The Edge of Vulnerability: Cate Kennedy on Australian Love Stories

We asked Cate Kennedy, editor of Australian Love Stories (Inkerman & Blunt), to share what makes a particularly Australian love story – and whether there were any common themes or subjects that stood out when she was going through submissions for the anthology. She also reflects on what makes a good love story – and why love is great material for dramatic storytelling.

I think we do our best work out there on the edge of vulnerability. If it feels risky or exposing to write it, it’s probably because we’re telling the truth, and I love the places that takes us in stories, and what it asks of us. Conversely, as readers we all have an inbuilt bullshit detector when it comes to what you might call the emotional integrity of a piece of writing. If we detect a hint of manipulation, posturing or falseness, we’re generally out of there like a shot.

Love is at the core of our emotional lives, so naturally it’s great material for the interpersonal push-and-pull of dramatic storytelling, but it has to feel earned, I think, rather than plagiarised from somewhere else.

Scientists are fond of telling us about the chemical mayhem caused in our bodies when we fall in love – the dopamine racing round our brains as infatuation blooms, every song on the radio uncannily about us and our love affair unique in all the world, and so on. A great side-effect of this chemical reaction, for writers, at least, is that it knocks our perceptions sideways, making everything seem fresh and crystalline and significant.

We’re more volatile and take more risks, all the sensory detail of our world seems to light up. We recall whole conversations and narrative events (ask anyone who’s ever sat through a friend’s endless sad monologue of love-gone-wrong) – and for the duration of our infatuation we experience an intense, heightened, literally heart-felt awareness.

This is exactly the state writers strive for to create inspired fiction, so really, our love stories should be our best, most idiosyncratic work.

I had a talk with a marriage counsellor once who said something I’ve never forgotten: that her sessions were always full of seething women and baffled men. Seething and baffled – it seems awfully simplistic but most married heterosexual Australians I mention it to give a hollow, rueful laugh. I suspect it’s universal, though, rather than just Australian – although I think I can safely generalise and say Australians are a pretty laconic bunch, which makes for great elliptical dialogue and an ocean of unspoken subtext in our love stories!

There were a number of themes that struck me on reading these hundreds of stories, not all of them to do with ‘the war of the sexes’ or the inevitability of joyous infatuation eventually morphing into something else.

I was moved by the number of stories that involved older couples struggling to maintain equilibrium in a world where the rug had been smartly whipped from under them by Alzheimer’s disease. I could only include one or two in the final anthology – striving, with my ‘editor brain’, for a coherent and balanced collection of diverse pieces – but it was a subject that is clearly central to the emotional lives of many Australians. Untimely death through cancer or war, and how love endures despite it, was another strong theme.

We’re deeply affected by the landscape, it seems, and many stories dealt with memories of growing up and growing old in the country where love is tried mightily by floods, drought and rural hardship. Other landscapes that are clearly etched into Australian consciousness are those in other countries, either birthplaces where early love was thwarted by migration, or destinations where incidental love affairs, glorious and unfettered, become symbolic of a whole, encapsulated era of youthful freedom. It’s true, I guess, that some one-night stands seem more meaningful than years of a dull marriage, but these stories did seem to constitute a common theme – the yearning to travel, the glamour of elsewhere, the perfection of an exotic locale and attractive stranger.

Hundreds, it seemed, dealt with the stultifying suburban world of partner, kids and mortgage, and many turned very skillfully on the seemingly small incident which is clearly the final straw for the unhappy narrator.

One other theme struck me, and that was the number of stories which dealt with coming out and the transformative, shocking thrill of the first gay sexual experience or declaration of love. And I loved the stories which dealt, unsentimentally and without self-pity or self-aggrandisement, with nursing a scarred or broken heart yet deciding to step out again into the ring, ready for further punishment.

Love! Who knows its mysterious reasons? You just have to take your hat off to the writers who gamely do the same thing on the page, and who manage, on some level, to equate the yearning need to connect with each other with the capacity to create a piece of beautiful fiction about it.

Portrait of Cate Kennedy

Cate Kennedy is the author of the highly acclaimed novel The World Beneath, which won the People’s Choice Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2010. She is an award-winning short-story writer whose work has been published widely.

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