When people tell me they don’t read or like short stories, I tend to feel a bit sorry for them. And, if I’m honest, a little superior. Perhaps even a little defensive.
That’s possibly the wrong approach.
As the wise and thoughtful editor, Laurie Steed, says in his introduction to Shibboleth and other stories (Margaret River Press) his response to short-story-prejudice is not one of dismay. ‘Instead, I’m all the more committed to assuring them that it is not that they don’t like short stories. It’s that they have not yet read the right ones: those stories that sear their mark upon one’s soul, that crack one’s mind open so profoundly that the pieces may in time realign, but will never quite fit together the way they once did.’
What a beautiful idea – and a description that more than ably sums up the power of the collection’s title story, ‘Shibboleth’, by Sydney author Jo Riccioni – the winner of this year’s Margaret River Short Story Writing Competition. (Disclosure: I also have a story published in this collection)
In Jo’s story, two former lovers visit the Tate Modern in London to see the installation piece ‘Shibboleth’ by artist Doris Salcedo – affectionately known as ‘Doris’ crack’. But of course, the piece is more than simply an impressive, 167m split in the floor, it is a metaphoric symbol for the divide that now exists between the two characters.
‘Shibboleth’ is an incredible story – one of those ones in which not a single word is wasted and it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome its author, Jo Riccioni, to Book Birdy. Apart from being an author, Jo is also a bookseller and creative writing teacher. Her stories have been read on National Radio and the BBC and published Best Australian Stories 2010 and 2011 and in numerous literary journals in Australia, the UK and the US.
Her novel, The Italians At Cleat’s Corner Store, won the International Rubery Award for Fiction in 2015 and was long-listed for the New Angle prize in the UK. Her short story, Can’t Take the Country Out of the Boy, has been optioned for a short film.
Jo, welcome to Book Birdy! Can I start by asking you about ‘Shibboleth’. For a short story, there are often several inspiration points, and I’m wondering what was the ‘spark’ that came to you first for this story? Was it the artwork, or the idea of two former lovers meeting?
You’re right, the inspiration behind stories is often the melding of two or three sometimes very disparate ideas or experiences. But often for me, there is a quite a delay before those sparks become fire. In the case of Shibboleth, I saw the artwork many years before the story was written. I was visiting London in 2007 and was taken by a friend to the Tate Modern. I’d loved the original Tate Gallery as a teenager and visited it regularly, but the new Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge had been built after I migrated to Australia. London had become a very different place in my absence. Years had passed since I’d seen my friend and our lives had moved in different directions. I’d given up my job to have babies, felt caught between motherhood and making money, between two cultures, two countries, and between the past and the future. But there was no going back. Visiting the gallery and seeing Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, which explores rifts, barriers to belonging, was profoundly moving for me on many levels.
The second point of inspiration drew on my fascination with sexuality. I’ve had several close male and female friends who’ve come out at different stages of their lives. And I don’t know how many straight women I’ve spoken to about special gay friends, sometimes one they were in love with but could never have. I guess the Shibboleth metaphor began to feed into this fascination. Full disclosure here: the joke towards the end of the story about crossing the globe to see “Doris’s crack” was lifted directly from a friend. Writers are horrible thieves. It’s also not too smart to steal a lawyer’s jokes. But there you have it.
Can you describe the process of writing it? Was it drafted quickly or slowly? I sense a lot of revision and attention to detail at the sentence level – you really make every word count and I sense great care being taken with all of them – how many times did you re-edit?
Drafting? Slowly. Always very slowly. Editing? How many times counts before it becomes a clinical affliction? My stories take months, years. I’d never let go of them if it weren’t for competition deadlines. I’ve been known to use Express Post to get a story in on time. Worth the extra postage money just to accommodate that precious “panic edit”: if in doubt, cut it.
The imagery and metaphors in Shibboleth are fresh and resonant. What’s your secret?
Thank you! Perhaps my secret is always thinking they are stale and cliché. I try to push for that bit of oddness that makes familiar things feel new. I read poetry. I wish I read more modern poets, but I’m afraid I go back to my old favourites all the time because their familiarity is like comfort food for the brain: Eliot, Larkin, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Keats, Neruda, Donne, Hardy, Heaney, Shakespeare. I also get very excited about the lyrical and visceral in people’s everyday observations, like Helen Garner describing an offstage ballet dancer’s “maritime walk”, or my mum telling me how the noses of preschoolers shone with “green candles of snot” in a wintertime playground. Or a newly divorced friend recently sharing her worry about her hair falling out, saying she found balls of it “tumbleweeding into empty corners of the house”. People can be quite poetic even in everyday exchanges. You just have to listen for it and write it down before it evaporates (that happens to me a lot these days). Sometimes, I’ll read an interview and a line ends up as a post-it quote on my pin-board. I like the simplicity of this one I put up recently: “As a songwriter, all I do is make jewellery for people’s minds.” That’s Tom Waits.
You’ve also written a novel and apart from the obvious difference in length, what do you see as being the intrinsic differences between long and short-form story-telling? Perhaps asked another way – what, to you, makes a great short story?
I like novels with a beginning, a middle and an end, a sense that I have grown with the characters and that the writer has taken me with them on a journey to an unexpected yet inevitable destination. A short story might only be a beginning, a middle or an end, and sometimes not even that. They are a peek through a keyhole; spying from behind your newspaper on the train; the old days of being party to someone else’s conversation on a crossed phone line. You don’t have time for the gradual build, so you have to take shortcuts by creating a mood with very precise description, the telling detail, loading dialogue and image so they work on multiple levels. That’s not to say novels don’t do this, it’s just that stories have to distil it, fill up the shot glass and have the reader slam it in one.
You’re also a bookseller, and I’m wondering if that influences your writing? Are the two occupations compatible?
You can see my blogpost for Margaret River Press (here) for a full answer to this question, but in brief, yes, it does influence me, but, no, I don’t really feel the two occupations are compatible. Selling books and returning overstock has to be the single most dispiriting occupation for someone stuck on a draft novel. However, I do read more because I work in the shop. I have to summarize novels to sell them and that makes me very aware of what plot features, settings and character types turn different readers on, even within a genre. You become good at quickly picking reading habits and preferences, then aligning similar books (people are creatures of habit; it’s hard to get them to take a risk, even for $27.99). You realize some great novels are a bloody hard sell and some very ordinary ones roll out the door due to snowballing media attention. That’s why I think literary prizes and shortlists are important, at the very least to bring attention to books that get would otherwise get overlooked. (I do wish someone could effectively explain to me why marketing dollars in most publishing houses get prioritized for books that everyone already knows about, and why houses take on new authors, then give them a marketing budget of about $33. It’s the business equivalent of throwing a baby in the swimming pool and waiting to see if it will swim.) Ultimately, the vagaries of bookselling only reinforces even more that you should write what you want to write and not think about the other end.
Could you share with us the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
Hands down the best advice I’ve been given is to do “morning pages”. Personally, I don’t follow Julia Cameron’s suggestion to get up and write about anything as a “warm up” to your real writing. I’m not big into free-writing and loose construing, but I do think my best raw material has always been written between 5 and 7 am. Surprising things can happen in that liminal space between sleep and the full frontal of the day. Hemmingway’s trick of leaving the last writing session mid-paragraph and mid-sentence helps me get back into the narrative flow quickly, otherwise I’m tempted to re-read and slip into editing mode.
What are you working on now? Short story or novel or both?
I’m in the very painful drafting stage of a new novel, but continue to wag off school with short stories (which usually happens when I’ve bored my own pants off).
Thank you Jo. And again, congratulations on ‘Shibboleth’
To connect with Jo, visit www.joriccioni.com.
For more information about Shibboleth and other stories, visit Margaret River Press.