Interview: Tessa Lunney on reading and writing short vs long-form fiction

Tessa Lunney’s debut novel April in Paris, 1921 was released by Harper Collins Australia earlier in 2018. It’s a jazz era detective novel starring the ‘glamorous, witty and charming Kiki Button: socialite, private detective and spy’. I was able to get hold of the book from my local library a few weeks ago and I can confirm it’s perfect for fans of Australia’s other jazz era detective heroine, Phryne Fisher. Read on for more about what sets it apart.

Tessa is not just a novelist. She’s received prizes, grants and fellowships for her other writing which includes short fiction and poetry. Tessa has kindly agreed to come on to the blog today as part of my series on how writers of short fiction find the transition to writing a novel. Tessa also works as an academic in creative writing and I have quite a lot of questions for her!

HarpColl cover 1921 Kiki.jpg

Tessa, thanks so much for being here. Your novel is as light and decadent as gin fizz, but it’s poetic and has intellectual bite. Can you tell us a bit about the transition between the themes and content of your shorter work, for which you’ve won literary awards, and your novel?

It’s a pleasure, Aislinn.

From my viewpoint, the themes of the short fiction and the novel are the same; it’s the execution that differs. My doctorate looked at silences in contemporary war fiction and this research started an obsession with war and how it’s portrayed in literature. Much of my short fiction looks at war –in particular, war’s long aftermath – and uses different techniques to elucidate, illuminate, gesture towards, and hint at different aspects of a war experience. The novel is the same, but with one key difference: it’s light-hearted. That was a specific goal of mine in writing the novel – how can I write these weighty issues in a way that is fun, sparkling, humorous? Can I have poetic language without a serious tone to the writing? How can I enact the black-humour, tomorrow-never-comes attitude of those who lived through war (often such an important mental defence against horror and uncertainty) within my writing?

Many of the characters, and much of the plot, is shaped by WWI and their reaction to it. My main character, Kiki Button, has run away from Sydney back to Paris, a place she got to know as a nurse during the war. The war showed her how big, full, and exciting life could be (as well as how brutal, short, and arbitrary) and she can no longer live the staid society life expected of her by her family – she has to live wild and free, and can think of no better place to do that than Paris. Her closest friends she met during the war, as they were a nurse, an ambulance driver, and a soldier, and her closest friend from home, Tom, became even closer through their shared experience of the frontline. All the spy-thriller elements of the plot are political, and the politics of the time often had to do with war’s aftermath – revolutions, independence movements, reparations, changes of governments, the collapse of monarchies…

In other words, I feel like there wasn’t much transition! I’ll probably spend the rest of my writing life exploring new ways of writing about the same thing.

You have carved out a bit of a space for yourself with academic work, short fiction, poetry and reviews. Was writing a novel a natural progression for you?

My degree was a Doctorate of Creative Arts, so I wrote a novel as part of my doctorate – it just hasn’t yet been published! I also wrote another novel when I just started my Masters, which is thankfully lost – it became a short story that is unpublishably long, but still, much better than the so-called ‘novel’ it sprang from. Writing novels is a long process but one I enjoy. I’m always having ideas for novels, probably because that’s what I mostly read. In other words, it’s a very natural progression for me.

I find shorter work much harder – I have to wait for ‘the muse’ before I can write. Very unprofessional, but I’ve tried other methods and the work is almost always rubbish. But it’s easier to have short pieces published, and of course they don’t take as long to write, so they were published first. The academic work was part of my Masters and Doctorate, and the reviews were work – I worked at Southerly, Australia’s oldest literary journal, for nine years. I’m very much indebted to Southerly for showing me how publishing at a literary journal works.

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Tessa in Paris, 2018. Remind me to set a novel in Europe one day.

What did you find the biggest challenge, if any, from moving between writing poetry and short fiction to writing longer-form fiction?

I’ve always written both simultaneously; or rather, I am always writing a novel, and then the muse appears, and I stop writing the novel to write a short story or a poem, edit these as I can, and then go back to the novel. This means that I can’t predict when I will have a new poem or short story – I had a very productive time a few years ago, but have been going through a fallow period since I became pregnant with my now-two-year-old daughter – I have to persuade myself not to worry about the fact that I don’t write these forms often and publish them even less often. My challenge, then, is patience: I can’t force the writing of the shorter pieces, I have to wait until the right idea is ready. Then it comes easily.

If you could give one piece of advice to a competent writer of short stories who wants to master the longer form, what would it be?

Keep going.

Ha! Persistence pays, hey?

And finally, as a writer of both forms, how do you see the short story and the novel in the life of a reader? By which I mean, what do you think readers get out of each form, and when should we turn to one or the other?

I can only say what I want from each form. I always want to be immersed; with a short story, I want a complete moment, with a novel, a whole world.

I tend to read short fiction in little slots of time – 10 mins before the bus comes, 5 mins while my daughter is watching some repetitive kids TV show – I tend to read them digitally, unconnected, as they come to me, through for example the Granta app or the Paris Review email newsletter. The last one I read that I loved was by Sally Rooney, a piece that became chapter 2 of her latest novel Normal People, through the Granta app, half undressed as I was supposed to be getting ready for bed. I often find it hard to get through a book of short stories; it can take me months.

Novels I inhale. Crime, romance, literary fiction, old classics, classics-in-the-making – I jump in and submerge myself in the writing and the world. I’m often reading two or three at once, for different reasons – at the moment my ‘main’ book is The White Guard by Mihkail Bulgakov, but in front of the TV I’m re-reading Playback by Raymond Chandler, and to go to sleep I continually re-read Pride and Prejudice. I also have a non-fiction book on Paris that I’m reading for research, Paris: City of Light, 1919-1939 by Vincent Cronin. I can’t ever be without a novel, and not only leave the house with one, but tend to carry my book around the house as I do chores. Is that strange? My house is bigger than I’m used to, to be fair…

With both, I need to be able to understand the characters and enjoy the writing. For me, short fiction is like poetry; a short piece that illuminates an element of life, often intangible and sometimes barely understood, through heightened language and tight structure. Plot is not important. With novels, plot is vital: how do these characters make their decisions and why? I want to know everything; through the particularity of their fictional life, I want to understand my own. Bad plot often makes me angry, which I suppose it shouldn’t, but I feel cheated after I’ve ‘lived’ with these characters that they make unbelievable decisions. Good plot has me thinking about everything in my life that is vaguely relevant to the story, often book in hand, or talking to myself as I walk my daughter to sleep at night.

When I write short fiction, I want to capture an experience within a moment, and to somehow indicate the whole of the character’s life within that one moment. Needless to say, I don’t always manage it, but I try.

I write the novels I want to read. Novels are always having a conversation with time, both within the structure and in the abstract, so I include a lot of ideas about history, memory, and identity… and war, you know, my major obsessions. The world of a novel is always a completely new world, even if it looks and sounds just like the world I live in – it’s not only the different people, but the way the world is constructed through the language. Bulgakov’s absurdist lyricism about the Russian Revolution in the Ukraine is very different in tone from the sharp irony of Chandler’s postwar LA or Austen’s Regency England, which are different enough from each other – Kiev, California, and Hertfordshire are all created through the voices of these writers, and it’s in these voices I want to live for a while. So I try to do the same. Again, I don’t always succeed, but for whatever reason I find I’m more successful more often when I write in the first person.

Of course, one of the things that’s so wondrous about reading is how personal, private, and individual it is. This is how I read but everyone’s different and I love that.

Tessa, thank you so much for your thoughtful answers—I know I’ve thrown you some curly questions. For readers who’d like to get hold of the first Kiki Button novel, it’s available here for Australian readers and here for US readers. You can find out more about Tessa at her website, and read her story ‘Chess and Dragonflies’ which won the 2016 Griffith University Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize here at The Griffith Review.

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