Rule-breaking and parody-making

Monday, March 19, 2018
Ryan O'Neill interviewed by James Cayley

a portrait of Ryan O'Neill
Ryan O'Neill

Ryan O'Neill's latest book, about the lives of imaginary Australian writers, has been described as "a trick, a sham, a gorgeous lie." Ahead of his Short Story masterclass, James Cayley caught up with Ryan to find out why he's drawn short story, why parody works, and why literary writers should have a go at breaking the rules.

In your upcoming masterclass, the focus will be on short stories. What do think short-form fiction can deliver better than long-form?

The short story, when done well, has a purity and concentration of theme, style and plot that the novel, by the simple fact of its length, cannot have. The novel can wander and digress, explore various plots and subplots and the lives of numerous characters. The short story can't do this, but what it loses in length, it gains in intensity. A great short story can affect a reader in a way that a novel can't – in stories like Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' for example, the reader enters a world, and leaves it just half an hour later feeling shaken, and changed. JG Ballard once said there have been no perfect novels, but there have been several perfect short stories, and I think this is true. Like a poem, the short story can be perfect. It is possible for it not to have a word out of place. This is a great challenge for the writer, and a great pleasure for the reader.

How does your approach differ (if it differs) when writing short-form versus long-form?

My last book, 'Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers' has been called a novel, but it could equally be called a novel-in-stories, in that each chapter can stand on its own, but gains something from being part of the greater whole. I don't think I changed much in my approach to writing when I worked on TBC; my main goals are to avoid boring myself, and by extension, the reader.

Your writing is known for its experimentation with form and style. When in your career did you start to “break the rules”? What, or who, was the catalyst for this?

I think reading the work of Vladimir Nabokov was the catalyst for my starting to try new things in my writing. Before that, I had associated 'literary' with 'serious' and 'realist' but reading Nabokov showed me that a work could be experimental and hilarious, while still exploring serious themes. I think my writing was also influenced by the years I spent teaching English language in Lithuania, Rwanda and China, where I would break down language and grammar in order to help the students understand them better. Seeing language broken down suggested how it might be used in a different way, as in one of my first published stories, 'Six Tenses' where each section of the story is told in a different tense: past, present and future.

What is the role of parody, and humour more generally, in your work?

As I mentioned above, for a long time I wrote in a very serious vein, thinking this was somehow more 'realistic,' when in fact it is anything but. Yes, life can be serious, depressing and poignant, but it can also be hilarious, absurd and stupid, often in the same ten minutes. Still, it was a very long time before I came to think of my writing as being funny, and it still delights me that people find my work humorous. In 'Their Brilliant Careers' I used humour to make fun of ignorance, and narrowmindedness, and also to entertain the reader. Parody is useful as a vehicle for humour because it provides a premade form. In the case of TBC it was a dry literary biography, and through this form I was also able to parody book reviews, pulp science fiction, poetry and other forms. Of course, parody depends on the reader recognising the original form and appreciating and enjoying what the parodist has done to it; again, Nabokov was my guide for this. In his work, he parodied detective novels, biography, poetry and literary studies, and I was very happy to follow his lead, and indeed, include him as a character in the book.

In your work, you have parodied the teaching of creative writing (and the English canon). As a creative writing teacher, is that a fine line to walk?

I think anything is game for satire and parody as long as you are 'punching up'. That's one of the reasons why the majority of characters in 'Their Brilliant Careers' were male and white. Since most of the English canon, to a great extent through sexism and prejudice, is male and white, that leaves a lot of targets available to aim at. Parody is, in its essence, a form of literary criticism, and good literary criticism is necessary for any country's literature. Saying that, any form of humour, parody or satire can run the risk of causing offence, and if you use these forms, you have to accept that risk.

You were shortlisted for Miles Franklin and won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award last year, which introduced your work to a much larger and broader readership. Has this changed your goals or your approach as a writer?

Not at all. I think if it had, my next book wouldn't be 'The Drover's Wives' which features 99 re-tellings of Henry Lawson's classic Australian short story in a variety of styles and forms, including Hemingwayesque, Lovecraftian and cryptic crossword. It's certainly not something the market is clamouring for, as far as I can tell! My approach as a writer is the same as it has always been; I just want to challenge myself and to keep moving forward.


About Ryan O'Neill

Ryan O’Neill is the author of 'The Weight of a Human Heart' and 'Their Brilliant Careers'. He was born in Glasgow in 1975 and lived in Africa, Europe and Asia before settling in Newcastle, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. His fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including 'The Best Australian Stories', and 'Meanjin'. His latest book, 'Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers', was shortlisted for the 2017 Christina Stead Prize and the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, and won the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction. He teaches at the University of Newcastle.

About James Cayley

James Cayley lives, works and writes in Melbourne. He has worked variously in publishing, corporate recruitment and landscape gardening. He is studying the Masters in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne.