The award-winning author of the novel The Etched City and, more recently, the short story collection That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote KJ Bishop speaks to us about juggling two artistic disciplines, how the Australian landscape impacts on her work and reflects back other locales that make their way into her fiction, and her story We the Enclosed, an extract of which we’ll be featuring in our upcoming end-of-year issue.
You are both a writer and a sculptor. It’s become something of an accepted truism that the creative process will remain more or less the same whichever format the artist chooses to channel it in, but would you say you at least explore different facets of, or different angles to, the same process when you engage in either writing or sculpture?
Definitely different angles. It might be a different process, too; at least, it feels different. I see similar themes cropping up in my sculpture and writing, but they may come across differently. But as regards process, writing generally comes hard to me – or rather, snippets and scenes come easily, but coherence comes hard. So much that I’ve written I’ve ended up not using – I just haven’t been able to do anything with it. And I don’t get many ideas for stories. But I’m much steadier with the sculpture. I have plenty of ideas and can generally follow through on them.
For some reason I always want to demand a lot of myself when I write; or I want to demand a lot of the writing, whereas with sculpture I’m more easily satisfied. That doesn’t mean that I only give myself easy projects, but I can get a lot of joy out of making fun little objects as well as more complex pieces.
The problems to be solved in art vs writing – or my kind of art vs my kind of writing, anyhow – are very different. I find that the two require quite separate mental approaches. And on the emotional level I want writing to surprise me and do unexpected things – because words seem to come out of my subconscious sometimes when I write – but I don’t really have that requirement with art.
The initial image might surprise me, but I’m not likely to get big surprises during the process. So I can just get on with it. I’m more methodical with sculpture, because changing a piece can be a real pain – there’s no delete key! I plan and make preliminary models. But I’m very bad at doing that with writing.
There seems to be a particular focus on transitional states in your work – both in your short fiction and in the overall make-up of Ashamoil, the titular ‘etched city’ of your debut novel. Your settings have a shadowy and transient nature, and characters appear to be perpetually on the move with no real fixed geographical ballast. Do you recognize this, and what would you say lies at the core of it?
I do recognize it, and I think it must be something personal. Perhaps I’ve always felt that I don’t have much ballast myself. One of the homeliest environments, to my mind, is a sleeper train – transit in comfort!
One thing about the settings, I like the idea of settings as stage sets, and a secondary world as a kind of astral space. It’s in my head, and it’s influenced by everything I’ve seen and read and done. It’s no more fixed than imagination is fixed.
I think it’s actually an extension of the way I remember playing as a kid, when scenarios could change on a whim. So, if you like, I’m actually writing quite a concrete, realistic depiction of my own mental world, but that world is always in flux.
The Etched City is marked by frequent digressions into arguments and treatises regarding theology and the metaphysics of art – arguably some of the highlights of the book. How do you see the interface between theory and philosophy and the writing of fiction?
For me there’s a lot of working backwards. Images, characters, incidents come first; then I analyze them and start seeing patterns and getting ideas about some sort of intellectual scheme. It’s a bit like analyzing dreams. I think I’d find it very difficult to start from a conscious theoretical position. I chew the mental cud as I’m writing, so I’ll get bits of insight or just nut things out, which helps me to keep going.
But the ideas have to belong naturally to the characters. When I write, it often feels at least somewhat as though I’m listening to the characters rather than putting words in their mouths. I was glad, for instance, when Beth had plenty to say, because she’s meant to be a reversal of the idea of woman as a silent muse serving masculine creativity; instead, she’s a creator and thinker.
So while I hope the ideas aren’t uninteresting in themselves, they’re also an important part of characterisation.
Does Ashamoil bear the imprints of any cities (or even specific locations in cities) you have visited?
Absolutely! It owes quite a bit to Rome, Fez, and Melbourne, to name three, plus a bit of armchair travel to India. The entire section in the Street of Weavers, just before Gwynn finds Beth, I probably owe to the Fez medina, where I received an expensive but ultimately worthwhile lesson in enchantment.
I think I was determined to belatedly get my money’s worth, so some of the atmosphere there became useful inspiration for the book. Melbourne has quite a bit of ornate, high Victorian heritage. It has some wonderful buildings and atmospheric little lanes, and a rather Gothic aspect. Rome was mainly an aesthetic influence, with the villas and baths. The first germ of inspiration for it was actually Sidney Sime’s illustration for Lord Dunsany’s story ‘How One Came, As Was Foretold, to the City of Never’.
One thing that immediately distinguishes your most recent short story collection, That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, from other collections its eclecticism. Apart from having stories which couldn’t be more different from one another in terms of both style and content (you have decadent swashbucklers jostling alongside surreal fugues and science fictional speculations), there’s also poetry and experimental slices of what we could call flash fiction. Do you think that self-publishing the book is the main thing that enabled this kind of freedom?
I’m not sure. To be honest, as I’m not a very prolific writer I didn’t have much choice about the stories I included. I hope a publisher would have been happy with the eclectic mix, but at any rate I didn’t have any arguments with myself about it. I put the collection together partly for people who wanted another novel after The Etched City, and of course there hasn’t been one. I thought, well, I can gather most of the stuff that’s lying around in scattered places, and maybe there’ll be something in that material for those readers. I included the poems partly because they have a connection with the book.
What are some of the key images or thematic elements that inspired your story ‘We the Enclosed’, which will be excerpted for a limited time in our upcoming December issue? There appears to be a nervous urgency to the story, but also a leisurely accumulation of details and a reflection on the very idea of travel. What inspired and led to this literary cocktail?
The inspiration for one section, was Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione, and some of Melbourne’s suburban landscape inspired another part. But the main spark was probably the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo. I was wandering around there in tourist heaven, in this famous, romantic old bazaar – and then at some point I felt that it was basically just an open air shopping mall.
The exotic spectacle started to look equivalent to window dressing back home. It was still interesting, but the magic drained away. That got me thinking about the mythic material involved in touristry and shopping. They’re essentially quest narratives, the adventure and the search for an object. When it comes to objects we don’t need, advertisers of course try to convince us that whatever they’re peddling will create some extraordinary change in our lives, even our being, as if this watch or soft drink or whatever really was a magical artifact.
We go travelling for simple pleasure, but also I think because we want to be enchanted and lifted out of the ordinary (“magical” being a popular word for selling holidays). This idea that we always lack something, that our whole being is unsatisfactory, and that somewhere there’s a cure for the lack, which is fostered and exploited by both capitalism and religion, was really on my mind.
Found that last answer intriguing? As it happens, we’re taking KJ Bishop’s unique reflections on travel and the urban environment as a cue for our features this month, so stay tuned for podcasts, interviews and mini-essays that explore this rich topic. Also, be sure to check out an exclusive and limited-time-only extract of ‘We the Enclosed’ in our upcoming December issue. For more on KJ Bishop, log on to: http://kjbishop.net/ and check out her sculpture at her Etsy shop.