These are stories that I return to when I forget what it is that I love about storytelling, and so this is the anthology of stories I would give myself if I had forgotten how to write, or if I were feeling very desperate about the world. They are mostly Australian and American, because those are the two countries between which I have divided my life. They have the same unique yet hard-to-define quality: they turn the colour-dial up on the world. 

‘The Night The Prowler’ by Patrick White

I must have read this novella when I was in high school, when my father gave me a then-out-of-print copy of The CockatoosThe Cockatoos was the first book White published after he won the Nobel Prize in 1973, and ‘The Night The Prowler’ is its crowning triumph. I have returned and re-read it once a year ever since. It is a story that starts from one character’s perspective – the mother’s – and then shifts halfway through to the daughter’s, who is the story’s heart. It is a story about unruly girls, and one of the best depictions I have ever read concerning the life of the body. 

From The Cockatoos, 1974, Jonathan Cape

‘Break It Down’ by Lydia Davis

I first read Lydia Davis when I bought her Collected Stories the year after I finished university. She completely changed the way I thought about writing, about what stories and sentences could be, and of what was worthy of being written about. Shortly thereafter I changed how and what I wrote, writing with more purpose, and more often, and the first fully-formed short story I wrote as an adult was a poor rip-off of ‘Break It Down.’ It continues to be one of the most formally exciting and moving pieces of prose I have ever come across. 

Originally published in The Paris Review, Summer 1983 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Break It Down, 1986, FSG, and in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG, 2009/Hamish Hamilton, 2010

‘Horse Latitudes’ by Josephine Rowe

When I was in my early twenties I was leery and ignorant of much of the writing being produced in Australia. I had a bad case of what is referred to as ‘cultural cringe.’ Then I read Josephine Rowe and everything changed. Her stories were sharp and controlled and formally exciting. She has grown into one of the world’s greatest short story writers, and this one, ‘Horse Latitudes,’ is my favourite. It is a road trip story, a man and a woman fleeing the woman’s bad relationship in Perth, driving across the Nullabor Plain. There is heartache and danger and violence, all the hallmarks of the American roadtrip story, but Josephine renders it differently, using the hallmarks and signifiers of what is uniquely Australian, to create something beautiful and deeply felt, a story that seemed to me like I had been looking for it all my life when I first read it.  

From Here Until August, 2019, Blank Inc/Catapult

‘First Love’ by Ben Marcus

A couple of months after I moved from Sydney to New York I went to the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights where Ben Marcus read excerpts from two stories in Leaving The Sea. I did not as yet have a job, so could not really justify buying many more books. But the stories kept niggling away at me until eventually I trudged to my local bookstore in Greenpoint during a blizzard to buy a copy of Leaving The Sea. ‘First Love’ remains my favourite of these stories, and was such a shock to my system I found myself reading pieces of it out loud. The story is at once a reflection and a manipulation of the mechanics on which human language depends, and a deeply disorienting meditation on sex and the body of the beloved. When I eventually studied with Ben Marcus at Columbia a few years later, I was vastly too cowardly to ever tell him how much this story meant to me. 

From Leaving the Sea, Knopf/Granta, 2014

‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’ by William Gass

This story was assigned by Sigrid Nunez in a class on autobiographical fiction that I took in my very first semester at Columbia. The ‘Heart’ of which Gass writes is at once the vast breadth of the American Midwest, and the soft, vulnerable centres of the human heart. The story, as I understood it from Nunez’s class, came out of a travel article Gass had been asked to write about his hometown in Indiana. But he was heartbroken, and so the story is a piece of formal strangeness, assembled from the detritus of the article, a collection thirty-six discrete vignettes addressed to a ‘you’ who has broken our writer’s heart, a portrait of his town and a portrait of his heartbreak. It is, in short, a kind of essay-story, and to that end it made me hugely excited about the possibility that one could combine the two. I also highly recommend Etel Adnan’s 2004 response to Gass, In The Heart of the Heart of Another Country, published by City Lights. 

First published in New American Review, 1967. Collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, 1968, available in the NYRB Classics edition, 2015. Available to read here

‘Ghosts, Cowboys’ by Claire Vaye Watkins

I return to this story again and again when I don’t know what or how to write. It gallops through time and history, from story to story, from the Comstock Lode and the very founding of Reno, Nevada, to Spahn Ranch where the narrator’s father came to live with the Manson family, and the narrator’s mother witnessing the Nevada nuclear tests in the 1960s. Much of it is autobiographical (Watkins’ father was indeed in the Manson family), and much of it is non-fictional. The incorporation of the essay form into the short story is one of my favourite things to read. 

Originally published in Hopkins Review, Spring 2009 and available to read here. Collected in Battleborn, 2012, Riverhead/Granta, 2013

‘The Chosen Vessel’ by Barbara Baynton

I read some of Baynton’s stories at university and was struck by how modern and contemporary her voice was, despite the fact that she was a woman writing in the extremely masculine environment of Federation-era Australia. The whole collection is worth reading, but the last story, ‘The Chosen Vessel,’ was one I read in bed several years ago, and found so troubling I couldn’t sleep afterwards. It is a story about a woman and her baby, alone in a shack in the middle of the bush, and a man who is set on hunting and hurting her. It is a masterclass in high third person and change of perspective, and it is also one of the best stories I’ve read about women on their own.

First published in The Bulletin on 12 December, 1896, subsequently published in the 1902 collection, Bush Studies. The collection is available to read in full on Project Gutenberg, here

‘Morning, 1908’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

I read this entire novel-in-stories in one sitting on the fire escape of my old apartment one summer, and it was perfect. All of Bennett’s stories in Pond are about nothing, and books where nothing happens tend to be my favourite kinds of book. In this story, the narrator goes for a walk. She is dressed a little strangely, there are cows in a field, a young man is coming down the road. She is terrified, or she enters the feeling of terror and passes through it. We bear witness to all the thoughts in real time, as she documents them and questions them. I have not thought about writing in the same way since I read Pond, and this is, for me, the peak of the collection.

First published in the Winter 2012-2013 issue of The Stinging Fly, collected in Pond, Stinging Fly, 2015/Fitzcarraldo, 2016. Available to read here

‘Two Brothers’ by Brian Evenson

Ben Marcus assigned this story to me when I took a class on the short story with him while studying at Columbia. I read it all on the long subway ride from my apartment in Brooklyn uptown to campus. It is a uniquely terrifying and beautiful story, such that I audibly gasped on the 1 train when one of the bloodiest and horrifying incidents occurs (there are many). Evenson grew up a devout Mormon, and his stories and novels are filled with the grisly imagery and language of frontier America, and of the foundation of Mormonism. The situations are Biblical – there is blood sacrifice, patricide, incest – combined with the surreal sense that the house the two brothers inhabit will not let them out. Evenson’s books can be hard to find, but I urge you to please seek out his work. 

Originally published in Contagion. Collected in O. Henry Award: Prize Stories, 1998 and Altmann’s Tongue, 2002, University of Nebraska Press

‘A Ring of Gold’ by Beverley Farmer

‘A Ring of Gold’ is another story where nothing very much happens. The story is narrated by a widow who lives, like Farmer did, somewhere on Port Philip in the Australian state of Victoria. Every day she walks along the beach. One day, she sees a seal washed up on the shore. On another, she finds a ring in the sand. Both these events prompt a series of memories and reflections on the woman’s past, her love of swimming, and the death of her husband, structurally dictated by the rhythm of the water and the tides, building in and out of dreams. The story invokes Celtic stories about selkies, beautiful women who were half seal, a piece of folklore with which I have been fascinated my entire life. It is one of the most powerful meditations on the natural world in fiction I have ever read, one best enjoyed beside water. 

Originally published in Kunapipi: A Journal of Postcolonial Writing and Culture, 1985, and available to read online here. Collected in This Water, 2017, Giramondo

‘Some Shades of Darkness Were Competing With Other Shades’ by Vi Khi Nao

I first heard this story read by Diane Williams at the launch of the 2019 NOON Annual at the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn. Like much of the work canonical to NOON, Nao’s work is short, intensely focused on language, turning in on itself, privileging interiority over action. This story is one of ten published in 2019’s anthology, from a memoir-in-progress, and it is the story which has most stuck with me (although all are excellent). We start with the narrator attempting to leave her abusive girlfriend, who then endures an attempted abduction, becomes stranded in Kansas City, and must return to the relationship. The relationship persists until its eventual demise, years later. There is an incredible shifting metaphor concerning a box of chocolates. It is unsettling and perfect.

Published in NOON Annual, 2019

‘In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried’ by Amy Hempel

A story about a friendship between two women, one of who is terminally ill. One of my favourite things about Hempel’s story is how the location of Southern California is a character in and of itself, the chance of earthquake ever-present, the detail about the glass of water at the end becoming, for me, the most moving moment in the story. This story gives you only the barest essentials with which to interpret the feelings of grief and loss that pulse through the story, threaded through with Hollywood dread, a perfect elegy for a lost friend. 

Originally published in TriQuarterly Magazine, 1983, included in the collection Reasons To Live, 1985, Harper Collins. Read it online here