Michelle Cahill is an award-winning Goan-Australian poet who also writes fiction and essays. Her first collection of short stories, Letter to Pessoa, was published in July, 2016. I caught up with Michelle recently to talk short stories, writing and the inaugural Australian Short Story Festival.
NLK: How did you start writing?
MC: I started as a poet in my teens, writing poems that were about animals and nature. But I was always writing fiction; the beginnings of a novel, short stories. When my daughter was younger, because of the interruptions experienced in motherhood, it was easier to publish poetry as individual poems could be placed in publications, to eventually make up a book. I think as well, my education which was factually dense, tended to compete with my creativity for many years. But I returned to writing; it was inescapable.
NLK: Why are short stories satisfying to write?
MC: Short stories are an art, a micro-universe and the satisfaction comes from the attention to detail, consistency of voice, narrative plot and character. A collection is, I think, quite possibly more demanding to write than a novel; each of its story-worlds has to be coherent, multi-dimensional, conflicted to some extent, enthralling; and the collection needs to work as a whole.
NLK: What makes a short story successful?
MC: I think this can vary: the prose may be sensual and serious, the style may evince simplicity and depth, the voice may be able to flow from one perspective to another to evoke ambiguity and intensity. Great skill is required to effectively deploy the many aspects and techniques of short stories. This comes from exercising the craft of writing fiction; being very comfortable with your style is important: a fiction writer must not sound like they are imitating someone else and this is why voice matters. Voice is a subtle element in short fiction. I think the best stories have a plot that surprises us in deep and unexpected ways. But I also think that a writer can be figurative and oblique as long as the language is captivating and moving the reader into new territory. I think if the reader is enthralled the story is working; but the best stories can change us as writers, as people.
NLK: What’s your favourite short story?
MC: I love the story ‘Connecticut’ by Andrew Porter: it is a portrait of a failed marriage in a privileged middle class suburb as observed by the narrator, and the lesbian relationship that develops between his mother and their neighbour. The story builds in intensity, conveying much about the gap between our apparent lives and our true selves, strained under expectations of social conformity. The pacing of the narrative is impeccable; it has a tone of understatement, always holding back from the gravity and the impending catastrophe.
NLK: What are you most looking forward to in relation to Australia’s inaugural short story festival?
MC: I am most looking forward to hearing from and meeting other short story writers whose work I admire: Ellen Van Neerven, Cate Kennedy, Ryan O’Neill, Paddy O’Reilly,( Julie Koh and Isabelle Li, whom I have already met.) I think it’s wonderful to be having a festival like this.
NLK: Have you been to Perth before? What was your favourite memory?
MC: In the city I enjoyed the radiant sun, the river and the architectural balance. My favourite memory was taking a swim at Cottesloe Beach and then relaxing on the sand near the surf club as the waves rolled in.
Michelle Cahill is an award-winning poet and fiction author of Indian ancestry. Her debut collection of short stories is Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo). Her poetry collection Vishvarupa was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in HEAT, The London Magazine, The Weekend Australian and Sydney Review of Books. She was awarded the Hilary Mantel International Short Story Prize and was shortlisted in the ABR Elizabeth Jolley short story prize.
Photo credit: Nicola Bailey