Published in 1988, Going Down Swinging No. 8 was a long time coming – with rising printing costs and lack of funds delaying the much-anticipated edition. But the wait was worth it, with the A4-sized magazine featuring illustrations from Bill Jones and Janine Dixon, photo narratives from Antoni Jach, two huggable gorillas slapped on the cover and this 1987 interview with award-winning Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe. Pascoe founded and edited the magazine Australian Short Stories with Lyn Harwood in 1982, which they published until 1998.
WHY DID YOU ESTABLISH AUSTRALIAN SHORT STORIES?
As a writer of short stories I was disappointed with what was happening to my stories when they were published. Apart from a few stories I got published in The Sun and The Sydney Sun-Herald, I wasn’t getting any readers. Magazines had small print runs and usually didn’t last. That’s just very disappointing, because what artists want is an audience. I think it’s a very different animal that writes in camera. I didn’t want to do that. I was arrogant enough to have some things I desperately wanted to say to people. I’m not a social person. I’m usually tongue-tied in company, so there was no other way for me to say what I wanted to say.
SO DID YOU ESTABLISH THE MAGAZINE TO PUBLISH YOUR OWN STORIES?
I made a commitment to myself when I started. I had seen magazines with editorial boards of ten people, and then those ten people were the main contributors. I didn’t see that as open to many people. I don’t think that’s a way to get a large readership, or to convince people they have a chance of being published. So I made a commitment that I would only publish stories of mine that won a prize and hadn’t been published. What happened was that most of my stories were published somewhere else. The only one that wasn’t was “Thylacine”, which won a prize. I published that. Since then I’ve been hard pushed to write any stories, which is the saddest bit of all. Since NIGHT ANIMALS came out I’ve written two short stories. One’s okay, the other one’s pretty weak. I’ve been working on a novel.
Basically then, I started AUSTRALIAN SHORT STORIES because I was offended by the rates of pay, offended by the lack of readership, and I felt that the intelligence of the readership was still there, and growing. Australians had always been great readers of short stories.
After the war, there’d been an insularity among artists. Artists and writers in the forties had been very accessible to the community. They were important in the media too. After the war they became less important. Television I suppose knocked them on the head a bit. Writers turned inwards and started writing for each other. A lot of the stories I remember from the sixties and seventies were stories written for other writers. Apart from a few terrific stories that break the rule, I think most of that is self-indulgent writing. We have in fact published a story about writing which is just about to come out. But it had to really knock me sideways to get me to accept it. I wanted to get away from those years when writers were writing for each other and not for the people.
I think that says what I believe about Universities. They see themselves as the arbiters of taste, and not just the arbiters, but the only possessors of taste. And I don’t believe that, because we know many of our readers come from bloody cattle stations in Queensland. The people are the possessors of taste, and the purveyors of it in a way. They are the book buyers. If we had to rely on selling to libraries we would have gone broke years ago. And because I say this, the Universities have an aversion to me. Melbourne University bookshop, for instance, will hardly stock any of our books. That’s just foolish. I’m allowed to say what I bloody well like about Melbourne University. I think it’s a fairly snobby institution. For them then to say, right, we won’t stock his books – what kind of intelligent organisation is that? That’s pathetic. I feel strongly about the intellectual insularity of many University people, but they also produce some genuine scholars and critics – but not enough. But I won’t go on with that.
So they’re the kind of reasons I started AUSTRALIAN SHORT STORIES. As a school teacher I could see the kind of shit that was being put on our students too. I eventually got on an English committee, and I suggested we put on some Judith Wright short stories, and some Frank Hardy short stories, and Ruth Park. She’s on now, but those days they gave themselves instant hernias, contemplating Ruth Park and Frank Hardy who were communists. That was eight or nine years ago. That made me start thinking I really didn’t want to be involved with these people.
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT FUNDING THE MAGAZINE?
I was in the process of dividing the spoils of a house three ways between the bank, myself, and my wife. I got out of that around twelve thousand dollars. I sold a car which was worth four thousand. Lorraine Phelan was instrumental in bringing out the first two issues. We started it up after going to twenty different publishers. I came from Mallacoota where I was teaching and working on a farm, with the idea of starting the magazine. Everyone thought it was a terrific idea but didn’t want to do it. I was a little boy from the bush. I was a bit misguided as to what publishers were on about. I learnt very quickly what their motives were. I took it to an inner suburban newspaper then, and they ripped me off rather badly. So then Lorraine said the only way you’re going to get this magazine out is to do it yourself. I had copy for two issues by then, with stories by Marshall, Manning Clark, Frank Hardy. So we did it together, until Lorraine went on to do other things. Since then Lyn Harwood has been involved. She did THE BABE IS WISE almost exclusively. It was an enormous job.
SO HOW HAVE YOU ORGANISED DISTRIBUTION?
I wanted to get into newsagencies. I felt that that’s where a lot of the forgotten readers are. I thought there was probably a place for something which had the appeal of the old Bulletin, with confidence in young writers, and also interested in talking to ordinary people. Now every time I say that most reviewers say, “Oh, he wanted it to be popular.” How do you deal with that? Having it accessible to people has nothing to do with popularity, nothing to do with watering down tastes. It’s got to do with believing in the intelligence of your fellows, and also the importance of your fellows being participants in literature.
I reckon that people who write are really the crucible, or the cradle of all culture, because most things come out of writing. The plays, radio, TV. I think it’s important that our people should be very close to those writers, and vice versa. That’s why I needed to get into newsagents. We started with Gordon & Gotch. We call them Gotcha. They were abysmal in their methods. They didn’t know what to do with it. In our first summer, for instance, we went down to Lorne, and there they had one copy. Lorne was crowded with people who on every wet day went into their hotel rooms and caravans and read. There’s no excuse for that, because Gotch are a large organization with a computer. We went over to a company called Network. They’ve been quite good and more sympathetic to the magazine. We also go through Bookchain which is Kingfisher in Victoria, Tower in New South Wales, Child Henry and Plumb in the land of the toad, and Pickwick in W.A. In South Australia we’re working with a mob called Bookwise. We also sell quite a lot of books from here. We’ve got about fifteen hundred subscribers.
HOW DID YOU ESTABLISH THE SUBSCRIBER LIST?
We had a lot of early publicity. We take every opportunity for publicity. People at Stewart’s Hotel say, “Don’t you feel unclean, selling your soul for all that publicity?” But I say no, I don’t feel unclean because I’m not Patrick White, my parents didn’t own half of New South Wales. I love Patrick White’s writing, and he gets a bit snarky at times, but he’s probably a very decent man. But he’s rich. And he condemns Keneally for running around the country selling his soul. But Keneally was a priest. How much money did he have? None. And Keneally’s also a people’s man. And Patrick never was. We’re just in no position to be cool. We can’t be cool. We can’t be aesthetes. Generally too, the media have been bloody good. The Herald, for instance, reported what we said.
The only really silly things said about us and the company have been said by a few academic magazines, and that doesn’t hurt of course because no one reads them. No damage is done. I don’t let it worry me because I know the tide doesn’t come up any further or less on the beaches because of what they’ve done.
Having it accessible to people has nothing to do with popularity, nothing to do with watering down tastes. It’s got to do with believing in the intelligence of your fellows, and also the importance of your fellows being participants in literature.
Now I hate coteries. I could see for instance that I was being accepted into some magazines because there was a sniff of me knowing Frank Hardy. And I was being accepted in some others because I was associated with Frank Hardy. I don’t really know what people say about us, or care, because we don’t run around pubs and coffee shops. The Black Cat has had about a dollar of my money in five years. And Baker’s, well I’d struggle to find it. But I know they’re the powerhouses for a certain group. We don’t covet that. We’re quite happy to cook our own breakfasts…
I don’t even know what I was going to say. What I’m saying is that with the coterie thing we try not to have one. People might say Dickins gets his stories published there. I’ll make no bones about it, Barry’s a friend. A difficult friend. To be a friend of Barry’s is a marvelous thing, but it’s also incredibly challenging. Apart from Hardy, he’s about the only friend I have in the writing world. I’ve tried not to be beholden to other writers. And I’ve been helped in that by my anti-social nature. Now, I don’t know what the question was, but that’s the answer.
YOU’VE ANSWERED ABOUT FIFTEEN OF OUR QUESTIONS IN THE LAST THREE I’VE ASKED YOU. I’D LIKE TO ASK YOU ABOUT YOUR EDITING NOW. WHAT PERCENTAGE OF MATERIAL DO YOU REJECT?
This is a terrible thing to ask and answer. We’d reject about 95% of material. But I don’t get bored with the stories. There’s some awful writing around, and there’s some ordinary writing, but then there’s ten to fifteen per cent of terrific writing. We could publish three times as many stories as we do. It physically hurts when you write to someone, as I did last night, who’s a really good writer and hasn’t had work published anywhere else, and tell them I can’t publish your story but it is publishable. It didn’t get published because we had two or three other writers in at the moment with stories on that theme who were better. More polished. Now this story didn’t get in because it was very unpolished. That writer’s going to write back and say, all right I’ll polish it.
SO YOU WOULD SEE THAT AS A COMMITMENT TO PUBLISH?
If it came good. When she has a look at parts of that story, clichés, bad words, and an ending that doesn’t tell the reader anything. The story’s not rounded off as well as, say a John Morrison story. I’ve just read a book of his stories. John’s thorough, conservative, and everything’s beautifully tied in. Nothing much you can do with John’s stories. Take a writer like Patrick Rogers though. You never know what’s happening in his stories; we’re taken to a point and we’ve got no idea of the direction, except that there’s about ten possibilities. He does that beautifully. This other person hasn’t done that. But if she’s any good as a writer, and as a worker, the story’ll come back to us and we’re almost obliged to publish it.
We’re reading seventy to eighty stories a week, sometimes more than that. And even in that middle group of very ordinary writing we see some lovely touches, not so often in the writing but in the themes. I think any country’s in very good shape that has a lot of people who want to participate culturally – in the first stage of the culture, that is in the production of works. They want to tell you a story, that’s the lovely thing. I can remember one instance of a story about a cat. It was done without artifice of language or emotion, a story about an old woman and a cat which was her whole life. You know, the cat is gone, I am gone. It was a terrific story and very close to getting published. That story just needs to be told to someone. There’s a lot of that sort of story telling going on. But there’s also the bottom end, where there’s a lot of tedious writing about relationships. And that can come from professors at Adelaide University or from someone selling clothes at Myers. It’s just too detached and self aggrandising.
DO YOU LOOK FOR SOMETHING PARTICULARLY AUSTRALIAN IN THE STORIES YOU SELECT?
No, we don’t. We’re caught in a bind with our title. People apologise because their stories aren’t about Australia, and we apologise back. Editors often make fairly high falutin’ claims about editorial policy. We just say we want good stories about anything … except crime and romance.
CAN YOU SAY WHAT YOUR PERSONAL BIAS IS IN CHOOSING STORIES?
I’m sure I have a bias in what I choose, but I don’t know what it is. Other people would be able to identify it. Every time you choose, you’re biased against another story. I guess that I don’t like stories that are about nothing. That doesn’t necessarily mean I want story lines or narratives, or social realism. That’s what I get accused of, and that disturbs me. I get accused of it with NIGHT ANIMALS, and that makes me think people haven’t read the book. Some of those stories have nothing to do with realism. And this novel I’m working on now, if people call that social realism, they really need therapy, because their heads are in very bad condition.
But that will occur in reviews, because critical review in Australia is based not on your work, but on who you drink with. If you drink with Hardy or Dickins you can’t be a fantasist. If you muck around with the fantasists you can’t be a social realist.
There’s some awful writing around, and there’s some ordinary writing, but then there’s ten to fifteen per cent of terrific writing. We could publish three times as many stories as we do.
Look, most stories are realist. We got a story from a woman who apologised because what she’d written wasn’t a narrative. She’s been told, I eventually found out, that the narrative is out. Realism’s out, and narrative’s out. But what she sent us was a narrative about an unhappy boy’s childhood. Her story had a classic narrative line, introducing the child, introducing the parents, and we see the outcome of their conflict. That offends me because here’s a very intelligent person who wrote an incredibly good story, but she’s wearing this intellectual blindfold.
This makes me sound harsh. I’m not against universities and criticism, I’m against the anti-intellectualism I see in the cloister-hype that goes on. I sometimes think an ape could be trained to get a Ph.D. but you could never get one to write like Beverley Farmer.
I don’t think people should wake up in the morning and say, right, I’m a fantacist, so I’m going to write a story of fantasy, or I’m a magico-surrealist, so I’ll think of a magico-surrealist theme, when in fact what I want to write about is bees in the lemon tree, or my cat dying. Now how does a magico-surrealist feel when their cat dies and they want to write about that? That old woman would have had no chance if she was a magico-surrealist. Whatever occurs to you, you have to write. I know people who go from one style to another, and don’t denigrate what they’ve already done when they progress.
IN YOUR STORIES, CARE WITH LANGUAGE AND THE ATMOSPHERE OF A STORY SEEM TO TAKE PRECEDENCE OVER THE NEED FOR ANY PLOT LINE.
I don’t think anyone can claim to be a writer without taking care of their language. You can start off being accidentally good. I started out writing poetry, and I still love poetry, but I haven’t sought to get much published because I don’t think much of it is publishable. But when I’m writing fiction, I’m conscious of poetry. I’m conscious of music. Music is very important in my life, and, let’s record, Lyn has introduced me to music I’ve never heard in my life, never understood. It’s been an extension of myself. It gives access to emotion. And that’s what we’re all involved in of course. We’re giving people access to themselves, to their emotions and understandings that going down the street in the morning and buying the milk and bread and paper don’t give you.
That’s something that needs a whole discussion to itself. What art does. And I’m not airy-fairy about this, I’d like to talk about this to a plumber, and tell a plumber that music and painting’s important to you, cock, you know, don’t bullshit. You can convince people that aesthetics are important. We’re building a house down the beach, and there was a plumber there, and without trying to talk about Giotto or stuff, he chiseled a perfect hole. He spent a lot of his time doing a perfect job. I said, thanks, you did a good job when you didn’t have to. He said he couldn’t have lived in the house and looked at a ragged hole. You know, I think aesthetics are through us all. That person’s sensibility would affect his life in all sorts of other ways. I bet if you went into his house or garden there’d be some evidence of that.
So, yeah, I try to be careful about language. I’m finishing off this novel now, and I was re-reading it the other day, and it really hurt sometimes to read what I’ve written. That couldn’t have been me that left that in there. But I don’t have the time to be as careful as I’d like, and, anyway, I don’t know how careful I’d have the patience to be. When I’m building I’m very slap-happy. But writing’s my trade now and I do try and make it as exact as I can.
The story’s important to me, though. Everything I write about has happened to me in some form. Sometimes it’s the beginning of the story that’s happened to me and I’m left to imagine the rest. More often it’s half a story witnessed, or a glance, or a line in a newspaper. What I write is rooted in what I know. I’m very moved by beauty and ugliness, and love and hate. Just us, really. People move me, because it’s just such a terrible thing to be alive. It’s like throwing a baby into bucket of nails and staples. Now get out of this, we say. But we also have nobility, and it’s the nobility I love, and write about.
But the thing about it is that all these actions take place in front of something, or in something. Where people place themselves either accidentally or deliberately has great impact on what people do and what happens to people. We are chameleons. Wherever we end up the country will start to change us, or we change for the country. Now I’m not saying we all start to look like deserts and waterholes and galahs, I’m saying we do end up looking like Australia. You put a black Persian cat in central Australia, for instance, and in three generations, all kittens born will be ginger. The black ones will be picked off by eagles and dingoes. And that’s what happens to us too. People whose bodies are not attuned to this country will die, or emigrate. But there’s a more subtle thing that Aboriginal people understand. Their explanation is that the country itself has a spirit and a way and a will. I’m not talking eastern spiritualism, because I don’t believe in that. I just believe in a country that’s made up of certain components which are distinctive and will change people in certain ways.
AS AN EDITOR DO YOU MAKE MANY REWRITING SUGGESTIONS?
Oh, yes, we insist on doing that. We try to make our comments constructive though, because there are a lot of writers around who could be doing a lot better. We’re ruthless though. We’ll never publish a story we don’t like. People sometimes need to be told that what they’re doing is journalism, not fiction, and they should be submitting to newspapers. Lyn and I do all the reading, but occasionally we get a story, and we don’t know what it is. We know it’s something, it’s different, but we don’t know if it’s good or bad. We’ve got people around who don’t mind doing that sort of reading for us.
Fortunately we both like reading, and its no hardship to read through a story we know we’re not going to publish. We must have had very bad potty training or something because we can’t leave anything unfinished. Sometimes it’s curiosity about the writer’s attitude that keeps us reading. I reckon we’ve got an incredible sense of Australia from doing this. We know what the country is thinking.
I’m not against universities and criticism, I’m against the anti-intellectualism I see in the cloister-hype that goes on. I sometimes think an ape could be trained to get a Ph.D. but you could never get one to write like Beverley Farmer.
I reckon the Prime Minister of Australia should call in here once a week. In fact I’m in the habit of writing to the Prime Minister of Australia. The reason I do this is because Frank Hardy said, don’t believe they don’t listen, because they do. You scare the shit out of them. Politicians are strange creatures. They don’t want artists bad mouthing them. So Frank wrote to Fraser for years and years. For instance, Frank said, now you’ve done the dirty on our man, Gough, what are you going to do about the Gurindjis? Three days later there was water for the Gurindjis in their camp. He puts the moral pressure on. When Hawke came out about the treaty, I immediately wrote to him and told him not to let the bastards talk him out of it. It’s an historic move, and it’s the only thing that will make this country a country. You can have tall ships or a great economy, but that’s the moral thing this country can do.
YOU’RE WRITING A NOVEL NOW AFTER PUBLISHING A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES. DO YOU THINK SHORT STORIES ARE A STEP ALONG THE WAY TO WRITING NOVELS?
No. I think that people have arrows in their quiver, and they select a particular one for a particular purpose. Take Barry Dickins. He thinks of something. How does he do it? Does he draw it, does he make a short story, a novel, poem? He can do them all. I do the same. Sometimes after trying to write a story I realise what I’m doing should be a poem.
WHEN DID YOU START WRITING?
When I was in high school I had a couple of good teachers who allowed kids to do what they wanted to do. When I was an adolescent I was writing masses of love poems. I was going to turn John Donne into a cocked hat. I’ve burned all my poems and kept John Donne’s.
WHAT WRITERS HAVE INFLUENCED YOU?
Mikhail Sholokhov, William Faulkner, Gunter Grass, but not his later stuff. William Faulkner has been a big influence, and I wish he’d lived to a hundred and fifty. He tells real stories. (Now some gook’ll say he doesn’t write narratives, what bullshit.) Steinbeck, Hemingway, Ruth Park, Pritchard. And Baynton. Big stories she wrote. And Patrick White of course.
I’d been reading William Faulkner, and I was very moved when I read TREE OF MAN. I thought, this is exactly the same, except that what I know is in there too. I didn’t have to be imaginative about American life. Those southerners must feel scalpelled after reading Faulkner. Faulkner must be a real threat to their dignity. I am sure I miss a lot of the subtleties of Faulkner, Hemingway, and others, but I don’t worry about that, and I don’t think anyone should. And fortunately the Americans didn’t worry when we took our books over there. They bought Dickins, and on the second page they read bike pump – what’s that, they said. Not a word they were familiar with. But they could read it and get the feel of it. The Americans were totally bemused by Dickins, but then so are Australians. The Americans reacted to him like they would to a wordsmith. No one else in the world writes like Dickins.
Interview recorded by Nolan Tyrrell and Kevin Brophy in Fairfield, November, 1987.