Authors are a strange lot … by which I mean it can, perhaps, be unfair to judge them on the basis of the stories they write. This can be especially true of writers whose work tends towards the dark. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve only read two of Michelle Goldsmith‘s stories, and both of them are fairly dark. One of them, ‘The Climbing Tree’, is in Use Only As Directed, the anthology that Edwina Harvey and I co-edited this year, and it’s this story that Michelle is going to be telling us about a bit further down the page. But the point I was wanting to make first, having met Michelle at Continuum where we launched UOAD, is that she’s a much less scary person than her stories would lead you to expect …
Anyway, here’s Michelle now (looking very relaxed, I must say, about what might well be a dangerous botanical backdrop):
What should readers know about you before they sit down to read ‘The Climbing Tree’?
I’ll refrain from thrusting my entire biography upon people before they read my story. That way if it’s not their thing they can more easily forget who wrote it and won’t have to avoid me at conventions. However, if they love it they should by all means google the bejeebus out of me. I’d just ask them to kindly skip over any photos taken before 2012 and any that obviously involve having imbibed too many alcoholic beverages (in my case, that means any more than one).
‘The Climbing Tree’ is fairly different in style to my previously published work. Firstly, it is told in first person and is much shorter (usually I have trouble keeping stories under 5000 words).
I am still a relatively new writer and am currently trying to push myself outside my comfort zone and try new styles and subgenres. I am reasonably comfortable with a certain type and style of story. However, I want to improve and diversify my writing and that won’t happen without trying new things. Hopefully readers enjoy the results.
Most of all I would like readers to know that I appreciate them taking the time to read my stories.
What provoked you (or, if you’d rather, encouraged you) to tell the story you did? What was the germ of the idea that led to it?
A number of different motivations came into the creation of this story, actually.
When I was young, my friends and I had our own ‘Climbing Tree’ outside my house. Luckily for us, our tree was rather more benign than the one in the story. The single strange thing about it was that every so often over the years every there would be talk of cutting it down and replacing it with a more conventionally attractive plant. However, for some reason this never happened.
Even after my father became ill and we moved interstate I got a letter from a friend saying that she had asked the new owners of the house about the tree. Apparently, they said they were going to get rid of it because it was ugly but then changed their minds and said they ‘liked it there’. I’ve since lost contact with people from that stage of my life but I like to think that if I returned to Canberra I would find the tree still standing there, waiting for me.
Other aspects of childhood also came into the mix. Certain things become obscured over the years but others remain as clear as yesterday. Fantasy and reality also seemed far less distinct as a child. You would find ways to explain the terrible or disturbing things that happened in ways that made sense to you. The creepy old man who followed your friend home from school was clearly an agent of a supernatural nemesis. Your dad’s illness was clearly a plot by that same nemesis to force you to move away because you and your friends were onto his plans.
But what if the stranger explanation was not so clearly false in hindsight? I’ve known people who, as children, reported real circumstances to adults and were disbelieved. In many ways the main story in ‘The Climbing Tree’ is not the events that happened, but their impact on the protagonist and the way they echo down the years.
In essence, ‘The Climbing Tree’ is a relatively simple tale when it comes to plot. This gave me the opportunity to play around a bit with narrative voice, description and recollection. For instance, my protagonist remains unnamed and ungendered. They could be anyone, and in many cases readers seem to fill in the gaps themselves. I wanted to experiment with this but felt it would run the risk of irritating more readers in a longer, more plot-complicated story. It’s actually quite interesting to hear people talk about the story after reading it and hearing what assumptions they made about the POV character.
Whether I succeeded in making all this work in the story is for each reader to decide though!
If you were told you were only allowed to keep one sentence from the published story, what sentence would that be, and why?
‘At night I hear children’s laughter and the rustling of leaves.’
This sentence pretty much embodies the point of the story to me. It also reminds me of moonless, windy nights spent tucked among blankets and listening to the howling of the elements outside.
‘The Climbing Tree’ reads as a fairly closely-observed childhood recollection, you’re trained as a biologist, and some of the outcomes in the story are, let’s say, without wishing to get spoilerish about it, ‘suboptimal’ for those concerned. Should we be looking at opening up a cold-case investigation on this matter?
I’m not sure we’d have much luck getting a confession from the tree itself. You’re welcome to try though. I’ll just wait here.
Actually, after my partner read the story he turned to me and said ‘Why did it do it? Was it hungry?’ Knowing me, he has decided that it is the tale of the discovery of a new species of carnivorous plant, and that I probably think it is misunderstood and will soon try to campaign to preserve its habitat. Or that I secretly want to feed it people who misuse scare quotes on signage.
What are you currently working on, and what would you like to tell readers of this blog about your current endeavour?
At the moment I’m balancing my fiction writing with my day job (as a writer and editor for a number of business-to-business industry magazines), a Masters in Publishing and Communications and the general ‘life stuff’ that builds up for us all because life rudely refuses to pause while we are writing. I also have a chronic illness, but I am doing a lot better since my last surgery so my ‘downtime’ is much less frequent. All this means that I’m not quite as fast and prolific as I’d like to be!
I always have a lot of different works in progress. This is probably partially because I find I can revise my works much more effectively when I have a break to work on something else between drafts. It gives me time to distance myself so I can look at my own work in the persona of an editor rather than the writer.
Recently I finished revising a post-apocalyptic SF novelette that essentially chronicles the fall of the human race. However, it is framed as the journey of self-discovery of a confused AI who thinks it’s doing the right thing. It is an odd story, was quite challenging and has gone through a number of revisions. It was probably pretty ambitious for a relatively new writer as it has a rather large scope. Also, if the dark humour doesn’t quite hit the mark and adequately emphasise the problematic elements of the story readers could walk away with completely the wrong idea. I’d rather not have people think I am advocating colonialism because I failed to critique it effectively! Luckily I have a good writing group to point these things out and had the guidance and encouragement of my mentor, Kaaron Warren, to help me keep at it. I feel it is working much better now and hopefully it’s ready to go off seeking a home.
I also recently finished the first draft of my first attempt at a YA story, which involves a teenage protagonist with the head of a raven. It needs some revision, but I’m pretty sure I have its number down now.
Other than that, I have another story (an odd mix of weird fiction and alternative autobiography) out on submission and have a few new stories plotted out and ready to tackle. I also plan to get back to my novel draft after semester ends and have a go at finishing it. It’s more along the lines of an epic fantasy but with some weird elements worked in.
All in all, I’m not short on ideas, I just need the time to write them.
The other story of Michelle’s that I’ve seen, and it’s a corker, is her novella ‘Gold and Dust’ in ASIM 60. If you’d like to learn more about Michelle’s writing, or about her reviewing, her website is www.vilutheril.com.
I’ll post any further interviews in the series as they come to light.