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Sister Act
In short, a long love affair with story

ONCE upon a time, a man and his wife had three daughters. They lived in the then NSW industrial seaside town of Newcastle, where their "autodidactic" father, a "pipe-smoking patriarch who ruled the house with iron control" and "proud housekeeper" mother encouraged the children to study hard and love books. The sisters were dutiful, and mightily encouraged: many years later they would look back on this cultural motivation as a priceless gift from their parents. The eldest, "the brainy one", grew up to become a famous writer; the youngest, "the sexy one", became a highly-respected editor; and the middle sister, "the rebellious, beautiful one", read the omens and got a real life - she's a doctor's receptionist.

Now, in an only slightly-stretched conceit, the Crothall sisters major and minimus have united to share that gift in The Gift of Story, a celebratory anthology of short stories culled from more than 50 collections published by University of Queensland Press, itself in its 50th year.

As collection editors, author Marion Halligan and UQP fiction editor Rosanne Fitzgibbon trawled three decades' of the publishers' archives to deliver a defining catch. Astley, Wilding, Carey, Bail, Masters, Grenville, Turner Hospital, Brett, Sayer, Wharton, Windsor, Mears ... it's only when you see the 34 writers featured, usually with a story taken from their first essays into print, that you realise just how influential the publishing house has been. The collection is a snapshot of the past 30 years of Ozlit, from the sex 'n' sassy 70s through the femolutionary 80s to the deeply personal, autobigraphical 90s.

As Halligan asserts, "It has got just about anybody who was or is anybody in AustLit in it - the story of UQP as the publisher of virtually everybody who counts is quite amazing." Including, incidentally, as publisher of a collection of Halligan's own short stories, although "in my case not until after I had written a novel".

Now, of course, the Canberra-based former teacher and freelance journalist (who, like her sisters, married "an academic with a multiple-syllable name and a questing mind") has written five novels (including her recently-released The Golden Dress), four short-story collections, three non-fiction works and a picture book for children. As a reviewer, she's won the Geraldine Pascall Award in 1991, as a novelist the '92 Age Book of the Year for Lovers Knots, as a short storiest the Steele Rudd Award in 1989. Among other awards. The Literature Board chairperson in 1992-95 and "still greatly immersed in the life literary", she's "circling a major novel, somewhat trepidatiously, and working with Lucy Frost on another project".

Fitzgibbon's first incarnation at UQP was under Frank Thompson in 1971, where within a year she 'discovered' a young Michael Wilding (Aspects of the Dying Process) and that she was pregnant with twins. After a year in London, she led "a somewhat sybaritic hippy existence for 15 years on 25 acres outside Brisbane in the Samford Valley" where she grew vegetables, kept bees, milked cows and raised a family while free-lance editing. After rejoining UQP's editorial staff, she became in 1989 fiction editor. The inaugural winner of the Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship in 1992, she was on the Literature Board's peer assessment panel this year and is prominent in numerous literary committees and bodies. Now juggling "a political biography, a novel and a collection of essays by Brian Castro", she's considered in the trade as one of the more influential mentor editors in the country.

THE IDEA HAD BEEN to get the pair from their Canberra and Brisbane bases onto neutral territory and there uncover their partnership D&Ms. Good plan, mission impossible. It's not that they were unwilling, it's just that we met an hour or two before the Sydney launch, complete with an authority of authors, of the collection. Their anticipation/anxiety level was high. More telling, as Fitzgibbon had alerted in an arranging email, was "the somewhat loopy dynamics of our very affectionate, sisterly relationship".

As an interview, it was an engaging game of verbal tennis. Between them. I was the head-swivelling observer who (very) occasionally tossed a topic ball into play. As Fitzgibbon had also warned, "when we're out together - shopping, lunching, hanging about at Writers festivals ... we end up having all sorts of unexpected conversations, often with strangers. It doesn't happen when I'm on my own but somehow together we create an atmosphere people want to share - silly middle-aged women we may be, but Marion has an energy that is very infectious."

Nearly a decade separates them ("Marion was almost another mother when I was growing up," says Fitzgibbon, "and an impossibly talented role model to live up to") but their closeness and mutual respect are obvious. They talk at length at least once a week, often three times or more: "We led such different lives in the 70s and 80s," says Fitzgibbon, "with me on the farm and Marion in Canberra's urbane dinner-party intellectual circles, but the link was always there. And it's grown stronger as we've got older."

The usual sibling overtones are there, too, with an ironic accent on a snappy no-delusions awareness of the other's traits - but overriding everything is a patent pride in, and supportiveness of, each other. Both are dedicated and goal-oriented, studious women who parlayed working-class aspirations into university degrees and respected chairs at the literary table. By reputation, they are rated "good lunchers and festivaleers" - and while both have been buffeted by personal calamities and have had to overcome resistances of varying degree with a sometimes prickly determination, they are equally praised by peers for sympathetic astuteness and unstinting professionalism.

Conversation is a roller-coaster - one starts a sentence, the other hi-jacks it, the first reclaims the drift. And so the talk ranges with considerable animation and no little articulation over the state of writing today, new practices versus old traditions of nurturing literary talent, marketing dynamics with a segue into the "pernicious promotion of new works that has little to do with literature or life, a lot to do with the promotability of the writer".

And more, much more, including an analysis of the role of short stories in our literary development, their coming renaissance, and a sustained spruiking of the quality of The Gift of Story. They are both very proud of the book (dedicated with deep personal significance to "Graham Halligan, husband and brother-in-law"), and nervously keen to spread the good word on the good words.

"The good thing about working with Rosie on this," reflects Halligan, "is that she's an editor who's never wanted to be a writer."

"I'm too just lazy," Fitzgibbon laughs - "I've never had that burning need to create, always been the facilitator ..."

"It meant we approached it from different values but with very clear, defined judgments," says Halligan, who "has been a writer from childhood - I was a professional contributor to the Sunday children's pages and racked up certificate points by the score." "And occasionally forced me into it as well ..."

"You needed to be forced, otherwise you'd never have surfaced from that book-reading dreamworld ..."

THE SHORT STORY, THEY SAY, is undervalued today - it has been superceded largely by the autobiographical essay or commisioned "themed" pieces for anthologies. "But it has a long history in Australia, particularly in the 'yarn' form, and a useful function." says Halligan. "In the 70s, though, it went through a renaissance as a delicate kind of way of coming into literature: a collection of short stories marked you out as a serious writer."

Submitting stories to the various journals was an apprenticeship, "a way of training you to be fairly tough in accepting or rejecting criticism, in persevering. Unlike today, where new writers are marketed mercilessly, no one was going to make much money and you weren't going to be feted." "The current set-up," interjects Fitzgibbon, "with its emphasis on writing courses and the novel is very hard for young writers ... it doesn't prepare them for the rejections and the realities ..."

Halligan: "Good short stories are actually very hard to write, and can be quite hard to read. Novels are easy - you can get into a rhythm with them that carries you through (but) short stories are like poems. They start long before the story does, and go on after it's finished. Ideally, they're suited to people who want to spend a bit of time reading and a lot of time thinking ..."

Fitzgibbon: "Not suited to reading last thing at night though because they stimulate too much ..."

Halligan: "And a collection - well, that's a bit like a box of chocolates; you read one story and it's wonderful and rich and it impels you to read another; that's also fantastic and then you read a third and it becomes like that third chocolate - 'what have I done?', you ask, because the diet is a bit too rich ..."

So how did they choose the chocolates for this?
Halligan: "Basically we chose a story from every eligible writer ..."
Fitzgibbon: "On the grounds that we felt it was their most interesting to us ..."
Halligan: "And that it was still relevant. Neither Rosie nor I are fans of the macho yarn ..."
Fitzgibbon: "We prefered stories that explored character or feeling ..."
Halligan: "In the end we were totally subjective and chose the stories we liked, that we thought when we read them, oh wow ... and if we both had this feeling ...
Fitzgibbon: "it was in."

In short, the tale of the tale is life itself, an exposition whether experimental, lyrical, comic or tragic that turns an incisive spotlight on us, and the human condition. They can educate, entertain, allow a frisson of recognition or recoil ... the best short stories have a long afterglow.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.

Copyright Murray Waldren 1998

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