These are collected
stories by the
winners, since 1985, of the Eltham Alan Marshall Short Story Award.
Introducing each year’s winners are bio-notes on the writers,
comments on the experience of writing, and potted tutorials by Jon
Weaving on some aspect of the short story form. A few winners were left
out as Jon was unable to find them to gain their permission for
inclusion. The little tutorials seem adequate as signposts pointing
newcomers in the right direction. I agreed with all his points, and
heartily agreed with his piece on the narrative connect-a-bits: he
said, she answered, it howled forlornly.
The stories themselves varied widely as to approach and content. I
liked Tony Lintermans’ ‘The Great Man and Three
Chickens’ for its
braggadocio similes, Catherine Ford’s
‘Empty’ for its unforced delivery
and the beauty of its structure, and to Patrick West for
biopsy of a deranged mind, I gave a big fat elephant stamp. Special
mention to Adam Hinkle’s funny prose cartoon ‘The
Haircut That Changed
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Once, as a child, I was determined to cook something. It was going to
be a cake, that much I knew, but I had no idea what kind it was
possible to make because I didn’t know what was in the
remember snuffling under benches, each thing I came across trigering a
whole new direction of possibilities that I laid in a huge and very
messy array across the kitchen. My mother quite calmly returned the
lot, replacing it all with a single canister of flour which, she
pointed out, was the basic ingredient without which there could be no
Back in 1987 you judged the Eltham Short Story Award, and at the risk
of being seen as living proof of our pasts loping along behind and just
waiting for a chance to haunt, I’m hoping for a small amount
with a book I’ve been commissioned to write.
When I wrote this opening paragraph of a letter to Helen Garner I did
so with more than a little trepidation. Not only was her latest book
The First Stone
turning sods of controversy, hijacking her name from
the literary pages into those of the general news and, quite obviously,
keeping her extremely busy, but here I was asking her to be flour for a
cake of someone else’s making.
Which is exactly what I would have to ask of thirty-one busy writers in
total, both winners and judges and all of them, collectively, the
central ingredient without which this book would be impossible.
The response I got to my initial requests was quite amazing. Eighteen
of the twenty-one award winning writers agreed immediately to allow
publication of their winning stories and to be interviewed about
themselves and their writing. The other three have, I’m sure,
dropped off the edge of the planet and could not be contacted. Of the
eleven different writers who have judged the Eltham award, one (Lance
Loughrey, co-judge in 1985/6) was untraceable, but again the response
from the others was that they would be happy to be a part of this book.
Which meant at least
that there could be
But the problem of what it would actually be about
from the edge of me and just out of reach.
Again from my first-approach letter to Helen Garner,
I would like to do a book about writing, about awards, about their
value, the subjectiveness of art, judging (and what judges look for)
and about some of the technical/craft aspects of short story writing
that are used to evoke specific images and responses. A book about the
winners and judges themselves, from their development as writers down
to the way in which they physically work.
I don’t imagine the finished product to be a mongrel cross
‘how-to’ manual, the Personal Best andYacker series,
but I am convinced
that a book like this, while concentrating on this one award (and
therefore meeting Eltham’s requirements for a celebratory
would be a hell of a lot more interesting to write and to read. Christ!
I never was any good at just taking the money and doing a runner along
some easier path!
This was the book’s ‘definition’ then,
presented in basically the same
way to everyone I approached, but if I could spell the sound that is
made when a cold shiver runs up one’s spine and escapes the
mouth as an
expression of foreboding I would write it here.
For it must have appeared that I had a clear understanding of what this
book was going to be, its direction and purpose. The reality was quite
different. Other than the broadest possible definition of a book about
writing and awards
, the thing I seemed best able to define
was what the
be. And the more I thought about that the less
and likely even that seemed.
Before me, in flashing neon, was a single line from Jenny
Judge’s Report in which, contextually, she touched on the
limits of an
What I cannot do
, she said, is give purpose to a work that
- It became obvious to me that defining one at
before interviewing the writers, would be a mistake. To do so would
focus the direction of my questions too narrowly, limit possibilities
and risk leaving unearthed gems as just that.
So I asked everything
and will be eternally indebted to those writers
who not only put up with that too-much, too-broad, somewhat
directionless and unprofessional approach, but who also gave of
themselves so freely and with such care and effort as to make this book
Even now I’m not sure why this approach made me so
Normally I’m perfectly happy to start a piece of writing from
simple, broad idea, cruising along a myriad of tangents, producing
more words than I could ever use and eventually stumbling
across a purpose. In fact it’s only ever after that
‘tour of discovery’
that I feel I have any sort of grip on ‘purpose’ at
But in this case, despite the completion of interviews, the sorting,
sifting and weighing of gems, there was still no clear
seen. I was back in my mother’s kitchen, surrounded by a
ingredients, but unnervingly bereft of the single, workable and
reassuring recipe that I thought by now I should have discovered. I
felt almost fraudulent at having asked so much of all those who had
agreed to help with the book.
It was all so messy.
In fact I probably tried for that ‘tight’
definition of purpose a dozen
more times, reading again and again the responses to my long lists of
questions before I spotted the hole I was in for what it truly was: A
cage. Quite simply, I was beating myself over the head searching for
for this book’s existence, one
reading it and
such singularity just didn’t, couldn’t and
shouldn’t exist. I had
locked myself into one way of thinking, something I have counselled
writing students against time and time again.
So why do we read? What expectations and desires, perhaps subconscious,
are triggered whenever we enter into contact with a writer?
Gerald Murnane expects to learn something of a particular human
experience when he reads a piece of short fiction. Of his judging he
said, ‘I stopped reading many a story as soon as I
become convinced that I would learn from it nothing of value to
Garry Disher talks of being instructed in the craft of writing.
to learn to write by reading other writers.’
Michael Dugan says, ‘Insight.’
Achimede Fusillo is concious, when reading, of stopping and taking note
of how a particular thing has been achieved.
Gillian Mears is a little more specific in that she looks at how other
writers structure a book; how the narrative is formed and maintained.
Tony Lintermans talks of his liking for, ‘....stories that
full of light and wisdom.’
This desire to learn
from a piece of writing reared up time
and time again in the comments of writers, from both the
well-established and the emerging and regardless of age. Surely then we
can make the leap to the liklihood that if learning from
a piece of
writing is important to these successful writers, then showing
something through their own work is equally so?
The purpose of this book then? I doubt I could find one more
appropriate than showing
The showing of even some of the attitudes,
opinions, preferences, intentions and physical work methods of such a
wide range of Australian writers will, I’m certain, become
of light and wisdom’ for those interested in writing,
their relationship with it.
For those seeking the more specific showing of techniques, there are
also ten short sections each focusing on a particular aspect of and
approach to the writing of stories. And of course there is the simpler
but no less important showing of eighteen award-winning stories
themselves - stories to be analysed critically with regards to winning
qualities or, if the reader so chooses, to be read for no reason other
than pure entertainment. Perhaps this purpose of showing
as the provision of a series of doorways through which the reader is
free to remove anything he or she feels may be of value.
I am obviously still in that messy kitchen, only now I’m
is the only place to be. If for no other reason than to make me more
comfortable with this I have clipped a sentence from Helen
Garner’s reply to my initial letter and pasted it on the wall.
The book sounds really good - nice and messy - fresh and original -
good on you.
The highlighting is hers, the responsibility, should too much of what
it emphasises stain the pages of this book, is mine.
- The Shire of Eltham Alan Marshall Short
Story Award was
first run and won in 1985. Initially established to honour and remember
former Eltham resident Alan Marshall, this annual award of one major
prize for an open section and one for young,
‘local’ writers (the Shire
President’s Award), has actually undergone very few changes.
notable of these would be the increasing of prizemoney and the removal,
in 1987, of ‘entry conditions’ wording which
indicated a ‘popular,
narrative story in the style of Alan Marshall’ was being
These changes, a long-term financial commitment to the award by the
Shire of Eltham and the organising committee’s early decision
only the best possible literary names as judges, resulted in the
perception of this prize shifting from that of local to national.
There have also been so very few grumblings associated with the Eltham
award. In ten years and from a pool of nearly three and a half thousand
entries, a total of three letters have been recieved from affronted
entrants. One disliked a particular judge’s reported
found the commendation offered him insulting and the third made
accusations of sham
copyright breach when her story was not
returned... as per the clearly stated conditions of entry. Of slightly
more interest was the poking forth, in 1986, of what was perhaps the
closest thing to a controversy.
In 1985 co-judges Clem Christensen and Lance Loughrey awarded the open
prize jointly. When in 1986 those same judges again could not arrive at
a point where a single winner awaited them, they decided on a three-way
split of, in effect, a first and two equal second places. The
organising committee of the time however, stated that to advertise one
major prize but not award it, in
two consecutive years, was ‘not a good way to project the
the decision of the judges was overturned in favour of a single winner.
A letter after this date, from Clem Christensen to those organisers,
included the clear message that he, ‘...did not wish to have
dealings with the short story prize.’
As it turned out though, Lance Loughrey simply could not be contacted,
Clem Christensen, despite that letter, was happy to talk to me (though
his ill-health did eventually make interviews impossible) and Clinton
Smith, the award winner judged ultimately by the organising committee
rather than by the judges, said simply, ‘I think the
committee got it
right.’ All in all so very little change and turmoil as to
detailed historical analysis of the award’s development and
a complete waste of paper.
As for the stories appearing in this book it should be noted that there
was none of the usual editorial privilege and subjectiveness with
regard to selection and ordering. The omission of three winning pieces
for example (two Open and one Shire President’s Award) was
not a matter
of choice, rather it was a simple consequence of being unable to
contact those particular writers. The decision to present the works
chronologically had, again, very little in common with choice. To do
otherwise might well have implied some order of quality, an order of
quality each reader should be entitled to make for themselves if they
are so inclined.
So the stories are simply gathered according to the year of their award
and preceeded by information on the relevant writers and judges and,
where possible, the winner’s responses to the questions - How
write? What do you find hardest about writing a short story? Why do you
write? These questions were chosen because of our seemingly bottomless
curiosity about writers’ work habits, problems and reasons
and to show
us, in conjunction with the stories, at least a little of each author
before they give voice of a different kind in later sections.
Each grouping of stories is also accompanied by a short chapter dealing
with an aspect of creative writing suggested by that particular
authors, judges or stories themselves. These comments are not meant to
form a comprehensive ‘handbook’ on writing, they
are prompts, and as with the rest of this book the views
and opinions, unless specifically quoted or attributed, should only be
read as mine.
Of course none of the writers were compelled to even answer my
invitation, let alone answer in a particular way. Some have chosen to
say more than others, either in general or on a specific matter, and in
a very small number of instances chose to say nothing at all. Those
gaps, thankfully very few, that occur throughout this book do so then
not as a result of some judgement of worth, but purely because of
It is also unlikely that these stories would have been each
first choice for publication had I asked for either a favourite story
or a standard anthology piece, a likelihood supported by the comments
of more than a few authors but perhaps best encapsulated by Garry
Disher’s reference to his 1985 winning story.
I no longer consider ‘Poor Reception’ to be very
good. It’s not bad,
it’s dependable and worthy enough, but I can do much better
It is this sort of honesty, offered up so readily as both a learning
tool for readers and, in the case of the writers themselves, a
preparedness to be seen rather than merely presented
kept me in
the messy kitchen. It was just... worth it.
There are specific things to be learnt about particular writers and
stories, our desire to ‘know’ is sated, but it is
what they are showing
us is possible, that is to the fore because the
writers have not so much defined themselves, but rather some of the
ideas and beliefs that result
Rather than telling us only that writer ‘A’ thinks
a certain thing, the
unique combination of beliefs, stories, work habits and comments from
young, not so young, well-established and emerging writers provides us
with possibilities and prompts, knowledge and insights, arguments and
questions far beyond the range likely from the views of a single writer
or a collection of writer’s ‘profiles’.
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