Alice Bishop is a short story writer. A Constant Hum - about the Black Saturday Fires - is her debut collection. The work was nominated for the 2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, and the origins of the work were commended in the 2015 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, as well as the inaugural Richell Prize and the 2017 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award.
Her essay 'Coppering' was shortlisted in the 2017 Horne Prize. Alice's other pieces have been published by Meanjin, Overland, Australian Book Review, Seizure, Voiceworks and Lip Magazine.
ASTRID: Alice Bishop's short stories and essays have been published in Meanjin, Southerly, Griffith Review, Overland, Voiceworks and many more. Her first collection, A Constant Hum, was published in July and only three months later has already hit a third reprint. Alice, welcome to The Garret.
ALICE: Hi Astrid, thank you so much for having me. I'm a big fan of The Garret, and it's kept me going on many office days, so I feel very lucky to be here. Thank you.
ASTRID: That is lovely to hear, and thank you Alice. I have to start with congratulations. I interview a lot of writers and this short story collection stopped me in my tracks when I sat down to read it. Three reprints in three months for a debut author is fantastic. Well done.
ALICE: Thank you. Yeah, it's been a big couple of months, but you work on something for so long, and to even get any kind of... have people have a connection with it, is worth more than any prize or any any kind of money. So thank you.
ASTRID: How long did it take you?
ALICE: I often think that I started it in my head the weekend of Black Saturday. So that was... most listeners will know that was February in 2009, so it's about 10 years ago. I guess I really started putting words down in 2012, when I quit my awful fashion retail job and went back to study at Melbourne Uni, went into a lot of HECS debt and got really inspired by teachers like Tony Birch, Amanda Johnston and Antonia Pont. A Constant Hum started as a thesis for that course.
ASTRID: Was that a Masters?
ALICE: It was a Masters,. it was a Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing.
ASTRID: Fantastic. I teach at RMIT, so I love it when students start something at university but then it becomes a work that we can all engage with and part of Australian literature.
I'd like you to set the scene for us. Some of the pieces in A Constant Hum are very short, so I'd like you to read the first very very short piece in the collection, 'Horses', for us.
ALICE: Sure. 'Horses'.
There were still reports, years later, of the horses that night: their coats matted and sweet from sweat in smoke-blurred headlights.
ASTRID: It's so short. And for me, as somebody who didn't experience the fires, it immediately gives me a small insight and access to something that I never would have thought about. I never would have thought about the horses at the time. Can you tell me about creating that kind of insight in just a few lines?
ALICE: Yeah. I think something as big as the bushfires of Black Saturday were really hard for me as our house burnt down on the day, and pretty much the whole ridge of where I grew up was obliterated within a matter of, you know, 20 minutes. And the fallout from that was so huge and the ripple effects from such a big kind of climate-flared event like that, it takes years and years and years for people to come to terms with that, if they ever do, I guess.
And that image of the horses on Black Saturday really stuck with me, because there was a news report about a lot of horses and livestock with charred muzzles and sweaty coats and all these kinds of things, these really visceral images of the animals that people had left out of their paddocks in a last minute attempt to save them I guess. This is there's a story towards the end of Hum, which I'm probably not giving much away, but I'm going... where a woman in an act of great strength I think, she shoots her horses in an act of kindness before the bushfires come. And I think the image of livestock, the image of animals, was something I wanted to weave a lot through the book because it really captures those difficult decisions that a lot of people had to make as a necessity, and those difficult decisions haunt people for many more years after the fires.
And I do remember reading an article that I referred to earlier about a woman who... she chalked her mobile phone number into her horses hide before she fled in her car, and scared them off and just hoped that they would find somewhere safe. And I mean the likelihood is that they didn't, but that small image of hope is something that I hope Hum captures in a way in some sense.
ASTRID: As a writer, how do you know when a piece is complete?
ALICE: That's the endless question! I think you need a good editor and I think you need to put it away for a bit. I often need to put it away and come back to it with fresh eyes, because you can either have heaps of self-doubt or you can think it's the best thing ever. I think it's complete if you come to it with fresh eyes and it's still kind of thumps you in the chest a bit, I think.
ASTRID: I'd like to explore that a little bit further. For a piece that is two or three lines that can be so evocative - and for the reader, for myself, it does feel complete, you've given me this entire idea or this entire way of appreciating something that I didn't experience myself, but I'm not a short fiction writer. How do you go to an editor or go to a literary journal with a piece that is five words long or less and say, 'this is an entire short story'?
ALICE: That's a really good question, and I think that I've been really lucky with Text in that they are happy to have... You know, they published Robbie Arnott's Flames there. My editor David Winter said to me explicitly that you know a lot of editors tend to shy away from micro fiction and short short fiction - I don't know if it sells that well, I don't know if there's that misconception that it's amateur - but David said to me, he said, 'Oh you know, the short flash fiction really lets the reader breathe throughout the collection'. And because it is a collection that's really anchored in Black Saturday it's quite a heavy topic, and I think, I like to think, that people will read this book in small bits, and I think that I'd like to think that those short micro fictions really are emotive and can... Again, I always use that that phrase 'that can thump you in the chest in the best way'. But you know, micro fiction, it is hard to get it published in literary journals because it is so short I guess. But to lace it through Hum was... I felt really lucky that Text were very much on board to take a bit of a risk.
ASTRID: And I should say if anyone listening who hasn't read A Constant Hum yet, first off you should. But secondly, there are quite a few... There are much longer works in the collection as well.
Now, most of the pieces that you have published in A Constant Hum are new or previously unpublished, but some had been published and awarded before. So how did the actual collection come about?
ALICE: It's kind of blurry to me. So I started as a thesis at Melbourne Uni and Tony Birch was my marker, which I was really lucky to have his insights. And Emmett Stinson was my supervisor at the time, and he encouraged me to submit it to the Victorian Premiers Unpublished Manuscript Awards. And I was not having a very good year and quite lacking in a lot of confidence, and I sent it in and it got commended, and that's when Text reached out to me in 2015. It was a very long journey to get signed for the few years after, just because I was constantly working on improving it and stuff.
But yeah, you know there was a lot of literary publications along the way. Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, a lot of places that I really looked to to benchmark my work up to this point. You know, literary journals in Australia are so unbelievably valuable for emerging writers, and with funding and stuff you can only hope they continue to get funded, because I know this book wouldn't exist without them, to be honest.
ASTRID: The collection is built around the Black Saturday fires, but aside from that really obvious point, what makes a good collection? And did you leave some of your writing out? How do you build a collection that work.
ALICE: So that's again back to a really great editor, I think. I had a lot of stories in Hum that were set overseas. So I went overseas with my then partner last year, and I did a lot of editing in Addis Ababa and we went across to America and I set some stories in America. And I was looking into the California fires, I thought that would be really... Paradise. And I actually had a story called Paradise which was about Black Saturday, so that was quite surreal. But then I was sitting with my editor David and we were talking about how a lot of stories in Hum are so tied to Christmas Hills and Kinglake and Steels Creek in that outer north eastern bush. And one of the things that Tony Birch said about the collection was that he really liked that it was set in those outerskirts of Melbourne, that aren't so often covered in Melbourne writing. And David was like, 'Oh let's just cut most of the stories that are set overseas'.
And I did have that moment like, 'Oh you know, a couple of my favourite ones were set overseas'... but when I look at Hum now, you know I've had that time again to sit with it, I'm so happy that it is just about Black Saturday, because it's a day that I think so many Australians remember. Even if you weren't really tied to that area, you remember what you were doing on Black Saturday, you remember that oven, that heat, you remember seeing that footage on the news. And I've always been interested that there hasn't been - I mean, there's been plenty of community stories and plenty of coverage in writing workshops and all that kind of stuff, and of course there's Chloe Hooper's brilliant The Arsonist, which is a more non-fiction account of arson on the day - but there seems to be a little bit of a gap in kind of literary descriptions of Black Saturday, for Australia's worst recorded natural disaster. And I know Hum can't fill that hole gap, but if it can plug a little bit that would be a dream come true, and I hope it's done that a bit.
ASTRID: I think it has. It can also draw attention and encourage other writers to start exploring this type of event and this type of experience in our contemporary literature.
Tell me about the structure of the work. It's divided into three - prevailing, southerly and northerly. Why and how?
ALICE: Yeah. So it used to just be a real big chunk of stories. When I when I took it to Text it was... at the end it was 80,000 words. It's now 50,000 words.
ASTRID: Wow, that's a lot.
ALICE: Yes it's a big, big cut. But my editor at Text was saying you need to have an over arching structure which I - because I'm a short story writer - I think I get very bogged down in the structure of the internal story, the small story. And so it - like in most aspects of my life - I forget to look at the bigger picture and I get a bit obsessed about the small details and if they're working or not, and I let that colour the rest. But my editor said, 'You know, you need to break it down into three parts, ideally'. I wanted to start with the fires, but I'm glad we didn't. We build up to the fires, Hum builds up over the the 10 years. And so David said to me, my editor said to me, 'Go away have a think. What do you want to break it up thematically?' And the first idea I came up was with was fire warnings. So obviously there's the code red day at the extreme. And then I thought that was a bit ham fisted. So I actually went to my parents place for dinner and we were talking about... I was just so stuck, and I was speaking to Mum, and Mum was like - you know, she's so beautiful - she was like, 'Oh what about wind patterns?' And I was like, 'Oh my God, that's exactly what I need to do'.
ASTRID: Well done to your Mum.
ALICE: Yes, thanks Mum. And so it starts off with prevailing. So the prevailing wind is 10 years from the day, so the more ordinary life after Black Saturday. And builds up through southerly, which is the cooler change. And then climaxes, I guess, northerly being the hot, the extreme hot wind, and the kind of wind that we often have this really visceral reaction to and think of bushfires.
ASTRID: We do think of bushfires in Australia. Can you please read for me 'Cool Change', which is my favourite, if I'm allowed to have a favourite?
ALICE: Yeah, of course.
The town hall's floors have been swept and mopped for midyear primary-school performances: for kids dressed in pipe-cleaner headbands and cardboard-box costumes doing dance routines. There are families missing, their names etched into a new board that sits at the entrance. There are no photos. Just a few pots of saltbush, some untouched letters, a Crunchie bar and a pair of motorbike gloves - there are no set rules on offerings for the disappeared.
ASTRID: Thank you. That's probably one of the pieces that I think back to when I think of A Constant Hum, because it terrifies me that in this modern world that we live in we don't have any rituals when something bad happens.
ASTRID: We don't know how to deal with it.
ALICE: And I think... I think that was a big driver of Hum in that, when you see what the end of the world would look like, you walk in the next day to Target, and we're trying to... You know, I remember being with Mum and Dad, and they had nothing, and were buying my Mum and Dad underwear and a toothbrush. And I was 22 at the time, and it was like this weird role reversal where we'd just driven an hour from where it looked like the apocalypse, and then there were people selling sausages at the front of Bunnings while we were trying to buy the basics back,
I think in our white Western culture we don't have any of that and we revert to buying stuff. And that was something that was really confronting after Black Saturday, because we lost all of our material possessions but then there was this white noise hum of trying to buy everything back, and people donating stuff - doing the best they could donating stuff, but donating stuff that you know, Dan Brown books and things that... and people were so unbelievably generous with cash and all other kinds of things, but I really think that it's a scary thing that we didn't really have any time to sit down and process it in any other way. And I think we're all expected to get on and move on and rebuild and buy things again, and it's just this endless cycle. And yeah, I think about people who actually lost people on Black Saturday, and would you... how would you be feeling today? I don't know how you could possibly keep going if you'd lost your 12 year old daughter or 17 year old son. And it is something I think about a lot, I guess.
ASTRID: When I was reading A Constant Hum - it's fiction and short fiction - but sometimes I felt like I was almost reading like a non-fiction memoir, somebody's actual recollection. You are the author, but you take so many different points of view. This is not a memoir as such from you. It's an immersive reading experience. What feelings were you trying to prompt in your readers?
ALICE: I think I think there are a few different things. One... the first one that comes to mind is I wanted to write about the judgment after natural disaster, something I really struggled with. I remember we were at a town meeting, a town hall meeting, maybe a week after the fires, and a woman came up to me and she said - she was from the valley - and she looked me square in the eyes and she said, 'Your parents should have known it was a fire trap up there'. And for me that really highlighted... you know, my Mum and Dad was standing there with nothing. And it was almost like her being scared and her saying, 'I've made the right decision, it's never going to happen to me'. And I think that's with climate change and a lot of things, because it's so far away or it's people who are making a different choice, or it's people who don't look like me who are drowning in other countries. So, I wanted to talk about that fear and that fear-driven judgment that was the underside to the absolutly beautiful generosity that we experienced after the fires.
And I don't think you can write one without the other. So I really wanted to write that, and I really wanted to give voice to that because it was so difficult to live through that. It was so difficult to live through people turning up at your door saying, 'Oh, why have you rebuilt here?' And I wanted to write that into it. I also wanted to write that people have different ways of coping and some people need to move away, and and you can't judge them for that. You can't judge people for needing to come back.
I wanted to write about women's experiences of bushfire. I think... I've always been quite stuck and made small by the constant self surveillance that we as women are encouraged to... you know, to be always just self checking ourselves and are we too this or too that, and I wanted to write about how that doesn't disappear once bushfire comes, and how terribly depressing that is. And hopefully by writing about that a little bit more... and that's what I kind of... the constant hum of the patriarchy I guess, and in being made small.
But I also wanted to write about the experience of watching the bush grow back. And how that for me all through my 20s has been something that's been an anchor in my life, and how it's been a very beautiful thing and a really special thing. But that's all about me. I also wanted to write about kids during Black Saturday, kids who, you know... I went to do a talk at Lilydale High on Friday actually, and they're from the valley underneath that kind of ridge. And this 15 year old - so he would have been five - he was like, 'Oh yeah, I don't remember much about Black Saturday but I just remember coughing into a towel'. And it is kids... kids hold onto stuff, and to see that scale of disaster at such a small age, it's got to shape you in some way.
ASTRID: I would agree, in ways that we don't even know yet, ten years is not enough time. Did you interview anyone to enlarge your perspective or was it just because when you lived through this, and everything that you picked up in the community, in the conversations around you and your family?
ALICE: I think the main answer to that one is that I was living it, and my community was telling me stories all the time. You know, you go for a walk in the bush and our neighbour Len would pop down and be like, 'Oh remember when this happened? And this is happening now... and remember when I saved you know...' And I also read a lot of the Royal Commission reports, which came out in 2010.
So we're part of a big lawsuit actually, because... I'll actually read this line from Chloe Hooper, if you don't mind.
ASTRID: Please do.
ALICE: So Chloe Hooper obviously wrote The Arsonist, and just to give you a context about what I was just about to talk about, she wrote just recently in The Guardian for the anniversary of the fires and promoting her book also she wrote about the fire that burnt down our house. So she writes, Chloe Hoper writes:
"The Kilmore East Fire, north of Melbourne, which burned through 125,383 hectares and killed 119 people, began when an electricity line or conductor fell. The conductor, which was probably 43 years old, ultimately failed because no one had noticed a component part, called a 'helical termination', was incorrectly inserted in its thimble, causing 5000°C plasma to be discharged onto surrounding vegetation. This inferno joined with the Murrindindi Fire – also caused by a fallen power line – which went on to kill 40 people."
So the Kilmore East fire was the fire that destroyed our house, and I think it's... In the sense of talking to people and getting stories, it's also news articles. So even reading little details like that - not to use the word sparked - but it really... it drove me to think about the people who were impacted by by that kind of error
And although we were greatly affected by it, I also wanted to think about what it would be like with emergency services workers and the ongoing trauma that they would feel afterwards. And I didn't into any emergency service workers, but I talked to people like my Mum who is a nurse, and I talked to a lot of people in the valley and more informally, not necessarily formal interviews, but I also read a heck of a lot - just news articles. And I was a bit obsessive about it actually, to be honest, for the first few years following the fires. So, I think that's really informed those kind of different perspectives and different fragments of the Black Saturday experience, I think.
ASTRID: You mentioned earlier that you felt there remains a gap in Australian literature dealing with natural disasters and in particular fires and in particular these fires. Clearly there has always been a lot of reporting and the Royal Commission. Do you feel any responsibility by wading into these unchartered water
ALICE: I do. I do. I think it's probably... my responsibility feels lessened because I guess we lived through it, and I feel like it's more of an outward thing, which is probably not the right answer.
ASTRID: You can have whatever answer you want.
ALICE: I... There's a lot of... it's very political. Like, there's been a few people who've contacted me online, quite angry when I put out my first essay 'Heroic Men and Helpful Women', about the CFA and about the masculine national narrative of white man versus bush. You know, you see that ash faced CFA who are lauded as these heroes, and the women don't really appear, and people of colour don't appear. And I got a few kind of DMs on Twitter from firefighters saying, 'Well, you don't know what you're talking about. I have a female staff member in my unit'. But that's the oddity.
I think there is a genuine progressive change happening, but I do feel a responsibility in terms of climate change. But then again, I was looking at the report this morning and thinking it was in 2009 when they were saying it's a climate-flared event and we have to change things. And I mean, I haven't stopped driving my car out to the valley and I know that's a small thing, but I do worry.
I hope Hum combats our ability to forget so much, and I hope A Constant Hum shows that we can't become too complacent when it comes to natural disaster, and when we see these good news stories about kids getting new bikes from the Red Cross tent, and these good news stories about people rebuilding, and these good news stories about the bush growing back - they're all valid stories, and they're all wonderful, but what's going to happen if these fires increase in intensity and frequency, which they're mapped out to do? And will we have this empathy gap where... You know, I often speak to Dad about it in that he's like, 'Well, what happens if your house burnt down in one of the smaller fires around Australia and there wouldn't be that same kind of national mourning and outpouring of support?' And I don't want to say that we were lucky because we had that, but it's definitely made it a lot easier. And I guess I feel a responsibility in that sense to show the lingering trauma and the lingering hardships people in those communities face.
ASTRID: I think it's a really important - I think its a beautiful work - but I think it's a really important thing for all writers to do. Because I have a significant degree of climate anxiety and I worry about these things a lot, and I worry particularly - because I'm an educator - that we don't have a language around this. And our children and our teenagers and anybody who then finds themselves in any kind of disaster, flood, fire, whatever the world may throw at us, we don't know how to psychologically deal with it because we haven't been thinking about it, we haven't been reading about, we haven't put it into a part of our narrative. W hich is really depressing thing to think, but nevertheless.
ALICE: Yeah. And I think you're right. And I think, you know, I'm guilty of it too, living in my bubble and thinking... You know, I saw that and I saw our house in rubble and twisted tin, and I forget. I still forget. And I know that's human nature and you have to keep going and all of that stuff, but we can't forget, because it's just going to get worse. And I think it's such a cultural thing for Western culture to just kind of blinker and not kind of... Just rebuild and keep going and keep running, you know, and I think that's something... I'm constantly thinking about that, it's really hard to to stop that.
And I think there's some amazing work coming out by, you know, I think they call it cli-fi. And you know, The Glad Shout by Alice Robinson is really amazing, and I think you've got to walk that really careful line though of having that perfect kind of... enough hope to not deter people but to be truthful as well. It's a real tricky line, I think.
ASTRID: Can you tell me about the feedback you received outside of the direct messages from firefighters?
ALICE: Look Astrid, it's been overwhelming. Of course you have hopes for your book and you hope that it will find some readers, but it's been humming along for a couple of months now. It was launched by Tony Birch on 12 at Carlton Readings.
ASTRID: 12 July?
ALICE 12 July. And it was a beautiful night and very blurry, because it was just a bit overwhelming. But to see people pick up on things, and to see my neighbours buy the book and to connect with it, and to see people - especially who I've threaded through the book, because some of the characters up based on two characters - talk to me and say thank you, that's been a really important thing for me. It has been great. I do worry. You know, I don't want to open old wounds, but the critical reception has been more than I could have ever dreamed. You get a bit... you know, you check Goodreads a bit, and there's always going to be a few shitty reviews but...
ASTRID: I wanted to ask for that. I saw you posting your one star review.
ALICE: Yeah, I think if you're writing about something that's really been... hurt a lot of people, people are going to feel like it's their story, and that's fair enough. But yeah, I'm not going to say it didn't floor me for a day, but at the same time you can't be everyone's cup of tea and the positive reception again has been, you know, almost every day there is an email about a new thing, and I wish I could spend more time on thinking about it. But you know, I've got to go to work and pay the rent and stuff, but it's been a wild ride and it's been... I feel so privileged and lucky and so touched that people from all parts of Australia really, and some people overseas, have said that they've felt moved by the characters and moved by the imagery and understand Black Saturday a little bit more now.
ASTRID: So you just mentioned overseas, and of course before you referred to the Paradise fires in California. The work that you cut out of A Constant Hum before it was published that was international in focus, is there going to be home for that? Do you know where those stories are going?
ALICE: I don't think so. I think after this I might write a few more essays about about the politics of fires and stuff, but I think I'm... I think everything I wanted to say about Black Saturday and about bushfire I've put into Hum. And that in itself is a really special thing because it was ten years of processing, and I think I want to get on to something else now.
ASTRID: Do you know what that is?
ALICE: I have a few little ideas, but I'm pretty exhausted. And I'm excited to just wait till that next thing really hits me, because it's such an investment obviously that it has to really hit you otherwise, you know, you'll be chasing your tail over something that you're not really feeling, and that's one of my biggest fears too. And I really want to write something that I think needs to be said rather than just writing for the sake of writing.
ASTRID: That is a beautiful way to put it. Thank you so much Alice.
ALICE: Thank you.