Everyone remembers their first time. The first time a story they wrote is accepted for publication. Even though, as a journalist, I'd had fifty-odd articles already published, when my first short story was finally accepted for publication I felt a rush of emotion. Was I happy? Yes, because writing fiction is much more personal than writing a commissioned article. But most of all I was relieved. I finally had a publication to add to my pathetically brief literary CV, and I was now eligible to apply for all those grants and retreats only available to published authors. It immediately validated all the hours I had spent slaving at my desk. Because the sad truth is that no one (friends, family, colleagues) takes you seriously as a writer of fiction until you have something published. A book would be better, but I'm working on that!
Getting my first story, Stranded, published has not been easy. I first wrote it in 2008 when I enrolled in a Gotham Advanced Fiction Writing course while I was living in New York. I started with an image I'd had in my head for a while: while riding on a train in Sydney years earlier, I sat next to a young Asian man in a suit. He spread his hands across the briefcase on his lap, and I remember the beauty of those hands. They were delicate, manicured—a piano player's hands. I was struck by the intimacy I felt staring at his hands—a moment of intimacy between strangers in a public place (although he never acknowledged me, nor do I think he even realised the weirdo next to him was staring at his hands).
Even in its earliest stages, the story I wrote had very little to do with the real-life moment that sparked it—although the theme of intimacy between strangers remains. Stranded opens with a Japanese businessman discovering a blonde hair on his suit one day. He removes it, goes to work, and is surprised to find another (or the same?) blonde hair on him later that day. The second discovery causes the businessman to reflect on the affair he'd had with a young woman who'd prostituted herself for money and gifts (a phenomenon known as enjokosai in Japan), making him think about how the affair had abruptly ended.
I did a rough draft, got lots of helpful feedback from my Gotham classmates, did a revision that my teacher, Michael Backus, thought was a big improvement, but then I was stumped. A lot of people had a problem with the ending. I like story endings to be suggestive rather than didactic, but it's hard to achieve without coming off sounding vague and pointless.
I put it aside for several months, and over the next few years I went back to it again and again, reworked it and sent it to other people to read. The writing became clearer and more polished, and a lot of people thought it was good. But the problem of the ending and the significance of the hair in my story came up again and again. I wanted the repeated appearance of the hair in Stranded to allude to the randomness of life, but it seems that, even though life is random, in fiction, randomness doesn't work. I eventually put my artistic concerns aside, bit the bullet and added a plot line that explained the appearance of the blonde hair.
In 2011, I started to send it out to different publications and competitions in Australia. I thought I had a good shot at some of them, so was crestfallen when the rejections rolled in, one after another. Even though I'd heard from other now quite famous authors that they also had dozens of rejections before they were finally published, I was still crushed when it happened to me. The failures felt personal—it was as if they were rejecting me.
At the same time, I was editing the story and writing different endings. I started to keep a spreadsheet to keep track of all the publications/competitions I was sending it to. It seemed like I had sent it to twenty places before it was finally accepted, but in reality I only sent it to five:
The ending was a persistent problem, and I now realise it was because I wrote the story without a "message" in mind. I shied away from writing a short story with a message or moral, because it struck me as fake, and I wanted readers to make their own interpretation of the story. But now, after reading a lot of guidebooks on writing and critiquing a lot of stories, I realise that nearly all good stories have some sort of a message—but the best ones have a message that's hidden in the story and isn't obvious.
I finally decided to write an ending that cast a sort of moral judgement on the Japanese businessman, Mr Takeda. I personally preferred an earlier ending I'd written, and Kris agreed with me, but I decided to take a risk. I sent it the inaugural Margaret River Short Story competition minutes before the 5pm (in WA) deadline on New Year's Eve 2011, and didn't think about it for a while. I had toughened up as a writer, and no longer expected success. So I was delighted to get an email seven weeks later saying my short story had been shortlisted in the competition, and would be published in an anthology put out by Margaret River Press. A couple of weeks after that I received a phone call saying that I'd been awarded second place! Interestingly, the editor who chose the stories and awarded the prizes, author and Edith Cowan University academic Richard Rossiter, commented about my story that "in spite of the ending"... there is "little sense of moral judgement for Mr Takeda's transgression":
Set in Japan, Christine Piper’s Stranded is a tightly written account of an affair between an older man, Mr Takeda, and a (much) younger woman, Naoko. He pays her for both sex and company. They have little in common except for one thing. As Naoko says, ‘We’re two loners, aren’t we?’ The title brings together the erotic elements of the affair—a strand of blonde hair, representing the sort of woman who is probably not available to Mr Takeda—and the conclusion. Mr Takeda is on his way to see Naoko with an expensive Christmas gift, a Hermès bag. He is very excited by his purchase and the anticipation of seeing his young lover, but the world changes when he catches sight of himself in a display window: ‘a greying man holding a brightly wrapped gift’. This is a very economical story with a strong sense of character and place. It interrogates the values of appearance and surface, with little sense of moral judgement for Mr Takeda’s transgression—in spite of the ending.
You can read my short story, Stranded, in the fiction anthology Things That Are Found In Trees and Other Stories (Margaret River Press, 2012). It's only $13.99 plus $2 shipping: www.margaretriverpress.com/catalogue/fiction/things-that-are-found-in-trees-and-other-stories
Or you can buy it in eBook format for $4.09: www.kobobooks.com/ebook/Things-that-found-trees-other/book-3J6kiRvkb06dLR5v9hh__g/page1.html?s=Dr9IM1dqb0KcFjoZyQpxEQ&r=1