Adelaide writer Helen Dinmore takes time from her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide to chat with Overland about her short story ‘Unplugged’.
How did you come to write the story – was there a catalyst? As a short-story writer, what kind of thing inspires you?
This story came out of some research I was doing into the New Puritan literary manifesto of 2000. The New Puritans proposed a kind of neorealism that struck me as a rather hollow, technique-focused reaction to postmodernism. It prompted me to wonder whether it’s useful to imagine that a return to straight realism would offer access to an available authenticity or objective truth. Once you’re unplugged, can you really go back into the Matrix?
So ‘Unplugged’ became an experiment in metafictional realism. I first saw The Matrix in a bar on the Khao San Rd in Bangkok in early 2000, at the jaded end of many years travelling in India and South East Asia, and the idea for the story began from there. Travel to foreign places ruptures what we think we know about the world; there’s also a discourse in backpacking communities about ‘real’ places and ‘real’ culture, and a competitiveness and pretension around that. Romanticism about certain locations and modes of travelling, and the desire to construct experiences according to our expectations of what they should or will be like, have led to a commodification of both experience and identity. But the reality is that we take our cultural baggage with us wherever we go.
Short fiction is a great place to experiment with form and content. I don’t always write out of theory in such a direct way but I’m very interested in how theory influences writing. The mysterious bit of the creative process is always informed by my preoccupations and what I’m reading and doing.
Can you tell us a little about your journey as a writer?
Jonathan Franzen wrote: ‘Every writer is first a member of a community of readers’. The more I develop as a writer, the more I see writing as inextricable from the practice of reading. I’ve been a massive book nerd since I was very small. I flirted with the sciences but there was never any real hope for me. Perhaps it’s wanky to talk about your art as a calling, but I’ve definitely been drawn to writing because books have always spoken so very clearly to me.
Where are you now, with your writing practice?
In practical terms, I’ve just begun a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide. In more abstract terms, I’d love to write something narratively coherent but with an effect as visceral as this:
It brings to mind a sculptor finding form in stone, as opposed to creating something from the ground up.