Cate Kennedy is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her most recent collection of stories, Like A House on Fire, was nominated for the inaugural Stella Prize earlier this year. In this interview she speaks with Madeleine Watts about her writing process, her ideas and her story 'A glimpse of paradise' published in Griffith REVIEW 42.
You've written poetry, novels and memoir in addition to collections of short fiction. What are the differences in the way you think, and work, when you sit down to write short fiction and long-form stories?
Some things seem to find their fit in a kind of singular impression, while other ideas feel more leisurely or suggest the potential for longer, deeper development. I don't really have a guiding plan about this though – the impetus is more connected to the way I've noticed something myself. Sometimes I get a jolt of recognition which makes me want to convey the particularity and singular impact of that jolt, other times I've spent a long time thinking about something from different angles, wondering why it's held my attention, what it might be telling me. Looking for a form becomes like searching for a vessel those ideas will fit best.
You said in a conversation with Helen Garner after Like a House on Fire was published, that, 'Everything's ordinary in my work … I live in a very ordinary place, a farm on a river. I listen to other people and I hear what they're saying. The gift is the ordinariness – things that are well-used, unexpressed, taken for granted. I love to look at those things in a fresh way.' How do you think your appreciation for the ordinary might have worked in writing 'A glimpse of paradise'?
Well, one of the powerful things about writing from ordinary life is the elements you select from it are immediately recognisable to people. So you can hide things in plain sight, in a way, or subvert expectation. I like the idea that I could make you, the reader, pay better attention to something by showing it to you and suggesting there's something more, under the surface. So that thing could suddenly seem funny, or poignant, or even frightening, just when you were taking it for granted and not expecting a twist or added dimension. Observational comedy does this all the time – making us laugh at what seems obvious once it's pointed out to us but until that moment has been invisible. Psychological suspense seems to work in the same way to me: the stories I always find most terrifying, for instance, are the ones that are set in completely banal and familiar places, so I thought I would play with that idea a bit.
I'm interested in how you approached the idea of the 'fairytale' for this piece. The 'fairytale' you address seems to fit the model found in women's magazines – a relationship with a wealthy, successful, attractive man, and a notion of happiness measured by the gradual accumulation of commercial grade kitchens and outdoor pizza ovens and cinnamon and tangerine body scrub. What was it that caused you to respond to the idea of 'fairytales' in that way?
In traditional fairytales, security and happiness doesn't come without a cost, and first the character is offered an illusion of security and happiness-a room full of gold, for example, or a pot that endlessly ladles out food, or a special power. We have an expectation that they will soon learn to rue the day they mistook these illusory traps for true happiness. I guess I just wanted to recast that illusion in a contemporary setting: in what guise would Bluebeard have appeared in, for instance, if the story was set in Australia today? Wouldn't it be about real estate, 'lifestyle', acquisition and conspicuous consumption? So there's a key with a tag on it, to signify that caveat to beware.
This story feels very much as though it's a contemporary re-working of the Bluebeard fairytale (although let me know if I'm wrong about that), but it also works with those cultural figures – Pandora, Psyche, Eve, Lot's wife – used to exemplify the fatal effects of female curiosity. Would you be able to speak about how those ideas came together?
Yes, it's huge fun to play with our foundation myths and rearrange them into other stories that have uncomfortable echoes of the stories we've all internalised and 'forgotten'. As I started writing the story it was the Bluebeard myth I wanted to explore, but then realised, once I'd finished an early draft, that the Bluebeard story itself was a reworking (in my opinion, anyway) of the Garden of Eden story, full of resonances of a curious individual having the freedom to do exactly what they're told, with severe repercussions if you dare step over the line. God makes Paradise and puts Adam and Eve in it, and tells them they are allowed to do anything except eat from the tree of knowledge. Once Eve does so, the state of innocence is really all over. Now they have awareness that they are constrained, that there's a world outside this small garden. And no matter how perfect it seems, once they have transgressed and broken a rule of the 'owner' of that garden, they are banished, because they have failed the test. What is that test, except to obey and not question, to deny that you want or need 'knowledge'? At Catholic school the Genesis story was always told to us as a cautionary tale, an excuse for why we had to constantly be penitent and seek to have our sins absolved, because now, thanks to Eve, (Adam always seemed like a bit of a dimwit) we were stained with original sin and therefore had to spend our lives in a kind of cringing fear of falling foul of God again. You can only live with that kind of control pattern for so long before you exhaust your 'fearful dread' quotient, question it and see how hollow it is. Another way of looking at it (ask any lapsed Catholic – if you want to live as a true adult, and act of your own volition, you had to eat the fruit of the same tree and leave that garden forever, and pay the price of wanting more than being a perpetually innocent, unquestioning child. The first white Australians to hit the soil here were banished from their own homelands for transgressions against 'the law', cast out to make their miserable way in the wilderness on the unimaginable other side of the world. Later waves of arrivals came to try to find that imagined Garden of Eden, or doggedly try to create it here, fleeing from bigger dictatorships and tyrannies. We're still chafing against constraints, irresistibly drawn to the tree of knowledge, growing up, being human.
I found the way you structured this story particularly interesting. The narrative ends just as Steven gets home, before there's any confirmation of the horror you've alluded to – the birdbath being a gravestone, for instance. By ending the story there, you leave us to imagine our own conclusion. Why did you decide to leave the story open-ended?
It's very interesting to me that you've suspected 'confirmation of horror' and wondered if the birdbath was a 'gravestone', because it suggests that your mind is running on those echoes of Bluebeard, and his history and techniques of control, filling in the negative space I've left in the story. Because nothing is there, explicitly, to suggest that this character has murdered his previous wife, or has any history of violence or psychopathic temper. The images I've used are a spade, a chain and a concrete cherub decorating a birdbath – admittedly one the narrator says reminds her of something you'd find 'on a gravestone'. In fact, she thinks her predecessor has 'broken the tether' – escaped, in other words, rather than being killed. But I've included a key that has a sensor on it, which creates a point of no return once she uses it, exactly like the female character in 'Bluebeard', and made her accidentally scratch the spade for the same effect. I've included hooks in the shed, like Bluebeard, even though these ones hold a benign, mundane collection of gardening tools. I've given the narrator a rising sense of anxiety that she's overstepped the mark, and so on. I'm hoping your memories of the storyline in Bluebeard fill in the rest of your own anxiety about what might happen next, although there's nothing to say she's not going to raise that spade and wallop him across the head with it, or that he's actually going to be really pleased to find her there. It's just that she wants out now, because finding the chain has creeped her out. The only reason I came up with the headstone image was to allow myself the line 'not dead, just sleeping' which expresses her state of waking up to herself, and to suggest, elliptically, the persona of Narcissus, who gazed at his own reflection endlessly; a sulky angel, she thinks now, with stunted wings – suggesting her sudden realisation of Steven as not godlike, not ideal. The idea of someone chaining something to the house to stop it being stolen, on one level, could just seem pathetically petty and controlling rather than evil and creepy, but there you go – the ordinary and banal can suddenly seem suffused with something extra, in this case lurking dread and apprehension, because of our legacy of myths we've internalised. I think what I've been most explicit with is the Genesis imagery – even putting that little voice talking coaxingly at her elbow like the snake tempting Eve in Paradise to keep going, to eat the fruit. If you read Genesis again, you'll see I've even given Steven God's actual words when he enters the garden at the end – God calls out 'Where art thou?' to Adam and Eve as he comes to look for them and find them out in their new, terrifying state of knowledge.
Everything in this story, and in many of your stories, feels incredibly deliberate – nothing is needless. Are you a writer who does a lot of editing and re-structuring before a piece is finished, or does the work happen in your mind before anything is set to paper?
Doing it as I write turns out generally to work better and feel livelier. I like to give readers all the imagery and elliptical suggestion I think they'll need to feel engaged on their own terms. Hope I haven't wrecked the effect by explaining it now. And I should say, I cut a lot out – I changed her job, I changed his job, I had her discovering a crawl space upstairs and hiding in it when Steven came home. All kinds of stuff.
How do you know when a story is finished?
It's very easy to come to grief at the end of a story, I've wrecked plenty by fumbling the ending. So I've learned to listen for a particular cadence, the sound of something snapping into place, I guess. Once I've felt that (and I'm sure someone else would be able to explain this much better than me in terms of essential structure, but it's definitely a feeling, not a formula) it's as final as closing a window. Everything had better be in that frame, or allow me to go back and carefully blend it into place, but it's very hard to do this seamlessly. And some things will never feel right when you try to graft them into position retrospectively – they have to be integral from the beginning.
You were shortlisted for the Stella Prize earlier this year for your collection Like A House on Fire. How important, if at all, are prizes and public recognition to the way you perceive your own work, and the way you continue to write?
Persisting with writing is the only way to develop your own distinctive voice. There's no other way, and that's what you're always striving for. It takes a long time, in my opinion, to perceive your own voice, to find your particular pitch and trust you don't sound tone-deaf to everyone but yourself. Then another desire arises: to be read. To connect with readers who will read your work and reflect on what you're trying to do. It feels like a quiet backwater, that community, far away from the blogosphere and its associated hungers for attention and recognition, or the sudden limelight of festivals or critical praise or whatever. It's just me sitting quietly in a room writing, imagining you sitting quietly in a room reading, and that's our connection. That's still where I feel happiest and where I feel I perceive my own work most clearly and feel most compelled to keep going. Of course prizes and public recognition are wonderful, but I want most of all for my stories to be read, and for people to keep reading, and sharing ideas. What's been important for me in public recognition has been the chance to meet fantastic other writers and editors and publishers and forge relationships with those people – that's the growth edge for any development.