Cate Kennedy

Cate Kennedy and me at the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in Vienna, July 2014.

 

Cate Kennedy is an Australian author based in Victoria. She graduated from university of Canberra and has also taught at several colleges, including The University of Melbourne. She is the author of the highly acclaimed novel The World Beneath, which won the people’s choice award in the NSW premier’s literary awards in 2010. She is an award-winning short-story writer whose work has twice won The Age Short Story competition and has appeared in a range of publications, including The New Yorker. Her collection, Dark Roots, was shortlisted for the Steele Rudd award in the Queensland premier’s literary awards and for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. Kennedy is also the author of the travel memoir Sing, and Don’t Cry, and the poetry collections Joyflight and Signs of Other Fires. Her latest book is The Taste of River Water: New and Selected Poems, published in May 2011, won the Victorian premier’s literary awards CJ Dennis prize for poetry.

 

 

McVEIGH
Your short story “Cold Snap,” ended up in The New Yorker. It’s an extraordinary story and you know it right from the beginning. There’s something about unhappiness, the pain of childhood, and the wider context of the gentrification of this small town. Do you know when you’re writing a story like that just how special it is? A feeling that tells you ‘this is it!’.

 

KENNEDY
Very occasionally, I do feel that surge when it’s a special story. I have a moment of confidence where I know exactly what has to come next and I can feel that’s about those heavy levels of subtext. In “Cold Snap” it’s when the father makes the kid burn his hands and then tells him to go tell his friends. When I wrote that scene I thought, I can just see where this is going. It doesn’t happen very often. I could see the potential for that bizarre ruthlessness. It’s not relentless or out to hurt us, it’s just itself. And he is that force of nature. He is the antidote for the bad thing. He is like the child operating on behalf of the natural world. So I did feel something else going on that I wasn’t expecting.

I had a look at the comments on The New Yorker. People referred to this futuristic, dystopian work and I was like, ‘It’s nothing like that’, it’s just that it has that chilly acknowledgement that nature is going to outlast us and nature is trumping everything. Just that remorselessness. Nature is remorseless and here is this small agent of nature who contains within him that same remorselessness. You are never going to win against that kind of coldness. He doesn’t have that warmth. He’s in a cold town.

One thing I’ve learned about living away from urban settings is – it’s the epigram for the collection (Dark Roots): In the fight against you and the world, back the world. I’m saying the same thing all the time, in the second collection too, we are tiny limited things and we have no purchase on this bigger, great, implacable, natural world. If I was to step back and ask, ‘What are you always writing about? What is your preoccupation (which is a good thing for a writer to ask themselves, I think)? What is the bone I keep circling and burying and digging up and gnawing and burying?’ It is: sit with your powerlessness in this world. It’s great for making fiction out of because there’s nothing more compelling than someone fighting against their own powerlessness. You know that great Canadian Keith Johnson, who wrote a book on improv for acting. Someone once asked him, ‘What is the great impulse for dramatic energy?’ and he said, “Well, a character needs resistance and the best resistance is the truth.” I think that is exactly what I’m doing all the time. It doesn’t have to be a meteor trying to hit the earth or snakes on a plane, just what is the reality in this person’s face.

McVEIGH
There is often conflicting advice around write what you know. For me, my work isn’t autobiographical, per se, but I write what I know is true. Here is my truth. I can’t write
anything unless I’m absolutely sure of its truth.

KENNEDY
I totally agree with you. What’s emotionally true. Write about what you emotionally know. We’ve all had childhoods. We’ve all felt powerless. We’ve all felt lonely. We’re all afraid of death. We all don’t want to be alone. There isn’t any other material we need to cover. you want to make sure you’re honouring all the things you share. Why would I not write from my own position of my unimpeachable authority? That’s what I want. You cannot question my authority on the emotional life of these stories. They’re watertight. I think very hard about the way I’m feeling and this is how writing connects with other art forms. When you stand and say bravo to a violin virtuoso who made you cry, you are honouring those hours of invisible work, the loneliness, solitude and desire to connect, which has gone into that small distillation of virtuosity and a story is exactly the same thing.

I’ve got to the point now, if you’re writing the story and you stumble upon the little truth lying there, put that in. Now your experience is mirroring that which your readers experience is going to be. If I can have that experience when writing I can be pretty confident that if I do that well enough and get out of my own way then the reader will have the same surprised experience of discovery. It’s not what you’re expecting, but it feels right. Weirdly inevitable. Otherwise, it’s just not finished.

McVEIGH
I love your openings. They draw you right in. For example in “The light of coincidence”: ‘I’m not one of life’s success stories.’ You are right in a character there. For me, what you do in the opening is state clearly what you don’t in the ending. You say, Here’s my territory, here’s my character, hear their yearning. At the end you become more esoteric about that. You start with this clear point, then open out, especially in the later stories.

KENNEDY
The only way to make you follow the story into your own life is to be metaphorical. I’m not going to give you the answer. I’m not going to give to you on your terms. I’m going to leave that like a little plate on the table for you and back away. I don’t want to tell you your emotional response. I don’t want that as a reader. That’s the difference with non-fiction. Someone is making a claim. you can’t do that in fiction. In fiction, you aren’t making a claim, you are making an offer. We are always seeking correct metaphor. The more nuanced I can make that, the more I rely on you the reader, for me to understand how that turns a key in you. It’s like saying, I’m not going to present you with a bunch of flowers, I’m going to plant this seed in you, that’s how trusting I am. I’m going to plant it in you and go away and the seed of the story is going to blossom in you. I hope. It’s not going to work for everybody. For those it does, they feel that it’s utterly truer than real life.

McVEIGH
How much does a writer need to know when they set out on a story?

KENNEDY
I think when you start out you are very insecure about all that. It’s excruciating for your unconscious even to be heard in that process, because you are in this straight jacket of control, because you’re so far out of your comfort zone, floundering in an area that you’re actually afraid of. On another level you should be writing the stories you are afraid of, you should go there, I think that’s going to be a better story really. You don’t have to analyse on a conscious level. Our memories operate in a story-like way. So it encourages you when two things are stuck together in your mind. That calm curiosity is not the same as wanting to pull the engine apart. You just put it down and see where it goes. You can always take it out later. Nothing is a waste of time. I don’t want to rewrite a manuscript, I want to uncover the extraneous stuff and get back to the little glowing beautiful thing, to do honour to that first thing that was there in the first draft.

McVEIGH
You mentioned that your stories never have urban settings and there are other arenas that your stories tend to occupy. They are usually domestic stories, but there’s often a wider engagement with the world we live in. You come across as an author who is very socially aware and politically engaged with the way the world works.

KENNEDY
Yes, though that’s one way to kill a story – get a couple of sock puppets and get them to have a political argument but, yes, I am interested in domesticity. I’m interested too in that pejorative, dismissive attitude to that subject matter by many reviewers and critics who think we should be writing on a grander scale or I should be writing on their behalf. They want me to have a different subject matter and they wish I would move on, but I feel like I want you to read more carefully. I want you to read this as carefully as I’ve written this, really, but I don’t think they are. They’re not thinking in those terms. I think the small ordinary thing that breaks open something extraordinary about our bigger battles with ourselves is really interesting because I’m from a generation of people for whom there’s this overriding idea that I can’t do anything in the world until I sort out my own stuff and I really want to do this work on myself. I think that is just crap. I think it’s the operating in the world that’s going to fix up your stuff. So I’m completely at odds with politics as a kind of self- development.
I love characters who suddenly realise they are powerless, who are working out how to operate in a world where things are out of their control. Again, everything is a story. I love talking about story but I don’t feel like that myself – no-one wants to listen to an artist talking about how they stretch canvas, how they mix paint – just get on with it and do your thing. Make the thing. Don’t give us the preamble. Commit. I find that quite a political thing to do. I wish writers would spend a lot more time asking, Why am I doing this? rather than, How? We get so caught up in expertise, that’s all well and good, but why are we doing this? Why are you digging wells when people have no clean water? Why aren’t you doing something more useful in the world?

McVEIGH
I guess, that’s what I was trying to get at earlier. Is that one of your motivations. Is that your fight? Is that part of what makes you want to write?

KENNEDY
When Dark Roots was published there were no short story collections being published in Australia. There were only competitions. I was working as a librarian, working in a second hand bookstore, because I am a reader. That’s what I love to do. I could happily just read for the rest of my life. I began to write stories for competitions because it was like an exercise in a craft, but I didn’t have that burning need to write. It was when I went to Mexico – and it’s so ironic isn’t it, you don’t get what you want, you get what you need – I went to work in a micro-credit co-operative with people who had nothing. Those people were unable to horde. One of the things we were trying to encourage them to do was to save. They lived in a society where, if you saved $100 then you could wake up one morning and that was worth $10 because your president has fled to Ireland with everything the country owned. So if people made any money they wanted to spend it. You didn’t save up and buy a washing machine – you had a party. We were saying, if you save with our co-operative when your children get older, they can go to secondary school. And it made me see my problem with having any kind of creative life was that I was a hoarder. I was a hoarder with my own assets. A miserly little person who had this wallet of ideas and I would count them every morning and dole out one for this thing or that. I was a miser. And that is nothing but grief, down that path. The amazing thing that happens when you spend it all, when you put everything you’ve got into that next story, everything you’re hanging on to, make it the best thing you can do, don’t worry that you’ve got nothing else to save, because tomorrow, when you wake up, like a well, it’s rising from beneath. Better ideas. Better currencies. Better things than you’ve been hoarding in that little purse of yours. Don’t be a miser. Be profligate. Spend it all. That was a gigantic turning point for me. That made me realise I really wanted to do this. And I wanted to do it even if it meant self-publishing and getting a blanket on the ground and giving it away.
I was really not hungry for success, but hungry to give it away. I would have done anything let you see how I feel. If I could have written a song I would have sung it to you. So I wrote poems. I remember having this self- censorship. I felt like a fraud. How could I write poems when the world needs clean water? Eventually, I thought, maybe you should write poems that are like clean water and that is why my book is called The Taste of River Water, because that’s all I can do with writing. I just want to give something really small and quenching and that you didn’t know that you were thirsty for. So you get right into the whys and forget all about the hows. And, if you do that, you can write a much better poem or short story. What are we actually thirsty for? That’s what the water’s about.

 

Like Outlaws! Me and Cate Kennedy under a mural of Ned Kelly, in Australia.

 

McVEIGH
I believe, as a writer, your personal philosophy, your truth, is very close to your artistic one, your voice, your work. your story “angel” is written in the voice of a Korean refugee. Did you worry about writing from that point of view? How do you write that with confidence?

KENNEDY
I wrote that story years ago and wasn’t at all confident that it wasn’t going to feel like ventriloquism in the worst possible way. I never read that story aloud because I still can’t feel I own that voice. Everything, except the murder in that story, actually happened in a place I used to work. Ordinary life is so rich and there’s always something story – like in the way our memories order that stuff. You’ve got to trust your storytelling instinct is retaining details and giving you things in a certain order so that later, when you’re looking back over that first or second draft, you’ll see something you’ve accidentally revealed to yourself. you have to trust that process. The metaphor you try to graft on afterwards is never going to feel as organic as the one you tried to boldly launch into without thinking too hard about it.

McVEIGH
I found the first person a bit of security blanket when I started off. It meant I didn’t need to have my own author’s voice.

KENNEDY
Exactly. And you find your writers voice. And it’s not to do with your authority or expertise, it’s to do with your instinct for language and your intent to honour the voice of the character you’re inhabiting and not intruding and you are invisible. That’s what I want to do. I want to be transparent. Then you can focus on the prize and letting the character direct plot. That was a big breakthrough for me, to stop thinking about plotline and let the character see. Plot is the vehicle in which your character is driving your story. We need to believe in that character or their dilemmas, whatever the stakes are. you’ve got to be really clear early on otherwise why would we would we engage with anyone else’s drama? Then you want to see these things addressed – fulfilled in some way.

McVEIGH
I found that my writers voice came from the characters I chose to write about, the choices they made, the arena I wrote in.

KENNEDY
That’s so true. Yes, people go mad because everything is fluid. There’s a million strings going off in a million directions. After a couple of drafts you can’t keep making those incredibly fluid audacious changes and you need to commit, and that’s the great thing about short stories. I’m totally convinced that limitation is one of the form’s most incredible strengths because limitation is wonderful. It’s about the materials you’re working with. Other people who make art are restricted by what they’re working with: a potter has clay, a sculpture knows the limitations of bronze. When you’re a writer you haven’t got any, you’re just floundering in the massive ocean of language. It’s really easy to fumble the ball because you have no footing or containment. So you have to think, What am I going to use as my containment? I’m going to use a limited point of view or limited time frame. create limitation in my character themselves which is the cause of their dilemmas right now. The narrower you can be the more precise your desired effect can be.

I have an endless, endless fascination with just the capaciousness of the form because once its directed and driven by character, your plot opens itself up in a way you could never have predicted or controlled. I think you have to write a fair few crappy stories to realise there isn’t any magic top ten tips. There isn’t any plot device you can impose to make your work the way your instinctive trust of following character can. Dive in. You want to win someone’s heart in 10 pages – because that is what you want to do isn’t it? You’d better start your story on the brink of change. Here comes the movement, the spur to action for your character. We all understand it when we feel that surge of energy. I find it in poems as well. That surge of understanding that feels like an intake of breath.

McVEIGH
The rules of theatre work well with the short story. In a script you are usually dealing with what is not said. Everyone’s covering up what they really mean and there’s no prose in between explaining thought processes, you have to show everything with the dialogue and action. When you work with dialogue it becomes clear that people are hiding all the time and there’s a conflict or tension between what is said and what is felt/meant.

KENNEDY
What you’re describing there is plot. Plot can be described in 3 words: Things get worse. Make things worse. There’s the thing you are subconsciously striving for, you’re not thinking too hard about plot, but thinking about character and the thing in their path, which is the truth, that is the true way of working out resolution. you are not going to get what you want, but you’re to get what you need. That’s what’s going to happen to you. because the thing you want most is not what you’re going to reveal voluntarily. Isn’t that true of your life as well as fiction? For what is not said all the time in a story? Because we want to know a. we can trust our author’s authority and b. because it feels true that no one is saying exactly what is going on for them. If you bring it into the story then the story is finished. That’s actually the climax.

McVEIGH
It’s interesting too how you can play with that because, for example, if you have a character stating what the story is about, you are fooled by their disclosure, but really the story is about something else the character is yet to know. To me, it’s like the truth of the story is the body under the frozen lake. As the story goes on the ice is melting and at some point that body is going to come to the surface. It’s all about how fast the ice melts, who’s going to find the body.

KENNEDY
And we want to put character under enormous pressure, apply a blowtorch to that ice and then we are going to see something come to surface. We’re going to heat the water so it boils the subtext until it breaks the surface. The climax is better called something like the tipping point and it can be incredibly internal. but that has to be the end. From that point on it’s like I’m going to show you how the character is going to embody that change. I’ve deliberately made this framing device. It’s a fantastic medium, the short story, because what you’re doing is placing a character we care about under some kind of exquisite pressure and we’re going to watch that today. This why we’re going to have this story right here, today, in the car, on the way to the furniture store. When I get negative criticism it’s about how banal my subject matter is. Why can’t I move out of that banality of everyday life? Why can’t I write something more experimental?’ I don’t know, maybe I will, one day, but right now, I’m on the way to the furniture store.

McVEIGH
I think you experiment with time and tense. I see an author inhabiting the past, present and future at the same time. I think that’s quite a goal for a writer to somehow
show time/reality in that way.

KENNEDY
I suppose that’s right. Stylistically it’s all about what’s on the page. all about the prose and the trust relationship is between me and my reader which is a nuanced relationship and that’s what I’m striving to give them, a jolt that someone has given me. If that means inventing a word you have to do that. There’s nowhere to hide in a short story. you have to win someone’s faith and trust and love in just a little doorway of time. It’s very different to a poem. I think about the potent depth charge power of a word. Sometimes I know a story is finished because I’ve found the right word. So I’m much more interested in resolution. you were saying I write great openers, well, I see them as a foreshadowing of my promise, I’m going to take you someone good in the story. To me, it’s like a crucible. you put everything into this kind of container. all these different elements go in and you add the heat and they are going to be transformed by each other.

McVEIGH
Your endings have become less neat. There’s more like a third act now. A different energy at the end. A ‘what was that story about?’ space. You don’t spell out the end – it’s more like a breath for us.

KENNEDY
It is. It’s an exhalation. Then you’ll put the story down and go away and a week later you’ll be driving along and be like Ah! Of course I want that. I want it to be alive in
It is a poet’s heart.

McVEIGH
And you are also a poet of course.

KENNEDY
But I’m a narrative poet. I’m in love with resolution. I want to make sure, not in a heavy-fisted way, I want to be sure that it works like, On your terms, you are going to trust me enough to enter that metaphorical little slippage area and you’ve got no terms other than metaphor to address it. It’s a little butler’s gift to you. I’m just going to put it on the table and back discreetly away and I want you to follow that into the resonances of your own life.

McVEIGH
When do you know something is finished?

KENNEDY
I think it’s when you are ready to share it. The thing with short stories is that I suddenly feel this ping when I’m in touch with my subtext like a surge of energy. I know I’ve landed that story I feel like a click and it’s to do with the arrangement of that last line. I know that I am thinking about it instinctively.

McVEIGH
How do you look back on your work now?

KENNEDY
Dark Roots has some stories I now look back on and think they’re quite clunky. I put all of them in the collection because they were all successful at winning competitions. With House on Fire I look back and think they are all about fallibility. That’s really interesting to me. The way humans fail each other and keep getting up and trying. That’s very heroic to me. The decision to cope. That’s enough in terms of heroism for me to create a protagonist. And dealing with a loss of something. Love or something that felt secure and it’s gone. Now what do you do? What about the aftermath of those things? A lot of stories are about the drama of an event. Event structure. I think, what happened the next Wednesday after that? That’s really interesting to me. When all the cameras are gone and there’s just a load of washing to be done. That’s when you see people being heroic. When they’re not observed anymore.

The first set of stories were written for competitions. They were polished to a glare. The second set I was happier for them to be a bit more real and experimental, I suppose. I can understand why the Teachers Federation here wanted the first ones to be studied. They’re a useful teaching device as the structure is crystal clear but I wanted to move away from stasis. provoke out of stasis is always interesting to me. It is the basis of story.

McVEIGH
What you’re working on now?

KENNEDY
I’m very happy with a novella I’ve just finished about 18,000 words. published last week in Griffith Review. Very conventional, simple chronology. I love narrative. I love seeing what I can do to push that narrative. It’s so liberating writing fiction. It’s dipping into that thing we’re all experts at if you we just shut up and let it run away a bit. I’ll just tell this story, that’ll be fine for now and, later on, I’d like to think I’m going to rustle something up with no recipe that’s going to surprise even me. I hope so. I look forward to it.

McVEIGH
So do I.

KENNEDY
So does my publisher!

*First published in Two Thirds North literary journal, Feb 2015 an edited by them. This interview was made possible, in part, by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s travel award.

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