One of the joys of writing this blog is the opportunity to meet inspiring people who have fascinating real-life stories. Not only is Kirsten Alexander an accomplished novelist, but she is the instigator of Storymart, a unique short story subscription site which offers readers a source of great material and writers an paid opportunity to showcase their work. We had an intriguing chat about her publishing journey to Half Moon Lake, and the challenges of starting a business.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I don’t remember having a special aspiration. I read every type of novel, comic, poem and play I could get my hands on, hung out with our dogs and cats, swam, drew, sang into my hairbrush, walked home from school staring at trees and houses. I had a childhood with no internet or mobile phone, which meant I was isolated at the end of our leafy, dead-end suburban street. It gave a lot of time to think, read and daydream, yet I never used any of that time to imagine who I might become. The world and all it offered seemed so far away from Brisbane…
Tell us a bit about life before your first published novel.
I’ve only ever worked with words. My jobs have included magazine subeditor and writer, nonfiction book editor, internet content manager and copywriter (inhouse and freelance) and community radio announcer. I’ve made a digital magazine, worked for a few startups, and done online book reviews for ABC Radio National’s defunct Book Show.
I’ve lived in San Francisco (where I was born), London and Brisbane (where I was raised and went to uni), and travelled extensively. I now live in Melbourne with my partner, two sons and dog.
How long did it take to get your first novel published?
Forever! I made two false starts on other stories, abandoned them, then wrote a novel based in Queensland in the 1970s. That manuscript got a nod from the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (not a prize or a shortlisting – a nod), took me to a writing course in Banff and was shortlisted for the PEN America Bellwether Prize for an unpublished manuscript. It was then rejected by twenty-six Australian publishers.
My next attempt was inspired by the podcast, ‘The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar,’ which first aired as an episode of NPR’s This American Life in March 2008. I saw the rebroadcast in 2012. The story of the four-year-old, lost-then-found Louisiana boy who was claimed by two women raised so many questions: how could a woman not recognise her own son, why didn’t the boy tell them who he was, why would anyone take a child she knew wasn’t hers? I read the factual telling of it – A Case for Solomon – written by the NPR podcast creators Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright (a descendant), and decided it could be an interesting novel. I had no intention of sticking to the facts – I let my mind roam around the mysteries in the story, imagining what might have been.
I wrote a sprawling, unwieldy tale of then and now with song lyrics, snippets of poetry, photos, everything. My God, everything. I’d been reading a lot of Renata Adler and Kathy Acker. Nobody thought this manuscript was remotely publishable. But one of my American agents wrote an encouraging letter suggesting I pull out the forty thousand words of 1910s story and write a book using that as a skeleton.
Several excruciating years later—I quit work to care from my son who suffers a chronic illness and spent months not writing—I showed my manuscript to my Australian agent. It quickly found a home with Penguin Random House.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
- Old work sometimes finds a home long after you’ve given up on it. When PRH bought Half Moon Lake they also picked up the manuscript so comprehensively rejected years before.
- Good advice can come out of the blue. Even though rejection and criticism are unpleasant, there might be gold in there. Well-intentioned, educated feedback is always worth listening to.
What have been the highlights and lowlights of your writing career?
While wisdom can arrive with rejection letters, rejection is always, every time, a lowlight. My highlights have been making the shortlist of PEN America (which came with a congratulation letter from Barbara Kingsolver!), signing with an agent, signing with a publisher and seeing my book in my local bookstore.
What is Storymart?
Storymart is a short story site that allows writers to share their work with subscribers across the globe. Each time a person reads a story, the writer gets paid. Readers can search for a story based on their mood or the story location. They can rate and share stories. There are no ads, it’s simple to use, and there’s nothing quite like it out there.
Our goal is to meet the needs of writers and readers: writers want their work to be seen, and to be paid; readers want access to quality short stories.
What motivated you to start it?
I love reading short stories but couldn’t source them in a way that suited me. Stories were available in print either as anthologies (buy a book of a dozen, read five, enjoy two) or in literary magazines (again, so much left unread). Online, I had to skip across a dozen confusing sites to find what I wanted. I grew sick of sites that only showcased a single writer or work by deceased writers. And Amazon is just…bewildering, a labyrinth. I wanted to read what suited my mood, my desires. A comedy, mystery or thriller, or a story set in Paris or Sydney. That site didn’t exist. So I’m giving it my best shot!
Storymart aims to offer readers material that won’t leave them feeling empty, angry or low the way social media and news sometimes do. Stories can remind us we’re not alone, that others think like us and feel what we feel. Stories can inspire, excite, amuse, intrigue or surprise. They can offer solace and respite. They can take us away or help us understand where we are.
On a pragmatic note, short fiction can be enjoyed on a phone or tablet more easily than War and Peace. It’s possible to enjoy a story start to finish in whatever amount of time your day allows.
Tell us about the team behind Storymart.
My partner (in life and startups) is Dave King. Dave is one of the partners and co-founders of creative agency The Royals. He’s also founder of Move 37, a creative AI company. Our amazing designer and illustrator is James Stackhouse (based in Berlin), and amazing developer is Adam Hill (based in Tasmania).
Which is harder—getting a book published or starting a business?
They’re both hard! Writers face the challenges of writing, keeping faith right through to the finish line, finding an agent, finding a publisher. After that you have to hope your work connects with readers. On a startup, you also have to keep faith in your idea, stay financially afloat and deal with technical challenges. I find the technical issues especially hard since I’m out of my depth. I have great respect for coders and designers and all they do—problem solving, creative thinking.
With Storymart, I also face the hurdle of winning over writers, so they’ll trust me with their stories. I don’t have a profile, am not famous, so I need to establish, one person at a time, that I’ll treat their work with respect and care.
Right now, we’re incorporating Submittable and liaising with key literary magazines. But we can’t launch Storymart until we have more stories. We need to deliver a mass of short fiction treasure! Submit! I don’t say yes to everything – people are paying so we won’t publish first drafts or sloppy writing – but once you’re on the site you’ll have the chance to reach new, paying readers. I’m determined to make this work for writers and readers.
Update July 23, 2019: Unfortunately, Storymart has been put on hold. Kirsten is currently caring for a loved one with a chronic illness, a role that is not compatible with running a startup business. I will advise when this changes.