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Centre for Stories

Bernard Cohen

"I was interested in the impositions we accept as ordinary, and what might happen if we took them seriously, as though they took up as much time in our lives as our grand dreams."

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.Bernard Cohen is the author of five novels and a children’s picture book. Bernard won the Australian Vogel Literary Award, the Russell Prize for Humour Writing and was (uniquely) three times among the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. He is founder and director of The Writing Workshop and holds a doctorate from University of Technology in Sydney, where he was also an inaugural Alumnus of Distinction. When I Saw the Animal is his first short story collection.

When I Saw The Animal – Synopsis

Parked in by furious rich people, mid-divorce, a man misses his lunchtime gambling session. All the girls named Ella form a diagonal across the teacher’s new classroom. Diseased cattle burn in fields around the country – it is a cameraman’s role to frame the images for TV. A swagman jumps into a billabong, or was he pushed?

Black and white portrait of a man with black framed glasses standing against a white wall.

Many of the stories in When I Saw the Animal are about animals, exploring our ambivalence to them, how we can want them yet reject them, how they can save us yet we can be at war with them. What is it about the animal world that you are drawn to?

I’ve been thinking a lot about our behaviour as animals – that it’s hard for us to see ourselves as a species, as animalistic. For example, several of the pieces for which I’ve used the term  “Short Twos” attempt to capture a moment of human territoriality.

Conversely, I was wondering about animals’ conceptions of themselves – what would it be like if they thought of themselves as having essences in the same as human theologies depict us? In “Frogspeak”, for example, an entire species is transplanted from what might have been the amphibian Eden, a.k.a. Sydney Olympic Park.

It came to be a central theme of the book almost accidentally, in that I realised at a certain point that I’d written a lot of animal stories over time, and the title story seemed to make its way between that theme and some of the book’s other concerns – such as isolation in the midst of crowds.

In one of the stories, you describe writing as ‘an entirely random activity, its randomness checked only by the calligraphic limitations of the keyboard.’ Do you find writing as random as your character does? Can you describe your writing process?

My approach is not at all random!

The narrator in that story is a monkey, one involved in the realisation of the thought experiment that enough typing monkeys would eventually produce Hamlet. The experiment presupposes that this Hamlet would be soulless, inferior to Shakespeare’s version, because it would be an accident or at least without conscious intention on the successful monkey’s part.

I tried to give that monkey plenty of consciousness, including of the conditions in which the monkey Hamlet is produced.

The stories address quotidian unpleasantries, like getting double parked, or squabbles in a restaurant. What is it about domestic discomforts that interest you in your writing?

I was interested in the impositions we accept as ordinary, and what might happen if we took them seriously, as though they took up as much time in our lives as our grand dreams. Frequently they do. I wanted to reflect a range of lived experiences – often subjects that are considered outside or not worthy of literature – and I used a range of strategies to do that, from the reportage of overheard conversation to techniques borrowed from different genres.

You explore the concept of text in an information age, of journalism and literature. In one story, your narrator says, ‘What I love least about text is seepage. What I most love about text is particularity.’ Can you comment on this idea that language can pinpoint something yet also refer to multiple things?

The quote is part of a section in the story “War Against the Ungulates” in which the narrator characterises the journalist’s role as attempting to contain the meaning of a news event. That is, the role of the journalist is to prevent an event (a cattle epidemic) from spreading out beyond the generic journalistic remit to become a story about human control of animals and about the nature of industrialised agriculture. But it was impossible to stop. The medium is the message, and the medium is industry with a particular business model.

In some stories, you explore the bitter and ugly side of human nature and human interactions, often narrated with a dry, sardonic wit. What compels you to write about this side of human nature?

I’m not sure that it’s a compulsion, but I think I’ve sometimes focused on two aspects of these interactions. Firstly and unfortunately, humans aren’t always compassionate and generous with each other. Secondly, it’s fascinating and often troubling how opaque human motives can be to those standing close and yet, to a consciousness at a slightly greater distance, how transparent. It could be that entire therapeutic professions are dedicated to this discrepancy.

Some characters (thinking, for instance, of the young painter in “Green”) are caught in the moment, unable to exercise agency against the momentum set up by others. In “Noiseless”, the protagonist is more furious than analytical of the situation he finds himself in, and it’s difficult to slow down, reflect and found a way out.

Cover of Bernard Cohen's book. It features a multilayered image of large tree roots edited into a blue-green hue. The title of the book is "When I Saw The Animal".

Many of your stories play with words and popular idioms, sometimes creating neologisms such as ‘outfuriated’. Is part of the joy of writing the chance to play with language and meaning?

To paraphrase Stein and Duchamp, A rose is a rose is arose is eros is a rrose selavy. It is a joy, and I hope I’ve played with humour and novelty, but it also an instrument of power. I’ve tried to reflect that aspect in the opening to “Attributed to Jeremiah” (the title refers to the biblical Book of Lamentations):

If I told you half the things I know, you’d bawl your eyes out and if I told you the other half, you’d laugh your fucking head off. English is a dismemberingly cruel idiom, and it fits this world too well.

You also play with the facts of the stories and unravel detail after positing it to the reader i.e. ‘I am inside and outside at the same time.’ How do you see the function of artifice in short fiction?

I can write that I am drafting these words with a stem of dried lavender and that my pleasantly aromatic strategy has repelled the mosquitoes for long enough to finish this sentence.

But one of the true strengths of fiction is that it has the capacity to test ideas. We rank the information we receive – as a species we’ve evolved to do this effectively – but I was wondering about life for those who take the information age with full immersion. The narrator of the story you quote, “Fire in My Brain that You’d Like to Put Out”, perhaps can’t quite perceive time as a passage, or can’t recall time as orderly. Some perceptions are more pressing and many compete for the same level of recollection. In composing the story I wanted the events of the narrator’s world to have an dislocated, “improper” or flattened-out hierarchy, so that in the narrator’s mind, overheard conversation of teenagers on the bus might seem as authoritative as the video screen at the front or the names of bridges.

Your stories are of varying length, some arguably falling within the genre of flash fiction or microfiction. What informs the length of a story? Is form something you’re aware of when you begin, or does the story determine the length?

In the end I guess I decide when to stop (or not to). I wrote most of the stories in this book in the way I’ve found most works for me: setting a daily word count goal. When writing is going well, I found that 500-700 words/day is about right.

With this one, though, I’d just finished a novel (The Antibiography of Robert F Menzies), and it was hard to get back into writing at first, so I set the fairly gentle goal of 200 words per day. By comparison, when in the writing groove, Georges Simenon allegedly wrote 12,000 words a day and finished a novel in a week, writing until physically sick and exhausted.

My second rule was that if I couldn’t think of how to continue the story from the previous day, I would start a new one. At one point I was writing 23 stories at once. Eight or nine of those made it into the collection. One that is not in When I Saw the Animal is now about half of an SF novel and is 42,000 words long.

You can purchase When I Saw The Animal from UQP.

Amy Lin is a Perth writer who has recently completed her PhD on mental illness in Australian poetry. She has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Verity La and Axon. Amy has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, Perth Poetry Club, Sturmfrei Poetry Night, and Spoken Word Perth.  

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