I first met Emily not long after I started writing. The WA writing community is a warm, welcoming community. I was thrilled for Emily when her debut book was picked up by independent press, Margaret River Press — a stalwart of Western Australian literature and publishing. I spent this last long weekend immersed in the pages of ‘Well-Behaved Women’ which is the kind of book you just can’t put down. I recently chatted with Emily to find out more about her stories and writing journey. Enjoy.
NLK: Can you tell us the story behind your favourite story in Well-Behaved Women?
EP: The book opens with my favourite story—The Seas Also Waits. It’s got a special place in my heart because writing it is the closest I have ever come to doing magic. The story itself is inspired by the disappearance of champion free-diver Natalia Molchanova. I remember very clearly that I’d read an article on her disappearance in the New York Times in which the journalist spoke to her son. Rather than being emotional and distraught, I had a sense that he had accepted something like this might happen a long time ago, and that, being a free-diver himself, he understood and was in awe of the power of the ocean.
The ocean has always been a big part of my life too, even though I don’t spend a lot of time swimming at the beach anymore. But I grew up spending summers in my Grandparents’ beach cottage and I have a deep respect for the role that the ocean plays in the lives of Australians.
When I went home from work that day, the story was ready to be written. I sat down at my desk and the words poured out of me. It seemed I’d been ruminating on ideas about mothers and sons, death-defying feats of endurance and the vastness of the sea all day, almost writing it in the back of my mind. It felt a little like channelling, like my characters were speaking through me. It’s a bit woo, I know.
NLK: Who is your favourite short story writer? And do you have a favourite short story?
EP: I have a lot of favourite short story writers because as a ‘genre’ it’s about as broad as ‘fiction’ is. If I had to pick a favourite today, I would probably say Margaret Atwood, Ryan O’Neill, Laurie Steed (who was my mentor for this book), Jennifer Down… there are just too many to name! But my favourite short story is definitely Jennifer Down’s ‘Aokigahara’ which won the Elizabeth Jolley Award a few years ago. That story made me cry in public, and that’s how I know it’s damned good.
NLK: Is there a secret to writing short stories? Can you share it with us?
EP: I think the secret is probably different for different people. Short stories are much harder to get right than novels, but then again readers of novels are more forgiving. If you have kind of a dull passage but the rest of the novel is fantastic, the reader probably won’t remember that. In a short story, you only have about 3000 words so every single word has to be the best choice, you have to be ‘on’ the whole time. You can’t waste a character, a word, nothing. And the people reading short stories are writers too, so they’ll know when you get it wrong! For me, the best way seems to be not to write until I can’t keep it in anymore, and then write the whole story in one sitting. If I can stay interested through the process of writing it down, the idea has legs.
NLK: Do you only write in the short form? What’s the biggest obstacle to writing longer narratives?
EP: No, I write in both. I’ve written two novels, one needs minor tweaking and then I will be looking for a home for it. The biggest obstacle to getting it done is time! I work part time in a library and I’m doing my masters to become a librarian so I have to prioritise my writing projects in the free time that I have. Lately, I’ve been very good at procrasti-cleaning.
NLK: What has been the most surprising or the best thing about being published?
EP: Complete strangers talking about loving your book online! I have been avoiding Goodreads (or my author page at any rate) but I can’t avoid the stuff I get tagged in on Instagram and Twitter, so thankfully a lot of it is great. Paperchain Bookstore in Canberra actually chose Well-Behaved Women as their January book club which was the sweetest thing! I did see a post the other day where the person said my book was just ‘meh’ but at least they didn’t tag me in that, and thankfully, people do genuinely seem to be loving the book which makes my heart sing.
NLK: What advice do you have for emerging writers?
EP: In order to be a great writer, you have to read and you have to read in an engaged way. You can read whatever genres you like, and in fact you should read widely because the best fiction I have read has a sense of mastery that can only come from knowing a little bit about a lot of things rather than just a lot about one small area of fiction (That’s a really great way to just write the same book or story again and again.) Someone once told me my writing style was that of someone who reads a lot and that was the greatest compliment to me. As you read you should be noticing how the writer is doing things, what things work for you and what doesn’t. And there’s a lot of books out there worthy of your time, so don’t be afraid to put the book aside if it doesn’t grab you in the first fifty pages.
NLK: What’s your vision for your artistic career?
EP: It would just be nice to have one. I don’t want to be a one book wonder. Ideally, I’d like to publish a few more books. I’d like to publish my historical fiction. And it would be really cool to go to an interstate writers’ festival one day!
NLK: What’s next for you?
EP: I’ll be at the Perth Festival Literature and Ideas Festival in February and then I have a few library events around Perth, talking about short stories and about the book. Hopefully in the mean time I’ll finish the two projects I am working on, so it won’t be too long before people see more words from me.
About Emily Paull
Emily Paull is a former-bookseller and future-librarian from Perth who writes short stories and historical fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Westerly journal. When she’s not writing, she can often be found with her nose in a book.
Connect with Emily