I recently met with Michael Pryor for a coffee and chat at Time Out Cafe at Federation Square in Melbourne.
We discussed how story is often under-appreciated among many of the ‘literary’ establishment in Australia. Michael described his general approach to fiction as having the three areas of setting, character and story all working together at the same time.
If you leave out story from that mix, you are left with a profile of a character in a setting.
A profile of a character in a setting, with an abstract or symbolic pattern (aka a formula, a thematic motif, a social realist arc, etc) in place of a story is just as bad as a story with formulaic characters and setting – or worse, because the lack of action leaves a writer telling the reader about a character instead of showing a character through the character’s actions.
In an interview, originally from Issue 23 of Aurealis magazine, Michael put it as follows:
I think that action is an under-utilised form of character definition. As I see it, a writer can define and explore character in a number of ways. The most common ways in the modern novel is character definition through introspection/reflection and through interaction with other characters, mostly through dialogue. I think that characters can be defined and explored through action, through events, and that’s what I’m working towards. The way people behave in times of stress and crisis tells us a great deal about what sort of person they are, which is what I’m trying to do in the Doorways series and Talent, especially.
A Henry James quote, from The Art of Fiction, comes to mind: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” That is, you can’t show character without story and you can’t have a story unless a character acts (and thus things are revealed about the character by their actions).
We discussed teaching and learning storytelling (covering written fiction, theatre, film, TV and other forms of storytelling), and the difference between learning criteria to ‘apply’ a storytelling approach and actually understanding such approaches in context.
We discussed the well-crafted fiction being published by Random House Children’s Australia in recent years, and the importance of multi-skilled (and well-read) editors such as Zoe Walton in creating quality written fiction.
We spoke about balancing writing and ‘being a writer’, in the sense of all the extra non-writing things that writers get involved with such as conferences, festivals, book signings, writing workshops, reading widely, etc, and, ideally, the importance of a writer enjoying both writing and doing all the non-writing extras.
We also discussed young readers and the strong enthusiasm and involvement they tend to have in the fiction they really enjoy. One of the benefits of having many teenage readers also tends to be their willingness to get in touch with their favourite authors online and provide feedback on what they like and what they don’t like about each book.
Michael’s sixth and final book in the Laws of Magic series, Hour of Need, will be released in May 2011. He is working on a new young adult series, which will also be fantasy but with a setting more closely based on real life than the Laws of Magic series.
Michael told me one of the challenges of writing Hour of Need (discussed further on Random House Australia’s blog) has been tying up loose storylines to give a satisfying ending for each character in the series. He described it as bringing each character back for a cameo, without making it like the final episode of Seinfeld.
Michael will be appearing at the Somerset Literary Festival, along with a great line up of Australian authors, at Somerset College on the Gold Coast, March 16th-18th.
More on Michael Pryor and his fiction can be found at www.michaelpryor.com.au, at his Facebook page, and in the AusLit articles I, You, He and She: Some Thoughts on Point of View, by Michael Pryor and The Lost Castle and blending unfamiliar details into a story.
The Australian Literature Review