writing that piece, that’s an essay actually. Not to reveal too much about it, but that is not a work of fiction. Everything else in the book is a work of fiction, you know, and in every other case, there might be resonances with experiences that I’ve had, or realities that I’ve lived, but that can be, the same can be said for any fiction author, you know, you’re always drawing your work from your lived experience, right? So I thought that was kind of interesting, and it’s also, it’s funny because a lot of people keep calling it a novel, which it’s also not, at all.

Ellen Cregan: Mm!

SJ Norman: And I think there’s a…I think because there is this very particular first person voice that carries through every one of the stories, again, there’s a tremendous amount of space for a reader to either project into or onto that voice. You know, there’s a potentiality there to either read it as a singular, as the same voice, as the same narrator all the way through, or evolutions of the same narrator, or as, you know, just kind of blank spaces for the reader to put themselves into and kind of wear the story like a suit, you know, and walk around inside of that narrator’s reality. In terms of what I was trying to achieve with all of those voices—for me, they are all very different people, and they are quite, they are distinct narratorial voices. I know the backstory of all the narrators, there are clues in all of the stories as to who they are and what their perspectives might be, what might have shaped their perspectives, you know—but I’m not giving any of that away. (Both laugh).

Ellen Cregan: I think that’s completely fair enough. What I feel you also do really well is you give your reader quite a lot of trust with the way that you build these characters. And I think you also sort of give the reader that trust in the way that you have these ghosts, or these spectres or these supernatural elements. Can you speak a little bit about the role of ghosts in the novel and how you kind of—oh, sorry, ‘the novel’, we’ve just spent five minutes talking about how it’s not a novel! —through the short stories, and how you managed to, to sort of depict those ghosts in this very… almost this…this way that lets the reader choose whether they want to believe that or not. You don’t sort of have an endgame for your reader in the way that some other authors maybe do in their short fictions?

SJ Norman: Yeah, no, absolutely not. I hate that! It makes me squirm, it makes me squirm as a reader when I feel really strongly that an author is trying to tell me what to think, or trying to give me only one road in and out of an experience. I hate it. I enjoy stories that have a lot of space, and I enjoy stories that carry a kind of, a really—ugh, a word that I hate, which is archetypal—but like, or not that I hate, but that I have a complex relationship to in terms of the baggage that it carries—but, that yeah, have a kind of numinous quality, I guess. And you know, I really love, for instance—I don’t know, for instance, I’m just thinking about examples of this, like Banana Yoshimoto is an author that I really revere, for instance, and I’ve been reading and rereading her work since I was a teenager, and every time you come to a conclusion, and so the stories have this kind of like, her stories have this unique richness that you can return to over and over again. And that is a very particular kind of freedom that I think you have as a creative, be you working in, whether you’re a storyteller or an artist or whatever, working with these kind of metaphysical themes, because the point is that they are liminal narratives, right? With a, with a very… kind of evolving palette of meaning, and that’s what is exciting to me about those kinds of stories, you know, that’s what gets me going, (Laughs) as an artist in general. So yeah, no, I don’t put buttons on things, and I never will. (Laughs) I don’t personally enjoy that as a reader, or as a viewer of art, or as a, um… I’m not about to deliver that kind of experience for a reader, you know.

Ellen Cregan: One of the other things that I absolutely loved about this book was the, all the different places we get to go as readers. So there are quite a few different countries that we have in the stories, are these all places that are special to you? They’re also beautifully drawn and just really evocative.

SJ Norman: Yeah, look, place is really important to me as a person, and it’s important to me culturally, it’s important to me in a bunch of—you know, relationship to place is really very much at the centre of my writing and of my creative practice, generally speaking. Whether I’m explicitly making work about place or, you know, I think Permafrost is very explicitly about place—none of the places where these stories take place are—they’re not backdrops, they are characters, they’re antagonists, and the narrators are in relationship with those places, and the places themselves are active in the narrative and in involving the narrative, you know, they’re not just atmosphere or texture. So yeah, all of the places that feature are places that I have deep relationships with, and they’re expressed through the stories. You know, I lived in, there’s one story that’s set in Berlin, I wrote that story, funnily enough, after the very first time I went to Berlin, which would have been, oh, 2006, I guess, was the first time I ever visited—and I had such an intense experience at that place that I had to then write this story. I ended up living in Berlin for the better part of eleven years, I moved there in 2009, and I’ve been, you know, bilocated between there and other places ever since. So yeah, Berlin features in one story and then features again in the final story, more as a memory than as an actual setting. There’s a couple of stories set in Australia, the title story obviously is set in Japan, or specifically in a town in the north in Hokkaido that I spent a lot of time in when I was in my early 20s because I was doing work with a collective there, and training with dance companies in Japan. And yeah, ‘Whitehart.’ is, you know, set in regional England, again, somewhere that I lived as a young person and a space that I have a particular kind of ancestral relationship with through my father’s side of the family, though that story is very specifically kind of set in—I also don’t want to determine where the places actually are, you know, there is deliberate ambiguity and there are cues in all of the stories about the exact location, but a story like ‘Playback.’, I know exactly where that story is set, I know exactly where I’m writing it, but I also want it to remain in a mythical space for a reader. It’s a mythical rendering of an Australian coastal town, you know, or an estuarine town that could be many places. The same with ‘Whitehart.’, that could be many places in England. I know very specifically where it is, and there are very particular kind of cultural cues or breadcrumbs through the story that delineate that space quite specifically, but at the same time, I want to create that space for a reader, you know, so.

Ellen Cregan: This might be quite a difficult question, but do you have a favourite story in the collection?

SJ Norman: Um…No, (Laughs), no, I don’t. I have different relationships with all of them. I have some that I think were more successfully executed than others, I have different… yeah, they all…they all are unique spaces for me, and they really are… I’m yet to actually read the book cover to cover now that it’s in print, and obviously, reading your own work is sort of excruciating for a writer, and when you’ve spent a long time working on a manuscript, the last thing you wanted to do is sit down and read the fucking thing. But I guess, you know, when the final prints, when the final copies came back from the printer and you have a kind of, a physical object, this book put in your hand with your name on the cover, you’re then able to read what is in that book—it’s no longer a working document, you know what I mean? While it’s still on the, while it’s still… any time before that point, it’s still a working document, and there’s still, I’m still entwined and enmeshed with it. And only now that it’s a bound book and I’m holding it now in my hands am I able to read these stories and enjoy them as though someone else wrote them—because in a way, someone else did write them, you know. So with that in mind—sorry, this is a really long and circuitous answer to your question (Both laugh)—I’m only now kind of really able to come into relationship with these stories as a reader. I can’t think about them really without thinking—prior to this I couldn’t really think about them without thinking about the process of writing them, you know. And they all bring up different feelings for me, you know? Some of them were really difficult. (Laughs) Some of them were really, really difficult. ‘Playback.’ was an incredibly difficult story to write, it took a long time. It’s formally a bit different to the others in the way that it plays with temporality and shifting between different sort of tenses, you know, which none of the other stories do. All of the others are very…sort of, with the exception of ‘Stepmother.’ are very strictly first person present tense. And you know, I really, I really struggled deeply with that story, and it was also my return to writing after, like, a ten year block, you know? And you know, maybe that one, maybe I have very tender feelings about that one for that reason, you know? At the same time…I don’t know, it’s actually really lovely to get feedback from readers and hear about, you know, what people’s individual favourites were, or what they thought the standout was, because everyone has a radically different answer and that’s quite lovely, actually.

Ellen Cregan: I think your…you captured how I feel about it when you said, did you say each story has a really unique heart? Was that your phrase that you used just then?

SJ Norman: Ah, I can’t remember. (Laughs)

Ellen Cregan: That’s well, I’m going to say it now, I do think that every story in this collection is so unique, and so… even though you have a distinct writing style, I felt totally different about everyone. I think for me, ‘Whitehart.’ was a really special one, but yeah, each story…

SJ Norman: That’s a, that’s a favourite for a lot of people, yeah.

Ellen Cregan: Yeah, it’s just wonderful. But I think that I spent as much time thinking about each story as I would perhaps as a full, you know, quite long novel and for a short story to, you know, command so much brain time, even though you’re not like aspiring to the form of the novel, as we discussed before, it’s just a remarkable thing to be able to do. And you did it so well.

SJ Norman: Oh, thank you. I’m really, I’m actually really happy to hear that, and I’ve had similar feedback from a lot of readers and reviewers have mentioned the, yeah, space that the stories occupy in their, or wake that they leave and that they feel bigger than what they are. And that’s really, that’s a lovely compliment. And I’m so glad that that’s something that they’re achieving.

Ellen Cregan: So we don’t think we’re going to hear from you with a novel any time soon, but can we expect…

SJ Norman: (Laughs) Probably not!

Ellen Cregan: Probably not—can we expect more writing from you? Can you talk a little bit about what you might be working on, or maybe what we can look forward to in the future?

SJ Norman: Yeah, look, you can definitely expect more writing from me. I don’t generally talk about projects when they’re in process, but I can talk a little bit. I mean, I am…I am working on a treatment for a feature film, or what will possibly maybe be a series actually, so I’m looking at doing some screen based projects with an existing collaborator of mine who has—actually Sam Icklow, who is a director, Australian director ordinarily based in LA, who adapted ‘Hinterhaus.’, one of the stories in Permafrost for a short film a few years ago, and we’re working on developing a project together now. I have a couple of non-fiction projects underway, essay collections or autofictional collections. And I think I have another, I have the basis of another short story collection in the tank, also, which I’m kind of peeking at slowly at the moment.

Ellen Cregan: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today SJ, it’s been such a delight to hear your perspective about your book, and it is a really wonderful book. If you’re listening, just go out and get it, maybe buy it from your local bookshop or your library or borrow it from a friend, but get your hands on it, it’s really wonderful.

SJ Norman: Thanks so much for having me on.

Alice Cottrell: That was the November 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 KYD website for new commentary, criticism, memoir, interviews and reviews. If you’re feeling inspired to write, then check out our wide range of online writing courses. Thanks for joining us, see you next time.