Tall, grey-haired and eminently graceful, the first thing John Clanchy does is lead me through his 1960s-era inner Canberra home and out to the backyard, which offers a red-brick garage, a humble collection of small trees and shrubs, a patch of wintered grass, along with plants clinging to pots here and there. But we’re not about to witness some kind of gardening act. “I’m just so lucky,” says Clanchy in his soft and thoughtfully articulate voice. It’s as though we’re looking over an endless ocean, but really it’s just a humble rise of bushland. “Every day I spend an hour – often two – walking the mountain with the dogs. Where else can you live so close to the city and be able to do that?” It sounds like he can’t believe his luck.
Back inside we sit in a small room adjacent a sunroom. There’s a gas fire and a pair of well-worn sandals on the hearth. On the low table between us is a collection of cheese and crackers and nuts. And a very good bottle of red. Behind us a full wall of books. This is, quite obviously, a writer’s house: it looks it, it feels it, it even smells it – all those pages in all those books packed into their floor-to-ceiling shelves. It’s easy to imagine Clanchy sitting in this space reading, reading deeply, every so often looking up and through the sunroom window into the front garden that is wild with native plants, gazing at a gala or rosella or cockatoo, his mind drifting off, dreaming up a new story to write and bring to the world.
And that’s exactly why I’m here: the author has a new collection of short stories, or “tales” as they’re identified on the title page. The book is called Six (a reference to the number of pieces in the collection) and it’s been published by Finlay Lloyd, a small press operating out of Braidwood – that just so happens to get its publications in dozens of bookshops around Australia. It’s a not-for-profit enterprise and the mission is to produce high-quality works of literature in hard copy only. A fan of e-books and digital publishing? Not Finlay Lloyd.
But this story, the one you’re reading, isn’t about the small press – it’s about the author. And what an author Clanchy is. His career spans decades: he is the author of five novels and four previous collections of short stories. His work has won major awards in Europe, the US, New Zealand and Australia, including the Queensland Premier’s Award for short fiction and, on two occasions, the ACT Book of the Year. Clanchy is widely acknowledged as a master of the short literary form. And I’m in his house, armed with questions.
Why another collection?
“I suppose I’m compelled to,” says Clanchy stretching out in his armchair. He’s not drinking the wine, because he’s recovering from a recent stint in hospital. “The form really is interesting to me. Novels are a daunting grab-bag of ideas and requires such endurance. When I’ve written a novel I just need – mentally and physically, and for material’s sake – a rest, a fallback.”
Clearly, however, the short story for Clanchy isn’t just a way to relax and unwind. He is passionate about the form, as if he’s talking about the most important thing imaginable (and perhaps we are). He is especially passionate about the long story; some of the stories in Six are as long as 18,000 words, which is almost novella-length and far too expansive to be published in Australian literary journals. Is Clanchy concerned with how to define his work?
“I don’t make distinctions.In my mind I just write stories. Some of them are short, some of them are long. You don’t always know when you start what they’re going to be.”
The more Clanchy talks the more he becomes physically animated about the short(ish) form, despite the fact that mainstream publishers are, on the whole, turning their backs on collections, citing declining sales figures. “With a novel,” he says, “you know you’re never going to get the perfect match between form and content. With the short story, the possibility of perfection is always there. The perfect arc, the right language and tones, without anything extraneous. Like the perfect poem.” He smiles. The whole idea is, quite simply, delicious to him.
What are the concerns of Six? It is, it should be made clear, a powerful, highly skilled and emotionally intricate collection. The stories, which cover terrain such as the death of an elderly father and the loss of a daughter in a terrorist attack, demand close reading. But they’re always rewarding and often benefit from a second or even third passing through, if only to savour the language, the potent observations and the sheer humanity of the whole exercise.
Clanchy takes a moment; this is a serious business.
“I’m interested in the psychological dramatisation of moments of shift, of crisis, in the life of an individual or in partnerships, or in family or social settings. Where small moments have enormous consequences. The ripple effect. Something’s shifted, a crack has opened. I don’t mean apocalyptic events, but a death or a sickness or a betrayal. Or it could be a perception. Or a spiritual moment. A friendship dying off, or a new one forming and life is different after that.” Clanchy stops. But the author has more to say about this. “Commercial publishers want fast pace. I like the quiet moments.” He cites Anton Chekhov as a key inspiration. “He’s my absolute touchstone for everything that’s short.”
But what is Six actually about. It’s an annoying question – does literature have to be “about” anything? – but it has to be asked. “Reflections on mortality,” is John Clanchy’s reply. “I am now seventy after all!” He goes on. “What we know about the life of people we’re most intimate with. After the death of someone you have to reassess what you thought and that reassessment can be both a shock and a release.” Clanchy makes it crystal clear that his work is not autobiographical, but he does admit that writing is a way of looking at some life events in new ways.
So what do we know about John Clanchy the man? He was born and raised in Preston, Victoria, but has spent much of his adult life in Canberra, working as an academic counsellor at the Australian National University, an occupation from which he’s now retired. He is father to four adult children and shares his life and home with partner Brigid Ballard, who appears to be just as fond of “walking the mountain” with their two small, white, rescued dogs.
Clanchy, however, isn’t interested in himself; he’s interested in literature. Significantly he has a national reputation for generously supporting and mentoring emerging fiction writers. “A damn nice guy,” a literary-minded friend in Queensland told me after I had emailed her to say that I was off to interview the author. His work isn’t “nice”, however. It’s dark, it’s textured, it’s intense, it’s reflective, but at all times there is such interest in the human condition. All the whole Clanchy’s work is strong on story, a knack developed perhaps by co-writing two highly successful commercial crime thrillers with another Canberra author Mark Henshaw (published under the pseudonym JM Calder).
“The story is the carriage,” he says, “but it’s also the kernel for a lot of parallel things. Depth and layering, nuances and back-story.”
Like all genuine practitioners of literature, he is tremendously erudite. It doesn’t take him long to mention Patrick White, F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Some people say that The Great Gatsby shouldn’t work but I can’t agree with them”), Joseph Conrad, AD Hope, Marion Halligan, David Malouf (with whom he corresponds occasionally), James Joyce and that more recent Irish scribe Roddy Doyle. And you know that he has read the works of these writers, he has studied them, unpacked them; he can situate his own writing in a broader literary context. He knows what he’s doing. In some ways it’s easy to imagine Clanchy as a doctor, listening to his patients, understanding them, healing them. A modern-day Chekhov? It’s not so implausible.
Our conversation turns to the business of being a writer in Canberra.
“It’s a good place to look out from,” he says, finally leaning from his armchair to cut off a chunk of cheese. “It’s a comfortable, secure, beautiful place. If you’re brought up in a place where there’s a lot of activity you end up writing about that. Canberra gives you a longer perspective.” How true that is.
Over such a long career, Clanchy must have seen many changes to writing literature and its publication, and finding a readership? Refreshingly his answer is positive – mostly. He believes that writing, which he defines as nothing more than a type of storytelling, is hardwired into the human DNA. “It’s the form it’s going to take in the future that is really interesting. But I do worry about the dominance of the visual, the filmic, the fragmentary, the episodic. All forms of story-telling are welcome, it’s just that the pressure on the legacy publishers for fast-paced fiction is so great. There is a danger that the meditative book, the more complex explorations, could become squeezed out.”
But you get the sense that Clanchy will just keep on writing about what moves him, and what – no doubt – moves his many readers. “If a story grabs you,” he says, as our conversation ambles to its end, “it’s really about the commonness of humanity. You have that feeling of the bond of the community. As the Roman dramatist Terence said, ‘I am a human being – nothing human can be alien to me'.”
On the way out, Clanchy opens the front door and leads me down the stairs into the dark of his front garden. Without him showing me I’d have no idea where I was going. On the driveway he stops and waves his arms and hands high in the air, as if trying to get the attention of someone who can’t be seen. Really, he’s just making sure the floodlight comes on. So I can find my way safely into the black winter’s night of the street.
* Nigel Featherstone is the author of the novellas Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now; The Beach Volcano is forthcoming.
Six, by John Clanchy, published by Finlay Lloyd Publishers, is launched July 19 at the National Library of Australia at 3pm.