In search of the black pearl

Friday, March 10, 2017
Maxine Beneba Clarke interviewed by Nicola Wetzel

Photo of Maxine Beneba Clarke
Maxine Beneba Clarke

According to Maxine Beneba Clarke, short fiction is about searching for a vision of perfection. WV intern Nicola Wetzel caught up with her ahead of her Short Story Bootcamp to talk structure, voice, hope and writing to create change.

What do you think is more important in short fiction: structure or style?

I think structure and style are just two important elements of good short fiction, along with many other things such as characterisation, narrative voice, and many other factors. Which of these elements should be focussed on the most really depends on what the story is, and how the author wants to unfold it. Some short fiction can fail because it relies too heavily on writing style at the expense of structure and characterisation, and vice versa. In terms of what works, it really depends on the piece, and also the skill set of the writer.

How do short stories differ from longer stories, apart from length?

Short fiction requires greater skill in the condensation of language. Precision and economy are important, but must not occur at the sacrifice of beautiful writing – and vice versa. I think it’s really, really hard to get that balance right: I write ten times more short fiction than I publish, because I feel like a short story has to has at its centre a version of perfection – like cracking open an oyster in search of black pearl. You do the work prying that sucker open, the last thing you want to do is just find grit.  With a longer work, there’s more space for the poetic, and to play around. It’s really difficult, as well, to choose the ‘moments’ of a piece of a short fiction. I feel as if you have to be really aware of the ‘why: why have we been placed inside this exact story, at this exact time, with these exact people?

As well as being a short story writer, you are a slam poet and performer. Is voice a big part of your writing process?

Voice is a big part of my writing, but not always the lead or precipitator. I do a lot of character work that never ends up on the page: working out who my narrator and characters are, and the kind of things that might impact on the way they speak or tell their story: things like class, age, ethnicity, education, upbringing, gender.

The final story in your collection Foreign Soil is about a writer struggling to get her work published. Do you have any advice for what you should do if your short story is rejected?

Keep reading, and keep writing, and keep submitting. The break you’re looking for could be around the corner, or down the street, or across the ocean.  Get feedback from people whose ear you trust, and whose work you admire, if possible. Not just from friends. Take all feedback on board. You might decide ultimately that it’s total bollocks, but consider it anyway.

What keeps you going as a writer?

The brilliant writers around me. Reading extraordinary work. Knowing I might be writing something that hasn’t been attempted before. Hoping I might change a reader’s mind, or life, or day, or psyche. The need to put food on the table and a roof over my head. The urge to analyse or digest the world around me. The desire to create change. The drive to record the extraordinary. The desire to leave the world different to the way I found it: altered in some significant and hopeful way.

About Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent. In 2015, her short fiction collection ‘Foreign Soil’ won the ABIA for Best Literary Fiction and the Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for The Stella Prize. She is the author of three collections of poetry, including ‘Carrying The World’ (2016), a critically acclaimed memoir ‘The Hate Race’ (2016) and the picture book ‘The Patchwork Bike’ (2016).

About Nicola Wetzel

Nicola Wetzel is a Writers Victoria Intern from Heidelberg, Germany. She studies Public Management at Hochschule Kehl and through this internship she wants to gain new experiences in what it’s like to work in a not-for-profit organisation.