Editor Daniel Young interviewed Ben Walter for Issue Seven of Tincture Journal. Ben’s story “Teething” can be found in Issue Seven and “City Fish” can be found in Issue Two.
DY: Ben, thanks for being part of our interview series. Could you perhaps start with a bit of background about yourself and how you came to writing?
BW: Reading was an escapist pleasure when I was young. For me it was similar to cricket; a detailed and stimulating universe of histories and possibilities that was simultaneously entertaining. I was troubled by relating to other people, so I used both of these as captivating diversions.
I wasn’t so good at cricket. But writing evolved out of reading, and I played around with poetry and short stories in my teens. There were a few years in my early twenties when I did very little of either; I took the time to fail at a few things fairly spectacularly, and then around ten years ago I started dabbling with writing again as a kind of refuge, partly because I was living with my friend, the comics artist Leigh Rigozzi. At that moment, resuming a creative practice seemed as good an idea as any.
It’s gradually grown in seriousness; now I feel it’s kind of the lot I’ve been assigned, so I may as well keep doing it.
DY: Much of your prose is highly poetic, in terms of both rhythm and imagery. Does this come easily as you write or is it layered into the prose through editing and re-drafting?
BW: I’m glad you mentioned rhythm. The pleasures of rhythm are fundamental to writing fiction for me, and a lot of the editing process consists of matching the text to a series of internal rhythms that I don’t quite understand. I find a lot of Australian fiction very flat. Part of this is the unadorned use of language and a thin canon of what is considered an acceptable literary voice, but part is also the lack of rhythm.
More generally, for me the editing process is truly fundamental and where the real pleasure in writing lies. There are stories I’ll finish in a day, when it comes out pretty well and I’m under pressure, but most of my writing is a constant layering of edits—printing out the most recent version and reading it off the page, just to make sure the latest changes feel and sound right. Changing a verb and the structure of a sentence; printing it out again, reading it and changing it back. Heaps of that. I go through a lot of paper.
DY: In Issue Two we published your story “City Fish”, which was a somewhat more traditional form of short story (if you don’t mind me saying so). Has your form changed over time or does each story dictate its own form? Related to this, you write both poetry and prose, so I’m wondering how you choose between those forms and how they both fit into your writing process?
BW: I actually wrote that story a long time ago, but I came across it hiding in a file and I wasn’t too shattered by it. I figured I could maybe polish it and send it somewhere, and I’m thankful that you published it. But it’s very different stylistically to the way I’ve written over the last few years.
I think it took me a long time to work out how I wanted to write, and nowadays I’d say that my fiction fits within a certain approach, or even vision. In saying that, I’m tremendously interested in the possibilities of form, and I struggle to do the same sort of story more than a couple of times without getting bored. A significant motivator for me in writing is the aesthetic challenge of doing something interesting. I’ve got a story forthcoming in Island called “An Anti-Glacier Book”—it comes from a line in Slaughterhouse Five, when someone challenges Kurt Vonnegut on the apparent futility of writing an anti-war book. I wondered what an anti-glacier book would look like, particularly in this world of diminishing ice-sheets. And so there was a challenge, and a story.
Now, all of this clarity and direction applies only to my prose. With poetry, I don’t really feel like I have a damn idea in hell what I’m doing, which probably explains why I’ve only written four or five poems over the last year or two. I’m spending more time reading poetry these days, in the expectation that this might become clearer to me.
DY: You’ve been published very widely in Australian literary journals, including Overland, The Lifted Brow, Island, The Griffith Review, The Review of Australian Fiction, The Canary Press, Regime and more. What are your thoughts on the Australian publishing landscape for writers of short fiction and poetry? Are you working on any longer-form prose pieces, or do you prefer the short form?
BW: I think it’s pretty exciting, the number of new literary journals and magazines that seem to be springing up at the moment. When you think of Tincture, The Suburban Review, Canary Press, Regime—so many journals that have just snuck up on us. I’ve really grown to love the mixed bag that literary journals embody, and I subscribe to far too many of them.
But even then, the number of venues for literary work in Australia is pretty small; if you’re a disciplined poet or short story writer, it’s not that difficult to have something under consideration everywhere, and plenty of work to spare. I’d love to see more creative work featured in publications with bigger audiences. I think when The Monthly first started, they were publishing more fiction? Still, there’s nothing to stop Australian writers from submitting overseas. I’m just dipping my toe in the water with this.
I’ve actually just finished my first long-form manuscript, an attempt to transfer a bushwalking guide into novelistic form. I found this an utterly fascinating and consuming experience; it’s so different to shorter stories, much more than I thought it would be. Most of my fiction consists of an attempt to find a new aesthetic synthesis or set of consistent patterns in working out a creative piece, and doing this over a longer work is an appealing and terrifying venture. I’m about to start on another one.
DY: In reading your work I’ve found that nature and rural life are recurring themes, as is the human body (teeth, eyes, faces, noses). Identifying such themes is a somewhat fraught exercise, but I’m wondering if you’d like to comment on what inspires you?
BW: It’s interesting that you use the word rural. In one sense, even Hobart has a rural atmosphere compared to Melbourne or Sydney. In Tasmania, it’s also important to note that the bush in Tasmania is completely different from the rural. There’s no smooth transition in the pastoral outback; we have lush green (or dead yellow) fields filled with poppies and cows and spuds, and then are are wild, temperate jungles with jagged mountains. This wild country is generally the landscape that resonates through my writing, even if it doesn’t inspire my ideas directly.
The rural, the urban and the bush really overlap in Tasmania. Twenty minutes from the city is the top of Mt Wellington and the beginnings of the wild south-west; twenty minutes in the other direction, you’re mucking about in the kind of shack town where “Teething” is set.
I don’t say that any of this inspires me as such. I think ideas and possibilities and tenuous intellectual connections are more inspirational in one sense; and yet the landscape breathes place into these cerebral spaces.
DY: How does living in Hobart influence your work? Can you comment on the Tasmanian literary scene in general?
BW: I can’t imagine not living in Tasmania. From a literary perspective, I find it channels my work; there is a certain psychological freedom here to write what I want, and the relatively low cost of living gives me the time to do that.
Apart from being cut off from national networks, publishers and institutions, the Tasmanian literary scene suffers from the tremendous exodus of talented writers just before and after their university studies. This creates a gap between those who do stay, and the much older writers who have muddled along or moved down, and pretty much have their practice and habits established. This makes for a fragmented community, and a dearth of new and interesting projects.
While at times this relative seclusion can actually be beneficial for creative practice, it can also be very isolating, and in the absence of support it is easy for people to give up and become lawyers and things. In recent years we’ve seen the odd creative project, and I hope this continues to develop, but it could all fall over if a couple more of the wrong people move to Melbourne.
DY: I was very pleased to run into you at the 2014 Emerging Writers’ Festival. Do you go to many festivals and other literary events? How important do you feel this is? Are you working on any new projects that build a sense of literary community, either physically or digitally?
BW: I don’t go to many outside of Tasmania, which means that I don’t go to many at all. I do find events like the EWF quite encouraging (though sometimes in the wrong direction, if there’s a lot of talk about journalism, say). I haven’t got a strong interest in bigger festivals; I feel they are great ways to make writers who aren’t on panels feel foolish and disempowered.
Wherever you are, I do think it is important to find your community; partly because this is what it means to involve yourself in your industry, which is generally very important for writers, and partly because there is a level of support and encouragement that others can provide for you, and you to them. I’ve recently been Writing Australia’s Digital Writer in Residence for Tasmania, and a significant element of that has been trying to build projects between Tasmanian and mainland writers.
DY: You have also published reviews. As a writer, do you feel that there has been sufficient critical engagement with your work? Do literary journals get enough reviewing attention? If you are reviewed, would you prefer to avoid reading it?
BW: Probably I’ve had about the amount of review coverage that my insignificance in Australian letters warrants; in fact, I’ve probably been lucky. The two books I’ve published (a short story and a craft/fiction anthology of Tasmanian writers) both got reviewed in literary journals, which I’m grateful for, and my own writing has been mentioned once or twice in reviews of such journals; and while it would be lovely to imagine someone taking the time to critically engage with my work in detail… well, in the current landscape, it’s hard to ask for much more than I’ve received. Certainly it would be nice to see more reviews of journals, though I do find that these tend to be listy sorts of reviews without a lot of serious critical engagement.
Personally I find a lot of this can go on in more informal story exchanges. There are a few writers with whom I often share my work—I’m sure I get the better end of the deal, as they’re always coming up with ways my writing can be improved—and I recently did an exchange with the Sydney writer and critic Tristan Foster, which was valuable and enjoyable for me.
After the number of rejections I’ve had, I like to think I have a fairly thick skin, and while I can imagine it being a little dispiriting to have Geordie Williamson pillory my first novel, at least it’s thoughtful discourse.
DY: Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
BW: Most authors I’ve enjoyed reading, I suspect. Borges and Calvino taught me how an idea could be the driving force of a story, but it’s writers like Don DeLillo and Gerald Murnane who have been more of an influence—or encouragement—stylistically.
There are writers whose influence I would love to incorporate intertextually one day, but haven’t yet found a way, like those 1960s British spy writers like Hammond Innes and Alastair Maclean.
DY: Ben, thanks so much for your time.
Ben Walter is a Tasmanian writer whose fiction has appeared in Island, Overland, Griffith REVIEW and The Lifted Brow. His debut poetry manuscript, Lurching, was shortlisted in the 2013 Tasmanian Literary Prizes.