Susan Midalia has published three collections of short stories: A History of the Beanbag (2007), shortlisted for the Western Australian Premiers Book Awards; An Unknown Sky (2012), shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award; and Feet to the Stars. She is, or has been, the judge of several literary awards, including the WA Premiers, the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and several short story competitions. She is currently a board member of WritingWA, Margaret River Press, and A Maze of Story, a volunteer organisation that encourages creativity among socially and economically disadvantaged children, and in which she also teaches. Her two greatest creative achievements, however, are her two adult sons, (neither of whom reads much fiction… go figure!)
Did you grow up in a bookish house?
No one in my family read books, but I became a very bookish child. My family was constantly on the move because of my father’s work – I went to six different primary schools as a child – and so I think I turned to books for companionship. As the novelist C.S. Lewis remarked, “we read to know that we are not alone.” I remember being entranced by fairy tales, my favourite being Thumbelina (yes, I’m very short), and, like so many children in the 1950s, I read all the Famous Five and Secret Seven novels, because of the fantasy of children being in charge of their world. (Although as a child, of course, you’re not really conscious of this.) I also devoured the Anne of Green Gables series; I remember being deeply affected by the deaths of Anne’s foster parents, and later by the death of her beloved son Walter, killed on the battlefields in World War One. Even now, I love books that make me cry; and I love writing stories that make people cry.
Which books/writers do you view as your influences?
As a short story writer, I’ve been “influenced” – in the sense of learnt from – a number of writers. I admire the work of Alice Munro, who knows how to write a meandering or apparently shapeless story that doesn’t appear to be heading anywhere, until you reach the end and realise that every single detail in the story matters. Munro’s stories are also really clever at managing the passing of time, including the ability to cover large periods of time without the story feeling rushed or superficial. I admire the way the American short story writer Lorrie Moore combines pathos and biting wit, sometimes in the same sentence. The Irish writer Claire Keegan is superb at diving into the wreckage of damaged lives. I’m also a huge fan of Henry James’s novels, for their complex rendering of consciousness. You sometimes feel that you know his characters better than you know anyone in real life. And about a hundred or two hundred other writers… you learn to be a better writer by reading.
When did you begin writing in a serious way, and what motivated that?
I began to think about writing fiction in my fifties, when I was doing my PhD in Australian women’s fiction. I became so enamoured of the writing process itself – choosing just the right word, creating a rhythmically satisfying sentence – that I was reluctant to take out sections that had nothing to do with the argument of the thesis! The major impetus, however, came with the death of my father, when I felt the need to write a story for largely therapeutic reasons. The story was subsequently published in a journal, and I remember realising, very strongly, that writing was a form of communication with imagined readers, as well as an act of self-expression. One of my greatest pleasures as a writer is to have readers tell me how they’ve responded to my stories. You feel like you belong to a community, joined by ways of thinking and linked through the heart.
Feet to the Stars is your third short story collection. What draws you to the short form?
Several things. I love the aesthetic challenge: writing short stories requires you to deal with competing needs – the need to be both concise and resonant, brief and evocative, such that the relatively few words on the page create the illusion of a world beyond them. I love the way short stories attend to and honour the way we live our lives in moments: crisis, turning-points, anti-climaxes, moments of revelation, even transformation; the way moments can endure in a person’s life. And I love the way short stories deal with gaps and silences – with the things we cannot, will not, or must not, say; that remind us that life is always a contest between the known and the unknown, the spoken and the silent, the expressed and the inexpressible.
What are your writing habits?
I have the great good fortune not to have to work for a living, since my husband, kindly and generously, trots off to work every day in order to pay the bills. I have a study overlooking our front garden. I usually start writing around 8 am, and when I don’t have other commitments, I can work until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Bliss! The man who delivers our wine is now accustomed to the sight of me in my nightie, trying to look suitably creative in my reading/writing glasses. As for writing habits: I don’t write anything in full, as a draft. I tend to work paragraph by paragraph, doing a lot of self-editing as I go. I can’t seem to proceed otherwise.
What do you do when you feel creatively stuck?
I go for a walk, or I re-read what I’m reasonably happy with, to remind myself that I can do it if I work at it.
What are you working on now?
I’m going to steal the comment made by the wonderful Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser: “My next sentence.”