Writer and director Katie Found describes her relationship with short stories so beautifully that I shan't detract from it with my own waffle.
ANNA: What does short fiction allow you to do that other forms do not?
KATIE: Short fiction is almost too good to be true. You can read a story in one sitting, and then go back to whatever it was you were doing. It’s not often acceptable to immerse yourself in an experience, suck out everything you need, and then move on to the next thing. And because you know it’s only going to last a short while, you soak it up in this really full, deep way; you almost surrender to it. Knowing this, the writer constructs the story in a more intense, distilled way than they would a longer work. There’s no coming back for more, no chipping away at it slowly. I don’t want to sexualise the form, but it’s kind of wonderful in that way. If a novel is a relationship, a short story is a one-night stand. You go in, you experience all it has to offer, and then you walk away feeling a little dizzy and not quite sure what happened. It’s sometimes good and sometimes bad, but addictive nonetheless.
The experience of writing short fiction is much the same, I find. You don’t wade in and you don’t muck around. It’s frenzied and desperate and I love it.
ANNA: This piece has a strong sense of place. How important do you think setting is in a short story?
KATIE: I appreciate it when writers of short fiction let me experience the physical world of their story, so I try to do the same. When you pass through a place briefly, you tend to notice things that you may not if you’re there a while. You notice how the place smells, how the air feels, how the trees move. I think that’s true of short fiction, too; you know you’re going to leave soon, so you want to get a really vivid picture in your mind so you can hold onto it.
I also feel that developing a strong sense of place helps to ground the reader, and allows them to experience and understand what goes on there in a deeper way. Place shapes a character, and sometimes place can become a character. In this way, it’s just as important to flesh out place as it is to flesh out character.
ANNA: What is one thing you, as a writer, can't live without?
KATIE: Quiet. I tend to write about, or at least draw inspiration from, things that happen in my life that I don’t quite understand. My notebooks are filled with fevered scribbles – field notes from the eye of the experience – and in order to decipher them and piece the fragments together into a cohesive whole, I need to retreat to quiet, lie on my floor, and think.
Oftentimes, my notes will flit from thing to thing, and I know that they fit together somehow, but it takes some doing to figure out how. They’ll all be orbiting around a central theme, and quiet affords me the objectivity to recognise what that theme is.
It’s not enough to just write out my experiences verbatim; they need to speak to something bigger. The specific anecdotes that I choose to include (whether they’re straight memoir or altered) are tools to look at larger, more universal things.
There’s also a lot of introspection and contemplation involved in being a writer, and I can only do this properly and effectively when it’s quiet, and I am alone.
ANNA: And finally, you have contributed a number of pieces to the Writers Bloc workshops. What do you love about this writing community?
KATIE: Writing communities are a bit hit and miss. They can either sap your creativity or ignite it, and Writers Bloc definitely does the latter. I was hesitant at first because it’s online and anonymous, but the structure of the workshop inspires constructive feedback, rather than unproductive or damaging waffle. It being online means that it’s always there; there is a community of likeminded folk in reach, whenever you need a little support.
A Night in Yass
I am not a healthy looking woman. I pick at my lips and scratch my scalp and itch my feet on the rough concrete beneath me. It’s warm, on the bench outside my motel room. Everyone who pulls into the Colonial Lodge Motor Inn looks tired. They park and stumble into reception, wobbly from the drive. All the cars in the car park so far are white. I am going to take a shot of whiskey every time another white car pulls in.
The trees near the wire fence need to be tied upright. They want to lie down but they’re strapped up with grey cords. Another white car. Defending Public Service is written on the driver’s door. I push my matches and cigarette box behind me so they don’t see, and take a shot. A husband and wife. They decide to go to the pub for dinner, and she announces that she’s not going to get changed. He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t care. She looks up to the second story where I am and smiles. Doesn’t she know not to make eye contact with people at motor inns? Lovely day, hasn’t it been?
Byron, the man who checked in after me, just returned in his white truck. He walks up the stairs towards me but makes a sharp left and steals into his room. He was holding a bag of takeout. Probably Chinese. His uniform is orange and yellow and dirty. He told the receptionist he was here last week, probably hoping she’d remember. She didn’t.
My lips are dry and cracked and my outfit doesn’t suit my body shape. An oversized navy shirt, nothing else. I light a cigarette. The ashtray is a dog’s bowl filled with dirt. I see the highway and a petrol station. Newcomers look at me like I’m writing a suicide note, on the wooden bench outside my room, and maybe I am. I go inside and get a tub of yoghurt and return to watch the sunset through the clouds. It’s a little bit golden but mostly underwhelming. Whiskey and yoghurt taste fine together.
The drowsy trees are leaning against barbed wire. What a place to rest, on the side of a highway in Yass. No one new has arrived in a while and the mozzies are coming out. I don’t bat them away; I don’t really care. I’m tired. I’m driving from Sydney to Melbourne because I didn’t feel like being in the air. I could’ve done it in a day but slept in. I slept through my therapy appointment. She texted and asked if everything was alright. I replied saying I slept in. My leg is itchy now too. The birds are starting to make their evening noises but they’re getting drowned out by trucks pushing along the highway.
I wonder if Byron has finished his Chinese. Maybe I should knock on his door and see if he wants a cigarette. He’ll probably look at my chipped nails and the loose threads hanging off my shirt buttons and miss his wife. I light one by myself. If he comes out of his room I’ll smile. Actually, I won’t, because you’re not supposed to make eye contact with people at motors inns.
The married couple emerge from their room and she lied. She got changed. A red top and a necklace made from different coloured big wooden beads. My legs are filling up with mozzie bites. The birds are getting louder or the trucks are getting fewer. The sun is almost gone. There is absolutely no wind. I know because the flag out the front is limp. Maybe it’s just lethargic like the trees and the sun and everyone else in this place. I wish the birds were the same. I wish the barking dogs in the distance would come and pounce on them so I can get a bit of peace.
It’s so empty around here I can hear everything in the distance. Car doors closing, engines starting. A silver car pulls in. Close enough. Another old couple, grey hair, sulk into reception. I wonder if they’ll go to the pub or get Chinese. I wonder if she’ll get changed.
People have started turning their headlights on but it’s still light. Byron’s probably watching TV, probably had a shower, probably getting ready for bed. The whiskey I spilled on the concrete before has dried up like it never happened. I wonder if the concrete is drunk. I wonder if it feels better or worse.
I move into my room and nothing’s to my taste. The carpet is hospital blue grey and the curtains are too long. The towels are too white and folded like origami on the foot of the bed. The painting on the wall looks like it was copied from an etching on a train window. The letter C scratched over itself, over and again. I look at myself in the mirror, under the fluorescent lights, and I don’t look healthy.
My mum used to put Nutri Grain into tiny yellow containers on car trips. We called them Nuts and Bolts and ate them dry, my brother and I. He’d finish his and go back to pulling tissues out of a box. I’d either look out the window, counting red cars and white cars and cows and power poles, or at my mum’s hand on my dad’s hand on the centre console. I thought that’s what happened when you got to the driver’s seat, that there’d be someone holding your hand until you had to change the gears. I wonder what the painting above Byron’s bed looks like.
I wonder if he looks at himself in the mirror. I wonder if he thinks he looks healthy. He doesn’t. He looks old and tired but probably dresses up to go to the pub. Back outside, on the wooden bench, the birds have been replaced by dogs and crickets. It’s warm and still. I get a splinter from a match and cannot stop staring at it, half in and half out of my skin.
Bugs hang around the lights outside each door. I wonder when everyone will return from the pub. I wonder if they’ll want a cigarette. I wonder if they’ll want a nightcap. Probably not, they’re all in pairs, all tired. I look towards Byron’s room. He had his phone in his hand whilst I told the receptionist my number. He could’ve typed it in, saved it under Girl, room 15. I think I said it slow enough. Maybe he’s waiting a while, until it gets a bit darker, a bit quieter. Until the dogs go to sleep and the wind picks up. The flag is moving a little now; I can hear it tapping against the pole.
I share my cigarette with the bugs; push my breath towards the light they’re gathered around. I shared my whiskey with the concrete before so it’s only fair. There are no stars. I want to have a shower but I don’t want to set the fire alarm off. I always make it too hot. I wonder what’s the longest someone’s stayed here. Maybe I should stay another night, another week.
Seven hours down the Hume Highway and I’ll be there, standing next to my mum and dad and aunties and cousins, watching people bid on my nana’s house. She was there for fifty something years, and now it’s someone else’s turn. They won’t put the furniture in the right place, though. They won’t keep it as clean and the food they cook will never make the kitchen smell as good. They’ll bring their knick-knacks in boxes and slop Chinese takeout on the carpet. They’ll let the garden go and redo the bathroom. They’ll take the tiles off the wall above the stove, even the one with the kitchen prayer on it. I bet they won’t even pray before bed.
People are having sex in the next room. The railing in front of me is white and cobwebs are laced around the bars, probably holding them together. I hope I get to keep one of nana’s tapestries. I don’t have a wall to put it on, and everyone in the family knows that. Better off giving embroidered tablecloths and tea towels to the cousins with kids or husbands. I could keep them in the boot of my car and decorate motel rooms, make them more to my taste. Everyone will be sad, standing on the front lawn, so it won’t matter that my eyes are bloodshot and my skin is dull.
The moths have arrived. It’s their turn now. They bang against the light violently, over and over. A cat walks into the car park. It’s ginger but I drink anyway. Maybe it’ll come up the stairs and sit by my feet or on my lap. I could scratch its fur and we could stare at the moths and wait for the others to return from the pub. We could all have a nightcap together. They’ve been gone for hours. I wonder if she’s gotten compliments on her big beaded necklace. Probably not, it was really ugly.
I get up and lean against the white railing and the cobwebs. It’s a bit wobbly but I don’t move. Que sera, sera. The dogs have stopped barking and now all I can hear is the banging of moths against the light and the odd car screaming by too fast, probably desperate to get out of Yass, probably late home to their husband or wife or kid. Byron has probably packed up his parent’s house by now; he looks old enough. I wonder if he’d want to talk to me about it over whiskey. He’s probably asleep.
The first couple are back from the pub. They pull into the same car spot and look up at me like I haven’t moved all night. I want to tell them that I have, that I’ve been inside and looked at myself in the mirror and looked at the painting and the carpet and curtains. They go into their room without saying a word to each other or me. They must’ve had a fight at the pub, or maybe they’re tired. Everyone here is so tired. Except for the moths and the flag, both making their banging and tapping sounds, keeping time for the nearby hearts.
There’s still one more couple to return from the pub. I need to go to the toilet but I’ll wait. I don’t want to miss them. I try to read the glowing petrol station signs in the distance, but I can’t see that far anymore. I should get stronger glasses but I probably don’t care what they say. I wonder what they’re talking about across the dinner table. I wonder if they hold holds on the centre console when they drive. I wonder if they speak gentle to each other and I wonder who will pack up their house and which grandkid will get her tapestries and his pocketknife. The lights go out.
This is what Byron has been waiting for! He was here last week, so he knows what time they turn the outside lights off. I stare down the way towards his door. He’s probably changed out of his orange and yellow uniform and into a shirt, tucked into his good pants with a belt. A bit of gel in his hair. The moths are gone and the wind has stopped and there’s nothing for my heart to mimic. Maybe I can mimic Byron’s, when he comes out of his room and sits next to me, on the wooden bench outside my room. We can watch the last silver car pull in, say close enough and take a shot of whiskey. Maybe he can get my splinter out.
Katie Found is a Melbourne-based writer and director. Find her on Twitter.
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