“He thought of a drawing class he’d done a few years back where they’d sat at their easels in a loose circle around a girl and been instructed that, instead of drawing the model, they had to draw the space around her body, the white negative that her body cut out of the room.” Chris Somerville’s debut We Are Not The Same Anymore focuses on the spaces cut out of lives and rooms and relationships once people have left. A collection of short stories of usually single characters encountering small moments of failure or loss.
The title of Somerville’s collection is from a story in which a man’s brother has just been broken up with, “The note read, in pencil We are not the same anymore, and even though Beckman knew the other side was blank, he flipped the paper over to see if there was anything more to the message.”
Somerville has a spare, intimate prose style that contrasts against the quirky, strange, and often very funny situations he conjures. He has a way of writing contradictory but immediately recognisable flashes of feeling — as in ‘Aquarium’ where a man visits his daughter’s birthday party at the house he used to share with his ex and stands in the renovated study, “I thought I could still smell the paint cans I used to store in here, but maybe I was glumly imagining it the way amputees sometimes feel their missing limbs.” Or ‘Travelling through the air’ where a character is “overwhelmed by the kind of sentimentality he’d been spending most of the semester trying to eradicate from his student’s work.”
On the release of his debut collection, I interviewed Somerville on epigraphs, water motifs and placelessness.
There’s a resurgence of exciting short story writers being published at the moment – your publisher UQP in particular is releasing lots of beautiful collections by new Australian writers. What draws you to the short story as a form?
I think I’ve always liked that you’re forced to whittle down the story to its essentials, and that every line then has to do something. I read a lot more collections of short stories than novels too, though I’m trying to amend this a little bit this year. Writing short stories also always seemed like the thing you do first, before you write a novel, though maybe that’s not the case so much anymore.
Your stories have a deliberate unmoored, placeless quality – you often write ‘no-places’ such as planes, cars, hotel rooms, and people who are in houses that are either empty or not their own. What is it about these settings that you like to explore?
I’m not sure. I’ve never had the greatest imagination, I don’t think, and I tend to get a little bit obsessed with playing over the same situation again and again. For the time I was also interested in these sorts of situations too.
Water seems to be the unifying motif in this collection, it is present in one way or another in almost every story. Tell me about how this came to play such an important role.
This is definitely one of the things I didn’t notice about my book until after it was done. When I first wrote this book there were almost double the amount of stories, which I then edited and so forth, and added a few new stories in there too, so the book more took shape by what I threw out rather than deciding what I was going to put in there, if that makes sense.
Anyway the best I can say about water is that, growing up in Hobart, I didn’t learn to swim well until I was a teenager, and I’ve always been kind of apprehensive about the stuff.
I loved the epigraph to the collection by Sydney writer / campaigner Marian Waller: “I wish simply to record that right now life is madly good and please note that this is not at all what I had come to expect.” How did you come across this quote and in what ways do you feel it speaks to the collection?
Marian was my uncle’s partner for many years and was probably the first writer I ever knew. She wrote a kid’s book called the Leaping Llama Carpet, which is now unfortunately out of print, and then turned to poetry after that, I think she said she found it less exhausting. She unfortunately passed away from cancer last year, which she’d had for a long time.
So I always figured I’d use one of her lines, also it seemed to fit, or at least I thought it fit, and I wanted the book to start on a slightly optimistic note, since a lot of the stories are a downer, for the most part.
Much of the collection feels unified but there are two stories that stand out as really unusual stylistically – ‘Loss’ and ‘Drowning Man’ – did you approach the writing of these differently?
No really, since I didn’t really have a unified approach for the rest of them. Both of these stories – and also Room – are three of the earliest ones though, and I wrote them when I was at university. I think ‘Drowning Man’ was always going to be at the end, because it felt both pretty strong and also kind of weird – like maybe not set in the same reality as the rest of the book, so I liked how it worked as an ending to the whole book.
There are many moments in these stories that are really funny – parts of ‘Giraffe’ and ‘Sleeping With The Light On’ in particular made me laugh out loud. Do you find that the situations you create and the characters’ reactions to them become humorous when you’re reading them back, or do you set out to write humor into the stories?
I always try to be funny at least a little bit, sometimes it’s planned out and sometimes it isn’t, it just comes out naturally through editing. I think a story being funny and then all of a sudden becoming sad is a pretty effective technique, and is probably a hallmark of all the short stories that I really love. I’m not sure if I’ve done it as successfully as I want to yet, this funny-sad balance, but it’s something to keep aiming for.
Are there projects, or another collection of short stories, that you’re working on?
I’m working on something longer now, it’s about two brothers and a farm filled with sick animals, kind of. I’m not sure if it’ll work out yet, but in my mind it’s a novel. For a while I was reading out parts of it at a book store each month. At the moment I don’t feel like I have the time or energy to write another book of short stories, or at least it doesn’t feel right yet.
— Chris Somerville’s We Are Not The Same Anymore is available now through UQP. RRP 19.95