Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your work.
I live in Melbourne and can’t seem to stop myself from writing, even when my bank balance screams and says, “This is madness!” Since my teens, I’ve strewn my consciousness across poetry, short fiction, song writing, essays, journalism, performance writing, and now a novel. And, despite one of the coldest Melbourne winters I’ve experienced, my fingers keep dancing on this here keyboard.
Your debut novel, We. Are. Family. traces the lives of the Stevenson family through generations of dysfunction. Can you tell us about the themes and why you chose to explore them in your first novel?
The American novelist Cormac McCarthy once wrote that there is only one story and our job is to tell it. He was talking on a metaphysical level, but I think something like that happens to writers: we seem to discover a bone and gnaw on it through our entire careers. When it comes to fiction writing, I have focussed on men, violence and family – and sometimes all three together. So We. Are. Family. is in a continuum that started with my first poetry book, Minorphysics, continued into my short fiction collection, Dodging the Bull, and later my play, Ragdoll. But We. Are. Family. includes ghosts, angels and UFOs along for the ride, adding strange dimensions to my exploration of how the effects of family violence ripple through generations.
Some of the scenes in We. Are. Family. are challenging to read. There is violence that is understated at times and explicit at other times. Do you find it difficult to write these types of scenes? How do you delve into the darkness and come back out the other side?
To me, there are no sides. We have this idea that we can subjugate the dark parts of ourselves – and others – and then expect to live so-called healthy, normal existences. I feel that the ability to understand, integrate and live with the darkness we carry in ourselves is tantamount to what it means to be a successful human being. And only then can we possibly come to grips effectively with the darkness in others.
When it comes to writing challenging scenes, I have no difficultly whatsoever. The reason being that once characters are fully formed they demand to take action based on who they are. So, in fact, it would be more difficult to not write the challenging scenes that result from actions extending from who they are.
Do you have a favourite character in the novel? Who is it, and why?
I don’t have a favourite. But I do have empathy for them all. No one in the Stevenson family – or outside it – is present in the novel to be a figure for anything or a straw man or woman. Like us, they all have to deal with a lot of crap in their lives, and they do their best to pick their way through it. Strangely, after I finished writing We. Are. Family., I missed them all. I missed being with them and would often think in real life of going off to visit one of them, just to have a laugh together about our shared life and times.
The novel has an interesting structure. Can you tell us about it?
It’s episodic, multi-vocal and, in regard to time, often non-linear. So it’s not your normal novel, having elements in common with Tim Winton’s The Turning and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Some of the sections in We. Are. Family. read like short stories while others play roles similar to a traditional novel’s chapter. There are strands of narrative that are sewn throughout the work, and the novel accumulates meaning and depth via what I see as snowballs building then slowly dissolving.
There is, however, an overarching sense of closure at the end of the work. I love these kinds of works, and to write like this opened up vistas of possibility and excitement that I couldn’t wait to explore – even though it was complex and difficult to hold it all together.
You write poetry and essays as well as fiction. Do you find it easy to switch between them, and do you have a favourite?
When I was less experienced, I had a lot of trouble switching. Not in terms of the formal process, but in terms of understanding which ideas would be best explored in which form. Getting better at knowing how to sort this issue out has just been a matter of continual experiment. Nowadays, I find that I know on an intuitive level what form of writing my heart and mind are leaning to when it comes to exploring an idea, emotion or circumstance.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I have read hundreds of these pithy quotes and heard almost as many. And, as a writing workshop facilitator and university tutor, I have offered plenty. But two stand out: Raymond Carver’s notion that a work isn’t finished until you start moving commas around (I have found this to be true by experience); and E. Annie Proulx who in a masterclass once scowled at a student’s draft and offered this advice: write better.
Can you tell us about your favourite novel or author?
I have so many favourite novels and authors. And I am concerned, if I name any, of being compared to them unfavourably! But I won’t chicken out entirely: Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and George Orwell’s 1984 .
How would you describe ‘the writing life’ as you have experienced it?
Hard work, good friends, learning about myself and others – and learning how to do lots of other writing (and teaching) in order to pay for my creative writing habit. And, as mentioned, I don’t seem to be able to stop. But I’m really proud of We. Are. Family. – and thankful for all the hard work the MidnightSun Publishing team have put into it. For me at least, it’s been worth the long nights and low bank balances.
How can readers get in touch with you or find out more about your work? (e.g. website, Twitter etc)
The best way is to just visit paul-mitchell.com.au and have a look around the site. I send out a monthly newsletter to keep people in touch with what I’ve been up to.
Paul Mitchell’s debut novel We. Are. Family. is available from all good bookshops, and from the MidnightSun Publishing website.