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Q&A: Simon Cleary

One of the nine featured authors in The Storytellers exhibition, Toowoomba born local Simon Cleary is best known for novels The Comfort of Figs, The War Artist and Closer to Stone. His short story All Around Us Creatures Graze is a fantasy homage to the meaning behind the name of Kangaroo Point. We sat down with the author and barrister for a Q&A covering everything from juggling a successful career in law and writing to overcoming the dreaded writer’s block.

We were lucky enough to work with you on our exhibition The Storytellers, to which you contributed an original short story. Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind All Around Us Creatures Graze?

It began with a place name, and then a series of questions. Kangaroo Point? Why was it named “Kangaroo Point”? Assuming it was because kangaroos once lived there, who named it? When? When was the last kangaroo seen on the point? What does that say about the loss of habitat? What does that say about change more generally? And about the loss of our homes? About dispossession? About memory? And about the lingering spirits of a place?

How has practicing law informed your writing?

Talk about overlaps! The area of law that I currently practise in – working as a barrister – involves a type of storytelling, so there are areas of overlap between writing fiction and practising law. Understanding who your audience is and trying to make what you say interesting for your audience is important. Understanding how the detail of something – not too much, not too little, but just enough – can illuminate the reality of a time, place or experience. Truth is important too, and fiction is sometimes the best way to get at difficult truths.

Author Simon Cleary. 2020. Photo: Patrick Hamilton.
Are there aspects of approaching a short story that are very different from writing a novel?

Shorter pieces can be fun and liberating to write in ways that novels – which are huge projects – just don’t allow.

Can you share some of the surprising things you’ve learned about Brisbane while researching and writing your stories?

That you used to be able to wade across the Brisbane River in places before it was dredged. That the El Dorado cinema at Indooroopilly was named for gold found on the banks of the river nearby. That Jack the Ripper is rumoured to be buried in Toowong Cemetery. And that it’s inevitable that the city will be renamed “Meanjin”. It may be a hundred years away, but it’s inevitable.

You have mentioned previously your admiration for Ernest Hemingway, who is known for writing and standing simultaneously, and for writing at the crack of dawn. Do you have a routine, preferred time of day, a quirk or a must-have item when writing?

Early mornings, at the cusp of the day, when the world is shifting and dreams still linger – that’s my favourite writing time.

The Storytellers at Museum of Brisbane. Photo: Toby Scott.
Have you ever faced the dreaded writer’s block? And do you have any suggestions on how to overcome it for emerging writers?
Oh yes. There are definitely times when writing is hard, and I think each writer works out their own way through those times. For mine, it’s a combination of honouring both craft and creativity. Honouring craft for me means to keep writing, to keep working, to keep reaching for new and better ways, even though it may be difficult. Honouring creativity means – at times when writing may be hard – trying to find fresh perspectives. Like going for a run, learning the piano, sitting in a forest clearing or on a cliff’s edge, or listening even more carefully to your friends when you’re talking with them.



The Storytellers at Museum of Brisbane. Photo: Toby Scott.
The Storytellers at Museum of Brisbane. Photo: Toby Scott.
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