Q&A with Nick Earls

21 August 2017 Nick Earls

Q&A with Nick Earls

Nick Earls has written 26 books (so far) for adults, children and teenagers – including his recent acclaimed novella series, Wisdom Tree. Which makes him a pretty good authority on short fiction. So who better to help us pick the final 14 stories that would make it into The Big Issue’s 2017 Fiction Edition? Here, he talks about the judging process, his love of fiction and offers some tips to new writers.   

Why did you want to get involved in The Big Issue Fiction Edition?

The state of my diary said I shouldn’t, but a lot of other things said I should. For a start, I’ve always been a fan of The Big Issue, in terms of both its purpose and its content. I was in the Fiction Edition in 2011, and very glad to be there, so this was a way to repay that.

What was the process like? How did you find it?

I got it easy. Relatively. I should own up to that first. I didn’t have to read all 562 entries to work out a short list. But an entry pool that size pretty much guarantees an impressive short list. After my first pass through the 30 shortlisted stories, I had 28 in either my “Yes” or “Maybe” pile. Anyone shortlisted needs to know that we could have filled three Fiction Editions and still maintained the necessary quality.

Then came the meeting to decide the final stories, which was a place for passionate views. And, apparently, cupcakes, though I was calling in from Brisbane, and only participated in the passionate views part of that. Selecting the final pieces never got easy, and we could all name pieces we fought for but that missed out.

What’s your favourite part of reading other people’s short stories?

I love it when I find a clear fresh voice perfectly matched with its story, and the story – in the minimum of space and time – does something I’m not expecting, or casts light on something in a fresh way. I like that some stories are compact, but also definitely complete. They cut through, and deliver a moment that sticks. My favourite short story writers give me that.

What’s your least favourite part?

Perhaps what I find toughest is reading a piece that is technically competent and written by someone who has clearly learned a lot about writing, but the writer’s fingerprints are all over it. All the writing shows. There’s no distinct voice but a lot of clear signs of a good tertiary education. I know the effort that has gone in, but reading isn’t about acknowledging hard-won competence. There are quite a few very competent writers who have one key step left to take, and it’s perhaps best described by Elmore Leonard: “If it looks like writing, I cut it out.”

Why do you think short stories are popular again?

It’s tempting to say that it’s because our lives are time-poor and input-heavy, and short fiction fits the spaces we have left. That’s certainly been one of the things I’ve been saying about novellas with my series Wisdom Tree. A novella is a plane flight from Melbourne to Brisbane, a short story is a bus or train ride to or from work. The Fiction Edition is perfect to slip in your bag for a few days’ commuting.

Maybe it’s also driven by the writing of some very good short fiction, and the publishing of it. Maybe things like the Fiction Edition – short fiction rolled out nationally, in a very visible way – might be responsible for creating some new short-fiction reading habits.

What kind of stories do you like to read?

Stories that give me insights into the workings of humans. Three of my favourite writers of short stories – all writers I’ve been reading recently – are Tara June Winch, Josephine Rowe and Julie Koh. Each massively talented, each in her own way.

Why do you think fiction writing is important?

Fiction puts you in other people’s heads and other people’s lives. It builds empathy. It can change and deepen your understanding of how the world works. It can be as entertaining as anything.

What was the first story that you had published?

Phew, that was a while ago. I won a story competition or two at school in ancient times, but after that it was a bit hard to find opportunities. It was Brisbane in the 80s and the world was a lot less connected. Then, almost exactly 25 years ago, UQP published Passion, my first short story collection, in which I tried too hard to be the Peter Carey of the Fat Man in History era.

It didn’t have an easy life, but it got me started. I had to stop trying to look smart and instead try to be smart. I had to learn to connect with my characters, and the language and details I needed to do them justice, and the path through each story. One of the best things about this job is that, if you’re properly paying attention, it never gets easy. I’m still learning. I learned things to write Wisdom Tree, and I’d written 20 books before I started work on that series. Chekhov’s saying – “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass” – it took me a while to learn that. Every new story starts as a puzzle I don’t quite know how to solve yet, and that’s what keeps me doing it.

What impact do you think The Big Issue’s Fiction Edition has on the Australian literary scene?

I think it’s a big deal, and the fact that 562 people chose to enter this year backs that up. It’s unusually widely distributed and read for something focusing on short fiction. Plus, everyone knows a lot of people really want to be in it, so it really counts if you get there. It exposes a lot of writers to a lot of readers for the first time (whether those writers are previously published or not).

Also, it’s now very well established, so writers should be planning for it. They should mark in their diaries when to look out for it next year, and they should plan to have something ready. Often, it’s diarising it that makes writing happen in a busy life.

The Big Issue Fiction Edition is on sale from 25 August. It features 14 short stories from writers such as Matthew Reilly, Elliot Perlman and Toni Jordan, and has 20 more pages than a normal edition.