Alec Patric and Ryan O’Neill have an extraordinary writing partnership, and have been sharing their writing since 2010.
Alec was awarded the Miles Franklin Literary Prize for Black Rock White City in 2016. Ryan was then shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2017 for Their Brilliant Careers, a work which went on to receive the Prime Minister Literary Award.
- Alec first appeared on The Garret in Episode 8, shortly after Black Rock White City was published, and Ryan first appeared on The Garret in our 2017 Miles Franklin shortlist special.
- Other interviews with winners of the Miles Franklin Literary Award include Sofie Laguna, Alex Miller and Alexis Wright.
- We have also interviewed other writing partnerships, including Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, as well as Andy Griffiths and Jill Griffiths.
Astrid: Alec Patric and Ryan O'Neill have been sharing their writing with each other for years, reading and commenting on each other's works. It is a writing partnership working for both of them. Alec won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2016 for Black Rock White City, and Ryan won the Prime Minister's Literary Award in 2017 for Their Brilliant Careers. In this interview, Alec and Ryan reflect on their writing partnership and explain how best to give valuable feedback on a draft piece of writing.
When did you start to share your work with each other?
Ryan: Well, I dug into our emails the other day and it turns out it was 2010. So, I'd seen Alec's name appear in a lot of literary journals around that time, around 2009 and 2010 he was everywhere. I had read his work and, really, I loved it. Who is this guy, the mysterious A.S. Patric? He's just everywhere. Is he a rival? Is he going to be my archenemy? What will happen?
On one of my very infrequent visits to Facebook, my one year visit, there happen to be… Alec had messaged me. And he said he'd enjoyed my story that appeared in Etchings. And from there we went to emailing and to looking at each other’s work, and generally kind of becoming friends and supporting each other on the journey of writing.
Alec: Yeah, 2010 was a really good year for independent publishing, it was just an immense amount of… I almost feel sorry for writers that are coming up now. Maybe similar, but maybe different, I don't know, I've lost touch with that particular level of publishing. But when we were coming up around that time there was just so many great literary journals, ones that you've never heard of, perhaps. Page 17, but really wonderful and important to me. Or Etchings, these great independent publishers.
I couldn't even get anyone to look at a manuscript of a novel that I'd written. My only option at that point was to maybe try to get some short stories published, and I just found this incredible sort of landscape of literary journals. That also includes great journals like Meanjin and Overland.
Ryan wasn't only seeing me. I saw Ryan O'Neil, that name in all these journals that I was getting published in as well. I was thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’ He seemed like he was really doing really exciting experimental literature that didn't feel like gimmicky, it didn't feel like it was derivative anyway. It felt really just original.
I saw that he was on Facebook, and I'd recently been in a writers group that had sort of dissolved, and I was thinking I want to share my work with other people and this guy looks like the perfect person, we're already in the same journals. And so I contacted him on Facebook, and I read that little sequence of messages to each other and it was already straight into this literary sort of conversation. They already were becoming these long sort of ideals of what we think about literature and how we write. We just got into this creative relationship straight away.
Astrid: So Ryan, what is the first work that Alec subsequently published that you remember seeing?
Ryan: It was probably ‘Guns and Coffee’, a short story. Again, it was a great story, had the originality that Alec brings to anything that he writes. We're very different writers as well which I love. Alec writes things that I'm just not capable of really, and I really admire the work that he does. That was great, ‘Guns and Coffee’. And then after that, again I think Alec was a real hot streak at that time. It seemed like pretty much every time… As soon as I'd give him maybe a few comments on the story, maybe even before giving the comments, that he had been picked up by a journal. He had a real hot streak going
Astrid: Did you ever feel any competition?
Ryan: Honestly, no not at all.
Alec: No, in fact the opposite. Really… I mean, I don't know about other listeners out there, I suspect that they're probably a lot like us. But you grow up with certain kinds of myths. And for me, one of my great myths was the Beats, Jack Kerouac, and Ginsburg and Burroughs, them forming these sort of outcast literary groups, trying to create something that felt new and whatever else.
So, meeting Ryan and a couple other friends as well, it felt like this was kind of like our version of that, that myth sort of coming to life in your own creative life. So, it felt really natural, and I think that it is natural, writers often look for companions along the way. When me and Ryan… He was saying I was on a hot streak, he was as well. And it felt incredible, like both of us were just hitting every single journal in the country. There was one or two that refused to give way. We remember. [Laughter]
Ryan: That was a great thing, the hot streak. Hot streaks never last, so eventually there are the rejections and the big downs, where you're not getting anything published for a while and you're starting to doubt yourself. And again, that's where it's great to have someone like Alec who is there to encourage you, that believes in your work even when it seems like many literary editors don't believe in your work. So, I think that's just as important, celebrating the successes is great but also probably more important is to kind of commiserate and encourage when – I wouldn't say failure, I think every writer has failures but – to encourage you when things are not going… The thing that's happened can happen to any writers career. It certainly happened in our careers, we've had times when we're generally well and times when we weren't generally well, and we've been on that journey together, which has been great.
Alec: Writing in Australia is such an arid landscape for writers. We all live so separated, and in these sort of broken pieces, no real literary community. I mean, I only started feeling like there was a literary community through those literary journals, and also through the spheres of social media that kept you up to people on the totally opposite side of the continent. That was my first publisher, a publisher called Spineless Wonders, they're still going and at the time though based in the Northern Territory. I'm here in Melbourne and there's a publisher in the Northern Territory that's going to publish my first collection of stories, and that happened because of another writer friend, that's how independent publishing happens. But otherwise, I felt like you'd just be crushed by the industries general ignoring of so many different voices.
Astrid: What have you learned from Ryan and sharing your work with Ryan?
Alec: The first, I remember the first story that I read by Ryan. It was a fairly traditional story, but a good one about his experiences in Africa. I think it was called ‘The Cockroach’. That wasn't the usual kind of story that Ryan writes, after that one he became very, very experimental. It was always what else can the story do? I found that really exciting. I think, while I might seem like a more traditional writer, my sort of question was always what else can the story do as well. But our forms of experimentation were different, I think mine less obviously so.
Then I've heard of a writer, I can't remember who said it, I think it might have been someone like William Trevor, who seems liked a very traditional short story writer. He's written novels as well, but he's known for his short stories. He says, ‘Everyone's coming up with something that feels experimental to them’. I don't know if that's true, but coming from William Trevor it's an interesting comment, because he doesn't seem to be that way and yet, what's true about it is that you are looking for another way to express an idea, another way to infuse life into a character.
So, we had this really interesting contrast between our styles, but I think also literature is in itself fundamentally a kind of dialogue. Usually it's a dialogue between you and the inspirations of your creative life. We've all got that massively important creative spark somewhere in the background. Whether it be the poetry of Emily Dickinson or it be Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina coming into your life at just the right time. Your response later on in life, after you've read a lot, is to respond to those influences.
It's still a dialogue, and what becomes really exciting is when you've got an active dialogue with someone that you're actually sharing that literary journey with. Because you can't… Leo Tolstoy or Emily Dickinson's never going to actually read your book. But if you're actually moving along that journey with someone by your side, it really does feel like that whole dialogue becomes a lot more dynamic. I think both me and Ryan were inspiring each other and we had a few other writing friends as well that were in the mix too. It really did feel like our little version of The Beats, though with lots less drugs and sex and didn't have the sort of backdrop of New York City. [Laughter]
Ryan: I'll take that comparison with Dickinson and Tolstoy. Yeah, thanks. I'll put that... That's going for the next book.
Astrid: Most of our audience is emerging writers and I would imagine a lot of them are looking for that kind of writing group, that writing support, that person or people to bounce ideas off. Between the two of you, how do you actually share your work? I mean, is it email? Is it electronic? Are you doing a line by line edit? How do you do it?
Ryan: I think, and for both of us, before you ask someone, I think this should be a general rule, before you ask someone to give you feedback you should have it in the best possible shape you can get it. Because you're really not looking for feedback that going to be fixing spelling mistakes and things like that. So both of us were… Obviously we've worked and reworked the piece several times, we've reached a point where we can't see any further avenues of development – they might well be there but we can't see them – and then we'd send it off. The feedback varies, it could just be sometimes I've read Alec's stories and I've just said, ‘You know what, I don't have anything, that just works. That's great’. Or it may be literally a preposition here and there, maybe don't use of, use end, give him something like that. Sometimes it can, it can be – again depending on the story – perhaps it can be structural, maybe the beginning, you think maybe that's a bit quick, let’s develop the characters a little bit more. Things like that. So it really depends on the story as to how much work it needs. Even though you've got it to the best possible place, there may still be there's always room to improve a story, in my opinion I think.
I think we're both very open to any suggestions. You've got, obviously involves a level of trust as well. You've got to trust the people you're getting feedback from. You've got to respect their talent as well. What to watch out, I think, when you're giving feedback there's always a danger, no matter, I don't think, I think we've only once or twice fallen into this. It's always a danger giving feedback that it can become not helping the other writer write the story they want, but changing it the story that you would've written. And that's always a danger, which you try and avoid, you try and be conscious of that, but I'm sure I've done that. I can actually think of a couple of times I've done that. I've actually said, ‘Oh, why didn't you do this?’ And Alec has said no that's not what I'm doing, not what I'm going for. Of course, if you've read the finished piece, he's been right. But that's what I would've done, and that's not what he would've done, and that's the danger.
You also need to be confident enough in receiving feedback that you'll think, ‘Oh that's great, that makes a good point, but I'm not going to change it. Or that, okay Ryan said that maybe Jane said that I should have another look at that section’.
Astrid: I wanted to explore that. What do you do when you get conflicting feedback?
Alec: That's, like I said, that process of calibration, where you've got someone that's wildly to the left, or wildly to the right of the target. Of course, I don't mean politically there, I just mean, imagine the target, and you're trying to do something that's going to be as powerful and effective as possible. That could be, in terms of power and effective, it could just be really hilarious and funny. Someone that doesn't get that it's funny at all is going to pull you one way, and someone else that thinks it's really funny, is going to go the other way.
But the worst thing you can get in terms of feedback is someone saying, ‘That's great, love it’. Because at that point it's dead. And you're really not looking for that, you know as a writer, that you can, like as Ryan said, you get the story to that point of exhaustion, where you've done as much as you can possibly do to improve the story, to make it as effective as possible. You know though that you need a period of gestation after that story's complete. I actually… There's a little theory I have where a lot of people talk about 10 drafts, 11 drafts, 20 drafts or a hundred drafts. I actually think there's fundamentally two. Two drafts. There's the first fraft and then there's the last draft. Everything else in between those two stages is a kind of point on the spectrum. And that first draft is when the story's as fully realised as you can possible do it. After that it's a question of refinement, amplification, giving it depth or whatever, substance, whatever you can do to improve it. There's process of just leaving it for a while and coming back to it.
Beyond what a good collaborator can do for you. Is not… And it is great when you have someone like Ryan, what I do for Ryan as well, is the line by line type of edit, where you know that every word is being investigated. Firstly, most people don't do that, most people can't do that. If you ask someone to share work with you, generally they'll give you two paragraphs of impressions. But to have someone that's actually like nuts and bolts, ready to get into that engine and see what else can be done or whatever else, that's a really rare thing.
That's what the nature of our creative collaborations has been like. But more than anything it's also this kind of perspective. With someone that has a particular aesthetic, you remind yourself of that aesthetic every time you invite that person to come back and look at it. Now, what was it, 2010 where we started sharing work, that's that many years of sharing work where Ryan pretty much knows every story that I've written and every longer work that I've written as well.
So there’s that sort of depth of experience with the work, and I mean that's a hard thing to describe why that is important. I mean, because we're all hoping as writers to be evolving. That we're not sort of just going in a kind of horizontal progression of life where we're just moving around furniture in a house that already exists, but we're actually trying to recreate houses, and actually completely throw those plans away and see what else can be designed, what else we can do. I think that's actually been the basis of mine and Ryan's relationship, this ideal of what else can be done with the form? How do you tear down that particular house and rebuild something completely new?
Astrid: Is there a difference providing feedback on a short story compared to a novel?
Ryan: I think definitely, the novel and the short story are very different forms. Obviously three short stories might have entirely different tones, different subject matter, different themes, different characters. Whereas in a novel, in general it's going to be one or two characters you're following over the course of a few hundred pages, there'll be several themes explored, there'll be sub-plots and things like that. Length is a different issue and the idea of does it hang together, the structure and the characterisation…
So I think it is quite different, although you still… The feedback does take longer, but you're still looking for – and that's when Alec's been very generous with his time – you're still looking for that level of detail, which is asking a lot of a writer, because writers are meant to write, and anything that takes you away from writing, you can resent. It's a real generosity if you've got a writer friend like Alec, who will actually look at these longer works and give you that level of detail that really improves it and helps make the work sing.
I think it just depends on what the novel is, but they are different, as a different beast from the short story.
Alec: I think it's actually really hard to get that kind of nuts and bolts feedback for a novel. It's just… people aren't willing to do it. If you're talking about 300 pages, which is like 70,000 words of intense, intricate, detailed sort of focus, it's just not going to happen. People… You'll give it to someone hoping that you'll get that kind of response and they'll just give you a page or two, like an email of their response. And that's kind of helpful, it can be, but it's just a little bit distant, and not as useful.
My solution to that has been with my creative writer friends is to see if I can write novels that have got really cohesive polished chapters. So then if I can give someone 10,000 words, or a 15,000 word chapter which I feel is completely complete, and say, ‘Well just read that. Perhaps you can give me feedback on that’. I really hesitate to give someone 70,000 words and give me that intense focus for all that. Because a novel, just a general person takes – I'm not sure about Ryan who's a super fast reader – but the general person can read a novel in about, a 300 page novel, in about 6 hours, that's generally the length of time. I think that intensity of reading that you really hope for, in terms of getting feedback, you'd probably be talking ten times that.
You're not going get it. The only people that do that are the people that are paid to do it, which is to say, editors that publishers hire for you to do. So, that's another good thing about creative friendship as well, you've already made the investment in that other persons' life. But also, I don't think you can really do someone that much of a favour, as in, I genuinely like Ryan's work. It's actually a pleasure. You create those creative friendships with people that you not only respect but you just simply genuinely enjoy their work. So, helping it progress in whatever way you can is a pleasure. I don't think you could do it if it wasn't that. I think also you've got to limit how many creative friendships you can have in that respect. I don't think I could do this sort of literary salon sort of thing where there's ten different people. That's probably just a bit too much. So, I think that's maybe the reason why you've got those Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, or Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whatever else, those kinds of friendships. It becomes all you can deal with really.
Astrid: Seeing you both sitting there talking about each other's work, I'm really quite jealous and impressed at the same time. I feel I have to ask, do you remember the first time you read anything from Black Rock White City, which won the Miles Franklin in 2016?
Ryan: Yes, I think Alec had sent me… It would've been the first couple of chapters, as he said there. That's the great thing about when I receive, when the inbox goes ping and I get something from Alec, I never know what it's going to be. I’m more at the formal experimentation side, playing about with form and doing stories in the form of this and that. I really enjoyed that and different styles. And Alec, as he said, he's not so explicitly experimental but he’s definitely experimental with the themes he approaches, the plots he approaches, the styles he approaches. Seeing that come in I was immediately struck by the originality of it, it's a very, it's a really original novel. The graffiti was fantastic, and set in the ordinance of it, in a really good way, originality. As more and more chapters came in I enjoyed it more and more and it was absolutely fantastic. This is where we saw one of the… Alec experienced a bit of a downside where he had trouble getting it published, Black Rock White City, which seems ironic now when you think it won the Miles Franklin, but it received a fair few rejections, and that's the case where you can say, ‘Now look, that is a great book. It will reach an audience’. And the fantastic fact is that is did reach an audience.
And then, just seeing Alec's latest book Atlantic Black, when that came in, from contemporary migrant experience in Melbourne to early 20th century ocean liner between America and Europe, it is utterly, utterly different in every way.
Astrid: In the course of 24 hours.
Ryan: Yes, in the course of 24 hours. So, you really see a writer there who's determined not to repeat the work that he's doing, which is really hard to do. Once you've mastered something, once you can write a particular kind of story, it's very tempting to stay there, because it's familiar and you know you can do it. You could write ten stories or ten books like that. It's really… It is a brave thing to go and do something completely different.
I remember, I said to Alec, I emailed him, I said, ‘You know, you've ruled this book of the Miles Franklin, you've said nothing Australian in it. Can't you just stick a kangaroo in the cargo hold or something and just make it a little bit of Australian life in any of it’s phases in there”. [Laughter] But that said, that was a big one to write and he wrote it.
As I'm sure you'll talk about, he's got a new collection out, which is going to be fantastic, and again you'll see that range. Whatever novel or whatever book or whatever novella comes out after that I'm sure it's going to be again, utterly unpredictable. I cannot predict where he's going to go next. Again that's what makes the pleasure of reading his work.
Alec: It's going back to tearing down the house after you've built it. Not necessary though, you could move on, sell the house to someone else. But that's what you're doing creatively, you want to build something completely new.
Astrid: What was your first impression of Their Brilliant Careers? In the interview that you did with us previously, Ryan, you mentioned that some people thought it was real, it's obviously experimental, is it short stories, is it a novella, a novel? It's being put in the non-fiction section of bookstores. What did you think upon seeing the draft?
Alec: Yeah, for sure. I had, I read a collection of stories that was called Las Vegas for Vegans, and I found that in some bookstores in their travel section. I was like, what, vegans going to Las Vegas are going to buy this book? That's a pretty niche market for that collection. So yeah, I knew that Ryan would probably be in a bit of trouble for calling it that. And then having pictures of people that are real. I think… And I'll say he played around with his biography on the back of it. It was a completely, completely integrated sort of work, and it didn't give the joke away.
And for me, the experience of reading that collection of stories was incredible, because I started reading as we always have done with stories we pass each other, shoot stories as they are finished. I read that collection mainly as short stories, pieces that were independent of each other. And I remember Ryan, I think he's deleted this from his Twitter account now, but it used to be Ryan, it said ‘And all the x-rays have come back there's no novel’. How did it go? I think you phrased it better than this.
He was adamant, never ever would he write a novel. And suddenly I'm looking at these stories beginning to coalesce, be coherent into a novel, but a novel that is unlike any other that I've seen. That only Ryan could do, because suddenly all these pieces that seemed like completely different stories were obviously part of a larger narrative. So that was an incredible experience to see how he tricked himself into writing the novel he said he would never do. And what an incredible one.
Can I also just say, as I'm one of the big fans of his writing, and I'm glad to have seen that it was short-listed for the Miles Franklin, that it won the Prime Ministers Award. It's really unusual for a book as experimental as that is to do that. I think it's also really rare for a book to actually be incredibly funny, and it's smart and it's insightful and I think it's an incredible perspective in the Australian literary tradition. And it had to come from someone like Ryan who originally is from Glasgow!
Ryan: Spoiler, I'm actually not from Australia. [Laughter]
Alec: But he's so imbued with Australian literature. I've never met anyone that's read more Australian short story writers than Ryan. He's just so intensely involved in the whole history of Australian literature. I mean, he also teaches it, as well. It's all those things, but it's also incredibly funny, you're actually laughing. I mean, I just think that quality of literature, if you think about how rare that is. I just do not think that that is appreciated enough. Someone that can actually make you feel smart and show you things that you've… A perspective on the whole Australian literary tradition, but also make you laugh repeatedly.
Alec: I have reviewed pages...
Astrid: It is a gorgeous work, I read it on a plane and I was that crazy person laughing out loud by myself.
Alec: Laughing in the index! And the bio. So it's a worthy winner, and it should have won the Miles Franklin as well, probably.
Astrid: You mentioned that you teach. You both actually teach.
Alec: I have taught.
Astrid: Have taught.
Alec: I’ve done that rarely. He’s actually a proper teacher, I've occasionally taught here or there.
Astrid: Do you think the experience of teaching makes you a better writer? Or do you think it helps you give feedback?
Ryan: Yeah, I do teach, I teach at the University of Newcastle. I don't actually teach creative writing, I teach academic skills like essay writing, report writing and things like that. So, I've taught a semester of creative writing in the past, but I've mainly… In the last six years that's what I teach. And right now I've just finished marking a whole bunch of essays, so I've given a lot of feedback. I think in a sense yes, I just given 90 pieces of feedback. And you've got to save your book, be encouraging with what works and point out what doesn't work, but essentially it's actually the same when you think about it, you're showing different avenues the student can go down, although I've certainly never had as many comments for Alec's work.
So, I think it can be. I've had great feedback from writers who are not teachers and I've had... You can also get bad feedback meant in the best possible way from writers who perhaps they wander down that path of this is not – and some critics and reviewers actually wander down as well – which this is not the book I would have written, or this... I wanted to read a different book.
I'm not sure if those two things are necessarily linked, teaching and giving feedback. I've certainly had great feedback from writers who are not involved in teaching at all.
Astrid: Melanie Cheng won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2018 for her short story collection Australia Day. She said:
Melanie Cheng [recorded audio]: I would say I only really had real success after I made connections with other writers.
Alec: I would say that, as I mentioned before, I think that when we write we're already in dialogue, and usually it's with someone from the past, one of those great influences, and it could also be an article you've just read. So your response to an issue or an idea or even like a TV show it could be anything. You'll really responding to that.
But it's a very isolated life, the writing life, I don't know if it's different in other countries, maybe we have romantic images of what it would be like to be a writer in Greenwich Village or some fashionable suburb in Paris or London or whatever. In Australia, it just feels like, it feels very barren. So that the communication that you have with other writers just feels like you're not alone, that this is a worthy endeavour. You might not get paid for a lot, you might get paid nothing for the work that you do, but to feel part of a creative environment.
I think that's what we're really searching, especially in a world that feels really atomised. Everyone's doing their own thing, no one really cares about other people, you’re just sort of isolated in what you do. To have that sense of community... I think that's really one of the major impulses for me as writer, is to feel like I'm part of a history of human response to experience.
In a weird way, I feel really close to someone like Homer, let's say. Or if I read Shakespeare and I feel how he fails or he succeeds. Or if I read Alice Monroe, I feel like we're a part of, there's a kind of familial sort of connection. And it's even closer when you can have a colleague along the way like Ryan O'Neill. You have a direct sense of brotherhood in that same incredibly arduous task.
We're all filled with these sort of Hollywood images of what it means to be a writer, but there's so much pain involved with writing as well. There's so much isolation, anxiety, and depression and all those kinds of things. No writer is immune to those things. So that sense of solidarity that you can have with someone along the way, is a really crucial thing to have. It's not just a creative spark type of thing, it's actually like the sense of moving with someone in a direction that feels to you has real significance.
Ryan: I'd just like to note, I’ve also been compared to Homer and Shakespeare by Alec there as well. [Laughter]
Astrid: Fantastic compliment. You have just used the word companionship and solidarity to describe your writing relationship with Ryan. And previously you've expressed if I can use the word alienation from the lack of a broader literary community perhaps in Australia. How do you think we change that? What would you like to see? You're quite a successful writer in terms of literary awards, an emerging writer would look at both of you and think, wow I want to to be like Alec and Ryan.
Alec: Well when I was... Ryan was, you know he's obviously in the room. I have to mention you Ryan, but no really, it's being part of a literary community, and that was what was galvanising to me when I was starting out.
I wrote my first novel and I spent eight years of agonising over it. I really felt like it drove me to the point of insanity, and I don’t mean that as a metaphor. I felt like there was three or four times of almost a nervous breakdown. It was incredibly painful. And the worst thing about it was that I was working as a bartender in a cocktail bar, and my experience of what I was trying to do was totally alien to anyone else that either came into the bar or that I was working with.
But, when I started writing stories and sending them to journals, because as I said I couldn't even get a response to the novel when I sent it out. No one would even give me anything but a form, if I got a form rejection! Mostly it was just silence. You send it out and it’s like you threw it away. Then you start sending it out to literary journals and you get these wonderful responses from editors, who also own their literary journals and they invite you to come to the launch, and to maybe read, and you meet people that are there.
And then after winning the Miles Franklin for Black Rock White City I was invited to go to literary festivals, which had never happened previously. I always feel like every time I meet a writer – and it's a very broad spectrum of people that you're talking about, when you talk about Australian writers, we're not talking about just one type of writer, there's just so many different voices. And everytime I talk to any of those writers there's always this sense of community, of fellowship. I don't know if that's true anywhere else in the world, but I really felt that that was an incredibly lovely thing.
Like for instance, even with something like the short list for the Miles Franklin, The Australian had sort of let it slip that I'd won, no one was supposed to know. But everyone sort of found out. We had this… The shortlisted writers we went out for drinks beforehand. It could've been awkward, but it was incredible. Even in that sort of situation where you're supposed to be in competition, incredibly open hearted writers feeling like they are part of something together. To me that's just what makes you feel like it's all worth it, because you're part of a family, you're not just some kind of ego driven person that's trying to do something just for yourself, you're trying to be representative of a creative community.
Astrid: Alec has talked a lot about community and tapping into that heart and soul, trying to understand what Australia is and what we can be. I know you are involved in bringing together some writers, in an experimental writing collective. I'm going to stuff up the name, but I believe it's called...
Astrid: Thank you. Why did you bring that together? And what does that mean?
Ryan: Kanganoulipo is an experimental writing collective. The original idea came from Julie Koh, who's a fantastic short story writer and Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist, I think it was last year, no it might have been this year. Basically the idea is Julie and other writers like Jane Rawson, Patrick Lenton, Tom Cho, again perhaps don't find themselves in this literary realist tradition that you so often find in Australia. A lot of books are very realist, and you still see books set in the bush and things like that when really the Australian experience is 95 percent outside of the bush and things like that. The members Kanganoulipo, there is 12 of us, we don't have an interest in those themes, and we're also trying to bring back maybe a bit of fun into literature as well. It's a collaborative experience as well, so that one of the great things about it. As Alec said, it can be a really solitary experience writing. It's necessarily a solitary experience, as you actually need solitude to write. But you also need to have some connections as well. So Kanganoulipo is, we just come up with fun ideas.
One of us may come up with an idea for a card game based on Australian literature like Top Trumps, where you've got Tim Winton gets ten points for sense of the bush, and Helen Garner gets 11 points for realism or whatever. We all sort of chip in and work at this project, and then that will get presented somewhere or be a festival or something like that. It's taking sort of the collaborative experience that Alec and I have even one step further. We're actually working on each others projects, and people come up with ideas and other people are carrying out those ideas and then getting feedback, and it all sort of comes together.
It's really… We're having fun as writers and we're just trying to expand the scope of Australian literature just a little bit to show a bit of humour and a bit of strangeness, a bit of oddness. It doesn't have to be surfing or someone swimming in a creek in the bush. Certainly there's room for those stories in the fantastic, but maybe in the last 120 years we've had quite a few of those. And why not try something a little bit different?
Astrid: Your face has lit up talking about this. I have no doubt you have a great time there. [Laughter]
I have one final question for you both. You've both won major literary awards, you're both young, what are your literary goals?
Alec: My, you know, I’ve got a collection of stories coming out in October this year called The Butcher Bird Stories. And that's my goal, to finish those stories and produce a great collection of stories. It's the form of literature that I love best. I mean, I suppose now I'm more known as a novelist, but still 90 per cent of the stuff that I love to read are short stories, so to create a hopefully great collection of stories that people will actually read, as opposed to most collections of stories.
But I think that's how immediate your goals are. I've got an 8 year old and a 6 year old, two daughters, and we've been sharing lots of kids books, and I'd like to write a few kids books. I know that, if people know how dark my work is that's a disturbing thought. But you know, I've got that sort of side that I'd like to explore as well. We're talking about burning down houses, that doesn't necessarily mean you go from churches to crematoriums. You might maybe, you want to build beautiful places for children to enjoy the same kind of imaginative and creative and those kinds of experiences. So, I'd like to write some children's stories and some picture books as well as other kinds of stories like that.
I've got an ideal for a screenplay, that I'm sort of working on. You know I'm just really excited by what else.
Like we were saying before, some writers they find their groove and they rock that groove as hard as they can and sometimes they're producing really good work, but sometimes it's boring because their doing the same thing. I kind of think of it more like Dustin Hoffman type of acting where, what obviously gives him creative juices, like play a woman in one role or to play a New York gangster in another role, or to just say what else can I do? Because that way you've got at least a guarantee that you won't be doing exactly what you've done before.
So that's my goals, just to keep on growing. That's it, it's to never feel like I'm done with it. That it's exhausted. That the worse, the feeling you get after you finish a book where you feel like that you're played out, you've said everything you could possibly say. To feel like when you start writing, working on something new, to start feeling that same kind of excitement and know there's more. I think it's a process of growth, really, on that level of being and that's why it feels life changing, why it feels worth all of the sacrifices you make.
Yeah, that's my ideal, just to keep on feeling like I'm getting better and finding more and more insight into my experience.
Astrid: That really excites me. I love your writing, I would love to buy children's book's written by you and give them to all the children I know.
Alec: My 8 year old daughter is always reminding me, so what happened to Mr. Lily Bender and the sea dragons? You talked about that a year and half ago and she goes, ‘I'll do the illustrations for you’.
Astrid: She's on to you.
Alec: What about you Ryan?
Ryan: So, the writers that I love, like English experimental writer B.S. Johnson, Vladimir Nabokov, there’s Alec Patric. See, I paid you back there, I compared you to Nabokov. [Laughter]
The writers that I love never write the same book twice. And that's my ambition as well. My first book was a book of short stories, The Weight of a Human Heart, the second was Their Brilliant Careers, which is a weird biographical invented fictions. And my next book is The Drovers Wives coming out in July and that's taking Henry Lawson's classic Australian short story ‘The Drover's Wife’ and retelling it in 99 different ways, from a cryptic crossword to without using letter ‘e’ to a comic strip to a movie review to trivia questions to lot and lots, lots more.
Because as a reader I love reading books that are different, and as a writer it challenges me to write something different. So, that is my ambition, I'd like – and I don't know whether I'll accomplish it – but I would like every book to be different in form and essentially not repeat myself as a writer. That's my ambition, but as Alec said I'm at the point where I've just finished a project and I'm feeling pretty bare at the moment. The cupboard is bare in terms of ideals. I'm half expecting, seeing half sheer terror that nothings going to come. I'm just telling myself I feel that I feel that every time, every time I've written a book, I've thought, ‘I'm done. I'm done, nothing left I'm never going have another idea’. I've still got that, but I'm trying to tell myself for the last two times an ideal did pop up.
So I'm just going to be… I'm just finishing the proofs for The Drover's Wives, once the proofing is done, once that's completely done, I'm just going to read a lot of stuff and just wait for something spark off and hopefully it will go from there. Then who knows what the next book will be, half terrifying and half exhilarating.
Astrid: Who knows. The Drover's Wives and The Butcher Bird Stories are next on my reading list. Ryan and Alec thank you very much for coming on The Garret.
Ryan: Thank you.
Alec: Thank you. Thanks a pleasure. Thank you.