Working with Words: Chris Somerville

Chris Somerville’s stories have appeared in literary journals including Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow, Paper Radio, Islet and Stilts. In 2003, he won the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award and in 2009, was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards (Emerging Author category). His debut collection of short fiction, We are Not the Same Anymore, was released at the start of this month.

Chris discussed with us the mentorship he took with Kris Olsson, the unlucky animals in his stories and why, given his many siblings, he’d like to observe JD Salinger’s Glass family over dinner.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A short story called ‘I Guess I’m From Here’ which I wrote in my first year at university and it was published online in Retort Magazine. It was a pretty cold story about cold teenagers being detached and mean to each other.

What’s the best part of your job?

That there are a few people out there, people who you don’t even know, that take pleasure in something that you’ve made and then are genuinely interested in talking to you about it.

What’s the worst part of your job?

That it’s mostly up to me to pressure myself to work on something, and even then it can be hard, sometimes, to do this work without feeling guilty that I’m wasting time.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

In 2009 I was given a mentorship to work on my book with the author Kris Olsson. For almost a year we’d meet every fortnight and we’d go over what I’d done with each short story and what I was trying to do with them and so on. Without this my book probably would have never become what it is now.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice I’ve received was a while ago and it was that you should just get a first draft done and it doesn’t need to be the best thing ever.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

That animals seem to have a real string of bad luck in my book, which I hadn’t really noticed until someone pointed it out and I read through the whole thing again.

If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’m not sure if I make a living from writing or if I ever will.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Even though I’m currently a creative writing teacher at a couple of universities I’m still entirely not sure myself. I think you can guide people, tell them what books they might enjoy to read, and above all be at least one person in their life that will take their work seriously.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read a lot of books and write a lot, like almost every day. Also, voice is important but isn’t everything – what you also need is some kind of tension in there. Something needs to happen.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Sometimes online if they’re out of print and if I really want them, but mostly in a physical bookshop. I still haven’t gotten around to buying an ebook at any point either.

I really enjoy going into a real bookstore, though. I’ve had a lot of support from bookstores over the last few years, especially at Avid Reader up in Brisbane, who have done a considerable amount for me, and was really the first place, outside of university, where I read my work out loud to an audience.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Though I did enjoy Catcher in the Rye, I’ve always preferred Salinger’s stories and novels and novellas that were about the Glass family. Coming from a big family myself, I’d much prefer to have dinner with all of them together, and I’d probably just let them do all the talking.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Probably the Dog of the South by Charles Portis, which is the funniest book I’ve ever read, all the way up to the end, until the last line which is sad and maybe heartbreaking a little bit, which I think is an incredibly wonderful thing to do, and a thing to keep up; the funny/sad balancing act.

Chris Somerville’s story collection, We are Not the Same Anymore, is published by The University of Queensland Press.

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