Kate Liston-Mills is a local author who has a real talent for capturing Australian setting and difficult characters. Her works have been published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, Kindling, Prowlings, Tertangala, TIDE and the South Coast Writers Centre. Kate’s first major publication, a short story collection titled The Waterfowl Are Drunk! was published in June through Spineless Wonders. In this interview, we chat to Kate about what inspired her collection, how she found the editing process, and her advice for emerging writers.
What was the overarching idea behind your collection of short stories The Waterfowl Are Drunk!?
My life has been peppered at various times with disability. I had an aunty with Down syndrome and another with Motor Neurone Disease, and then when I was 19 years old I was involved in a car accident and sustained a serious acquired brain injury that left me with a learning disability. But disability is multifaceted and can’t be compartmentalised. It is grey always and incredibly individualised. Nobody’s experience is ever the exact same as another’s.
Back when my aunty with Down syndrome was born (in a very small town) there was very little information/experience or resources for people with her condition. People like her were often vilified/quarantined/feared and often forced to move to the city. My nan didn’t have that option because they had very little money and so had to do the best with what she had. Today, there are many effective resources and centres for people who don’t fit the mould but there is still such a long way to go for people in the country. And the disadvantages aren’t just physical, they are social… People in small towns can become dangerously isolated, even today. Labels have a lot to do with this. Labels stick. People talk. And a perfectly neat little dwelling can become toxic and suffocating. I didn’t go into this as much as I had intended to in the beginning but that’s where it all started.
Are there any short story writers in particular who influence your work?
I don’t have any one writer in particular who has influenced this collection but I did read The Turning by Tim Winton at the time I was writing this. I guess his understanding of setting and character probably inspired me and the amount he bit off with each story – it was the perfect amount. I guess also in the back of my mind was ‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver… that guy knows his shit. That story still baffles me. ‘Cathedral’ subverts disability so perfectly. That was probably the one story I kept reverting back to whenever I got stuck.
What was the editing and publishing process like with Spineless Wonders?
I’ve been really lucky with both my major editing experiences. My first one was with Writer’s Edit and it was so thorough and gentle. The editors all walked with me to achieve what I envisioned and really made me think about my work in new, crazy ways I hadn’t thought of before. It really pushed me as a writer and was a fabulous foundation for Spineless Wonders…
Spineless Wonders was tops. Bridget Lutherborrow is one very clever, innovative writer that I respect so much – it was nerve-racking handing my stuff over to her. I still feel a bit giddy that she offered me this opportunity in the first place. Plus I love her name. I’m going to be called Bridget Lutherborrow in my next life…
Your collection is set in Pambula, tell us what is so special about this place?
Look, I am very proud of Pambula because it has a great bakery, some top shops, a couple of quirky cafes and so many funky birds that bum around the wetlands. Look, it’s probably not the most amazing destination in the world, but it’s my home and I love it. The air’s fresh and the people are full of character. It’s different. There’re many frogs. Kangaroos are everywhere. The beaches twinkle. Look, it’s just great ok?
A number of your stories in the collection explore ideas of disability, for example the character Lottie has down syndrome – did you find it difficult to write these characters, and how the other characters perceive them?
Well, Yes. Yes, I absolutely did, because though this is a work of fiction, many of the characters are based on people who have been in my life and who I know really well. There was a time when I considered doing some stories from Lottie’s perspective… I tried many times but it never worked. It’s hard to give a voice to the voiceless because when I gave that someone a voice (who doesn’t usually have a voice in society) it felt very inorganic and odd. It didn’t flow and felt too forced. So I had to be ok with creating a voice through silence.
In TWAD towards the end, Lottie realises who the strange unknown woman is from the newspaper article and sits the article on the table for Hazel to find. But the article is burnt in the kerfuffle the following day by the unknown woman, from the out-of-control burning chook. Lottie extinguishes this fire and debatably saves more than one life but gets the blame for it all anyway. Her reactions were the hardest to write. It’s her reactions, and Archer’s, that expose the core of what I was trying to achieve. Merlinda Bobis taught me the importance of silence and absence in story telling. I always found this hard to do because I always wanted to say more. I still want to say more… But that’s the point I think.
What was your research process like for the historical periods in TWAD!?
Extensive. I didn’t think I’d have to know that much about the 40’s, 60’s, 70’s, etc… Little things like when masking tape was invented… Christmas Day routines in a small town…. What clothes were made of, different foods people ate, etc. I would never have thought people would have dirt floors … It was quite common back then. It’s not a thing I’ve seen in any place I’ve lived, except India. The differences between rich and poor are not so evident anymore, maybe because we all live off credit a bit now.
I googled for hours. I rang my mum about 9 times a day asking annoying questions like: “Did you wear nighties or pyjamas when you were about 4 years old, and what were they made of?” I tried to capture as much detail as I could. It is a specific history I wanted to capture – and only my mum would know a lot of that. Pambula in the 40’s and 50’s can’t really be found on google.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers looking to have their short fiction published?
Submit to everything. Learn to deal with rejections. Read everything. Believe in what you do and know that you can offer something that no one else can. If you don’t write that story, nobody else is going to. And if they do, it won’t be right. Go to as many festivals, launches, book clubs etc as you can. Networking is important and other writers will push you and challenge your thoughts and practices. Plus, having a cup of tea and eating cake with a fellow writer is the greatest thing. You can have the juiciest convos.
What’s next for you? Are you working on another project?
I have a few other short stories, articles and essays I am working on. My life is a bit scattered right now so I’m going to stick to short fiction for another couple of months and then I might try and sink my teeth into something larger later in the year.
* * *
Writer’s Edit would like to thank Kate for taking the time to share her journey and her insights with us.
You can purchase a digital copy of The Waterfowl Are Drunk! here.
If you’d like to know more about Kate and her writing, visit her website here.