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Centre for Stories

Alice Bishop

"I think it’s really hard to fully understand how much a natural disaster can affect you without going through it."

Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.

Alice Bishop grew up in Christmas Hills, Victoria. Her writing has been published by Meanjin, Overland, Australian Book Review, Lip Magazine and the Wheeler Centre. Her debut book, a short story collection, is called A Constant Hum.

A Constant Hum – Synopsis

Before the bushfires—before the front of flames comes roaring over the hills—the ridges are thick with gums. After the fires, the birds have gone. There is only grey ash and melted metal, the blackened husks of cars. And the lost people: in temporary accommodation on the outskirts of the city, on the TV news in borrowed clothes, or remembered in flyers on a cafe wall.

A Constant Hum grapples with the aftermath of disaster with an eye for telling detail. Some of these stories cut to the bone; others are empathetic stories of survival, even hope. All are gripping and beautifully written, heralding the arrival of an important new voice in literary fiction.

Congratulations on your debut, Alice—the intimacy captured in it is remarkable. Can you tell us a bit about what led you to publish this collection?

A Constant Hum really grew out of my family and community’s experience of Black Saturday—the Victorian 2009 fires—and the aftermath.

Although bushfire links all the stories in A Constant Hum, the book covers more too. Especially the static white noise that can follow you around when things aren’t going right, the comforting hum of the everyday, too—how these things are heightened after natural disaster: both in helpful and unhelpful ways.

Also, I was working full-time in fashion retail back when the fires hit our ridge, and then went back to uni soon after. Seeing everything turn to ash—in hindsight—gave me bit of a drive to do something different, something more in line with my interests. Uni really gave me opportunity to read widely, along with the time and space to really practice and learn. It was almost like an apprenticeship, I think: an expensive one, sure.

But I definitely don’t think every writer needs formal study. For me, though, it was so important to build both my confidence and craft (two things so many of us will always be working on). Study gave me permission to just sit with things a bit more, instead of rushing around.

I think your collection reflects that—that you didn’t rush. A sentiment possibly shared by Louise Pfanner, who writes that A Constant Hum should “be compulsory reading for all Australians, especially city-dwellers.” I agree, because prior to reading your collection I, like most Australians, had a distorted perception of tragedies like Black Saturday. What motivated you to address this misconception, and what research was involved?

It was so nice to get this review. Being the first one out, I was pretty nervous to read it. But to answer your question: I think it’s really hard to fully understand how much a natural disaster can affect you without going through it. I’ve been so guilty of watching tsunamis, floods and droughts on the news without really thinking of the huge emotional, physical and financial impact they have on individuals, relationships and communities—sometimes for years and years afterwards.

After Black Saturday, though, I had a real sense of syrupy loss, and a lot of the stories in A Constant Hum have come from things I’ve experienced. Some too, of course, are completely fictional but based in stories from my community and other bushfire-affected communities in the outer north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Also, I still have all the newspapers from the week after Black Saturday, and I remember being so obsessed with reading everything I could. It was a weird kind of hunger, and I wonder if that’s what it’s always like—for everyone who suddenly, and unexpectedly finds themselves, their community, on the other side of the news.

I’ve written before, also, about how there is a very white-bread national narrative when it comes to bushfire in this country. The headlines are so often about heroism and are usually very male-centred. I don’t think women, kids, or people with varied cultural backgrounds fit into the stories Australia tells itself about bushfires. So I hope A Constant Hum counters this a little—even a little.

I think it does, and more than a little. It’s a part of the reason that I enjoyed A Constant Hum, and probably why it’s being received so well. I also enjoyed the varying lengths of chapters—of the snapshots of lives caught in tragedy, in the before, during, and after. For example, ‘Half-light’ is several pages long, while ‘Horses’ is a single sentence. Yet every chapter packs a punch. What was behind this, and what difficulties were involved in achieving these variations?

I’ve always really loved really short fiction, both reading and writing it. There’s that classic idea that shorter stories are quick and easy to write but sometimes they’re the hardest. ‘Horses,’ for example, was once a 3000-word short story, but then got distilled down into the one sentence it is now. My editor was really supportive and embraced the varying lengths, too, which I don’t think would have necessarily happened elsewhere. So I feel pretty lucky for that.

The cover of Alice Bishop's novel 'A Constant Hum'. It features an array of wildflowers.

I agree, I think short stories can be terribly challenging—and are still underappreciated, so it’s lovely that your editor was so supportive. In these chapters you write first person point of view for a multitude of characters—men and women of all ages and effected in small and large ways by the fires. How difficult was this to do and then to piece together for publication?

Empathy—especially when it’s educated—is a pretty important tool for a writer, and I think I’ve been lucky to always have been pretty sensitive (which is something I see more as a positive, now, than I used to) but I really wanted to have a range of usually untold stories of bushfire aftermath.

In saying that, I’m also always aware that a lot of people lost friends, family, partners, children to Black Saturday, so being able to write about it without still being floored by the hugeness of losing someone on the day is a real privilege. I think it’s really important to keep the 173 people who died, and those who were close to them, in mind.

Definitely, and I think your empathy bleeds through this collection. On top of that, you also have a sharp mind for detail and I found your work to be lyrical. I know many writers have to work this into their writing, while others have to tone this down. Tell us a bit about your writing process.

I think the smaller details of life are often the most telling. Writing and reading has helped me to appreciate things a lot more. Sometimes, like so many people, I find myself forgetting how beautiful things are—naff as that sounds—you know, that first cup of coffee in the morning, a text from your mum, a good mandarin. Reading and writing keeps me present, I reckon.

The detail that runs through A Constant Hum is also really grappling with the changing landscape too. I live in the city now but spend at least a night a week out in the bush. Whether it’s the sprouting wattle, the bits of porcelain-flecked ashy earth—years on—or the stoic blackened trees, still standing: I couldn’t have written this book without having that connection to the changing landscape up there.

I think the book, and the process of working on it, has been a really welcome constant thing—when so much else in my life felt like it was shifting a bit.

I’ve had a few conversations of late about the difficulties of writing from personal experience—the emotional difficulty specifically. What was this like for you? What difficulties did it entail? What precautions, if any, did you take? How did you take care of yourself?

It’s not very fashionable to say, but the writing of this book has been so important to me. I think that building something out of things that are really uncomfortable and unknown for you can be really helpful—can help you make sense.

It’s important, though, here, to be aware that being able to do that is a big privilege too: I have time and the resources, and also the health to write. So many people—all over the world—go through natural disaster and don’t have that luxury, at all.

Also, I actually think putting A Constant Hum together has made me consider Black Saturday from so many more perspectives than I would have thought about—other than through a passing flicker—before.

What about the publishing process? Was there anything you felt unprepared for, or were surprised by?

I have been very lucky to land with Text. My editor, David Winter, really wanted the book to remain subtle and strong—without weaving too much sensationalist stuff about Black Saturday through. I think other publishers might have seen that as a really strong marketing point and then stressed that element too much to the work’s detriment. Text have been really supportive, and genuine. Again, I feel really lucky.

Overall, it’s been a long process—and one without much financial security—but I am so lucky to be where I am too.

 I’m really glad to hear that. Lastly, what, if anything, are you working on now—what will we see from you next?

It’s an overwhelming question but a completely normal one. I feel like this book was such a marathon (in the best way) but I would love to write more non-fiction. Essay collections are increasingly getting more interest and I would love to write about so many things: more about climate and displacement too. I also don’t know, but I feel like I should tackle a novel too. Something more fragmentary maybe.

I just hope the next one doesn’t take as long as A Constant Hum took to write: seven years. In saying that, though, having finished A Constant Hum now, I do really realise how much I love the writing process—the quiet work of it all. The hope.

You can purchase A Constant Hum from Text Publishing.

Alice Bishop grew up on Wurundjeri Country, in Christmas Hills, Victoria, Australia. She was recently named 2020 Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist for A Constant Hum, now out via Text Publishing. A Constant Hum was also shortlisted for the 2019 Prize for New Australian Fiction and the 2020 University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Prize for Short Fiction. A Constant Hum is now studied in a number of high schools across Australia and has been recognised internationally.

This interview was published on 14 August 2019. 

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