The story began with strands of long pale hair that my husband and I found on a sofa we’d bought for convenience when we acquired our apartment. This mysterious hair, we discovered, was not easy to eradicate, and in my mind it became an emblem of everything that ties my characters to the past or releases them into the future. It is an emblem, too, of romance and passion. The central love in the story is conducted high up, at the level of passing birds, but it is shadowed by the provisional, since the lives that are visible at street level are marked by loss and ruin, and even the birds in the story can fall to earth. The story is about the strange alignments of different lives, about love and refuge, watchful judiciousness and finally, unexpected happiness.
The story is called ‘The Houses that are Left Behind,’ but it could just as easily be called ‘The Lives that are Left Behind.’ This title is ironic – prior lives cannot be entirely laid aside, nor can we choose which parts of our prior life might follow us into our current life. The story works through this idea, which came to me with particular force when my husband and I bought an apartment in the city. It seemed so loftily sequestered, but it bore traces of lives that were not our own.
Some of the story is directly autobiographical: the fair hair, the dinners with my stepchildren and the wonderful birds that inhabit the spaces around us. The rest is a way of registering the intersection of characters without requiring them to tidily connect in terms of plot.
My best writing time is pre-dawn, which always seems expansive and mobile, until the light comes and then, a little later, the day hardens into its schedule. For me the pre-dawn is a time of great possibility. If I’m lucky a little of that makes its way to the page.
Brenda Walker is an Australian writer. She has written four novels, including Poe’s Cat and The Wing of Night, and a memoir, Reading by Moonlight. Her work has won numerous awards in Australia. Her short fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review, Stand, Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Literary Review, The Penguin Century of Australian Story and Best Australian Stories.
She has been the recipient of the H.C. Coombs Creative Arts Fellowship at the Australian National University and the Stanford University Womens’ Fellowship.
Details about biography
I was born in the country in northern New South Wales, a conservative rural place at that time, now an area of environmental thoughtfulness with a prominent and respected population of Indigenous Australians: the Bundjalung people. There is a common and well-founded view of Australia as a place of deserts, or red iron-ore bearing earth, but I was born into a lush riverine environment, full of life, especially bird life. We had huge cranes called Jabiru, herons and wading birds, as well as fruit bats, and large gentle pythons, called carpet snakes for their patterned skins. I lived there until I was 14, when, with my mother, I went to live in a University town in New England, in a colder climate. At 21 I took up a scholarship at The Australian National University in Canberra, where I wrote my doctorate on the narratives of Samuel Beckett. I have carried a strong sense of his writing with me throughout my life. I found work at The University of Western Australia, and I have lived in the West ever since.
I wrote two slight, consciously parodic novels, then I became fascinated with Poe, and connections I could see between Poe and Beckett, and I wrote a novel, Poe’s Cat, inspired by that interest. My next novel, The Wing of Night, took some of these novel’s preoccupations – with indistinct memory, severances and contracting life - into the Australian experience of the First World War. My last book, Reading by Moonlight, is a memoir about reading during a period of illness, when I found my understanding of the importance of books was especially acute.
Throughout this time I have written short fiction, finding it intense and often intensely difficult: acrobatic. Longer work is ambulatory by comparison.
What does it mean to you to be included in the O. Henry Prize Stories?
It means almost more than I can say, partly because of the history of the prize, in the continuous appreciation of the short story form, and the opportunity to be part of that history. Some prizes come from on high: the writer is of course appreciative and perhaps a little startled, but prizes of this kind may come as an interruption to the life of a writer. Then there are the prizes that are in perfect accord with what I do, integrated with the project of living a writing life. The O. Henry prize is one of these. The prize is manifested in publication. There is no dislocation between the enterprise of writing in order to be read, and the prize itself. Then there is the community of the anthology itself: my story will reverberate with others in the collection, joining in something far larger than itself, and this is a joyful and mysterious matter.
Short stories are simply the greatest of challenges, and when they work, they are often the greatest of pleasures for the writer and the reader.
The Authors Desk
I’m writing a new novel that will be finished in 2019. Like ‘The Houses that are Left Behind,’ this story begins in my own experience. Recently we were staying with friends in a house in the south of France. When I came home I finally, in early morning light and silence, began to write a novel that is also a kind of memorial for a friend.