Laurie Steed on writing the short story form

Laurie Steed on writing the short story form

Laurie Steed is a novelist and short story writer. Greater City Shadows, his short story collection, was shortlisted for the 2022 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. He also published a memoir, Love Dad: Confessions of an Anxious Father, in 2023.

His fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in The Age, Meanjin, Overland, Island, Westerly, and elsewhere.

Laurie Steed on writing the short story form


ASTRID: Laurie, congratulations on your latest work, which is a collection of short stories, Greater City Shadows.

LAURIE: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

ASTRID: Today, I would really like to talk about the short story form. I have done this occasionally on The Garret, but is it just me or are there fewer collections of short stories published in Australia than other forms of fiction?

LAURIE: No, I think you have a point. It's something that in my work as a Manuscript Assessor, I'm constantly working with short story collections, and they're wonderful short story collections. Then there's time for this difficult conversation I need to have with most of these writers about just how hard it is to get these short story collections published. I know from conversations I've had with publishers and agents and all kinds of people that there's a moment of realisation when one says they're working in the short story form and they say, ‘Oh, it's a short story collection’. Then what usually happened is an apologetic, ‘But is it interlinked?’ And when you say it's thematic rather than interlinked, then that really is an awkward pause, and ‘how do we proceed from here, how does this tie into something more topical? ‘

I've had many frank moments with many people within the industry where the major question seems to be, well, why? Why are you writing these short stories? What it is about them? For me, I guess why I keep doing that in spite of the industry is that one, my neural sorting system thinks of life in fragments and in moments of memory when my heart was made or broken. That leans into me needing to do that as part of my writing process. And I also think, and perhaps this is foolhardy, that some of these people haven't read the right short story yet. And so, I try to write those short stories in the hope that someone might go, ‘Actually, this is really good, and there are a lot of great writers out there doing what Laurie does, and maybe it's worth taking a punt on that’. Now I can't speak to the commercial imperatives as to why that's a good idea, but I can say from a creative point of view and from a reader's point of view, there is something energising about the short story form, whether or not it's commercially viable, so to speak.

ASTRID: I don't think any writer or any creative in any art form should squish themselves into any predetermined shape or form that may be perceived as commercial or maybe the industry feels easier able to accept, if that makes sense. But there was so much in your answer, Laurie, I want to dig in one more time. Publishers obviously have to pay the bills to keep going, but publishers also get to choose how they frame things and what they might put money behind in order to manufacture a larger seller or a commercial success. And in your opinion, having worked in the short story form for a long time and also had your individual short stories published in many, many different anthologies and journals, can we unpick exactly why there is this perception that short stories aren't going to find an audience?

LAURIE: What's funny about it is that reader feedback so far for Greater City Shadows is incredible and really positive. Having found the work… I do know from a conversation I had probably while working on this book with a friend of mine who is a publisher said to me, ‘You need to get it out of your head that we are curators. You need to understand that we are suppliers to bookstores. What we need to do is sit in front of a bookseller and tell them why this is important’. So I wouldn't say that it's impossible to sell these things as much as it requires a different kind of brain, and it's not really a hook-based sell. That's where it gets difficult, because if you're saying, hey, guess what? This is a book about vulnerability and authenticity and connection and compassion, people are like, and what? Does the compassion get on a train and the train goes off the rails? Or if it's about connection, is it about the connection where, in fact, he was a spy and she didn't know?

There's all these books that pre-exist within the literary canon, that most short stories don't necessarily speak to. So you'll see when something like Cat Person does have a hook how well it will do in the literary space because it has that hook. But so many great short stories don't have the hook, and historically they haven't had the hook either. I guess what's happened is that on an international scale – and I certainly found this when I went to the States and went to Iowa – there is a reverence for the short story form and there's a persistence and a prioritisation of short story collections as important and as mattering. I don't know if it's just that it's a smaller industry over here or what, but it seems like there's always that battle to go, well, the novel runs the ship here in Australia. So how does short stories even fit in with that? Then I guess you have other challenges like audio book, stuff and adaptation and how many of these short stories or works are replicated and shown in other formats so that people can discover them in that way. I know for me it's a bonus because it means I lean into my most artistic intent without fear of how that's going to be perceived.

But I also know that presents a challenge for pretty much most publishers because their first question is why? Why did you tell ‘Still Life’ backwards? Why didn't you just tell it forwards? Why did you use second person PoV in that story instead of just using the first? Why aren't these stories interlinked? And there are good reasons but they're usually not available to impart in a three-minute speed date with a publisher, so that's where it gets difficult.

ASTRID: You just mentioned Iowa, and I have questions about your time in Iowa. You mentioned the international short story scene, how short stories are often and have always been revered but they don't have a hook. That comes to a question of craft and what is a short story? What is a short story made of to be complete and whole in its form? Why do you think that short stories don't necessarily have that hook if we want to use a commercial term?

LAURIE: I guess for me it might even be that the why is not externally massive or externally significant. In terms of encouraging a writer to be guided into the short form, what you're really saying often is. ‘You know that thing you don't think about, well, I want you to think about for a little while’. I guess the other thing about the short story form, so one of my colleagues, a colleague in Sozopol from Bulgaria, she used to say, ‘Why this story, why now, and why should I care?’ I think the ‘why should I care?’ is the paramount part of it, and I guess there's an empathy process within the short form that makes it less hooky and more of a gambit or even a challenge to the reader to say, ‘I'm going to tell you why you should care about this character’. That often leads to the type of character that is emotionally engaging but not stereotypical. So you strip away all the stereotype and you have to sit in that complexity of character and ambiguity of it all, where there's almost an agreement that you won't spoon feed anything to the reader in the short story format. You'll say, what did you think of that? How did you make sense of that?

The other thing that's funny about, I guess, assessing great short story work… I've judged long listed for the Peter Carey Short Story Award for a long time. As we are long listing, there are stories that are hooky, but they're not emotionally engaging enough to pull that off. So it seems like a very strange niche group of writers and readers who want to feel things profoundly within a short period of time, and then move on to the next feeling rather than to sit for too long in an emotional immersion.

It's almost… there's a story in Greater City Shadows called ‘Sometimes Close, Sometimes Distant’, and I think that could probably be the title of the collection, in that what you do for the reader is you usher them in and say, are you comfortable, are you going to be okay here? And then you give the bit you want to give, and then you go, okay, you can go, it's okay. You don't have to spend any longer in this space. I just wanted to pass on this moment when this character evolved or broke down, and then we can move on.

ASTRID: That is a great description of the short story form and what it can do. Thank you, Laurie.

LAURIE: Thank you.

ASTRID: Let's now dive into Greater City Shadows, and to be clear, we should acknowledge for those listening that this work in its original form or an earlier form was shortlisted for UWAP's Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and I was one of the judges.

Before it was published in a similar but different form, I'd like to talk about that process of how you, as the creator, choose what you start sharing with the world, in this case, an Unpublished Manuscript Award, but also how you slightly change things on the path to publication, but still keep it true to your vision and your creativity.

LAURIE: That's a great question. In fact, with Greater City Shadows, even prior to the award, it went through a number of periods. The original book was called Nova, and the nova is a star that brightens momentarily before returning to its original state. This seemed like a brilliantly abstract thing to place a short story collection around, but as I continued with that, I thought it was a pretty niche way to have a book in the world called Nova. It originally started with letters, believe it or not, directly addressed to the reader, one called ‘Nova’ and one called ‘Supernova ‘at the end of it. My then editor, Amanda Curtin, very wisely suggested that these letters might be slightly challenging for the book to exist in the world, and so we worked together to get what felt like the original Nova. That went out to publishers in lockdown and I didn't hear anything for a vast period of time. Then when I heard the first one back, I went, ‘Okay, this isn't going to work the way I thought it was going to work’.

At that point, I shared the manuscript with a friend – this is prior to the Dorothy Hewett – and they said, hey, you know those stories that aren't set in Perth, it feels like they're set in Perth, and you're pretending that they're not in Perth, and it's not working, and I get why you might have done that, but Perth is your city. Your fingerprints are all over this place, so why don't you just lean into it and see what it looks like if you do that? And so I began to do that. The only other interesting thing about leading into submitting for the Hewett is that the other bit of feedback from that same writer was that tonally it was a bit the same, and so I decided I would write three stories on the back of that information. One of them, I set myself a challenge. I said to my eldest son, ‘Give me a title and I'll write that story’. That's a fun game to play at home to work out which story that was. But really I leaned into… I know you talked with Charlotte Wood about hope and moving into courage and things like that, and I thought that was a nice analogy for the stories I wrote later, which was that what if these stories were powered by positivity and leaned into joy or wonder? They were the hardest ones to write because historically I've made this deal that I'd be gritty and that these characters would sort of go through mass trials. And when they didn't, the stories were just lovely and really warm-hearted and hopeful, and not hopeful in that wishy-washy sense, they were hopeful in a very real human beings connecting with each other kind of way. I put it into The Hewett. For those who don't know, it was a longer than usual shortlisting process too. So during that time, I probably went through every one of the never-ending stories through gates that Atreyu must pass and wondered if I was doing anything right. I did a sort of a transcendental meditation where first I was looking at me and feeling great empathy. And then I looked in on all of us in the shortlist and went, ‘Oh, wow, you all want to win this, this would be such a big deal’. And then, yeah, obviously the award was announced and strangely, I was asked into the publishing office at that point. And even then, I was still thinking, mark your exits, see where you get this space. Because it had been such a long journey with this book, it had been about four or five years. From that point when it was published, there was still movement towards getting to the final work.

I guess to answer your question, what I needed more than anything else was openness and a willingness to listen to what wasn't working under the assumption that whatever they weren't talking about was. That's a big shift for a writer, because most writers want that praise and they want that support. I guess by book number three, I finally worked out that I was okay at this, and I could take the positivity as read and work with what needed to be worked with. And yeah, from there working with Kirsty Innes Wills, and I guess Kate Pickard would have been a big part of that too. We sort of penned this love letter to Perth, but also to life in and after the pandemic too and ways in which we connected during that time.

ASTRID: That is such an interesting way of reframing discussions with a publisher. I think many, many writers and creatives would benefit from that. Take the positive as read and engage with the feedback that they are giving.

I would like to ask you about some specific stories in Greater City Shadows. You have mentioned a few. The first one actually is the eponymous short story. It opens the work. It is so short. The short story itself, ‘Greater City Shadows’, is less than two pages.

But it made me want to really interrogate what makes a complete short story. How can you have a payoff for the reader in less than two pages and not 10 or 20? Now, I don't want to suggest, Laurie, that there is any kind of one form for a short story. There isn't. But from the reading point of view, how do you make it complete?

LAURIE: Yeah, well, I mean, there's always... The interesting thing with ‘Greater City Shadows’ was that we had, and I think it was the first and Southern Hemisphere, the Short Story Dispenser was delivered to Perth. We had a Short Story Dispenser and there was a submission call out for people who wanted to have a story in that dispenser.

At the time, I wrote this little thing really due to limits of the short story dispenser. How long they had to read it. What was funny about that? Maybe it's a poetics thing, but I couldn't avoid...

I guess it's about an emotional trajectory for your character, but it's not any emotional trajectory. It's like a big emotional trajectory or realization that it's almost like you've got a bunch of puzzle pieces and suddenly the puzzle comes together almost simultaneously, like all the pieces are magnetic and they just click. And so, with something like ‘Greater City Shadows’, which is only two pages, I was trying to pair together two separate things and go, ‘What if his character had this conversation then and didn't really know what it meant, and then a decade later worked out what it meant and thought that he had sort of had a realisation that was individual, but by the time he gets to the wall, without spoiling, you know, the story's arc, it's something that many have gone through before?’ It's almost like when I look at my city in this respect, that story, love and loss are kind of in the fabric of the city. So that answers the ‘Greater City Shadows’ one.

In terms of the other stories, there needs to be resistance for the protagonist in most of my stories anyway. The protagonist has a lot invested in their reality. So you need to find out who has the door – who has the key, sorry – that opens up that particular door that they want locked. And then if you find that character, then suddenly the story unfolds.

I guess the deal is that I always want to show the reader where the character might go without taking them too far into that realm. Often a hopeful ending by default, but for me, it can't be an easily earned ending. So however long the story is, there needs to be major resistance both internally and externally to that courage. The courage wouldn't matter if it was just the courage to do something basic. It's like a major reality perception shift. And I guess the other way I know as to whether it should be in the collection as a whole in terms of its completeness is if it offers some sort of insight that wasn't previously in the collection.

So something like ‘Reflections on a Ghost Story’ needed to be there because if all my characters have agreed that they're going to be that vulnerable, it doesn't seem fair that as the author I don't do that once as well, which sounds a little bit nuts because they're characters and I'm real. But it's kind of the deal with Greater City Shadows is that whoever enters into that space must be exposed to and then move on.

ASTRID: Laurie, thank you for bringing up ‘Reflections on a Ghost Story’. That is actually one of the stories I wanted to ask you about. It is a very short short story. It is, I guess I read it as a comment on the short story that immediately proceeds it in the collection, which is called ‘All for Love’. I thought this is Laurie, this is not fiction. Maybe Laurie is playing with me and maybe this is fiction too. I don't know. This led me to want to ask you a question about form, and what does it mean to insert yourself into the middle of your short story collection?

LAURIE: Yeah, it's a great question. I think it probably wouldn't have happened had I not also come off my second book, which was autobiography or memoir Love, Dad. And so, what I was conscious of and why I wanted to do it and to give to credit, I was pretty much inspired by Tim O'Brien, who does something similar in The Things They Carried in a different format and to do with the military and stuff. But I was conscious that the idea of truth is an interesting thing. The writer has power there in going, hey, and here's this story and this is how it all went down. There are two stories that intentionally challenge that, and one is ‘Great Southern Scotoma’ and the other is ‘Reflections on a Ghost Story’. And ‘Great Southern Scotoma’ is the character who has their reality questioned. But with ‘All for Love’, what's funny is that it would have...

I just knew that I was doing it at a disservice if I didn't interrogate some of the reasons why someone might write a story like that. And I didn't think it was ever going to be the whole truth in writing a story like ‘All for Love’. All for Love was also part of the collection when it was known as Geek Music, which was a whole bunch of stories about, you know, nerds, geeks, outcasts and stuff like that.

And I really love this story. But I also, because I'm me, I was conscious of what some readers might make of ‘All for Love’, and if there was bits that were omitted or left out. And I'd made the deal when I wrote Greater City Shadows, that if there was a thing I was hiding, like a blind spot, and that's why ‘Great Southern Scotoma’ is called ‘Great Southern Scotoma’, I would be accountable to a point. Now, the deal that's interesting with a story like a ‘Reflections on a Ghost Story’ is you're right, it's still not quite me. And so there's an ever decreasing circles thing that goes on with there. And I know someone who reviewed both Love, Dad and Greater City Shadows, they said, ‘When I was reading Love, Dad, I thought, oh, that's Laurie. And then I started reading Greater City Shadows and I went, no, that's Laurie’. The hardest part about being a writer, I guess, is you're the least reliable person in the room to tell you what you're like. I think I'm getting closer, but I would trust my characters a lot more than I would trust any depiction of me in a fictional form.

ASTRID: One of the worst questions an interviewer can ever ask a writer is, how much of yourself is in the work? And I have previously asked that and I am not about to ask you that now, Laurie. But I did want to kind of draw in your second book, which is your memoir. You just mentioned it, Love, Dad: Confessions of an Anxious Father, which came out in 2023. Obviously, that is, you know, it is you, it's a memoir. But it is looking at fatherhood and intimate family relationships. There are quite a few stories in Greater City Shadows that are also looking at fatherhood and those familial bonds. I guess I wanted to broaden the question to you because you've obviously done a lot of thinking about this, Laurie, what are your thoughts on how you have seen fatherhood represented in literature in any form, short story, memoir, novel form, whatever? And how did you take your thoughts on how fatherhood is represented and decide how you were going to do it?

LAURIE: I mean, that's an interesting question. I know from having grown up reading a lot of American fiction in particular there are a lot of absent fathers and there are a lot of brutal fathers. I was conscious that that wasn't my experience with my father, and that sort of impregnates Love, Dad in particular. But then when it came to writing in the fictional format, what's funny is what's... So, I was writing for my writing until I was at Varuna writing Love, Dad over two weeks, and suddenly all this stuff about being a parent come out. So, the only thing I guess that's interesting to note is that the present predates Love, Dad. So, I think one of the things that can happen sometimes is that you're given a brief or you decide to write about something, and it proves to be more fruitful or more interesting than you ever thought it was.I guess what's interesting about parenting in my world is what happens when a generational shift begins to occur with how people parent and people co-parent and things like that. So, I never thought I was particularly trailblazing in looking at that, but what I've noted is that while most people are doing that in the real world, not that many people are writing about it from the male father point of view. So, for me, it was exciting to write that stuff and a really just a big relief, because the funny thing about it is that you assume that you're going crazy as a dad if you think, well, I'm anxious about this, I'm worried about this. And the more you start to talk about it, you open up with readers about their experience of being a parent too. I don't even think it's a fatherhood thing as much as an open dialogue outside of friendship circles about what being a parent is like. There are manifest, you know, all kinds of different variations on what it means to be a parent in society, including all kinds of different parent make-ups. I know, even though I'm talking about my experience within that, I'm not remotely covering the different types of parenting you know, make-ups that are out there, the different types of experiences that are out there. I guess part of writing that world is really going, this is my truth, tell me yours, and then you have that meaningful open conversation about it. And there's no accountability of sense of going, well, I'm right, and I'll point this. It says, I don't even know, I can barely get my trousers on, but this is what it looks like to me, can you share it with you?

ASTRID: Astute observations, Laurie. My final question for you, I want to go back to the Iowa Fellowship that you did. You're in Western Australia, I'm in Victoria. America is a long, long way away. Iowa is considered a long way away from many things in the United States itself. What was your experience, but maybe more importantly, for the listeners of The Garret, what do they do that is different or the same as us? Like, what's the comparison like?

LAURIE: Well, I took four planes to get to Iowa. I remember that distinctly that I took four planes. Once I got there, I had this feeling of having made it, which is a very naive early writer thing. But I did. I think, oh, wow, I'm going to be at Iowa, I'm going to be doing this thing. So I was working with Dr ZZ Packer, who's incredible. She's a Guggenheim Fellow. What she did was she took what I thought was my best story at the time, and that's what I submitted, and that's what I got in it. It's called ‘The Knife’, and it ended up being in a number of places, but at the time it hadn't been. She met with me one-on-one, and she sat down with me, and she said, ‘That story of yours, it's okay’. When she said it's okay, my heart just shattered into a thousand pieces. It was almost like I'd rather she'd hated it, but then she said it was okay. Then what she did was she explained to me why it was just okay. And it was insightful feedback. And she never said this outright, but the meta-message seemed to be, this is not about you at all. This is about the story and if the story executes, and whether the story executes is not down to your ego or you're wanting to be great, it's down to whether the character arc works and if it executes, and if it's surprising as well. I think the one thing they do teach well there, is to surprise your reader, or to subvert expectations of where a story is going to go.

The one thing I didn't know before I got there, was that stories aren't meant to hit points as predicted, and that often has happened in published Australian collections, not naming any names. There was sort of an agreement that you would just do what you did and produce stories. So for me, the moment she said it was okay, I went to a waffle house with my other friend whose story had been decimated that same day, and we sat there, waffles in tow, and we tried to work out how this story could work differently, what we could do, even things like adding humour into a serious story, because that's the other sort of hangover Australian lit. It's the sort of sincerity, but to an extreme degree where one can't riff off of something or make a joke.

The workshop space was brutal. There's no other way to describe it. But it was deeply helpful to have people tell you why you weren't as good as you thought you were over and over again. I guess the only other thing that would be good to give credit to as well, outside of Iowa, is that also when I was published in The Sleeper's Almanac for that, the editors Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn were very conscious of telling me who was knocking it out of the park and who I should read. Every time I read them, I was like, ‘Oh, I'm not even close. Okay, that's great. Now I'll go back and I'll try it again and I'll do different things’.

Any time spent with ZZ Packer was really well spent because she really had the attitude of like, ‘Oh, you're coming in here thinking you're the shit. Do you want to prove it to me?

Do you want to give me a story that's any good? Or do you want to give me this okay mumbo jumbo? We'll see how that works’. She's in my head a lot. I mean, I think about things she said all the time. One of her sort of catchphrases was, ‘If you can't see it, hear it, taste it, touch it and smell it, then it doesn't exist’. The big one that sort of stayed with me was, don't fake the heft if you haven't got the heft. And so, you know, these are not easy things to have written on one's work. Yeah, I can't think of a day after that happened, where I was too much in the room that I got in the way of the story.

ASTRID: I think you might have got some excellent advice there, Laurie. And now you have shared it to the listeners.