So last post I wrote up my thoughts on “Hive of Glass”, Kaaron Warren’s short story in the upcoming anthology Baggage. Kaaron was kind enough to answer a few questions about the story and the collection.
I’m very impressed with your stories’ rhythm and structure, and how you twist them. Every time I thought I had the story of “Hive of Glass” pegged, and started to guess how the story would run from there, it switched directions and surprised me without ever seeming arbitrary or capricious. Some of the story elements, like that startling opening image of Sean working his blood and ground-up fingernails into the food he’s preparing, pay off in unexpected ways, and other very powerful payoffs come from quite subtle buildups like the truth that underpinned Sean’s relationship with his father. Can you talk a bit about the process of developing that structure? How intuitive is the fitting-together of those elements for you? Do you have to outline them and carefully graft them, or do you find they emerge in the writing and mesh together?
It is a mixture of intuition and hard work. I do have a feeling for what needs to go where, and I also know when I read a draft if I need to add more info early on so that the things revealed later make sense.
I rarely outline a short story. Rather, I start with the central idea and work around it. Researching, thinking and allowing my subconscious to help me. I take a lot of strange notes then I sit down and try to fill in the gaps. It’s far from the most efficient way to write. My first draft makes sense to nobody but me, but it helps me to figure out where the gaps are and what should go where.
I call it ‘threading’. There are five pages of so of ‘threads’ at the end of my novel, Walking the Tree. When we were thinking an extra for the novel (because Angry Robot likes to give more bang for the buck!) I hit on the idea of showing some of the thinking that went into the book. I had about 70 close-typed pages of threads, talking about both thematic things and character behaviour, about history, food, sex and language.
I tried a new method with the Baggage story, because I had a number of different angles to cover; the past, the present, the ghosts, the reality. So I wrote a page of pure, thoughtless prose for each, to see if they gelled somewhere. And they did. Mostly, they gelled in the character of Sean and the sort of person he is.
In the afterword for “Hive of Glass” you say that the seed for the story was the question “how would it feel to be named after a place which no longer exists?” but Sean’s ancestral village turns out to be a lot less non-existent than he’d like – the story almost turns that seed question on its head. Can I draw you out a bit on how the idea evolved from that initial question to the premise of “Hive of Glass” and into this account of Sean’s life?
That’s true! Spiritually, the village does still exist. Physically, there is nothing remaining. I think this resonated with me because of the destruction of parts of Warsaw, where my father was born.
I was living in Fiji when I wrote this story and at times I felt deeply homesick. We made a home for ourselves there, and Suva will always feel like a second home, but I will never forget driving into Canberra on a visit back after two years or so. The family felt such a deep sense of homecoming it was almost palpable in the car. “We’re home,” one of us said. We were.
So I knew I wanted to capture that sense of homecoming. While Sean is an orphan and named after a long-gone village, he feels very much that he belongs in the country town he’s settled in.
I worked with variations of how the ghosts and he related. I knew I wanted them to be frightening, invasive, and if I made him an unlikable person, they were less scary. So I wanted him to be kind, and a bit of a loner.
I wrote this story the way I write most of my short stories. I do a lot of reading and research, then I sit down with my favourite pen and a notepad and brainstorm, write my way from beginning to end, writing down whatever comes out to be deleted later.
Amongst my notes at this stage: No cannibalism? Does he kill? Or infect in some way? Dole out hauntings with the scones. All the people of his village. His lost village.
One of my many ongoing obsessions and potential themes is that of inherited fear. As I wrote this story, I realized that perhaps Sean would inherit the fear of water from his drowned village, his ghosts, and that helped me to decide how the story would go.
The historical elements of the story rang very authentic to me, things like the life of the old village, the details of the fishing expedition, even just a term like “bablies”. Can you talk a bit about the research you underpinned them with?
I did do a lot of research but also let the subconscious work on this. Talk about how I let a story percolate, and allow random thoughts to be examine.
I looked at a number of history books and researched online to figure out where I should place my story. I originally thought of Coober Pedy, but didn’t remember the place well enough from a long ago visit and decided I’d rather invent a place anyway. The name of the village came from online researching telling me that fisherman settled in a particular part of Australia.
The name of the story came from the quote “A village is a hive of glass, where nothing unobserved can pass” by English preacher Charles H. Spurgeon in the 19th century. I wanted to capture that sense of enclosure, the buzz buzz of gossip. But also that sense of a group of people working together.
The theme of the anthology is “baggage”, and the baggage from the old country that Sean carries with him something I wonder if I could bear. I can think of a number of your characters who drag along behind them a bad past that’s sunk its teeth into their calf and won’t let go. I’m thinking of Sean, Stevie from Slights, the protagonist from “A Positive” and the eponymous Tontine Mary. I also notice that these characters have never had any say in their pasts: they were born with them, and never had a chance to be without this baggage. Am I reading too much into this? Do you think about our historical baggage in the negative ways that these stories seem to imply?
I guess the fact that I write the sort of fiction I do means the characters often have a difficult past. In real life, my belief is that we can be burdened by our past, if we allow such a thing to happen.
My father, who had a pretty tough time during the second world war, has never passed on the suffering to my sister or to me. He always speaks about the time finding the positives; how much his mother loved and cared for him, the taste of the food he remembers. We have spoken about the suffering, so we are not avoiding the truth. But he passed no bitterness or anger on to us. I think this was a great gift, and it’s a lesson to me as well. The past is the past; the present is what we make of it.