Kim Westwood was a weedy asthmatic kid who devoured books like dinner. This made her want to cook up her own stuff. In 2002 she won an Aurealis Award for her short story ‘The Oracle’. Since then her stories have been chosen for several Year’s Best anthologies in Australia and the US, and for ABC radio. She has also won the Judges’ Prize at the Scarlet Stiletto women’s crime short story awards. She is the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for her first novel, The Daughters of Moab. Her second, The Courier’s New Bicycle, won an Aurealis and a Ditmar Award, and made it onto the honours list for the James Tiptree Jnr Award. It was also shortlisted for the Ned Kelly and the Davitt crime fiction awards.
1. Your last novel The Courier’s New Bicycle was very well received, winning both the Ditmar and Aurealis awards and being shortlisted for the Tiptree. The book explores some very serious political and philosophical issues including gender, animal rights and democratic freedoms; do you think spec-fic offers you more freedom to explore these contemporary issues?
No, not really. I think of ‘spec-fic’ as a genre label applied post-fact. Way before that, the story emerges with its own flavour of prose, and that’s what decides both the parameters and trajectory of my exploration. The Courier’s New Bicycle has an alternative-present setting with a grim ‘what-if’ scenario that a broad cross-section of readers responded to (along with the three awards you mentioned, it was shortlisted for two crime fiction prizes: a Davitt and a Ned Kelly), so if you want to talk in genre terms, I think it straddles a few of them. That said, my writer’s mind veers to the ‘what if’ of a world turned on its head, which is something the spec-fic realm is very conversant with, and adept at.
2. Your previous short stories and novel, The Daughters of Moab, all tend to have a very strong Australian tone and feel deeply connected to place and setting. How much influence has country had on your writing?
An enormous amount; but lately not enough. The Daughters of Moab and a number of my short stories were responses to the different wildnesses of Australia: the direct experience of them. Those external landscapes influenced and changed my internal landscape. The Courier’s New Bicycle was my response to an urban environment—the ‘socioscape’ of Melbourne—and the story grew out of those atmospheric inner-city alleyways. The current novel I’m writing, however, has gone very interior—an intense and murky mindscape—and I’m going to need some country soon to recover from it. I got out my tent the other day. It was mouldy. Too much dark space and not enough air. The spores of the universe are telling me: go bush.
3. What are you working on currently? Do you plan any new novels in the near future, or are you focusing on short stories?
Last November I had a short story, ‘Hole’, published in the Review of Australian Fiction. It was the first short work I’d written in a while, and it felt good to be back in that mode. My current work—the murky one—is actually the sequel to The Courier’s New Bicycle, and I received an ACT arts grant this year to complete it, which helps enormously on the invigoration front. So for now the short story ideas are taking a little sojourn, not enough room in my head for any worlds other than the one I’ve stumbled into.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Courtney Collins’ The Burial and Mark Tedeschi’s Eugenia.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
The way I work—the process that produces a short story or a novel—is the same as it’s always been: basic. Woody Allen tapping away on his old Olympia typewriter comes to mind. And coffee. The world will keep introducing new machinery to help us create, and new methods of connectivity with which to communicate, but my process involves tunnelling down (think wombat) and buffering against the noise. I’ve always joked about being a Luddite (and as with the originals, it’s not about the machines, per se, but about what factory environments do to individuals—that means chickens and pigs and cows too), so it doesn’t surprise me that right now, mid-novel, I’m having a Walden moment. A crofter’s cottage on some Scottish isle sounds good. Alternatively, I could heed those spores and take my tent bush.
As to five years from now…well, another novel. That’s my answer to all three parts of the question.