Norman Spotlights: Anne Casey-Hardy

Ciara Seccombe
January 31, 2023

Happy new year bodacious bookworms! Today we are lucky enough to bring you an in-depth interview with Anne Casey-Hardy.

Anne is an Australian, hailing from Fremantle and living in Melbourne. Before she turned her hand to writing, she worked as a research librarian and advocate. In 2018, she won the Peter Carey short story Award, and she then earned a Varuna Residential Fellowship in 2021. Her work, both fiction and non-fiction, has been published in multiple journals and magazines.

Anne debuted her first short story collection, Cautionary Tales for Excitable Girls, last year, and it has since taken off, even earning a longlist nomination for the 2023 Indie Book Awards. The collection features 18 electric stories about girls and women navigating life, loss, society and sanity. Each character springs off the page and brings a unique voice to the narrative. Whether Anne is writing about a mother in a psychological crisis, or a teenager telling ghost stories down the creek, the women of Cautionary Tales never fail to engage and delight.

Anne joined us in person (!!!) at the end of 2022 to talk about her incredible life and writing. We dug deep into all her inspiration and wisdom, and the process of writing Cautionary Tales. We are so excited to finally share this one with you.

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Ciara: My name is Ciara Seccombe. I'm here on behalf of the UTS Literary Society. And I would like to welcome you to our campus. We're here on the Gadigal Land of the Eora Nation, and I'd like to pay my respects to the elders past, present and emerging here on unceded land where our interview will be taking place.
Ciara and Anne (they had such a good conversation that it grew dark outside by the end).

Anne: Me too. Thank you. I'm thrilled to be here.

Ciara: Thank you very much. So for the uninitiated, you're very new on the literary scene. What in your mind is your literary identity? Who are you? Give us your elevator pitch.

Anne: Me personally? I'm someone who's been a writer for a long time. I've calibrated life's experiences, I guess, into voices. Voices of young women, and adult women as well. And at heart I'm really concerned with the battle girls and women fight to overcome all the warnings that society lays on them, all the things you're not supposed to do but want to, and how it feels when you're just compelled by life to break through all of that. And those conflicts are just me personally, and what I remember of being young. Now I've had time to think about and research these things in the last few years, and that's come through in the stories.

Ciara: Yeah, I really did feel that that came through in the stories. One thing that really stands out about your collection is the sheer range of women and girls, the excitable women. How do you develop unique character voices for each story? Because everyone feels like a completely unique individual.

Anne: It helps to write in the first person because then I'm fully identified with the characters, and the person reading notices that the character isn't hiding, you know? They are their vulnerable selves.

Developing voices is not quite how it works for me because the story begins with the voice. And it's usually some word or phrase that I know isn't my normal vocabulary. For example, in the story, ‘What I’d Do if I Was In Charge’, about the girls in charge of the bakery for the day, I'd been sort of roughly thinking about a town that was run by under-18s because no one would pay adult wages. I had that in mind. But the phrase that activated that voice was the main character saying, ‘Serena is in Year 11, whereas I'm working and earning money in the bakery.’ I never use the word ‘whereas’. I just got the feeling of a boastful character who's also anxious about maybe not being good enough, but really determined to try and be the boss that she wants to be. Once I had hold of that slight boastfulness with the anxiety underneath, you know, because Serena’s still at school when everyone else is doing Year 11, and she's working in a bakery . . . Yes, her voice. She had plenty to say.

Ciara: Yeah, the thing about writing in first person is that it's so intimate. How personal is your writing? How much of it comes from you and how much of it comes from your imagination, from things you've read, from external sources? What's the mix like for you?

Anne: I'd say it's 100% me. I've always been observant and empathetic with people. But all the stories come from a common point, which is just that desire, that intense desire to break through and break out and reach your potential. And that just has many facets.

I don't write about people I know. I made a decision early in my writing career that I wasn't going to write about my family or my children or my husband or anybody recognisable. I was just going to write from feeling. And so it is me. And I'm almost reluctant to put this on the record, but all the different ways to misbehave are me. I think of the things that the characters are going to do, and it amuses me highly. And it's exactly what I was like growing up.

Ciara: That's really interesting to hear. So, why a short story collection, not a novel? So many people began their careers with novels.

Anne: I did. I started about seven years ago. And I wanted to write; I'd waited a long time. I'd been working full time and raising children. And so it was something that I kept putting off. But as soon as I got a chance in my late 50s, where the financial pressure eased a little bit and I had a bit more space, I just devoted myself to writing. I wrote something that was like an autobiography. I called it fiction, but it was basically me sorting out all the pressing emotional things that I had stored and not examined in my life. So that took two years, then I got rid of that and had a break. And then I started to write a novel. And I did write a novel, and that went through several drafts. I got an agent for it. Another agent also read it and liked it and wanted to represent it. But it was the short stories that succeeded. They were planned to be my follow-up. I thought, if I get anyone interested in the novel, then I will show them that I also have a backup story collection. But the short stories are better. I know that.

Ciara: I actually know several writers who've tried to do the autobiography thing, or the fictionalised autobiography, and it's just driven them mad.

Anne: Yeah, well, it's crap. The thing about these stories – I hope you feel it – is that they're completely honest and completely truthful, and that’s why they’re different.

Ciara: Yeah, you mentioned it before how emotionally, and for you, personally emotionally driven they are. Do you feel like waiting a long time to write them only strengthened that energy within you?

Anne: Yes. But I didn't really have a chance to exercise my writing muscles. I had the feelings and the psychology, and I've always been good at research. But it was learning to write well that took longer than I expected. It's not enough to want to write and have all the feelings and even have all the ideas. You actually have to grind your way through a lot of disappointing things and learn to recognise it. Like, it's amazing now, because I've been writing solidly for five years at least, I recognise when something's real. And when it's not, I can tell, in a word, whether it's truthful, or whether it's interesting, or whether it's weird, or whether it's worth going after, and I do. There's no filter for it. It's like catching a fish; there’s a tug on the end of the line and something is there. And it could be something big – that’s great. But that comes from experience. It's not a divine gift or anything. It's experience.

Ciara: Yeah, yeah. There’s so much . . . I hesitate to say wisdom, but it just feels like there's a lot of life lived behind them.

Anne: Well, there is!

Ciara: And I feel like that really gives you a very strong, unique voice. It felt like a connection to a chain when I was reading it. And I really, really enjoyed that.

Anne: I hope you could tell that I cared about the characters.

Ciara: I could!

Anne: I love them. I’m really defensive of them. Because, you know, I have so much sympathy for what it's like to be a woman, or a girl, or to want something that's out of your reach, or even just want to not care about stuff. All of it's valid as far as I'm concerned.

Ciara: Yes. And can we talk about women for a moment?

Anne: Of course.

Ciara: Because I love to talk about women.

Anne: Well, we both are fully engaged. Committed.

Ciara: Yes, I'm very committed. So I'm quite involved in the speculative fiction scene. And I've seen quite a few feminist commentators speculate that horror fiction offers a very specific comfort to women, who are often sort of socially at risk of, using the buzzword, being ‘gaslit’ – being told that our very real fears about the world and the way that we live within the world are irrational. And as a result, there's a certain comfort in horror fiction, where it's very much fear with rationality removed. Do you find that there's a personal sense of truth telling in writing about women's fear?

Anne: I know what you're saying, and it's quite complex. Women are taught to be afraid. And part of mastering it is somehow practising it, which I call rehearsing fear and danger. When I was young, I really liked being scared. Not too scared, just a little bit scared. And I think that's the feeling. My daughter was really sensitive and had nightmares about things that didn't seem that bad. But of course, they were to her. And now she's the biggest horror addict ever. She goes to see movies where I’d just hide my face. But it's like her mastery of fear – she just kept going with it. And it entertains her now. And that's a pretty good place to come from.

But I think what women live with is the truth of the horror that a woman is murdered at least once a week in Australia somewhere. So why do we have to imagine horror? It's the reality. And horror is just a way of putting that feeling somewhere. Because you can't be so horrified that you never leave the house because half the murders happen at home. And if you're so scared, and all you do is be scared, you're not living your best life. You're not taking hold of it. So somehow, and this is the question for the excitable girls, you have to get past the fear and just blaze in whatever direction you want to go. In ‘A Red-Tinged Darkness’, Maeve is incredibly frightened. She's frightened about everything. She’s frightened that the boys turn up. She's frightened that she ends up on her own with them. She's absolutely terrified at the end of the night that they might come back. But nothing actually happens, except that it does further along. So you can be frightened or not frightened, and I don't think it makes any difference.

Ciara: Yeah. I think it was Andrea Dworkin, I remember reading–

Anne: Love her.

Ciara: Oh, she's magnificent, isn't she?

Anne: She says the unspeakable.

Ciara: Yes. I remember particularly reading something that she said about how . . . to look in the eye the true breadth and depth of the horrors that women face in this world is so terrifying that most women turn away from it. I mean, not even to say men, but women turn away from it. And I feel like when it comes to this, you mentioned that you draw heavily on the gothic tradition, which is very closely tied to horror, which is, you know, tied to all of this.

Anne: Well, it's a camp kind of horror, so it's playful. In a way you're pretending to be scared because in the gothic genre not much actually happens. There's creaking and whistling and you know . . .

Ciara: It's so interior.

Anne: Yes, yes. And it's all set in a house, which is very domestic and womanly. And there are endless rooms. It's like your psyche is a house. I mean, gothic’s great.

Ciara: I feel like gothic has such a female history too, when you look at the Brontë sisters, when you look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We've been so closely tied with this genre for so long. And it's wonderful to see it, you know, brought into a new era with writers like you.

Anne: Modern gothic. I love that. ‘Women Rule in Modern Gothic’ – that's a great review from Charle Malycon.

Really, I think I only got up to about age five before all the lessons about what you're supposed to be afraid of. Strangers. Paths. Things you'd never thought about. Someone offering you lollies. And I was really curious, so I went wherever I felt like. I visited people that I knew that my parents didn't know. That's kind of my spirit. But on the edges of your exhilaration and the way you embrace life, are these dark edges, which is both the threat and the reality. And it's impossible to tell which is which. If we want to talk about horror – I don't like creatures bursting out of the floor or out of your stomach, all that kind of horror. But I love The Bass Rock by Evie Wilde, which just about made the hair crawl off my scalp with horror because it was true. And you take the whole book, from the starting paragraph through this incredible excursion through hundreds of years, and you end up in the last paragraph where you began. A tour de force. I wish I'd written that book.

Ciara: Fear and exhilaration really seem to power so many of your stories. They really intermingle, and they fuel each other in turn. There's always this tension between them where they're both in opposition and partnership. How do you feel about the relationship between those two?

Anne: Well, the tension is for the reader. That's how I make my stories tense. In every emotional situation in my stories, there is also the opposite. That's what the tension is. Fear and exhilaration. I mean, it's really good for your self-esteem to overcome fear. To do something you're scared of. Being scared and not doing it gives you no joy. You might be safe, but you'll never know what you might have done. So when you overcome your fear and act in spite of your fear – not just act, but be ambitious, even if it's something that doesn't mean anything to anyone else, but ambitious for yourself, what you want – then that's exhilaration. You did it! A whole lot of people told you not to, and you did.

Ciara: I was looking through the materials that your publisher had put up, and they had a list of book club questions. And there was one that really caught my attention, which asked, ‘Are the dangers in the stories real or imagined or both?’ I feel like that's so interesting in the female context that your stories favour. The line between real and imagined danger is so incredibly blurry for so many women living under patriarchy. We've got such a complex relationship with fear. It's both a survival instinct as much as it's the boot on our necks keeping us from what we could be. How do you feel writing stories about women's fears?

Anne: Well, the danger exists, whether you're afraid or not. And you're right that it's female because I don't think men have even an inkling of what it's like to be on guard all the time. My husband is forever leaving the front door open while he does stuff out the front, and I cannot bear it. It drives me insane. I want the front door closed and the back door closed. And if I'm having a shower, you know, I’ll lock him out of the house. But it's everything. It's the constant surveillance of the landscape for threats. And we do it without even thinking about it. What woman gets on a train and doesn't have a good look around before she sits down? I mean, vulnerable men do it too . . . anyone with half a brain does it. I remember once I was on the station in the city coming home from work, and I checked what time the train was coming, and I was reading a really good book, as usual. And while I was reading, the destination of the train changed. It switched over, and I got on the train without knowing. And then when I realised I was going somewhere I didn't know, I got off, and I was absolutely hysterical. It was a foggy night, too. But there was nothing there, and I didn't know where it was. And it was terrifying. I had no feeling like, ‘Oh, this is fine. I'll ring a taxi. I'll cross over the road. I'll call my husband.’ It was just like, ‘Someone has dropped me in hell’. And I'm an adult. And what I mean is, it should be rational for me to solve my way out of something like that, but it's not because . . . because the threats are there.

Ciara: Yeah. I remember, I read this . . . it was a collection of short stories in graphic novel format. I think it was Emily Carroll. She did a piece sort of deconstructing the Little Red Riding Hood myth, where she talked about how Red Riding Hood can make it to Grandma's house as many times as she wants to, but the wolf only has to find her once.

Anne: Yes, that's right. It's true. It's only the possibility of it. That's the other thing about growing up. The lessons for women, the cautionary tales, they begin with fairy tales. Where those endings are often catastrophic for no reason that you can determine. And then the Greek myths, which I loved, where it's really dangerous to be a woman. And it's such a beautiful, bright world, and so exciting in fairy tales and myths. But underneath them all there's a special message for women, which is make way for men, and stay in your box. Good on Red Riding Hood, but you know . . .

Ciara: She’s always got to make it to Grandma's house the next time.

Anne: Well, don't you feel sorry for her – the distancing of it? A little child in a little red riding hood in the woods with a picnic basket for Grandma. I mean, it's just heartbreaking. It's all of us.

Ciara: You’ve billed this as a book of cautionary tales, but I never found the stories to be preachy. How do you build a relationship with your reader as your equal? As a storyteller and reader rather than a preacher and your congregation?

Anne: Well, the title came last. That's why. I never set out to write cautionary tales. I put no value judgement on what my characters want or what they're doing. If they're unwise, you know, more power to them. I just wish them well, you know? Nobody in my books is punished simply for acting. It's only ever random. But I originally called the book When Bees Become Diamonds because it's a beautiful title, and it's also about sexual awakening, which I think is the time when women become intensely aware of their personal power. But they often don't have it for long because someone will observe a sexually mature innocent girl–

Ciara: And try to take it for their own.

Anne: Yeah, for sure. And then I wrote the story, ‘The Merri Creek’, which was a very meaningful story for me. It was about my brothers. And I was going to call the collection ‘The Merri Creek'. But, as my mentor said, don't name books after places because it loses meaning for people who don’t know them. That’s her advice, anyway. I still kept the [individual] story ‘The Merri Creek'. But I tried to look at the stories as a collection and tried to think about what they had in common with each other. And what I found that they had in common with each other was this almost boastfulness about ‘See what I can do? Look at me, I'm doing it!’ But then, what follows is: ‘See what happens. See what I can do and see what happens.’ And that's when I thought of ‘Cautionary Tales’. I wanted it to kind of be . . . to evoke fairy tales. Like, I don't know if you know the original, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children?

Ciara: I don't think I do.

Annie: They're fun. It's taken from that. They're rhymes about balloons bursting and, you know, they're just silly. So there's an irony in the cautionary tales. It's basically just don't get a balloon or whatever. And the publisher, Ben Ball from Scribner, totally got where I was coming from, with the way that covers were decorated, and the font, and what stands out about it. I'm really glad that it all came together. But I hope nobody thinks I'm cautioning them. The cautionary tales are an ironic concept.

Ciara: They feel like cautionary tales in the sense that they pass on . . .

Anne: Experience?

Ciara: Experience. Yes, that tradition from woman to woman. I feel like whether it's in the classroom, whether it's in the bathroom at a bar, we always have that oral tradition, and it's wonderful to see it written down like this. And one thing I just want to call back to, you mentioned that you try very hard never to judge your characters. Was that a skill that you had to learn? Did you have to learn not to not judge your characters?

Anne: Not for a minute. I'm on every girl's side. There's not a woman in the world I’m not cheering for.

Ciara: Me too. And, I don't know, it feels like, in every time in recorded history, everyone's been very quick to blame a woman, judge a woman. How do you trust in your audience to bring that same non-judgmental attitude to your characters and your stories?

Anne: I would just say look into your own heart, you know? Who's perfect? Why would you read a story and then judge the character? But people do, I know. And in a review recently, which was a really positive review, the reviewer said that women could rule – that they earned the right just by their very existence, whether they were fat or ugly. But I was like . . . so insulted for them. Because the girl who thinks she's fat, who thinks she's a drunk fat girl, is actually just a normal teenager worried about the normal things teenagers worry about. I suppose there is a bit of looking in mirrors [in the collection], not a lot though. The characters, for me, are powerful in their female way, and are just trying to work through the obstructions in their path. Yeah, so if someone wants to judge anyone– for what, I honestly don't know. I can't see a single fault in one of them.

Ciara: I love that. I love to hear that from a writer.

Anne: You don't have to be perfect. You just have to be honest. And, you know, give it your best shot.

Ciara: I think that's one of the things that stood out to me. Every character – you've got all these different girls and women from different walks of life – and it feels like you give everyone a shot. They all matter. And they all deserve to be heard out, and I really enjoyed that. Even when there was something that I'd never considered. Maybe some character mirrored someone that I had judged in the past. It made me want to give them a fair shot as well.

Anne: Tell me what story.

Ciara: ‘Literally Beside Myself’, is that what it's called? The one where the woman talks to her teenage–

Anne: Self! Who’s heavily scathing about it.

Ciara: Yeah, I feel like a couple of years ago, I would have been the teenage self. And a lot of me still is. I think I’ve grown to be more understanding in the last few years. But I can absolutely see myself as the teenage self who judges the woman who falls into all the traps that, as a teenager, you say, ‘That's never going to be me. I'm never going to make those mistakes.’

Anne: Yeah, well, there's a lot of bounce in the step of someone who hasn't–

Ciara: Had the chance to make those mistakes.

Anne: Or who can still wear high heels and has time to grow. Yeah, just absolutely appalled about the woman's hair when she's barely able to hold her life together. ‘What's with the fright wig?’ That made me laugh.

Ciara: And that's one of quite a few stories in this collection that centred around motherhood, which is obviously a very big part of the female experience. It's a big part of feminist theory. And many feminist scholars have written about the mythology that we as a society have constructed around motherhood. How does your relationship with motherhood as an actual living woman, you know, who's had kids, who's lived a whole life as your own person, differ from the social narrative? And how do your lived experiences and the social narrative influence your writing about mothers and the experience of motherhood?

Anne: Well, it's a very primal thing for me. I don't have any desire to be an Instagram mum. I'm so glad it wasn't around when I was wanting a baby. I grew up as the oldest of seven children, so there were always babies around, and I got to look after them. I got in my practice really early. But I spent a long time wanting to have a baby before I had one. Then, when I did have one, I was kind of intimidated, and I stopped sleeping. I just felt like, ‘I've got this beautiful baby. What am I doing going to sleep? She might need me.’ And then I remember going into her room. She was about three or four months old, and I used to wake up quite often to check that she was breathing. It's terrible how that happens. But I went in one night to look at her, and she was awake and sucking her thumb, really peaceful, and I frightened her, this big face looming over her saying words. And I realised: don’t put your fears into this new life.

But I’ve always loved caring for a baby. I love getting babies out of baths and wrapping them up in towels. I love all the little clothes and singing to them, reading books together, you know, the whole thing. I feel so lucky I got to do it.

Ciara: It feels like you include so many complex emotions that women have towards motherhood. The stories that stuck in my mind the most: ‘Being the Mother’, the first story, which was immediately followed by ‘Literally Beside Myself’, and then quite close to the end was ‘Don't Blink’. The first one is all about the thrill of the baby, and the second one is the reality and the sadness, and then ‘Don't Blink’ is so fearful, so fuelled by panic. How important is it to have this incredibly vast emotional experience of motherhood represented in your work?

Anne: Well, the girls in ‘Being the Mother’ only have the baby for the day. And so they're just playing a game, practising being a family together, some idea of what their future is, and the baby's got a really important role in it. But, you know, they must have created pandemonium in the background, taking the baby, so no empathy for the baby’s actual mother.

Ciara: It struck me that the girls in ‘Being the Mother’ are acting out the worst fear of the woman in ‘Don't Blink’.

Anne: Yes! They are. It's the same thing.

Ciara: I love the sort of circularity of it.

Anne: In ‘Don't Blink’ she says, ‘I’m the psycho in the shadows. I’m the person you're afraid of!’

Ciara: ‘I’ll reach into the cot while you’re sleeping.’

Anne: Yeah. So that's the same thing as fear. You can be afraid or you can be not afraid, but either way, you don't have ultimate control over what happens. It's quite terrifying to have the intense physical experience of being pregnant, or expecting a baby in whatever way it happens, and then the responsibility to care for that child's life in perpetuity. Because I don't think you’re just a mother for 12 years or 24 years or even 36 years, and it’s not conditional. That child deserves the best of you for your whole life. So it's pretty serious. It's hard, though. I mean, it's a lot easier now – my kids have grown up and they turned out really well. It's great. There's no grief. I have no regrets about my mothering, and that's huge.

In the last story, ‘Cape Conran’, it's the perils of wanting five minutes to yourself. What do you do with that? Because, obviously, you need to sleep and obviously you have to have time to recover in between intensely being part of a family 24/7. So, that might be a cautionary tale. But I don't try to solve the problem of what it is. Things happen.

Ciara: You mentioned not trying to solve all the problems. I know that you're very inspired by the gothic tradition.

Anne: Not that inspired, I just enjoy it.

Ciara: Well, your web page on your publisher does talk of the gothic tradition. But so many of your heroines are very emotionally isolated, or are sort of locked in this single passionate, emotionally intense connection, like the sisters in Birdie and the woman in the story about the Tarot . . . what was it called?

Anne: ‘The Starry Night’?

Ciara: Yes! How do you reinterpret the gothic tradition of the madwoman and recontextualise her in your stories in the modern era?

Anne: Well, when I read that question, I immediately got out The Madwoman in the Attic by Gubar and Gilbert to read again. The madwoman in the attic is Bertha in Jane Eyre, who is just a problem for Rochester to get rid of.

Ciara: I remember when I read Jane Eyre the first time. I remember it felt like, just for a moment, it was her tragedy. I felt so sad for her. She was just the problem to be eliminated.

Ciara: A lot of the characters, I feel like if they'd been in the traditional gothic stories, they would have been the madwoman. But as they stand in Cautionary Tales, they're the protagonist. They're understandable, they're rational. The things that would have made them ‘mad’ in the minds of an 1800s gothic writer are what makes them real in the 21st century when you write.

Anne: There’s actually one person in the book who has postnatal psychosis, and that's Lydia at the end of the story, ‘I've Been Waiting So Long’. I actually would have liked to write more about her. But it was too much to try and do in a short story. But she is there in my mind, in her Hanging Rock dress, whispering ‘He's not really my husband, that's not really my baby.’

Thank God, things have changed [since the 1800s]. And let's hope they change a whole lot more. The pace of the change that we've gone through since the 19th century is cause for optimism, but then there are bigger fears. And there's always backlash. Since the 70s, whatever progress women make, there's a ferocious backlash, right? And then it takes a while for that to settle. So it's two steps forward, one step back, if you're lucky. It's really more like one-and-three-quarter steps.

Ciara: I've actually recently started reading Susan Faludi’s Backlash. And it's shocking, you know? This book that came out, what, 20 or 30 years ago? So much of it could have been written today.

Anne: They were my times, when I was a young teenager. It's like, every guy on the street was sizing up whether, you know, they could get a bit of you. And the constant surveillance, you know, bred from the fact that women were behaving unpredictably, or they might be sexually available, or they were trying to get out there and do things for themselves. It was like, every other guy saw it as some kind of opportunity. Not to do anything to help. People hated women for leaving their houses and breaking up families and getting together and saying, ‘I'm not going to have any more of this.’

But the backlash is female quite often. It's really interesting. Women who are invested in the patriarchy, and still to this day, will isolate a girl or woman that goes against it. You see that in some of the trials that are going on at the moment. It's really sad. I feel really disturbed. It is backlash.

Ciara: Absolutely. It isn't an easy time to be an excitable girl. Not that there ever is, but now, in this era of backlash, it feels more daunting than ever.

Anne: It is, but what are you going to do about it? You’ve only got one life.

Ciara: Are you hoping to offer some sort of comfort and connection as much as a warning in your stories?

Anne: Well, firstly, I'm not trying to warn anybody. I only want to encourage women and girls to find the joy in life wherever they can, and not to be ashamed of what they want, no matter what it is. Just step over that threshold of self-doubt and social opinion, and reach for what you want. And have fun! Trust your resourcefulness.

I don't mean the world's not full of wicked people, but they're going to be there anyway, whatever you do. Don’t see them all around you. Even though I was just saying every single person, every single guy, is looking at you for opportunities. That's how it felt to me when I was very young. I don't feel like that now. So I don't know if I can give advice to very young people, but I think men and boys are different now. My son’s fabulous. Fully signed-up feminist to his bones who would never dream of treating a woman as less than equal.

Ciara: Honestly, that's really good to hear. One thing just expanding on that: a couple of your stories, it's subtle, but they seem to explore this tension between the idea of feminine beauty and the physicality of living life to the fullest, which really resonated with me as I've found in my life shedding my obsession with feminine beauty has opened me up to a more intimate experience of myself and the world. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you try to frame this in your writing?

Anne: In my writing the women and girls are driven by a desire to go after something they want. They are not looking in the mirror trying to shape themselves into an image for a man, except in ‘The Starry Night’, which is in the third person because her identity is so wrapped up in him. She stands in front of a mirror to go to the job interview, piling on makeup until she's unrecognisable, and then she's happy. But otherwise, I don't know. I mean, young women are beautiful, just by virtue of being young women. And older women are too. But I would really discourage having to change yourself to feel acceptable. I mean, I like putting on red lipstick and stuff, whatever. But I'm not doing it for anybody else. Yeah, so ideals of feminine beauty – they're all beautiful.

Ciara: I love that outlook. Do you have any favourite stories?

Anne: Someone asked me this today. It depends. But one story I really like is ‘New Year's Eve’. It really makes me smile. It's got a terrible, shocking ending. But I think it encompasses a lot of my themes. Someone who wants to be brave, who's going to have fun and give it her best shot. Combined with all the unease of being in the bush, which is gothic, back to Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies. And the fact that they spent their time talking about terrifying things, working each other up non stop. And she laughs. That's what happens to provoke the boy who trips her, who threatens her, at the end of it is laughing at him. She laughs at him and he hates it. And that's something you hear in a really chilling way all the time. She laughs at him and he hates it, and then he does something hateful and he says it's a joke. But I love that story. And I love the spooky sitting around the campfire thing, saying, ‘What's this? What's that?’ And singing and drinking.

I mean, she could stay home. I did an advertisement for Dymocks where I said, ‘Don't go out. Don't go down to the creek at night, to get drunk and light fires. Stay home and read Little Women.’ That's the choice.

Ciara: So how do you create that Australian gothic setting? The gothic genre as it exists in the canon and the popular consciousness is very connected to its European roots. How do you make an Australian gothic setting, because we aren't exactly known for our dark and stormy nights and our castles.

Anne: It's fear. It's not just the dark and stormy night.

For example, Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea is a gothic novel, but it's about heat. Really sapping heat, and voodoo, and languages people don't understand, and just this whole undercurrent of sogginess and marshes and fens, which are gothic in their tradition. I get a bit tired of the rural Australian gothic outback thing. Gothic, I think, is a state of mind.

We played a lot of gothic games as kids, but nothing was better than all those movies about going into a house at night where you're not supposed to be. That's just like, full gothic. So in Australia, it happens with camping and bush camp fires, that feeling of ghostliness. And Australia is haunted. Just through colonialism and frontier wars. It's there, you can feel it.

There’s also domestic gothic, I guess. All you need is the power to go out and have to light a candle. It doesn't take much.

Oh, I know what I was going to say. I was going to say it before. Have you heard of the girls-running-from-houses genre?

Ciara: I haven't. Tell me more.

Anne: It's a whole underground thing. All those schlocky gothic books from the 70s that started with Victoria Holt, I think. They were all set in houses, and they involved love affairs or things slightly wrong, you know, histories or first wives or family secrets or whatever. And the covers always featured a woman running away from the house in some sort of flimsy night dress. Some of those covers just sold a kabillion books. No one cares what they're actually running from but they, well, they got out and they're in their nightgowns with bare feet fleeing from whatever.

Ciara: And one thing that I'm just– it's, it's a bit out of left field, but I want to ask you, you've got such a unique relationship with death in your writing. How do you interpret the relationship between mortality and obsession, or limerence, as I've seen it referred to?

Anne: I think they're separate things, but you could call them all the dark side. When I say I've lived nine lives, or I'm in my eighth life, it's . . . I have almost died. I almost died when my son was born. And he did too. And a couple of other times, just through not getting medical attention when something was really wrong. But also reinventing yourself – you come to a point in your life, and you say, ‘Well, that's the end of that, I'm going to start all over again.’ And it's only because I've lived until this age that I've been able to do it so many times. Even becoming a writer when I finished work is yet another life. And now I know heaps of writers and speak at writers’ festivals, and it's huge fun. It's great. I don't know what to do about mortality. I try not to think about it. It's the same as fear. Doesn't matter whether you think about it or don't think about it. It's just going to happen when it happens, or not.

Now, I want to read from my epigraph. This is from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, published in 1851. ‘To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.’ So you've got to have those dark feelings, and play with them, and be aware of them. And then you've got to flip it.

Ciara: I love that perspective.

Anne: The thing is, it's never as good as when you know it could have been otherwise.

Ciara: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you want to talk about?

Anne: We haven’t talked about the humour in the book, which comes through tension quite often. I have a real feeling for it, how far to push it. And it's always further than you think. It's a really pleasurable part of writing to create that extreme tension that is disrupted by humour. And that is my personality. I actually can't bear the tension as I’m writing the story. I have to break it up. It's like the Melville quote . . . if you didn't have the tension, the humour wouldn’t feel so good.

Ciara: Oh, well, if you didn't have the tension, the humour couldn't break it.

Anne: No, that's right. And what would you be laughing at?

Ciara: Do you feel that including humour in stories that are very much based on fear– do you feel like that's an important part of the concept of practising fear?
Anne kindly signing Ciara's copy of the book (featuring some Woolies cookies).

Anne: Um, yes, I guess so. Because it's kind of a game, at least, it's a game that kids play. In my stories, things are enriched by their opposites. Like in ‘Literally Beside Myself’ – at the point where the mother and her teenage self are looking at each other, and between them hovers a sad baby, which is the lost twin – ‘the cold coming off him like a nightmare.’ It's so awful. And the immediate thing the girl says is, ‘What's with the fright wig?’ You know? Oh, you’d have to have a fright wig after that experience. But the younger self can't imagine it. She can't ever imagine that her life would turn out that way. I hope the book makes people laugh. I really do.

Ciara: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about Cautionary Tales for Excitable Girls. It was an enchanting read, and I've enjoyed talking to you so much.

Anne: I've enjoyed talking to you so much.

Ciara: Thank you!

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About the Author

Photo of Anne.

Anne Casey-Hardy was born in Fremantle and grew up in Melbourne as the eldest of seven children. She won the 2018 Peter Carey Short Story Award, was shortlisted for the 2019 VU/Overland Short Story Prize and was awarded a 2021 Varuna Residential Fellowship. Her short stories and poetry have been published in Meanjin Quarterly, Island Magazine, Overland Journal, Westerly Magazine and several anthologies.
Anne has previously worked as a research librarian and advocate for families of premature babies, and her work in this area has been published in The Lancet, Journal of Neonatology and Journal of Paediatric and Child Health.
She lives with her husband in Melbourne's west, on Bunurong land.

Find Anne on her: Website | Instagram | Twitter

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About the Book

The cover image of 'Cautionary Tales for Excitable Girls'.

Excitable girls rush out to meet life; what could go wrong? A masterful debut about the terrifying thrills of innocence from a voice of experience.
Teenagers sneak out to the creek for a wild New Year's Eve party. A sleep-deprived woman who imagines she is pregnant to a Viking faces her scathing sixteen-year-old self. A woman in love wakes up in a van Gogh painting.
These gem-like stories are about the desire to rush out and meet life; about getting in over your head; about danger, and damage, and what it means to survive – and not always survive – the risk of being young. They chart the borderlands between girls and women, daughters and mothers, freedom and fear.
Emerging fully-formed and singing songs of both innocence and experience, Anne Casey-Hardy is the rarest of new voices: at the same time reckless and entirely in control; funny and frightening; wise and full-blooded.

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