Victorian writer, Melanie Napthine is the winner of this year’s Margaret River Press Short Story Competition for her unsettling tale, ‘Lost Boy’ – after which the anthology of shortlistees is also named. (Shameless plug – my story ‘Glory Season’ is also published in the collection!)
It was a genuine thrill to read this story, which is disturbing in the best possible way, as it reveals an uncomfortable reality about the nature of truth.
‘Lost Boy’ is the story of a police officer, Shaun Trebeck, who takes a particular interest in the case of a waif, nicknamed ‘Gio’, after the cafe where he is discovered – filthy dirty, virtually mute, and displaying animalistic behaviours.
Eventually, the case is resolved, but the ending is far from satsisfactory for the truth-seeking police constable.
Melanie, welcome to Book Birdy and congrats on your win. Can you tell me about the genesis for ‘Lost Boy’?
The idea was sparked by a news story about a young person who turned up at a police station unable to identify or explain anything about themselves. I began to think about the way in which a ‘blank slate’ of a person, with un unstable or unknowable identity would invite a range of responses – curiosity, sympathy, scepticism – that would reveal as much about the responders as the mystery individual. I was also interested in the idea that it’s human nature to seek ‘the truth’ in any situation, despite the fact that it’s rarely a clear, graspable thing and much more often elusive or ambiguous.
The story was one of those rare ones that was written comparatively quickly and easily. Although the initial version was over-long, and required editing down, so it did go through a couple of drafts before I was reasonably happy with the pace.
There is a great sense of restraint in the story. Is this something that’s typical of your work?
It’s definitely something I strive for, not always successfully. The perspective in this story helped, in that the reticent, stolid character of the police officer informed the writing style.
The ending of ‘Lost Boy’ is quite unsettling. It is quite final, yet there is a sense that the ‘truth’ remains beyond reach.
That was one of the central ideas that intrigued me when I began the story. I love a good mystery and, like most of us, I like them ultimately to be solved. But of course life doesn’t work like that, and I wanted to explore that idea of the incomplete ending, the questions that will never be answered, and the frustration and the longing this can give rise to. And I suppose as a reader, I find a too-neat ending less satisfying than one that leaves me with something more to think about after I close the book or turn the page.
Do you write as a profession or passion, or both?
In my working life I’m a publisher of educational texts for secondary-school students, a job that involves a lot of writing of a particular sort. I consider that quite separate from my personal writing, which I’ve done for many years, though in a very private, hobbyish sort of way – it’s only fairly recently that I’ve started putting my work ‘out there’.
I fit my writing in around the ordinary demands of a full-time job and a family, meaning that it happens in the evenings and weekends mostly. I’d love, but don’t have, a room of my own to write in, but I do have a desk in the corner of the lounge room and a supportive family who are very good about giving me time and space when I really need to concentrate. (But over the years I’ve also honed my ability to tune out the chaos around me, which is definitely necessary sometimes.)
Is the short story a form over which you are particularly passionate?
I love a great short story: the way it can distil a lot of meaning into a small space. I think the best examples of the form require tight, focused writing that’s evocative and understated rather than explanatory or dilatory as a longer work might be. I do struggle sometimes with overwriting, or ‘bagginess’, in some of the longer pieces I write, so I think I’m especially drawn to short stories because of the discipline they impose. I agree with Estelle Tang, the judge of the Margaret River Press Competition this year, that both character and plot are integral to a great short story: the former has to be developed very economically given the space constraints, so every word and action needs to count, while the latter should also be clear and tight, with a well-defined arc.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
The advice I’ve heard from a number of writers to ‘just write’, simple as it sounds, is also an incredibly valuable lesson that has nevertheless taken me longer than it should have to learn. It’s easy to make excuses – I’m too tired, too busy, too lacking in inspiration – but it’s absolutely true that if you just keep plugging away at it, even when you’re writing rubbish and every word is a struggle, eventually you’ll produce something worthwhile.
I also remember listening to an interview with writer Damon Galgut who described how his first drafts were almost always much longer than his final ones, how he pared back his work, removing repetition and redundancy, so that the final product achieved a notably restrained, refined style. I found his description of his process extremely useful since it articulated something I’m always working towards.
What are your future writing ambitions?
The obvious big goal is to publish a novel, something I’m working towards at the moment. I actually find the writing of a long piece of work much easier than the editing and polishing of it that’s required before it’s fit to be seen by others, so that’s the stage I’m focusing on now. But I’ll also continue writing short stories because I do enjoy the form so much. Also the gratification is a lot more immediate than it is with a novel!
For more information about Lost Boy & other stories, visit Margaret River Press