Arnold ZableAn interview with Arnold Zable on the art of story


You've written memoir, fiction, columns, essays and plays, what have you learnt from using these different forms?

The craft of storytelling has a central role to play in all of those forms. Critical to this is an understanding of the true meaning of the word, imagination and its relation to the art of scene construction. The word imagination derives from the word 'image'. In other words, the act of imagining is the act of seeing, of hearing and so on. It is sensual. It draws upon the senses to create scenes. If the writer is fully present and alert to the story and to the scenes they are creating, then the reader will be present.

This applies to both fiction and creative non-fiction. A good story is visual, sensual and specific. If I, as the writer see it, the reader will see it. If I hear it, the reader will hear it, and so on. The more specific the detail, the more powerful and unique is the scene being created, and the more textured the writing. This applies both to writing character and place, and to both novel and short story, and it applies across the genres.

A central question we explore in my Art of Story course is: What is the best way to tell a particular story? The course helps writers work out what is the best way, or form to tell their story, the most powerful way. How do I, as the writer, make the story come alive? I have faced this question in all my books, whether the three novels, Cafe Scheherazade, Scraps of Heaven, Sea of Many Returns, the memoir Jewels and Ashes, or the two collections of stories, The Fig Tree and Violin Lessons. In each case I experimented, exploring non-fiction and fiction, short story or novel, before deciding which was the best way to a particular story. But in all cases, regardless of genre, I set out from the beginning to create vibrant and textured scenes.

What makes you want to write/ tell a story?

I am driven by a need to reveal the 'hidden narratives' of my own life, as well as those I have come across in my journeys to other places, and in my listening to the tales of people I have met. Research also plays a role. For instance while researching Sea of Many Returns, which is based on the journeys of immigrants from the Greek island of Ithaca, where my partner's family come from, I came to hear of the little known anti-Greek riots in Kalgoorlie, that erupted back in December 1916. In researching it, I immersed myself in the times, and the place, and out of this immersion there emerged scenes that hopefully vividly convey the action, and the characters involved. The ultimate goal is to convey a sense of what caused these riots to erupt.

Perhaps we can call this process 'darkness made visible.' And hopefully the reader is both carried along by the power of the story, and emerges from it with deeper understanding about a particular place and time.

You've taught creative writing to diverse groups of people: problem gamblers, deaf writers, bushfire survivors, refugees, the aged and the homeless. What's that been like and why are you drawn to these groups?

These workshops have been based on the meaning of the word 'expression', which means, 'getting it out.' We begin with writing scenes from our lives. By entering into the process of creating these scenes, and by getting them out, we begin to 'work it out', and we give shape and form to the story. In doing so, we may also develop self-understanding. Rather than being a victim to the story, and our predicament, we become the author, the authority, in control of our own story. We begin to own it rather than be dispossessed and marginalised by it.

I am drawn to teaching people who need to express what they've been through – bushfire survivors, for example, needed to get it out. I help them with the craft so that their story is powerful to the listener/reader and gets the attention it deserves. By focusing on the craft, and by exploring the art of story, I have found over and again, that the writer, whatever their background or predicament, can take the reader to places they do not know, and may not understand. It is wonderful to see the stories as well as understanding that comes out of this process - not only for the writer, but for the reading public.

With each group I have worked with I have learnt something new. Working with deaf writers for instance, I realised they are often actually better listeners than those with good hearing! Because they sign to each other, or have to be attentive to lip reading, they are more attentive to each other. They also make up for their disability with one sense by having, for instance, greater visual acuity. These stories were written from the unique point of view of the deaf person. And in doing so, they took us into worlds that the non-deaf do not know or understand. With problem gamblers we explored the sequence of events - translated into scenes, and in turn stories - that led them down that path.

Once again, at the heart of it all, and central to all workshops I have conducted on the Art of Story, is to explore our various worlds, and convey them in the most powerful and vivid way possible.

Arnold Zable is an acclaimed writer, novelist, storyteller and human rights advocate. His award-winning books include the memoirs Jewels and Ashes, The Fig Tree, and three novels, Cafe Scheherazade, Scraps of Heaven and Sea of Many Returns. His most recent book is Violin Lessons, which continues his exploration of themes of exile and displacement with stories spanning the globe.