Editorial: Some Facts About Fiction

18 August 2015 Alan Attwood

Editorial: Some Facts About Fiction

One magazine has an annual swimsuit edition. Another has a ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ issue every year. We go for short stories. This is our 11th fiction edition, in which many of the magazine’s regular features are temporarily replaced by the work of a remarkable range of writers. Since our first collection appeared in 2004, it has become one of the biggest-selling fiction magazines in the country. Many readers look out for it; many vendors welcome its reappearance. If you’re wondering, yes, it is a bigger Big Issue – with 16 more pages than a regular edition. Every year we tweak the format. For the past two years, for example, we had open submissions and a theme. This time, we left themes up to the writers’ imaginations and have a mixture of open submissions and stories by four commissioned authors: Graeme Simsion, Maxine Beneba Clarke, SJ Watson and Emily Bitto. The other 10 come from the piles and piles of stories we received; close to 400 of them, all of which were read ‘blind’ and then culled to progressively shorter shortlists. The fun part comes when the stories that survive this selection process are reunited with their authors – who, until then, have only been numbers. There are often surprises at this stage: this year, it was discovering that one story was the work of a former Big Issue Fiction Edition co-editor, Jo Case.

Every year there’s a tricky problem to solve. How do you illustrate fiction? Non-fiction stories are straightforward: identify the subject and find a relevant picture. Short stories, however, can be more about moods. Last year, the fiction edition featured illustrations by artist Michel Streich; this time, we called on a stalwart, photographer Christina Simons. She made her Big Issue debut in 2007, with a ‘Roving Eye’ from Haiti. Her ingenuity became apparent the following year when she produced photographs for a special edition on mental illness. So how does she tackle fiction? “First, I read the story. Then I re-read the story, highlighting key words or phrases that could be possible images. And then I try to find the general essence of the story – things like loneliness or isolation – to inspire tangential, interpretative or literal ideas.” There is always an element of sleuthing. A happy (and fortuitous) outcome was tracking down the exact model 1978 Fiat featured in Simsion’s story (‘The Life and Times of Greasy Joe’, p28). She explains: “Having already called a few vintage-car owners, I knew the likelihood of finding a car with original seat-belts was extremely unlikely. I literally was just passing the Garazi Cafe in Seddon [in Melbourne], looking for a red fence (for a different story), when I thought I’d drop in, hoping they’d have a vintage seatbelt I could shoot. I really didn’t expect to find the exact car. It was difficult to contain my excitement!”

There are many people to thank, especially our Fairy Godmother of Fiction, associate editor Melissa Cranenburgh, and editorial coordinator Lorraine Pink, who keeps track of all those submissions. Books editor Thuy On and former film editor Rochelle Siemienowicz read all the stories. Thuy reports: “Rochelle and I wanted something different; the stories that appealed to us offered an untouched perspective and masterful control of pacing and storytelling.” Luke Donovan at Gozer somehow kept the many plates spinning to avoid any design disasters. And so, this story has a happy ending.

Alan Attwood, Editor

This article first appeared in Ed#491 of The Big Issue.