The Australian SF community patted me on the back at the National Convention in Adelaide last weekend. I shared a ‘Ditmar’ award for the Year’s Best Short Story, for my piece entitled ‘This Is Not My Story’ which came out in ASIM #37, edited by Tehani Wessely. (Even better, I shared the award with Margo Lanagan for her story ‘The Goosle’. Can’t think of anybody I’d rather share an award with, and to be honest, I’m happier to share it than win it on my own. Why? I don’t really know. I guess I’ve never been good at taking compliments, and it’s easier for me to accept being on a shared bill. And I really like Margo and her stories are amazing!)
Awards are a nice thing. Like most writers, I write because it’s an inescapable part of my identity. I’m a storyteller, and I’m stuck with it, so I might as well make the best of it. I don’t set out to win awards or top best-seller lists (though that’s a nice thing too!) but naturally, I know that telling a story is only the beginning. It’s nothing without an audience. And every reading of the story is a new version. Every reader recreates the piece for herself. In other words, you can put your heart and soul into the piece and get back a great big ‘meh’... and sometimes you can see a piece of puff that you created for a laugh take on a life of its own.
It’s confronting. You always hope that what you do will be enjoyed, but you have to face the fact that ultimately, even recognising the importance of the audience, you’re doing it for yourself for reasons that even you may never really understand.
That’s where the awards are good. Reviews are useful and interesting, but limited in their value because reviewers have an agenda of their own, naturally enough. Feedback from friends and fans and others is cool, but your personal range of contacts is always limited too. So an award that arises from a community or from a jury or something similar is — not exactly a validation, but definitely a source of comfort. Something, at least, of what you’ve been doing is providing a kind of value to a measurable, sizable segment of the readership out there. It feels good to know that.
The moment the others on this blog heard I’d picked up the Ditmar, I got ‘nudged’ to write something about how a Ditmar-winning story comes to happen. Frankly, I suspect it’s because the others have long ago picked up Ditmars and Aurealis Awards and George Turner Awards and World Fantasy Awards and all kinds of other shiny shelf-trinkets, whereas I’m a relative newcomer. Whatever the reason... I’ll pretend I’ve got some kind of insight, shall I? But remember what I said earlier: every reading is a new creation of the story. Your Mileage May Vary.
Raymond Chandler once observed that the better you get at the craft of writing, the less you find you have to actually say. For me, a story doesn’t work unless it says something meaningful, at least to me. Even out-and-out comedies like the Hitch-hiker’s Guide series; read them carefully and they’re meditations on the absurdity of human existence in the face of a large and ludicrously hostile universe. The stories I love have strong ideas buried in them, and I can’t actually write a story unless it’s wrapped around some kind of thought that has importance to me. The Red Priest stories, for example, were born out of the death of a good friend. He died a long way away from me; a slow death of cancer and it hurt and frustrated me that there was nothing in all the world I could possibly do to help. Out of this came ‘The Red Priest’s Vigil’, in which the Red Priest watches over the body of an old friend and drives off the demon that comes to take his soul. I will never, ever be able to do something like that for my dead friend — but I would try, without hesitation, if it was needed. That’s what I think of friendship, right there: that you should be there when you’re really needed, no matter what the cost, and that’s where the story started, and how the Red Priest came into being. (I know. 'Vigil' was published after 'The Red Priest's Homecoming'. I write 'em. I don't publish 'em.)
The story that took this year’s Ditmar is about something very different. It occurred to me that a great many of the writers I admire in SF have written stories about the loss of childhood magic; that sad, curious passage from a world of infinite possibility into the drab, predictable realms of adulthood. What interested me most about that idea was the fact that SF writers in particular, and artists and storytellers in general, are the people who have made that transition least effectively. Particularly inside SF, writers can do what they do because they still have that sense of wonder, that desire to explore what-if?, that underlying need to imagine and play which is the best and the brightest part of childhood. You can see that in dozens of great stories. Harlan Ellison’s Jeffty Is Five is one of them. The Faery Handbag by Kelly Link is another. Peter Pan is still another.
They’re all brilliant stories, and the theme has been worked hundreds of times by authors with far greater skill than mine. But... I have children of my own. And I see them playing the way I used to, and I can no longer fully enter that world, and that hurts. I can do better than most, I admit. My wife envies that, but I can’t tell her how it’s done, and that hurts too.
Knowing those stories, and seeing the kind of 'go-between’ role that I play, I decided the story should become a layered piece. If I’d tried to write a simple “loss-of-magic" story, I doubt I’d ever have come close to the kind of brilliance that Ellison and Link and the others managed. But by mixing the childhood story with my adult responses, and by accepting my adult (and lesser) role as a go-between rather than as a true inhabitant of the kingdom of magic, and by bringing all those ideas into the piece, I think I incorporated a degree of complexity and thoughtfulness that gave the piece its own qualities without losing sight of the original theme.
At least... I hope so. And I’m assuming there was a reason people liked the story.
So that’s how it works for me, when it works. There’s a thing I can feel. Something I want to say. Sometimes I don’t even know what it is until the first draft is complete, and I can read it and think about it. But once I’ve worked out the heart of the story, I just keep paring away until all that’s left is the minimum I need to make the idea clear enough to support the emotional tone. Or something like that anyway.
‘This Is Not My Story’ is meant to be sad, wistful, a little bit proud, but still a little embarrassed, because that’s how I feel about what I do, and where it comes from, and what it may mean to others. When I go back and read it again, I still get that same feeling from it, so I guess I got it mostly right, at least for me.
And I suppose, since I got to share a Ditmar with Margo, there are other people who think I got it right too.