Ryan O'Neill was born in Glasgow in 1975. He lived in Africa, Europe and Asia before settling in Newcastle, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. His fiction has appeared in The Best Australian Stories, The Sleepers Almanac, Meanjin, New Australian Stories, Wet Ink, Etchings, and Westerly. His work has won the Hal Porter and Roland Robinson awards. The Weight of a Human Heart has been shortlisted for the 2012 Queensland Literary PrizeSteele Rudd Award. He teaches at the University of Newcastle.
What most appeals to you about the short story format?
One of the main things that appeals to me about short stories, as both a reader and a writer, is their variety. I love the fact that in a collection or anthology, one story might be a tragedy told in first person and set in America, and the next might be comedy told in the third person and set in Australia, for example. Some see this as a flaw in short fiction; that you don't spend a great deal of time in any one setting or with any one character, as you do in a novel. But for me this variety is one of the most attractive aspects of the short form. Another thing I love about short stories is that their brevity makes them ideal for experimentation, and trying out new styles or forms that would not necessarily work in a longer narrative. A short story told through graphs and charts might be enjoyable to read, but a novel told in the same way would almost certainly not be.
As someone who has lived in many different places around the world, do you find that people are generally more similar or different?
I believe one of the great things about travelling is that you learn the absurdity of believing that one country is better than another, or one set of people somehow superior to another. In my experience people are generally similar, for good or bad, the world over. They care about the same things, such as their family, and they worry about the same things, such as money or health. Whether in Africa, in China, in eastern Europe, or in Australia, people are just trying to get by the best they can.
Do you think land and geography play a part in the development of a culture and/or individual's psyche? Have your experiences as an outsider to a culture influenced your perception of place?
I believe land and geography play a huge part in the development of a culture and an individual. One of the great tragedies of Africa was how the continent was carved up into different countries with no thought to the geography of the continent, or the wishes of its people. Literally, lines were drawn on a map, and countries were created. This has had an enormous impact on the development of Africa, and created conflicts which are still being fought today, and which have impacted the everyday lives of millions of people.
I've lived as an outsider in several countries, and in several different ways. In Lithuania I blended in due to my physical appearance but could never master the language. In Rwanda, I managed to pick up some Kinyarwanda (the official language), but could never blend in due to my physical appearance. And in China, I couldn't speak the language, or blend in physically. Even now, after several years living in Australia, I feel like an outsider, though the differences in culture and language to Scotland are not immediately apparent. Though sometimes it has been difficult, this feeling of displacement is ideal for a writer. I can write about these countries and people in a way I could never write about Scotland, where I grew up, as Scotland is too close to me. Being an outsider brings distance, and distance can be very useful to a writer.
I was deeply affected by your stories with ties to the Rwandan genocide of 1994; could you tell readers about your personal connection to Rwanda?
I was a volunteer English teacher in Rwanda from 1999-2001 for VSO, the British equivalent of the Peace Corps. I lived and worked in a small village in the east of the country, teaching English at a small secondary school. There were almost no textbooks, and classes ranged from 60 to 100 students. Many of the students were orphans, having lost their parents in the 1994 genocide, and others had returned to Rwanda after their families had spent twenty or thirty years of exile in Uganda. I made many good friends while living there, all of whom had some direct or indirect experience of the genocide, though it was many years after leaving Rwanda before I thought about setting any stories there.
Seems to me what is not said in your stories tells almost as much what is expressed explicitly in words. How do you choose which details to include? Have you ever written a story to fill in the "blanks" of a previous story?
Most of the stories in the collection started off in longer versions, but I enjoyed the luxury of having almost a year to revise them, and in the revision process I cut several hundred words from each story. I think a short story writer has to be more ruthless in editing than a novelist. A great novel can still have a scene or two that doesn't work, or a character that doesn't quite convince. A short story with a scene that doesn't work is not a good story. When revising, it wasn't so much deciding which details to include, but which details to cut. I removed anything I wasn't entirely sure of, or that I felt didn't contribute something absolutely essential to the story. Surprisingly, in some cases this meant the scenes or images that had actually inspired the story in the first place. In removing everything but the essentials, you are trusting that you have suggested enough to the reader for them to fill in the rest. I've never really written a story that filled in the blanks of a previous story, but I always keep any images, lines of dialogue or scenes that I cut in the hope of being able to recycle them. Sometimes a scene that was superfluous in one story can become an essential part of the next.
As a reader, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the diversity of your storiesin content, settings, character point of view, format, virtually every story element. How do you usually start a story? In other words, what captures your attention? Is it a character, a place, a problem, a message for the world?
Usually my stories will start out as a line in a notebook, which might be as simple as 'Story about an old man' or 'story told in book reviews.' They might remain there for a few years, with my adding lines or notes for scenes from time to time until they have a loose structure, and then I'll write a first draft.
Very occasionally stories appear almost fully formed, and seem to write themselves from idea to execution over the course of a week or so. Other stories do start as problems I set myself to solve. I enjoy the idea of working within certain forms, as the restrictions of these forms can actually inspire creativity. For instance, I had never seen a story told through book reviews, but it was many years before I devised a story which I felt exploited the form successfully. I also wanted to see if it was possible to move away from traditional prose almost entirely, and to tell a story through visual means, which led to the story, "Figures in a Marriage."
Does your own writing ever surprise you?
I've never been one of those writers who feel that their characters take on a life of their own and do things they never expected. My characters are quite obedient and usually do exactly as I tell them. I like to plan out stories before I begin them, and more often than not I stick to the plan when I'm writing. As I'm writing and revising, I don't feel that element of surprise, but sometimes, when rereading an old story, there will appear a good line of dialogue or image that I have no memory of writing, and that is a wonderful feeling.
This article was originally published in August 2013, and has been updated for the
July 2014 paperback release.
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