Wayne Marshall reflects on the stories behind the stories in his VPLA-shortlisted debut collection.

It was the story of a football prohibition that in many ways set the course for my collection Shirl. In it, alien creatures descend upon an Australian town, placing a ban on Australian rules football in the name of a psychological experiment. The residents suffer that situation more or less as you’d expect: that is, badly.

I grew up in outer suburban Melbourne, in a town whose social and cultural life not so much revolved around the local football club as clung to it. My dad was heavily involved in the club, and so, by extension, was the rest of our family.

There was no religion in our house – not of the established kind anyway. Instead, we were followers of a uniquely Australian faith, one whose iconography consisted of scoreboards, goal posts, fifty-metre lines and red Sherrins. Our church? That oval on the edge of town – surrounded by paddocks and an industrial estate – and the club social rooms, which transformed at night into a rollicking beer barn blanketed in smoke.

Years later, I dreamed of becoming a writer. For the best part of a decade I tried, without success. Short fiction, if judged by what our literary magazines were publishing, was ultra-serious business – serious in tone, serious in subject matter – which bore no relation to the weird and comic thing I was staggering blindly towards.

Eventually I quit; I got sick; I became a father. Something about that maelstrom, when the urge to write returned, allowed me to freewheel, and I started writing in ways that had seemed taboo. Like the story of a football prohibition, populated by Fish Men with ray guns, in which (among other things) a group of locals are liquidated because of their illicit viewing of a Carlton versus Collingwood match.

‘Our Year Without Footy’ was one of my first attempts at the warped Australiana that typifies much of Shirl. The story was strange and (hopefully) funny and had a ring of truth about it that I couldn’t have arrived at in any other way. And I don’t mean true simply in its speaking to our national sporting obsession, but true in the way the story’s largeness mirrors that of the culture it describes. Because, whatever else it was, the world of that football club on the edge of nowhere was large. Large actions on the playing field. Large sentiments shouted over the fence by red-faced men and women. Large drunken romances and large eruptions of violence. Large stories – yarns – told and re-told, full of exaggeration and humour and twists, told as much in jest as to ward off the looming terror of Monday.

If, as he claimed, Albert Camus owed all he knew about morality to football, for me the result of growing up in that environment was two-fold: gaining a front-row seat to the inner workings of my culture, and acquiring a sharpened eye for the large and the absurd.

Once I realised these things, and felt free enough to explore them, I was ready to go.

Catch Wayne Marshall launching Shirl at the Hill of Content Melbourne on Thursday 6 February, Brunswick Bound First Chapters on Friday 7 February, and Lerderderg Library Bacchus Marsh on Saturday 15 February.