Alan Fyfe is a Jewish writer originally from Mandurah, the unceded country of the Binjareb People, whose verse and prose can be found in Westerly, Overland, Australian Poetry Journal, and Cottonmouth. He was an inaugural editor of UWA creative writing journal, Trove, and a prose editor for American web journal, Unlikely Stories.
Alan is a winner of the Karl Popper Philosophy Award, was shortlisted for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, was commended in the Tom Collins Poetry Prize, and has been selected as a WA Poets’ Inc Emerging Poet for 2022 / 23. His first novel, T, received shortlistings for both the T.A.G Hungerford Prize (Australia) and the Chaffinch Press Aware Prize (Ireland). T is published by Transit Lounge. Most recently, Alan’s poetry collection, G-d, Sleep, and Chaos, was shortlisted for the Flying Islands unpublished manuscript award. He is currently writing his second novel, The Cross Thieves, a prequel to T in ring composition, as part of a doctorate in creative writing at UWA and is also teaching poetry.
Why do you write?
I don’t have an inspirational answer for that. I invested so much time getting good at writing, in knowing about poetics and the structures of story, that I’m not much good at many other things now. Most of my other skills are trivial – fire twirling is one of them, for example. I might have had a more directed answer earlier in my life, but those answers have all been said and have become cliché. No one needs to hear another writer playing out their messiah complex in an interview, or saying what benefits writing has for them personally. There are good things and bad things about it. At this point, it has just become an irrational belief for me, like a religion. I feel impulses to structure thoughts into poems and stories that I can’t explain except as a form of faith in literature itself, with all the attendant ecstasy and terrors that having faith brings.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
Trying to find fulfilment with some other thing, probably. Or just doing some other job and looking forward to holidays. No one’s forcing me to write, it’s a choice I take full responsibility for.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published?
I’m going to talk about my novel, T, here because I’ve published many different things, each with their own gates to pass. It was money, really. I mean, I didn’t self-publish (which would have required me to pay for it), I looked for a good publisher and eventually found a very good one. But I was out of work when I wrote T, it was hard to live and look after my son, never mind the huge task of editing the novel to the millimetre and nursing it through to publication. Living without money is an extreme challenge; and making art while that’s happening is even harder. Other obstacles were about the kind of story I told.
Methamphetamine is a big issue in WA, and it’s not an issue everyone here is particularly keen to talk about. I didn’t want to tell a false redemption story, that’s not exactly what’s going on with my novel, so there was some resistance to the way I told the story, and some resistance from me to compromising the story too much. I’m all for good editing, in fact I love working with editors to make the art better, but there are certain compromises I wasn’t willing to make. T is a fiction novel, but a lot of it is close to my own experiences. There are also real humans, who are not me, that go through this stuff and I had to honour them. There were many more obstacles, probably a novel worth of obstacles – but probably not a very interesting novel.
How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover?
I did have input into the cover. I have to give my publisher a plug here, Transit Lounge were fantastic to work with and I didn’t feel alienated from the process at any stage. I’ve had some friends who had the opposite experience with their own publishers, they were just told what would happen with their books. I got a big PDF full of draft designs for covers, a lot of work went into it, and I got to workshop cover ideas with my little writing family and get their opinions. Two thirds of my friends wanted to date that guy on the cover. He sort of looks like a character from the book and gives the thing a human face, and there’s a wing for the Icarus theme. In editing T, it was the same, I felt like I was co-working the thing with a really clued up and creative team. I was well consulted and never pressured to do anything I was uncomfortable with. It was a great experience.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life?
Feeling like I put something complex and accomplished in the world that wasn’t there before and, if I’m very lucky, that will still be about after I’m gone. Hah, that’s me being religious about it again – a poet’s afterlife.
There’s a lot of anxiety about getting ahead. Like any creative industry, it’s very tough to excel. You’ll spend months and years waiting to hear back about things that might step you up a bit, even change your life. And the answer is never guaranteed to be one you’ll like.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer?
Nothing. I don’t devote much energy to regret. It’s a waste of time. If I have wronged someone, that’s something to regret. That energy can be devoted to fixing things though, rather than the useless activity of wishing the past was different – you know we can’t make it different, yeah? If I’ve done anything good in writing now, it’s a product of what happened before.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author?
Again, I’ve been told all the things I needed to land me wherever the hell this is. Some of them were wrong, but wrong things teach a person to think critically.
What’s the best advice you were ever given?
I went to a weird lecture John Kinsella gave when I was an undergrad at UWA at some point in the neolithic past. I can’t remember what the unit was and I’m pretty certain he didn’t talk much about the unit. It was, none the less, a fantastic and incredibly honest lecture; and some of it was about the work of publishing your own writing. He said, “Let’s face it, who gets published depends on who goes to which dinner parties with who.” And that put a pretty bourgeois face on it – I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a dinner party.
I think it was only six months later, I found myself in Brenda Walker’s writing class and I repeated Kinsella’s assertion to her, and she said it might be generally right but there seemed to be some artists who that doesn’t apply to, who “look neither left nor right.” The combination of those two ideas was a good thing to keep me going. It can be a depressing situation for an artist in the times when you’re not getting listened to much, and it was a consolation for me to think that I just didn’t have the network for it. But it was also great to think the pure practice and study of the art was a thing that could win through eventually.
Both Kinsella and Walker were right in their ways. Moving from the Peel Region to the city has helped me with a lot of connections and those connections sometimes throw me good chances at things in writing. But then again, when I published my first piece in a major Australian journal, I didn’t know anyone there, they just loved the story and the way it was written – they thought it was important to publish. It was the same with Transit Lounge, who are a Melbourne publisher outside my usual beat, Barry Scott and the team read the manuscript and thought it was worthy. You need some psychic defences in writing, and you (possibly) need some ideals too, the balance of those two pieces of advice were excellent examples of both.
What’s your top tip for aspiring authors?
Practise a lot, most things can be improved with practice. Make some friends who also write, not just networks or people who can advance you, but actual friends you like to be around and enjoy talking to about more than writing. Learn as much as you can access from wherever you are. Finish some projects. Finish projects that seem hard to make work and be honest with yourself about whether the final product works or not. Practise mostly though. Stay at the task until your work becomes undeniable.
How important is social media to you as an author?
I love social media, genuinely. I love being able to share thoughts and entertain people, make them laugh. Social media gives me instant access to that. In a sense, it’s the same as any other canvas to create on. I’ve run an activist campaign on social media and the speed and reach of it was incredible. The campaign worked, in the end, and we saved the thing we were trying to save. But there’s a moment in an author’s life where it can become work too. I was mostly restricted to one platform in the past and I was happy with it, I felt a small friend group to communicate with was a pleasure. But then the professionalisation of the platforms entered my life and that’s a different thing entirely. There’s a lot of pressure on a modern author to promote across the platforms, to find big crowds there. It is an opportunity. We shouldn’t see that access as an entirely bad thing, it has certainly helped poetry sales in a major way, which helps a more niche art like poetry to reach its crowd. But it can change from fun and connection to cynical hard work real quick. There’s a balance between being professional and having fun that I’m still trying to work out.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it?
Not exactly. I always have something I want to do, some project on or some fully worked out story, or prompt for a poem, that just needs to be wrangled into a nice structure of words. I have exhaustion sometimes, or some other project that seems more fun than the thing I’m absolutely supposed to be doing. I sometimes have to fight myself to concentrate on the thing in front of me and not deliberately procrastinate. I can get very involved in binging a show I like, for example. And there’s depression, which can sometimes stunt my productivity for months. During a bout of depression, I will feel like utter shit and think anything I complete is worthless dust.
But the idea of a blockage, as such, seems strange to me. I don’t actually know what that means. Does it mean that the writer has nothing to write about? This might sound horrible, but if you don’t have a good idea what to write about, maybe don’t write. Writing is an activity, not a condition of being. I sort of plan to give up writing one day. And I expect that’ll happen when I can’t think of what to write next.
If I’m exhausted, that’s not blockage, it’s the same as wearing yourself out doing anything else. The answer is to rest for a while or to force myself to do it if I have a deadline. Forcing myself is something I seem to be able to do quite a bit, I have a good work ethic and I know the basics of turning out a competent piece, so I sit in front of the laptop and write during a time where it may not be a pleasure to write. I experience not wanting to work hard sometimes because it’s fun to lie around eating cake or whatever, but less than in other jobs I’ve done.
How do you deal with rejection?
Humour, bitching, psychic defences (as previously mentioned). Being truthful with myself that either the pool is huge and hard to stand out in, or that I didn’t make the best work I could have. I used to get complimentary rejection letters sometimes, with a little positive feedback in them. I liked those, it was good for the psychic defence to think I did something great but there wasn’t enough space or bigger writers were on offer, encouragement from people you don’t know can be a surprisingly good motivator in the early stages. Mostly the way to deal with rejection is just keep going or give up. That’s the bare bones of it. A writer can do either, whichever way the writer decides to absorb rejection into their ego. It’s good to have some friends who are on the same path as you. It makes the experience lighter when you feel like it’s shared and, believe me, it is shared.
In three words, how would you describe your writing?
Cooked yet poetic.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life?
That’s a hard question. So many people who have written things I admire turn out to be irredeemable scumbags; and I think a lot of things said about the “writing life” are either personal to the writer or useless tropes.
I guess I’m going to have to say Emily Dickinson. I got a line of hers tattooed on my arm to celebrate my first book contract. I don’t think Emily could give me much certain advice judging from the way she used words, but to just hear anything she had to say would likely be mind-blowing. You can see in her letters, even her mundane communications were often abstract masterworks. She could talk to me about baking if she wanted to. Seems like she shared the same passion for baking that I do.
Chilling to read, cut with powerful energy and strong feeling.
T or Timothy lives on the economic margins, both using and selling methamphetamine in Mandurah. When a friend, Gulp, tragically dies and T grows close to Lori-Bird his life promises to become more centred. But he moves between loving and leaving her.
This is a lyrical and arresting portrait of characters who crave love but struggle with addiction and the tenuous yet intimate community connections it gives them. The spirit of the Peel landscape informs both T’s identity and the lives of the people he encounters and offers a way out.
Intimate with suffering and beauty, T is also at times transcendent. A contemporary novel with the urgency of what Davies’ Candy, Kerouac’s On the Road, and Garner’s Monkey Grip were to their own times.
Shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford Manuscript Award 2018
Shortlisted for the International Chaffinch Press Manuscript Award (Ireland).
‘Confronting and discomfiting, with small moments of redemption –T is very much a story for our times.’ Kate Noske and Richard Rossiter (Hungerford Award Judges).
‘There is nothing else currently being written that is quite as exciting. Its blend of realism, grittiness, pared back lyricism and magical realism is unique and hasn’t been seen since the work of a powerful novelist of regional life like Tom Flood. T works the margins, both in terms of place and subject of the culture around meth use, in utterly compelling ways. This story needs to be told.’ Lucy Dougan, Premier’s Award winner and Westerly editor.
By the book here.