Pensive Prowler #6 by Dmetri Kakmi
At Flinders Street Station I Sat Down and Wept
Since you asked nicely I will tell you what’s been happening in my life lately. It will interest you if you’re a writer. If you’re not a member of the very sozzled you might like to block your ears until I finish talking.
Long story short. About seven years ago, I wrote a short story appropriately entitled The Long Lonely Road. Loosely based on a tale I heard while growing up on an island in the Aegean Sea, it’s about what transpires when a boy and his mother take a day-trip to the countryside. The end result is a genre mash-up, with tonal shifts and unexpected byways.
When I was reasonably pleased with it and knew I couldn’t do more without damaging its delicate spine, I sent it into the world — to be rejected over and over again. Finally, broken and dejected, the poor thing limped home and refused to go out again.
‘It’s a jungle out there,’ it screamed.
Seven years had indeed taken their toll on my baby. It was a mere shadow of itself. It was now a skanky teen who hadn’t shaved and needed a bath. Gone was the lustre of the newborn, the shimmer that convinced me that if I love it then surely others will too. Now I looked at it with pitying and, admittedly, pitiless eyes. The only solution was to lock it up in the attic and forget about it.
By this stage I had amassed numerous rejection letters in the name of said story. Normally editors, if they bother to answer, say thanks but no thanks. Not this time. (I should add they were all from Australia.)
Here’s three of the best:
‘’Thank you for sending us your sweet story, but it might be more suited to an ethnic magazine.’
‘It’s not wise to mix genres and change pace like that in a short story.’
And by far the best: ‘Guy can’t write. Suggest English lessons.’
You can understand why I started to think that maybe I’d written a pile of crap. It’s possible. It happens. You write something. You love it, but you’ve lost perspective. You’re so close to it, you can’t see it’s a withered foetus that ought to be flushed down the toilet. It’s up to an outside party to see it for what it is and put it out of its misery. (I guess I just lost the pro-lifers among you.)
In my delusional writerly hubris, I thought I was being clever. Take a simple story, play with genre expectations and then toy with the outcomes through variation of perspective, mood and tonality. Editors, I believed, will instantly recognise my genius and fall over themselves to publish. How wrong could I be?
The rejections weren’t just nasty. They were hostile and patronising in ways I hadn’t seen before; and that’s coming from someone who’s been in publishing for almost three decades. Now that I think about it, the only other time I received such negative feedback from editors was for a story called Haunting Matilda. That too was trounced for going to places writers aren’t supposed to go; however, when it was finally published, it was shortlisted in the Aurealis Awards for Best Fantasy Novella.
You’d think there’s a lesson there for me. But no. I’m too full of self-hatred to draw positive instruction from anything. Say hi to Negative Nancy. As far as I was concerned, The Long Lonely Road had reached the end of the road. It was time to ditch it.
And then, about a year later, in an idle moment, I took it out and had another squiz.
I still liked it.
Off it went, this time to an online publication in Croatia. ZiN Daily is the public face of a writers’ residency on the Istrian peninsular on the Adriatic coast, an area of particular fascination for me because of its history and architecture.
The editors’ letter popped up on my iPhone on a Wednesday evening as I waited for a train at Flinders Street Station.
Thank you for sending us your beautiful story. It is with great pleasure that we will publish it … The way you succeed in combining the atmosphere of the traditional oral history/mythology with the pace of modern fantasy genre is really powerful. The classic tragic drama that is at the core of the story opens an amazing artistic dialogue between the Mediterranean culture … and that of the authorial faraway Oceania. The characters are drawing the reader into the depths of archetypical settings where everyone is invited to get mesmerized, frightened and overwhelmed…
I was overwhelmed, too. After seven years, an editor who knows how to read and sift through layers of meaning connected with a piece I had almost given up on. She didn’t think I was nutty and untrained. She read with respect and care and she understood.
I was so relieved, I sat on a bench on train platform number 12 and wept.
When I recovered, I saw yet again the small-mindedness of the Australian literary scene; it’s not as switched on as it thinks it is and it’s still in the grips of ‘the garlands of journalistic prose,’ as Patrick White observed. Anything that takes risks with language and tone in a storyline is rejected. Beyond that I saw that my chief virtue — perseverance — had paid off. No matter what, I always bounce back and I believe the ability to do so is paramount for a writer. If you don’t have determination in this industry, you might as well not get out of bed.
That and a thirst for revenge. I love the sound of sharpening knives in the morning. Don’t you?
You can read ‘The Long Lonely Road’ here.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.