Once sniffed at by literary critics, the short story has undergone a renaissance in recent years as reading patterns change and writers’ centres fill courses on the art of short-story writing. Technical aspects of short stories have been well examined, yet few writers have looked at how individual stories are written. Cracking The Spine goes a long way towards answering this by inviting the Australian authors of a series of short stories to discuss how and why they wrote their included piece.
Consisting of ten stories chosen by editors Julie Chevalier and Bronwyn Mehan, with accompanying analyses by their respective authors, Cracking The Spine is a book for readers and writers. The opening entry, ‘An Australian short story’ is one that many may be familiar with; it’s made up entirely of sentences extracted from stories by authors such as Kate Grenville, Frank Moorhouse and Elizabeth Jolley. The accompanying piece by author Ryan O’ Neill, in which he details his experiences of the Australian short story from his first arrival in Australia to the present day, is an appropriate introduction to this collection.
Nine stories follow: these deal with personal and unknown experiences, are set in both the past and present, and evoke a range of emotions. The essays after each are varied, honest and insightful. Some authors hit upon points for discussion easily; others, such as Michael Giacometti, describe how they struggled to unearth the method and inspiration for their stories. Some of the questions answered are so appropriate it feels akin to being in a Q & A session with the author.
In ‘Cartography’ by Tony Birch, for example, some readers may query the abrupt ending. Birch later discusses it in his essay:
‘I thought about the possibility of Tom offering his hand of friendship to Morgan. Initially this approach seemed obvious — the hand of the host offering sanctuary to the outsider. But it troubled me’.
Other writers describe how they broke traditional short story writing ‘rules’. Andy Kissane (whose story ‘Good Rubbish’ is based in Cambodia and written from the point of view of a 10-year-old living in a rubbish dump) titled his essay, ‘Writing what you do not know’. In it, he hypothesises:
‘If you write about lives that you are inherently ignorant of, then your writing has the potential to represent the depth, richness and complexity of the world’.
As a book that packs a lot of inspirational information into a small volume, Cracking the Spine is more than an educational resource and will appeal to lovers of fiction and the short-story form. The personal, revealing analyses provided by the featured authors are entertaining and easily accessible. The stories and essays illustrate the anatomy of a short story, yet through their use of landscape, emotion and experience, they show even more uniquely the anatomy of Australian stories.
Suzanne Rath is a writer, producer and co-founder of Idle Wrath Films (@IdleWrath), who are currently in pre-production on a short film, ‘Fairy Fort’. Their crowd-funding campaign, running for the month of July, offers lots of fun rewards for lovers of fairytales, fantasy and magical realism, and can be seen on http://igg.me/at/fairyfort Suzanne tweets as @SuzoWriting.