An interview with Joy Kilian-Essert, shortlisted for the 2022 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award

I live on a rural bush retreat in Western Australia’s Great Southern region, and have been writing stories obsessively since childhood. After completing a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing at Curtin University, my short fiction began to win or be placed in writing competitions, with a number being published in various journals and anthologies around Australia. I was also a participant in the inaugural Australia Council’s emerging writers/illustrators’ initiative. When not writing or reading, I love playing around with natural fibres, spinning and weaving, and spend too much time keeping the wild animals out of my vegetable garden.

The Slow Patience of the Sea & Other Stories consists of seventeen individual stories spanning nearly thirty years of my writing life. Each story touches on different experiences of love or grief, mental illness, the joys and challenges of being a mum, and the relationships within families, and between couples or friends. Many highlight the difficult moments in life; each touches upon different emotions and exists within its own separate world, which I hope resonates with the world we all have to live in.

If there’s one thing that unites my stories it is the presence of the natural world: in the hot summer blast of sunlight on a paddock, the restless growling of the sea, or the still, sometimes-menacing presence of the bush.

I love writing, especially short stories, and find inspiration everywhere. Some of the ideas in the collection have come from my own experience, like a beehive in the chimney of the house I once lived in, or the concrete bird bath I spotted from a bus window that looked as if it was floating on a sea of dead weeds, which became the central image in another story. Different moments inspire different stories, and decades of moments adds up to a collection.

Working towards this collection, I selected stories by feel rather than theme. Collating them all has taken several years, in which I omitted some stories in order to include others, refined, polished and rearranged into something that held together as a cohesive whole.

 Being shortlisted for the 2022 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award is unbelievable! I haven’t recovered from the euphoria yet, and just making the shortlist feels like a win, because this is such a highly respected, prestigious award.

I write because I love it, and also because it’s a compulsion, and for years the writing has had to fit around raising children and working in a lot of different jobs, as well as around life changes. There can be months, sometimes years between small moments of success, such as a publication in a journal or gaining a place in a competition. Under these circumstances it’s easy to doubt myself, to question my voice and the relevance of what I write to, so being shortlisted is more than just an honour and a privilege, it’s a validation of my writing life. 

Excerpt from ‘God in a Bird Bath’, The Slow Patience of the Sea & Other Stories:

The priest’s face is red and his black shirt clings with perspiration. Behind him on the track the taxi turns around in a cone of dust.

‘Never been on such a dreadful road. And the heat!’ The priest shakes his face and sweat skids from the tip of his nose.

‘How can I help?’ Hilda links her fingers across the shabby mend in her tunic.

‘This is the mission, isn’t it? Would a drink and a cool place to sit be too much to ask?’

‘Of course.’ Hilda opens the door wider. ‘Please come in.’

She leads him through the dry echo of their footsteps to the cool stone-floored kitchen. As soon as they had spotted the car bumping down the track, Sisters Lucia and Clare had hurried to splash water on their faces and roll down their cuffs. Now they greet the priest with deference, and pull out a chair which he flops into. They wait on him with lemon barley water and sliced apple followed by biscuits and tea, as Hilda sits like a rough stone frog, quieting the tangle of worry the priest brought with him. She waits.

When he is refreshed, he pulls out a crushed, damp envelope from his shirt pocket and hands it to her. The ink has run into the creases but Hilda can see it is addressed to her.

‘Goodness.’ She glances up at his red-shaven cheeks and watchful eyes and slides her calloused thumb under the flap.

The letter is from her sister Pearl. She has enclosed a photo of pale vague faces lined up against a wall, like convicts. Apparently, they are relations. The few lines of scrawl are barely legible.

‘She’s waiting to die,’ the priest says. ‘But not until she’s seen you again.’

Hilda has forgotten her sister would grow old.

‘I can take you back to the city,’ he offers, watching her face. ‘All of you if you like. You don’t have to stay here.’

‘No,’ says Hilda. ‘I don’t want to go back.’ And wonders if she will have to.

They prop the chapel door open with a rusty bucket and the droning flies buzz and bump against the dusty coloured glass. The three old nuns share a pew by the door where the air is slightly cooler as the priest recites the prayers.

Hilda’s cross dangles into the V of the page as she leans forward, elbows grooved by the uneven rail, and a trickle of grey sweat follows the line of her chin. She pushes flies away from the corner of her mouth and frowns. Concentration is difficult. She glances at the others. Their eyelids are clenched as they mouth each response and cling to the rosary. A fly lands in Clare’s hair, lost among the grey, and from outside magpies yodel into the hot afternoon.

The prayers dwindle on the priest’s fading voice and she shuts the book. ‘Amen,’ Lucia yawns.

The winner of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award will be announced at Fremantle Arts Centre on Thursday 20 October 2022.

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