We decided it was time to bring back our popular author profiles, and who better to start with than Stephen Orr.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I did write a novel when I was sixteen. It was called A Drop in the Ocean. Terrible, I guess, and I later burned it, like some sort of Nazi book-burning to rid the world of undesirable reading matter. Then forgot fiction until I was in my late twenties. I worry that Australian culture is adept at removing the dream gland from kids, when they start out at their most creative, enthusiastic. That’s how I remember it. Like writing in a void. And it still feels this way. I never liked sport. I hated sport. I detested sport. All of my protagonists hate it too (strangely enough). So you become a boilermaker, or sell things, or know someone who gets you a job in the public service. But god, you never waste time writing books. I’ve taught, which is the noblest of professions, and I try to get in the ear of the writer kids, and tell them to keep at it, because although they’ll never get a Best and Fairest trophy, they’ll have a hundred little worlds of their own making (note italics).
Do you have a writing routine? Why/why not?
Whenever I can. Mornings are good, the brain’s clearer. I like quiet, but my street is full of lawnmower-obsessed people (oh, and the metal grinder guy), so when that starts I have to stop for an hour, start again, then someone’s dog starts. So it goes. I’d like to make some sort of writing pod. My dog, Molly, sits with me while I work, and farts, and I growl at her and she looks at me like, Is there a problem here? Then I wonder what the hell I’m doing making up stories when everyone else I know is out earning lots of money, buying holiday houses, skiing.
What do you like about short stories (both writing and reading them)?
I think short stories are a good way into reading and writing longer fiction. Peter Carey seemed to hone his art with The Fat Man in History. Borges’s Collected Fictions are the first and last word (along with Juan Rulfo perhaps) in short fiction. And Robert Walser’s micrograms, which led to Kafka. The list goes on, especially Joyce’s Dubliners, Chekov’s short stories, Thomas Mann. Each writer found a way to compress the world, find a moment that represents many, pick up on a dilemma, problem, disaster, ecstasy that says much more than it seems to say (on the surface). Leaving the reader anxious, but unable to know more. Then having to rely upon their own sense of ending, or non-ending, to complete the experience. Flannery O’Connor’s stories, too. Dark, unsettling, violent, from this very Catholic and catholic writer.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
Just finished a book about Ethel Malley (Ern’s sister). Yes, I know she was made up, but I wrote a novel about her life, loves, relationship with Max Harris. It’s a strange piece, but that’s just how it comes out. I seem to write stranger books as I get older, and the market seems to want more predictable, clichéd, pointless s*** to feed the groaning shelves of Big W and K Mart. If one of my books ever ended up there I’d know I am, at last, a failure. Where does this leave us? I predict there will soon be a reality show with writers churning out a book, with the prize being a big contract. We can watch them melt down, cook stuff, date in the nudie, try to sing like Celeste (or whatever her name is). And then people can switch over. Hear that ring in your ears? It’s the sound of cells dying. And you’ll never hear that frequency again.
If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?
If I were Buddhist, this would be a problematic question, because it would suggest I’m moving down through the realms, instead of up. And if that were the case, and assuming I had any say in it (which I think is reasonable, but optimistic) then I’d be a seagull. Spend my days scabbing chips at Semaphore and flying to Adelaide Oval to poop on footballers.
What are your favourite Wakefield Press titles, aside from your own, and why?
I love that Wakefield publishes so many art books: Drysdale, Dobell, and contemporary artists. Steidl, an excellent German publisher, does the same, and has many similarities to Wakefield: quality books, excellent editing, discerning titles. Wakefield is in one of group of publishers like Transit Lounge, Black Inc, that still stand for what publishing was years ago. As far as I know, big Mick Bollen doesn’t have a numbers-man with a degree in finance or marketing telling him what to publish. Without getting too political, I just wish the SA government would recognise that this type of work needs some support (no, not half a billion, stadium-style, but just a bit). That if Wakefield wasn’t publishing local stories there wouldn’t be anything to remember, wonder about, be moved by. Just the government’s view of the past, present and future. Which is a pretty grim thought.