Interview with Michael de Valle

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Tell me how Going Home came about – did you pull together stories you’d written separately or was it a deliberate development of a collection (or both)?

I have a lot of faith that the stories I’m writing in a given period will come together with a common link, rather than specifically writing to a theme, which I find hard and contrived. I started writing Going Home writing while Take a Breath and Hold It was in its final stages of publication. Most of the stories were written immediately after that collection came out. I culled a few out, but after that I discovered that a lot of the stories had something to do with death. The title refers to the last story in the book, which is a lighthearted one, and it is, in some ways, a reference to dying as a kind of going home. But it’s life too. I tend to see life and death as different sides of the same thing. We have a tendency to view death as a negative thing, and I was trying to explore the different aspects of it.

I’ve been told that this is a much tighter collection that my first one. I used this collection to start experimenting with different voices, and different points of view. I’ve been interested in how science dominates our lives in the 21sts Century. There’s nothing wrong with science, but to a certain extent I feel we’ve lost a mythology and sense of mystery in life, so I’ve been exploring that with the third collection I’m developing. I’m working on a story which is essentially about a tragic loss for a young couple. The only way through it is for the man to create his own mythology. Not sure if I’ve pulled it off. It was done as a series of letters that a psychiatrist suggested he do as part of his grieving process. I’m not quite sure when that collection will be finished.

What is it about the short story that attracts you as a writer?

I’ve always been absolutely obsessed with short story. I’m now 44, and I left school at 17, and even then I knew I was interested in books and wanted to write. I always read a lot of short stories. I used to subscribe to the Australian short stories quarterly, which I read from cover to cover. But it took me a while, not until I was in my early 20s before I began writing in earnest and a long, long time until I begin to achieve some publishing success.

The commercial viability of short stories comes and goes. In this day and age, achieving publishing success with short stories is very hard. I think that stories had their heyday in the 50s, and now we’re in a lull but I can see that it’s going to come back. I think that the short story doesn’t yet receive the respect in Australia that it does in Canada or the US. Appears that there’s some interest. But it has nothing to do with the form or readres. It’s just that it tends not to be within the objectives of big publishers and marketing departments. I think that the story needs to be nurtured and encouraged. The short story is an important part of Australian culture, and it’s a neglected part right now.

Neither do I don’t want to see the story sit within the domain of academics as a kind of intellectual real estate. I’d hate to lose the interest of a greater readership – the average person on the street – I actively try to write stuff that is accessible. That’s why I write about ordinary people going through extraordinary things. Because that’s life.

Do any of the stories feel like they want more from you – do you return to the characters or setting?

There is a story in Take a Breath and Hold It “The Black Dog” where I have returned to the boy whose father had a mental breakdown. I did start a novel manuscript in his voice. At the moment I’ve put the manuscript aside, but I was invited by a literary agent to submit my novel manuscript. She liked it but couldn’t see how she could place it in the adult fiction market. I’ve been doing a writing for children unit and am planning to do some work in this area.

You’re also a poet. Tobias Wolff said once that “the best stories seem to me to be perhaps closer in spirit to poetry than to novels.” Do you agree with that?

I’ve always believed that the short story has far more in common with poetry than with novels. Both are concentrated forms and the story can use poetic devises like rhythm, concealed rhyme. Like the novel, the story is usually a narrative with character, plot setting, dilemma etc, but the way a short story is constructed; the main thing you want to gain is of course to get a reader reading it, but then to ideally get the reader to come back again to find another level, and again to find yet another level. To me that’s quite different to what you can achieve with a novel.

What governs which medium you choose to work in-poetry or prose?

I trust my subconscious whether something becomes a poem or short story. It’s usually an unconscious decision. I do sometimes mix my thought processes and will sometimes use imagery in a poem that turns up in a story. I enjoy writing Haiku – It’s a wonderful discipline and everyone should have a try at it. It keeps the writer in the present, looking for details that hint at a greater universal truth. This kind of imagery tends to sneak into all my work.

Is there a particular way that you, as an author, tell your stories – a style; a voice you tend towards?

I like to experiment with different voices. In Going Homeone of the stories, “The absence of matter” took the point of view of a women. I workshopped that with women writers, and they told me that I did pull it off; that I got into that persona. It’s about a seemingly meaningless night, and that’s what I’m really interested in: how life changes, not through the big changes in life, but by small degrees – those small things that happen, creating subtle shifts. The slightest thing can head you in a different direction. I like the idea of that. It’s one of the things that inpired me to write. I really find it hard to find a way into the short story until I know who the characters are and what their voice will be. It’s like method acting – I tend to become that person and write in their voice. That’s what I’m looking for – a character and a problem. I like composing stuff; thinking about things for quite a while. I have a lot of faith in that process.

Talk to me about the impact of parenting on your work.

I came to parenting late, and it changed my whole outlook on life. I think I’ve got a wonderful opportunity – poor health forced me to be at home. I had a bad back from a work injury, and then I was diagnosed with Cancer, so it evolved into a situation where my wife goes out to work and I stayed at home with the kids, which is wonderful. It’s changed my focus. Children are the most important aspect of my life, which also affects my output because they have to come first. It’s also in a way, an opportunity to relive your own childhood – to reflect on my father as a parent and see how I can do things better.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

When I was at home with Jack, I started at the local TAFE college doing a professional writing course. I spoke to a couple of my teachers and told them that I wanted to publish a collection of stories, and they told me that as a first time author that simply wouldn’t happen. I’ve proved that wrong. Being shortlisted in Queensland Premier’s Award was also a wonderful surprise. I never imagined it would happen. I always had my mind on that award since it’s the only premier’s award for short stories, but being shortlisted for my very first collection was a great feeling. Maybe one day I’ll win it, but if I don’t that’s okay too. My real goal is to write stories that move people. So probably my greatest writing achievements is this. The title story from Take a Breath and Hold It was highly commended in the Daffodil awards, and since it was set at my wife’s work, many of her colleages wanted to read it. My wife came to work one morning and in her box was a two page letter from one of the night staff who had read the story, having had a similar experience. As a single mum she didn’t say anything to anyone and hadn’t allowed herself to express emotion during that Cancer scare. When she read the story she burst into tears and wrote this letter in response, asking my wife to pass it onto me. It doesn’t really matter how many people ready my work. If I can write something and have one reader get it and feel changed, or had their experiences validated, that’s the end goal I’m striving for.

What are your goals for the future as a writer?

After Queensland last year, I started thinking about what I want to do after all this and I decided that I did want to continue writing short stories. I know that it means I may not have more success that I’ve had, and it would be nice to make some money and pay some bills, but that is really the area I want to continue working in. Another thing I’m exploring this year is children’s writing. I think that short story writing is excellent training for children’s writing. I tend not to use use a lot of complex or difficult words and feel I can remember what it’s like to be a child; to ;ook at the world through the eyes of a child, so it’s a niche I feel would work for me. I started a new junior novel, and it’s going quite well. The book is aimed at the 11-12 yr old market, and I’ve finished a simple first draft. I’ve also written a children’s picture book. I’m very interested in exploring that market, and tackling some of the problems and issues that confront children.