Last night at gleebooks Paddy O’Reilly launched Jennifer Mills‘ short story collection The Rest is Weight. Mills is a prolific and gifted short story writer – her stories have appeared in Meanjin, Overland, Heat, Hecate, Griffith Review, Best Australian Stories – and this is her first short story collection. As her publisher the University of Queensland Press says, it’s been ‘eagerly awaited’.
The evening began with O’Reilly reading a piece from Mills’ publisher Madonna Duffy, who could not be there. Among other things, Duffy said: ‘If you didn’t know it already, you are in the presence of one of Australia’s great writing talents. She’ll be up there with the greats.’ There was much murmuring of agreement.
O’Reilly’s launch speech had the compressed beauty of a poem (she is herself an acclaimed writer of short stories and a novel). She said Mills’ stories burn like magnesium: when magnesium ignites it burns with an intense white light so bright you can hardly look at it.
There’s always something behind the story. There is no easy way out of these stories. They leave you open-mouthed. Full of a new knowing and yet with your innocence intact.
Mills’ sentences are ‘clean and shapely and beautiful’. She uses words as you’ve never seen them used before. Her words are imbued with immense power.
‘I can barely begin to describe the range in this book, the people you’ll meet …’ Some of the stories are set in a familiar world. In others she’s tilted the world, it’s off its axis. ‘She writes redemption in the struggles of some of these people we want so much to be safe.’ She writes people running, away from and so often towards what they fear most. They make their own worlds in which a private happiness is possible.
O’Reilly said there’s a boom in short stories in Australia right now. There are plenty of people writing good short stories. But there are not many writing great short stories. Jennifer Mills writes great short stories. The number of awards and prizes she’s received is testament to this. They include being named a 2012 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist, the Pacific Region of the 2008-9 Commonwealth Short Story Competition, and Best Short Story at the 2008 Northern Territory Literary Awards.
Some years ago O’Reilly’s friend Janet Hutchinson told her she’d found a great short writer. Her name was Jennifer Mills. ‘I’ve already read her,’ O’Reilly said. And knew how great she was. So now they both think they discovered Jennifer Mills.
O’Reilly concluded by saying it’s commonplace when talking of short stories to quote from the greats, from Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Nam Le. But when talking about Jennifer Mills’ short stories this is not necessary. Because Mills’ stories contain ‘all the power and mystery and magic that you need to understand what a short story can do’.
In her reply Mills said that the one thing writers need is allies. ‘I’m grateful to all those people who discovered me, I suppose.’ We laughed. She thanked all the journals who published her and all the editors who’ve made her work better. She thanked Madonna Duffy and the University of Queensland Press and the permutations of her family who were at the launch: ‘you’re beautiful people and you help me stay aloft’.
Then Mills read from a story in The Rest is Weight called ‘Water Views‘:
‘Water views, Vic would have said about the Box if he’d ever had a visitor. It was true that if you hauled yourself up the side of it, one foot on the steel lock rail, you could get a good look at the flat brown square of the stormwater catchment dug out between the factories like an industrial moat. It was a little joke Vic had between himself and the Box …’
We sat silenced. And burst into applause when she was done.