Plane Tree Drive is set on an Australian street and follows the lives of the various characters that live on it. What made you choose this suburban setting for your stories?
The street itself came very late in the writing process. I had a large collection of stories – some of them very short – that didn’t seem cohesive. I searched for ways to bring them together and eventually decided that all the characters would live on the same street. It was surprising how little rewriting was required to make it work – it almost seemed like it was always supposed to be that way.
In terms of the ‘suburban’ part of the question, I live in suburbia in Adelaide and always have. It’s something I know, but also something that sits uncomfortably with me. I think it can be isolating; we often don’t know our neighbours. I remember growing up watching my dad on the front lawn with a hose, watering the grass and the plants, and striking up a conversation with everyone who passed. He made it his business to know the people who lived around us. It seems we don’t do that anymore. We leave our front door, hop in the car, and drive away from the neighbourhood. In Plane Tree Drive I wanted to explore what might happen if the neighbours started to form a community, and in a strange way, the character Maurice is modelled on my dad.
The book took you seven years to write. Can you tell us a little bit about the journey from its inception to publication?
It was a long journey! The seven years began just pre-PhD. I wrote a few stories to put into my application. Then, when I was accepted, I began to write in earnest. It was the most wonderful period in my life in many ways. The PhD opened up the space and time for me to write. For the first time in my life, it was my job to write a full length manuscript. I spent the next few years doing that. It was awful and it was exhilarating. It was slog, sprinkled with a tiny bit of inspiration. Mostly it was slog. But I loved every minute of it. I finally began to feel part of a community of writers and made friends who I treasure to this day.
Post-graduation, MidnightSun Publishing took the book on, there was another period of rewriting. Some of the elements that served the purpose of the PhD didn’t really serve the purpose of a published book. Those final edits took about a year of back and forth, but this was a much less intensive time, with months slipping by without any attention paid. I think this part of the process is so important, and something that I valued enormously. That independent editorial eye is a gift to a writer, and also the extra marination time that the process requires helps you to see your work more clearly.
Some of the stories slip into surrealism, exploring the mental illness of the characters or bizarre occurrences in everyday life. Can you comment on this crossing of the boundary between the real and surreal?
I had been reading Etgar Keret, who I discovered at Adelaide Writer’s Week, and adored how he placed the bizarre into the everyday. It opened up a whole new way of writing for me. Those stories – where surrealism slips in – are the most fun to write. It’s like throwing away the rule book and deciding that anything can happen. For someone who mostly writes realist fiction it is incredibly freeing. Interestingly, those are the stories that people seem to love the most, too!
The tricky part of those stories came after they were mostly written. Initially, I wrote them in a way that they were completely untethered to reality. When the collection started to come together, it didn’t feel right that there were these occasional flights of fancy. I then rewrote them in a way that indicated to the reader that the character was experiencing a moment of mental illness, or an hallucination. I felt a weight of responsibility then, that wasn’t there before, because I am very aware that mental illness and psychosis are serious matters. I didn’t want those stories to be just for laughs. I wanted the reader to have empathy for the characters, Jimmy from ‘Community Radio’ in particular, because I had come to care from them enormously.
One of the chapters is presented as a flow chart, and you tell the story that way. Can you comment on your use of this experimental form?
I had been reading A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. She wrote some parts of that book using experimental forms. One chapter in particular was written as a powerpoint presentation. I felt invigorated by that in the same way that reading Keret invigorated me, and also, in the same way that reading Stephen King as a teenager did. I still remember King using the page differently to any other writer I had read before. He changed font, left swathes of blank lines, created tension with the presentation of the words on the page as much as with the words themselves. Again, like with experimenting with surrealism, experimenting with form was fun and freeing and I enjoyed it immensely.
I was lucky enough to be mentored through the writing of this book by Ryan O’Neil, whose book The Weight of a Human Heart is one of my all-time favourites. O’Neil experiments with form and structure to find new ways of storytelling and he encouraged me to push more into this area. The flowchart story was one that came from this.
The book is a collection of stories about characters whose lives sometimes intersect. Were there any particular stories or authors that you were influenced by?
I think I’ve answered that above! But also, I had recently read Sharon Kernot’s Underground Road which tells the story of a group of people living on the same street in a disadvantaged suburb of Adelaide. Underground Road is a novel and Kernot’s characters and their lives are very different to the (mostly) more privileged lives of the people in my book, but I could see how the same idea could apply to my stories and this was a big influence on how I then began to shape my stories into something more cohesive.
The book includes an epigraph by The Great Gatsby, another book that explores the inner lives of characters. Can you talk about the epigraph and what it means for the book?
The epigraph reads, ‘Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.’
I had been reading Gatsby, but also watching Rear Window and was fascinated by the idea of ‘within and without’. It seemed to capture so much of the human existence – are we interior beings, or exterior? We exist in two places, but which one is real? As a writer, sometimes the ‘within’ seems more real.
The Gatsby quote also seemed to capture the ‘within and without’ of suburbia – that yellow glow of light, or the blue glow of the big screen TV behind glass and bricks. Is that privacy? There are so many secrets in my neighbourhood alone. The story ‘Scarlett’s Shed’ came from a true story my friend told me. He had gone onto Gumtree and typed in the suburb we live in to see what people were selling. In amongst the agaves and second-hand furniture was a woman selling sexual services from her backyard shed. There was a photo of the shed and he knew the house. We live in a quiet neighbourhood – middle class, pretty monotone, lots of families, kids riding around on bikes and skateboards, not much crime. I was naïve, but I was shocked to think that would happen near where I lived. It opened my eyes to the fact that we don’t know what people do behind closed doors, even in quiet suburban Adelaide!
You are a short story writer, but Plane Tree Drive reads both as short stories and as a novel. How do you see the difference between the two forms?
This is such a tricky question! Sometimes a short story collection is clearly that, but in the case of Plane Tree Drive and other story cycles, like Rebekah Clarkson’s fabulous Barking Dogs, there is something else going on.
To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the label ‘short story collection’ for my book. I do think that it’s misleading. But I also think that it’s up to the reader to decide what they think the book is. Some readers have struggled with the form – one reviewer said it was too complex because she couldn’t keep all the characters in her head at one time. Well, neither could I! There are a lot of them! The thing is, you don’t need to. You are reminded when a character is reappearing, and there is a character list at the front of the book. I say, just give yourself over to the experience. Don’t hold on too tight as you read! You really can’t read it as a novel, with the expectations of narrative that a novel has, but you can’t read it as a story collection either. The story cycle is a unique beast – a collection of stories connected by place – and a beautiful thing.
When not writing, you teach police cadets the importance of sentence structure and grammar. How does this experience feed into your writing?
Actually, it has been great in many ways. I love thinking about words and talking about words. I have been forced to learn the rules of grammar that I had previously taken for granted, in order that I can teach them! I would say that I have learned as much as I have taught, and that’s one of the things I love most about my job.
I can’t write creatively about my job very much – there are confidentiality issues around the training that I deliver – but I have written one story that came directly as a result of my job. I had just read an essay called ‘Determining Post Mortem’, about the stages of decomposition that the human body goes through after death, and I imagined applying the ideas to the development and decomposition of a romantic relationship. That story was published in the collection Crush, which has many love stories with happy endings. ‘Determining Post Mortem’ was not one of them!
You can purchase Plane Tree Drive from MidnightSun Publishing.
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.