Patrick Cullen's short stories have appeared in many anthologies including Best Australian Stories and Sleepers Almanac, and been broadcast on ABC Radio National. He lives in Newcastle, New South Wales, with his wife and two children.

Short Story Collections

What Came Between
(Scribe, 2009)

reviewed by Diane Becker

nterview with Patrick Cullen

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Patrick Cullen: The writing was spread out over a four-year period that began with a very productive six months in which I wrote five of the twelve stories. Three of those ended up in The Best Australian Stories 2005 but the other seven stories took three and a half years because I was trying to do better with each new story. Aftershocks, the opening story, was the first I wrote but with all of the revision that I did over the years it ended up being the last one finished.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

PC: Yes, a collection was something I was definitely aiming for because I was writing it as part of a PhD project. The focus was always going to be three couples living in adjoining terraces from the time of the 1989 Newcastle earthquake and even though very early on I’d outlined how a group of stories might come together it was always a fluid notion; the lines were drawn and redrawn as each new story was finished.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

PC: Order was mostly dictated by an obvious chronology in the lives of individual characters but some reordering was done to set up the internal dynamic. The book moves back and forth between characters and I was always trying to balance out "screen-time" and create some echoes between stories or juxtapositions. I ended up embedding one very short story as a scene in another story; both had been published in anthologies but when it came to my collection they presented a problem with the chronology. My editor worried over it for days before talking to me about it and while it wasn’t just a straight cut and paste, the solution seemed obvious enough. On the flipside, there’s one story I’d originally intended to include in the collection, one that I’d actually fought hard for before I finally admitted that it wasn’t right for the collection. Even though it was about a character from the book, the tone just wasn’t right and it would’ve stood out for all the wrong reasons.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

PC:  While I think my natural inclination might be to think broadly of a "story" as a significant event in someone’s life, I’m pretty liberal when it comes to defining the notion of an ‘event’. An event might not be a grand or prolonged occurrence. The art of writing, I think, is finding some palpable thing in a scene - an image, a gesture, the look on a character’s face, or something one character might say to another - some small thing which you can pin the weight of a story on. There’s your story right there, at that moment.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

PC: My wife is always the first reader of my work but I’m not writing for her, I’m really just trying to keep ahead of my own expectations when it comes to subject or style or structure. I know that as a reader I’m always seeking out new and interesting stories, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to achieve in my own work.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

PC: Mostly I’d be keen to know if they’ve ever been to Newcastle and if they have, whether they knew about the earthquake because many local people I spoken to during my research couldn’t imagine anyone not knowing about the earthquake, or not knowing about the Pasha Bulker, a cargo ship that washed up on Newcastle beach a couple of years ago. I’ve always tended to take an indirect approach to including facts in my fiction because I think it’s possible (and better in the long run) to avoid parochial documentary and instead create something with an element of that universality of which stories are capable.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

PC: When you’re at a public event, signing books for people you’ve never met, it’s quite surreal, and awkward too when you’ve forgotten someone’s name and your stalling for time. It’s nice to know that the book is out there in the world and slowly making its way around the world, though a group of readers whose names I’ll never know, let alone have the opportunity to forget!

TSR: What are you working on now?

PC: I’m actually working on a long story that looks to be gathering enough complexity and length to be better described as a novella (it’s also likely to find it’s way into a screenplay). Then there are three of four unrelated short stories waiting to be rewritten, and others yet to be written. I love what Steinbeck said about ideas, that they’re "like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen".

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

PC: My reading has been a little like that bridal superstition: "something old" (Steinbecks’s The Red Pony), "something new" (Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge), "something borrowed" (David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide)…but without the "something blue". The new and borrowed collections were great but revisiting The Red Pony, with those two stories, The Gift and The Promise, that was wow all over again!
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>