No Haunting, No Story

Josephine Rowe discusses writing Here Until August

Josephine Rowe, Here Until August.
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Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 in Rockhampton, Queensland, and raised in Melbourne. Her novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice and led to her being named a 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist. Her work has appeared widely in Australia and overseas, including in McSweeney’s, Best Australian Stories, Meanjin, The Paris Review Daily, and Freeman’s.

The winner of the 2016 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, Rowe has held fellowships with the University of Iowa, Stanford University, the Omi International Arts Center, and Yaddo. Here, she speaks to Splice masthead contributor Anna MacDonald about writing short stories, the process behind Here Until August, and the thematic and ethical concerns that run throughout all her work.

Congratulations on the publication of Here Until August. Prior to this book you’ve published two collections of short stories followed by a novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (2016). Now, with Here Until August, you’ve returned to the short story. Do you think of yourself as, in the main, a writer of short fiction, or are things more complicated than that?

Well, thank you for reading, and for being my first interview for this collection. (For better or worse, it puts you on the receiving end of all my nascent figuring out and untangling, so much appreciated.)

I think of myself as a writer who hopes to recognize — or allow for — the form and space that any given idea might best be realised through. Sometimes that recognition takes longer than expected, and we come the long way home: poems that start life as stories; stories that began as novels. Increasingly, I’m drawn to works that fall under “other” or “misc”, because we have less of a received idea about how to write and read such works. I feel surest about the works that accrue at their own pace — months or years — which are like a slow surfacing or remembering of events and images. One of the works I’ve felt closest to, in recent years, is a fragmentary poetic essay. But I haven’t written a straight-up poem in a long time, years. Poems come unbidden — something between an oceanic state and a blindside. Or a haunting. (Which is not to say effortless.) Of late, when I’m in that state, the resonance where a new poem might be is filled with that of an already existing poem. One example being Louise Glück’s ‘October’, which is excerpted as the epigraph to Here Until August.

It’s interesting to hear you speak of haunting as a part of the process of composition. Because, it seems to me as a reader of your work, that your stories and characters are often themselves haunted, and that events and images emerge, and accrue, via a “slow surfacing”. I suppose ‘Sinkers’ is an obvious example of this — this sense of what is drowned forever, what is saved and allowed to resurface in some (often unpredictable) way.

But in so many of the stories brought together in Here Until August, characters or places are haunted by past events. And sometimes, they’re working very hard not to remember. I loved the description, in ‘Glisk’, of the unexpected resurfacing of the narrator’s brother and their associated history — his feeling of “everything I’d neatly flat-packed springing up in me.” And I suppose, in an important way, I read this collection as haunted by the epigraph. Throughout the book, there is a very real sense of “returning / everything that was taken away”. But do you think it’s true that what is returned via that slow surfacing is somehow transformed by having been taken away — forgotten, flat-packed, whatever — that, returned to the surface, it then casts a newly illuminating light on the past, the present, and everything else in between?

I was brought to Louise Glück’s ‘October’ only recently, shortly before Here Until August went to print, by a friend who saw the connection with those particular lines:

I know what I see; sun that could be
the August sun, returning
everything that was taken away

The longing it speaks of belongs to a northern August, but I think the tenor carries, even on this Antipodean side of the globe. And sun in a winter August is another kind of balm, another kind of promise. Even more indelible, though, are the lines that refute that promise: 

it does me no good
to be good to me now;
violence has changed me.

And these lines are so conclusive that there is the desire to answer the poem, to reason with it:But it does, it does do good. It has to do good, or else, what is there?

I wonder if anyone considers themselves unhaunted. It doesn’t seem possible to me. And I’m not sure of the extent to which time is transformative. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Time is the longest distance between two places, except when it isn’t. Not everything that has had meaning retains its meaning. Sometimes we carry things around for years, decades (wounds or joys, grievances and triumphs, or tangible things that stand for as much) only to look at them one day and realise: This is just a jacket, or, I don’t remember anything else about that day. The spirit has flown, or whatever pain that was represented has dulled. Or we learn something new that disarms that meaning, or shifts it again.

I’m as wary of self-mythologising as I am fascinated by it. I do think we’re all susceptible to it to some degree, and there’s always the danger of becoming stymied, shallowed out by it, a resistance to adaptation because we believe ourselves to be the kind of person who, or from the kind of family that. Which is perhaps a long way of saying: no haunting, no story. Though I am willing to meet the story that can’t be reasoned back to a haunting in one form or another.

I’ve read, and loved, your work for many years, and I can’t help feeling that this new book indicates a shift in your practice, even as (if you like) it’s haunted by what’s come before. The stories in Here Until August are much longer than those in your previous collections. And although there are still clear connections with your other books — for instance, your attention to the minutiae of life as it’s lived day-to-day, your concern with incidental as well as more deliberate forms of violence, your interrogation of innocence and guilt — Here Until August does all of these things, and much more, with a new assurance. Can you tell us a bit about how this collection came together and if you think it signals a shift in your work?

The stories in August were written over about seven years — alongside the novel, shorter works, essays, and (very occasionally) poems — with the oldest stories being ‘Sinkers’, ‘Horse Latitudes’, and ‘Post-Structuralism for Beginners’; I started those before I left Melbourne for Montréal in 2013. 

But it has become more typical than not for a story to blow out, to breach the banks of whatever I’d imagined for it at outset. I think there are a few contributing factors, hard to parse, but perhaps it’s best to go into just one possible aspect here:

Those earlier stories drew more heavily on personal experience, and perhaps when writing the self, there’s less need to encapsulate absolutely everything, as there’s a sense of the ongoing. It’ll never be dusting your hands off — “That’s all I have to say about that.” Rather, “That’s all I have to say about that for now”. Alice Munro said we use up our childhoods. Maybe temporarily. But — if you look at Dear Life — not really, not entirely. Because our perspective — our relationship to the past and those who populate it — is constantly changing, as does our awareness of the ways in which it has shaped us.New evidence is continuously coming to light. Whereas in writing more wholly imagined lives, there’s a sense of obligation to realising as much on the page as possible, as there likely won’t be another chance. And in the stories in Here Until August — which are mostly about a kind of geographical dissonance, an uprooting, elective or otherwise — there’s the imperative to convey not only the lives these people are in, but also something of the place and the circumstances they’ve left behind.

The spark for some might start in real life (so to speak). ‘Chavez’, for instance, came out of a period of moderate agoraphobia, though I didn’t have such an obvious or acute catalyst for it as does Séverine, the woman in the story. But at that time I found it extremely difficult to be around other people, and to leave the apartment in general. I was living in Oakland, then, and it was all I could do to run around the lake once an evening. Then a friend had to go away for a few days, and I offered to walk his terrific, wolf-sized dog. Having that responsibility — as well as that sense of security — shifted something. I haven’t had a dog since I was small. When I took him down the street at night, the attention was on him, not myself, and I remember thinking, My god, this changes everything.

But while she and I may share some similar anxieties, Séverine is not myself, so there was the obligation to her history. Also her voice was very insistent, which is why this story is practically a novella.

I’m so glad you brought up ‘Chavez’. I think it’s my favourite story in the collection, although there’s some stiff competition. And it strikes me now that your experience of walking your friend’s dog — of the way that people focused their attention on him rather than on you and how, as you say, “this changes everything” — encapsulates the transformation that occurs between a lived experience and its representation.

But I’m also struck, in this story and in so much of your other work, by the connections you draw between the human and the non-human animal worlds. There’s a wonderful part in ‘Chavez’, when the season is beginning to change for Séverine and she is ready to “commit to” more potted plants. She says: “Chavez ruins the ones he does not care for. Or perhaps he ruins the ones he cares for too much — this issue of translation persists.” There’s so much going on in just these two short sentences. Chavez, who is a “beautiful beast”, brings into Séverine’s life a kind of wildness, which cannot easily be translated or understood, but which does her real good.

Wildness colours a lot of your work, I think, be it in the (mis)translations between the human and non-human animal worlds, or in the way that memories “spring up” regardless of how carefully they’ve been “flat-packed”, or in the way that the natural world resists our attempts to describe and make sterile sense of it (I’m thinking of that wonderful image in the final story, ‘What Passes for Fun’, of a pond that has left behind a layer of ice, after its water has drained away, which “is magic in the sense that there is no metaphor you can build out of it that will not undermine its magic”). What does wildness mean for you?

Wildness is many things, but perhaps a collective definition could be: whatever refuses or is beyond our idea of governance. That aligns with the examples you mention above. But more and more, when I think of the word “wildness”, I tend to think of its destruction or its commodification. (And too often, the destruction and commodification are linked; See this before its dies/is no longer wild, the value of an experience amplified by its guaranteed finitude.) Lately when I’ve quoted, in essays, the staggering number of extinctions within the last few years, editors have asked, Is that one too many zeros?

(It isn’t.)

Especially since moving back to Australia — where we feel the accelerating effects of climate change acutely — I’m increasingly interested in narratives that aren’t entirely anthropocentric. I don’t necessarily mean animal narratives, and certainly not the animal narratives that simply bestow animals with recognisably human attributes and dilemmas. And I don’t mean No humans! either. I just want a wider lens, and sometimes I wonder where the weather is.

I like your phrasing: a lived experience and its representation. Though I don’t really see the dog Chavez as embodying wildness. Perhaps the opposite — he brings an order, a return to normalcy. As simple as: most of us are much better at taking care of ourselves when we are considering the welfare of another (or, others). Whether that’s people, animals, plants, land, water, etc. — whatever rescues us from the confines of ourselves.

I’m fascinated by the way that art — whatever the medium — can “take us beyond ourselves”, by the intersections and diversions that are possible between personal experience and, as you described it earlier, “more wholly imagined lives”: this way of thinking about the self and the other, about art and the world, about ourselves and others in the world. And it strikes me that what allows this way of thinking — which, if you like, makes space for it on the page — are the gaps and omissions that also characterise a haunting, or a resurfacing of memory, that evidence, which as you say, “is continuously coming to light”. And these gaps and omissions are one of the aspects of your work I’m particularly drawn to. Because, even as you’re fulfilling that obligation to realise as much on the page as possible — lovely phrase — you’re also leaving space and time for the reader to make connections between the past and the present of a particular character’s life, or between the place they have come from and the position in which they find themselves at the time of narration.

There are so many wonderful instances of this in Here Until August, but I particularly enjoyed ‘The Once-Drowned Man’, a story about (among other things) a literal geographical dissonance, a crossing of the border from the US into Canada, in which evidence is continuously coming to light in a way that doesn’t really resolve anything, except perhaps the insinuation of increasing uncertainty and a sense of the terrific strangeness of the world. Do you intend these gaps and this narrative uncertainty or are they just so many elements at play in realising as much of the strangeness of the world on the page as possible?

Perhaps “getting as much on the page” is misleading; giving a sense of everything is closer to the point. The spaces are integral to that — we might even think of them as load-bearing. Purely linear narratives can be claustrophobic, and so often, to me, seem illusory. Deduction and ambiguity are functional aspects of everyday life, and I don’t see that fiction needs to offer or promise otherwise. It’s important that there are spaces and silences for a reader to wonder into. To listen. 

We are tragically limited in our knowledge of others, even those closest to us. Our understanding is restricted to outward signals and our varying capacity to interpret these, along with whatever others choose or are able to tell us of themselves, over however long a stretch of time we have with them, be it minutes or years.

In ‘The Once-Drowned Man’, I wanted us to come to know these two characters at more or less the same pace that they come to know each other, and of course that is limited to a short span of time, and relies heavily on good faith (as Man would say). And that good faith is complicated by respective agendas and mutual wariness, in terms of what they decide to reveal, though there’s a recognition and a complicity that arises from neither of them seeing themselves as belonging to America (or at least the power-holding US).

There’s the perennial debate about whether reading poetry and fiction makes us more empathetic. There are convincing, historical examples to the contrary, but in an attempt to simplify my position: please compare the president who reads to the president who does not. 

Of course, how we read — and what we expect of reading — is critical: whether we’re prepared to work a bit, and whether or not we seek out voices and viewpoints that are outside our own little echo-chambers, those that don’t necessarily reflect back to us our own experiences and pre-established positions.

I love that image of “spaces and silences for a reader to wonder into”, that sense of reading as a way of listening to the world. And, being a bookseller, I find that I’ve become much more optimistic about what and how people read. My good faith has been restored by seeing just how curious, how ready to wonder readers can be.

There’s a story of Ali Smith’s called ‘True Short Story’. I’m not sure if you know it, but since we began speaking I’ve found myself wondering into it again and again. In this story, Smith inventories definitions of the genre as given by a host of writers from Franz Kafka to Alice Munro to William Carlos Williams and beyond. This is Nadine Gordimer’s definition, as paraphrased by Smith: “short stories are absolutely about the present moment, like the brief flash of a number of fireflies here and there in the dark”. A few weeks ago, early in an Antipodean August when we were planning this Q&A, you mentioned that you’d just returned from the US and that the fireflies there had been late. Perhaps I’ve lost my way wondering into the space between your fireflies and Gordimer’s, but I’m haunted by the thought that they tell us something about the present moment. What do you think?

The Gordimer fireflies put me in mind of the photographer Gregory Crewdson, who in the wake of divorce took a hiatus from the massive productions that are his better known works, to take simple long exposures of fireflies in the Massachusetts dark. Stripping back to the fundamentals of photography, the practice and the word itself — drawing with light. I saw them as part of a retrospective, and although they were his most subtle work, I think they’ve impressed upon me more than any of his epic, filmic scenes. That idea of stripping back, going to ground. That you can — and maybe need to — do that, again and again over the course of an artform, over the course of a life. I’ve never much liked the word “departure”, applied to craft, as it makes our trajectories seem sort of lonely and amnesic.

The Gordimer quote in ‘True Short Story’ is an attractive absolute; it offers a sense of parameters, and parameters can be useful and reassuring. But it functions better within Smith’s contradictory collective — Smith tells us as well as anyone that there’s not any one thing that a story ought to do, no place it ought to stay. As a counterweight to Gordimer is William Carlos Williams — the story as “the only real form for describing the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people’s lives” (though again he uses the metaphor of a brief flash of light, the flare of a match).

To non-metaphoric fireflies: it was a very wet spring in New York, and the fireflies were late. It’s tempting to see inconsistencies in nature as being harbingers of the very real decline we’re facing. But seasons and their signifiers have always fluctuated. There are lean years and fat years. (A lasting memory of my ex-husband’s mother, in the Newfoundland autumn, noting the burden of fruit on the dogberry trees and predicting it would be an especially harsh winter. She explained the additional berries were to sustain the birds over the long freeze. And yes, was it ever a harsh winter, a polar vortex.) The trouble is that it’s hard to say what is a portent of a dissonant season, and what stands as evidence for greater entropy. Though I think many of us do recognise a dearth, comparing the menagerie of smaller creatures that populated our childhoods with how infrequently they appear to us now. We need to pay attention over longer stretches of time.

Which is also, I guess, why we need different ways of listening to the world, and which your stories in Here Until August do so beautifully. Thank you, Josephine.

Thank you, Anna!