MAXINE BENEBA CLARKE: ‘You have to throw your hat in the ring’

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Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer and poet of Afro-Caribbean descent. She is the author of the Indie and ABIA award-winning short fiction collection Foreign Soil (2014). Her most recent poetry collection Carrying The World won the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry. Maxine is the author of the CBCA winning picture book The Patchwork Bike (a collaboration with Melbourne artist Van T Rudd) and her critically acclaimed memoir The Hate Race is being adapted for stage for Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. She writes for the Saturday Paper. 

Congratulations on the publication of the 2017 Best Australian Stories anthology.  Having published short story and poetry collections yourself, what was it like to be in the role of editor this time?

It was a real surprise and privilege to be asked to edit Best Australian Stories, and one I don’t take lightly. During, the initial weeks (months!) of reading, a package would arrive  on my doorstop from Black Inc almost every week, containing a wad of smaller envelopes, usually fifty or so, and I would sit and open each one, read each story and divide them into yes, no, maybe piles.

I think I was definitely more careful in putting this book together than I am with my own work – and I’m very exact with that! I was so concerned about somehow missing a gem that a few times I actually sat and read through the whole ‘no pile’ again just to make sure there wasn’t a story in there than should creep over to maybe. But the more stories you read – certainly after 300 or so – the easier your heart and mind align to consolidate what is it they’re looking for.

In terms of ordering the stories in the collection though, the process took a lot of time, and was very similar to putting together Foreign Soil. There were considerations like what the running narrative of the collection is; how to order the stories so that each one sings alone but they also work together without distracting from or overwhelming each other. What mood to open with. Those kinds of things.

Overall, it was a really fun process though. Reading recent Australian short fiction for so many weeks felt in some respects like slicing open the mind of literary Australia, and being allowed to rummage around inside and pull out the really good sticky stuff: I learnt a real lot about our thematic preoccupations and stylistic leanings.

Reading recent Australian short fiction felt like slicing open the mind of literary Australia

When choosing the stories to include in the anthology, were you working from a selection criteria or was it more about instinct/intuition?

I did have a few aspirations when I started reading for the collection. I wanted lots of different literary journals to have stories included. I wanted the book to be diverse. I wanted the stories to be stylistically varied. I wanted to publish from the open submissions pile as well as finding previously published pieces by established authors. I had a mental checklist. Then I started reading and of course, all that went out the window. Although a lot of these things were ultimately achieved, I forgot about them once I started the reading, and the best part was just picking up a story and starting to read: the same as you do with any work, and seeing where it took me: emotionally, stylistically, thematically. How do I feel about this work? What is it that makes me feel that way? It was always about finding the best stories.

Seeing the calibre of writers that contribute to collections like Best Australian Stories can be intimidating for young writers – should they submit work anyway? 

There were several works included this year in the anthology that were unpublished pieces, and in addition, there were also quite a few younger writers included in this year’s anthology. You have to throw your hat in the ring! There’s no submission fee for the Best Of anthologies, so it’s a good opportunity to pit your best up against the best, and see what happens!

We’ve read that you received a lot of rejections for Foreign Soil before the unpublished manuscript won the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and was subsequently picked up by a publisher. A lot of our readers here at the The Regal Fox are emerging writers. What advice would you give them for handling rejection?

Go back to the drawing board. The answer will always be found at your desk. When Foreign Soil was finished and I was sending it out to publishers, I was working on other writing rather than waiting to hear back. I started another book and just kept sending Foreign Soil out in the background. If this is truly what you want to do, then you have to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

If this is truly what you want to do, then you have to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

When The Patchwork Bike was published, you spoke of your interest in creating diverse children’s books that normalises kids’ exposure to other cultures. Given the positive reception to your picture book, have you considered branching out into middle grade or YA? 

I thought I was working on a YA novel, and then I gave a few chapters to my publisher, and he said it was too adult. Which it probably is, come to think of it! So I’m still working on that book – a beat novel set in Footscray – at the moment, but turns out it’s not YA. Which I find very amusing. “Nope. This is not YA. Too much raunch, drugs and drinking Maxine, it’s not gonna fly with that audience.”

There’s not really that much incentive for me to create specifically YA content, because Foreign Soil and The Hate Race are already being studied in high schools, so kids (in the sense of fifteen years olds and up) are already engaging with my work. I think young people will read my work anyway, because it’s contemporary literature written about things that are going down around them. But never say never! Once day I might pull things back a bit. For the moment though, I’m working at the different ends of the spectrum: picture book and adult.


You can follow Maxine Beneba Clarke on Facebook and TwitterThe Best Australian Stories 2017 is out now. 


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