(#59): ‘On Our Selection’: The Art of the Anthology with Cate Kennedy and James Bradley, with Tim Herbert
The Bangarra Mezzanine is a lovely room, but just not at 4-5pm on a beautiful sunny autumn day in Sydney with all that sun, sun and more sun streaming in! I had a similar experience last year. I don’t know why the event organisers can’t put up some shade cloth over at least some of the windows. We in the audience were all wearing our sunglasses and shading ourselves with programmes from the sun! It was a shame as the room was not full and I just wonder whether it was because of this, as the topic was very interesting with both James and Cate talking about the art of creating an anthology.
Cate, of course, has done a few anthologies, most recently last year’s wonderful The Best Australian Stories – and has signed up for this year’s as well. James Bradley has edited The Penguin Book of the Ocean. So, what is the art of the anthology? Well to kick things off, Tim Herbert gave us the etymology of the word ‘anthology’: from Greek: ‘anthos’ meaning ‘a flower’, and ‘logia’ meaning ‘collection’ – so off we went to talk about how these two well known authors in their own right came to select the flowers for their bouquet.
For Cate, the process is really about choosing the absolute best stories. She is aware of the reader’s experience in terms of the emotional charge of the stories and their order of placement and orders stories in this way.
For James, the task with the very well reviewed Book of the Ocean was different. He tried to make a shape. The stories needed to talk to one another and the order of them was a very deliberate thing. He reflected on how hard it was for him to lose some things which perhaps should be in the book but just didn’t fit the shape. He equated editing his anthology with trying to make a poem out of found objects, which I quite like the idea of. Following on from this ‘fitting’ comment he talked about how he sometimes had to select a piece from an author which wasn’t their best piece of writing because it didn’t fit or because another of theirs fit better. He gave the example of the account of the sinking of the Essex, written by Owen Chase, which Melville used as the inspiration for Moby-Dick. The section that Owen wrote after the sinking, where the survivors resort to cannibalism to survive is much more harrowing and riveting, but he needed to use the account of the sinking itself as it fit with the inclusion of a section of Moby-Dick.
What was interesting was the discussion that there is not a lot of Australian stories set in the sea or ocean with the obvious exceptions (Nam Le’s excellent The Boat or Tim Winton’s stories). Most of our stories are landlocked.
Cate selects stories that are still speaking to her several days later. Interestingly, the 2010 collection were quite dark and she spoke about how she thought whether she needed to balance this darkness out, but she eschewed that approach, believing that if the submissions for that year were dark then that was reflecting something in the public mood which she didn’t want to tamper with. She also said that the gender balance (very close to equal male and female representation) was not intentional.
James was aware right from the off that he was going to have quite a gender imbalance. There was no way around it, he said, most of the accounts of sailing and sailors were written by men. Part of his response was to open and close the book with pieces by women.
Cate spoke of the enjoyable challenge of reading so many submissions (last year around 800 short stories, this year already 600 submitted and counting). It is a huge task but Cate loves it. She said she gets to find those special gems. The stories are not really edited, they are selected, so they need to come in as perfect as they can be. She spoke of what made a good short story: how she preferred things should be implicit rather than explicit, how it should be cinematic in the sense that we are shown something happening and all the subtext and theme are implicit. She talked about how there were a huge range of formats of stories that make it interesting, such as one story from last year which was a list of 100 things, and which, when you reached the end had revealed the structure and theme in this implicit manner. She gave some sage wisdom on what constitutes plot, which she summarised in three words: ‘things get worse'(!) – a fantastic description! And she talked about her own journey as a writer and how short stories are wonderful learning ground – “nothing teaches like the blank page” – and nothing teaches like the short form.
There was an interesting discussion on the so-called renaissance in short stories. James made the point that he thought it was not so much a renaissance in the form but more a renaissance in a certain literary culture. Cate hopes that the reason short stories are becoming more popular is not because we are all time poor but simply because there is a realisation that the form is a wonderful thing in itself, when it is done well, there is nothing like it. I couldn’t agree more.
There was also some discussion on the evils and benefits of social media. James was more in favour. Cate sees them as antithetical to the creative process.
A great little (sun-drenched!) session.
BTW: James writes an excellent blog at: City of Tongues.