The landscape of Heat and Light. Beaudesert, Queensland. Image courtesy of the author.
The first of Heat and Light I wrote was the short story ‘S&J’ in December 2011. The story didn’t come from nowhere. I had just finished a creative writing degree, where my major piece of work was the start of a manuscript length work called ‘Smoulder’ about two girls, Ester (S) and Jaye (J). It was a meandering piece of uni fiction, in which I was trying to explore my own identity as a recently politicised young Murri woman. It took place on the Brisbane University campus and the streets of West End, and featured grunge guitar goddess Milla Breed. But these characters didn’t come together with the necessary urgency until they reappeared in a small coastal town in Western Australia, in a much briefer piece. I sent ‘S&J’ off to a callout for Indigenous writers to submit to McSweeney’s, which felt like the opportunity of a lifetime. It was the first submission I made, as I hadn’t gained much confidence from my degree. Indeed, I was still ‘finding my voice’ and finding out what I wanted to write about, and more importantly what I was good at writing about.
To be published in McSweeney’s was a big break. I was suddenly in the public eye, and toured to Melbourne, finding myself on stage with Tony Birch, Melissa Lucashenko, Chris Flynn and Jordan Bass. Kate Evans from the ABC commented that ‘S&J’ did feel like it was part of larger piece, a novel within a short story.
A few months later I finished the first draft of a manuscript called ‘Hard’, about a female Aboriginal cyclist accused of murder. It was a somewhat clumsy part-thriller, part-romance that I had written in response to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander characters being on the margins of Australian crime fiction. ‘Hard’ went on to be shortlisted for the 2012 David Unaipon Award, which was won by Siv Parker, and interest in me and my writing continued to grow.
I felt pressured and confused. Friends encouraged me to keep writing. I became determined to improve ‘Hard’, and to renter it for the Unaipon the following year. Drafts and drafts amassed, perhaps close to twenty all up. At the same time I was working on the novel, I was cheating on it: I was writing short stories. I contacted Josephine Rowe and asked her to be my mentor for an upcoming grant. Rowe’s How A Moth Becomes A Boat was an influence on my early shorter stories like ‘Paddles, Not Oars’. The mentorship didn’t end up getting sponsored, but Josephine’s generous emails had an effect, as they drew me back from the impatience (and maybe arrogance) I was close to suffering. I hadn’t yet earned the right to be published. It hadn’t come together yet; it was going to take work.
I wrote the opening of ‘Pearl’ in August 2012 — I remember the wind, and reading Louise Erdrich — and I fine-tuned it to read at the launch of Melissa Lucasenko’s Mullumbimby in February 2013. It held a bit of power that night, and I was happy enough with its reception to continue it.
It was not the only time the opportunity to read my work motivated me to extend and enliven stories that made up Heat and Light. I workshopped ‘Hot Stones’ for a ‘fire’ themed storytelling event at The Moat café in Melbourne. I remember feeling buoyed by the warm comments of Uncle Lionel Fogarty, who also read that night. The relationships I developed with other Indigenous writers gave me strength.
‘Pearl’ and ‘Hot Stones’ began the Kresinger saga, which would later be called HEAT. The Kresingers took on a life of their own. I was determined to unlock the mysteries I had furnished, and for the story of this family to be represented democratically, allowing all the characters to have their say.
Before I knew it, I was forming a collection. It was a process of scavenging, foraging and scrapbooking, as I tossed my ideas into a growing hot heap. I never told anyone except my partner I was working on this project. For three lively months I wrote on buses and late into the night after coming home from work. On the weekends I travelled through the Northern Rivers and Scenic Rim, places that held stories of their own. I started pieces for competitions and magazines. I was an emerging writer who had tasted publication, a modern writer, with the internet in my pocket. My grammar and economy of language had been hardened from university, and my instincts sharped from my training as an editor. I listened a lot to Tracy Chapman, which is why the manuscript developed the working title ‘Heat and Light’ from a line in the song ‘Smoke and Ashes’.
After a day trip to an island off the coast of Brisbane, I started what I called my ‘plantpeople story’. It rushed out of me, and I have never had as little control over what I was writing as I did then. It seems fitting, then, that it was eventually called WATER. I wondered if it would become a novel, but eventually decided to stick it in the middle of Heat and Light when I submitted it to the 2013 David Unaipon Award.
Pleasingly, ‘Hard’ and Heat and Light were both shortlisted that year. I had worked on ‘Hard’ so much it was part of my bones. In comparison, Heat and Light was a bit of a play: 35,000 words, 3 months, odds and ends. So when I found out I had won, I assumed it was for ‘Hard’. If anything, Heat and Light is proof that the work you enjoy is the work that shines. I had lost enthusiasm for ‘Hard’ and writing stories had felt freeing and liberating.
My publisher liked the Kresingers, and encouraged me to write two additional stories, ‘Skin’ and ‘Crash’, in the editing stage. The hardest part was knowing where to stop. I wrote an additional 15,000 words on Irma Kresinger, and fretted about whether to include it. Was I feeling pressured about whether this book was a short story collection or a novel? Yes. Was I reading other linked story collections and comparing? Yes. Had I lost faith in my instincts, relying heavily on my editor and friends for guidance? Yes. But it would pass.
To see Heat and Light as the end product of four failed novels would be irrelevant and inexact. For me, as for many other writers, ‘failure’ and the kindness of others are big factors in the growth of my writing. The writing process is also a learning process. I felt joy and relief when the book was on the shelf, and this has increased as the book’s journey continues. With each positive response from a reader and with every day that passes, I feel lighter and simpler. Still, I know that it is important for me to remember that the process of writing Heat and Light was a patchwork, and that will inevitably influence how the book is read.
RSVP to the Digital Writers’ Festival / Kill Your Darlings First Book Club with Ellen by the end of today (January 28) for a chance to win one of five copies of Heat and Light, thanks to UQP.