Cassandra Atherton


Cassandra is an accomplished fiction writer and poet and has published short stories and poems/prose poems in a range of Australian and international journals. She has a novel, The Man Jar, published by Printed Matter Press (New York and Tokyo) and a chapbook of poetry, After Lolita, published by Ahadada Press (Toronto and Tokyo). Work on a third book, dealing with the role of public intellectuals in the United States, is to be published in July 2013 by Australian Scholarly Press.

What made you want to be a writer? In grade four I was given a Roget’s Thesaurus.  I fell in love with it.  I used to take it to bed with me, place it under my pillow and wish that I would somehow absorb all the words overnight.  It was a love of words that led me to writing and then to my mentor, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, who honed my skills at university.  He made me want to be a better writer with a unique voice.  He taught me to play with words.

 What is the best way to get a book published? A publisher will be more interested in a writer if they have a record of publications in print and online journals. Most publishers don’t like to take risks on writers, so they often choose those writers who have endorsements from other publishers or editors.  When I first started publishing my work, there weren’t many online journals, so I had to send my pieces — snail mail — to publishers with a SASE.  After I had my first short story published in Island Magazine, it perpetuated a series of publications in the following months. I think it was because editors of Australian journals often read the full gamut of national journals each quarter and so my name, on some level, was familiar to them after my publication in IslandPublishing in good journals and writing a succinct and memorable covering letter/email always gets a publisher’s or editor’s attention.  And it doesn’t hurt if your manuscript is a knock-out!

 How should you choose a publisher? A publisher and writer should be a good fit with one another – like a bee and a yellow dahlia.  It is important that a writer respects the publisher he/she is approaching and feels as if his/her writing complements their current stable of writers. I always make sure that I am happy with the production quality of a publisher’s books.  It might sound superficial, but I don’t want a cheap looking book with a flimsy cover.  I also ask about the editing process.  Books you have to edit yourself do not have the same quality or finish as a publisher who hires an editor to make changes and track changes for the writer to consider.  I always make sure that I read several books which have recently been published by the publishers I am interested in; this gives me a feel for the style they prefer and the themes they are promoting.  I also like to take note of whether any of their books have won awards – I was lucky enough for my publisher to nominate my book for a number of prizes, one of which I won for my novel.  While at my age and at this point in my career I am not really interested in vanity publishing or paying a reading fee or a subsidy to a publisher to read or publish my work (although I guess I could definitely hit a dry spell in the coming years and change my mind), that doesn’t mean an emerging writer might not be interested in these forms of publishing.  Publishing a first book this way can lead to a seriously good publisher for your second book, if you can prove the first one had a good, strong readership.  But however you choose to publish your work, there is a wonderful, magical, terrifying moment of seeing it for sale and knowing you have a readership.

What input did the publisher have over your work? The publisher had a quite a lot of input over my publications and there were certain decisions I had to make as a writer, which centred on whether or not I was convinced that the changes suggested would make my manuscript better.  Most of the time, the publisher is right.  They know what works in the current market and they are looking to make your book the best it can be – for you and for them!  I wanted to title my novel Crush, for what I saw as its triple meaning – to be crushed; to crush something; the have a crush on someone.  They thought it sounded too much like a book of teenage fiction and changed it to The Man Jar.  That didn’t really concern me, nor did the suggestions they had for some of my chapter endings, with which I dutifully tinkered.  However, a few years ago I was asked to change the entire thrust of my manuscript on secondary school teaching by my literary agent. It was a memoir and so I didn’t want to change it.  I don’t regret my decision, I have had a series of excerpts published in journals, but let’s just say it is still sitting on my desktop unpublished as a book!

Now you’re published, what comes next? I’m always thinking about the next publication before the previous one is published.  You have to keep up the momentum.  While your name and writing is circulating it is important to publish more writing.  When you have a book you are (somewhat) in the public’s eye, you can’t afford to take a break.  Currently, I am writing a critical book on public intellectuals but I have a chapbook of poetry I have recently finished and I have started working on a novel which I like to think of as a cross between The Ghost and Mrs Muir and Cleveland Amory’s The Proper Bostonians.

How do you juggle writing with everything else? I am very fortunate that my job as a Senior Lecturer builds writing and researching into my work hours.  Prior to working at MelbourneUniversity and DeakinUniversity I worked in secondary schools.  I used to write short stories at the back of the hall when the students were undertaking their examinations.  I liked the subversive feeling that if my story got published, I would be paid twice for the same hours of work.  I also used to write in my lunch breaks, late at night and often during family dinners!  One of the things I am renowned for as a writer is having multiple windows open on my computer, each with a different project that I constantly switch between.  On any day I could have my students’ correction as one window, a book review I am writing as a second window and a half finished prose poem as my third window.

What can you do to promote your self and your writing? A writer needs an online persona.  A publisher is keen for a writer to write a blog, upload excerpts of work to their website and advertise via facebook and twitter.  These are the things by which a publisher can measure your popularity and you can prove to a publisher that you have a market for your book.  It is powerful advertising and reaches a broad audience.  Attending other writers’ book launches, going to writing festivals, attending events at the Wheeler Centre and making contacts is another way of promoting yourself to other writers, editors and sometimes even publishers.  Network, network, network!

 Any hints for unpublished/emerging writers submitting their work? Be tenacious and do your research.  Don’t send out the same covering letter/email to multiple journals or publications.  Tailor your letters/emails/writing to the publisher and tell them why you have sent your work to them, specifically.  You can’t expect a publisher to want to publish your book if you won’t read theirs!



I can’t write for you anymore. Not today, not tomorrow or even yesterday. Poisoned pen. Frozen between my fingers. I’ve found somebody now. He’s dead, but he’s perfect for me. When I sleep he paints my body violet. Brush strokes prickling my hip bones. Rash. He paints the air above me. Pygmalion. Painting me to life. Like I haven’t lived before this moment.

He straddles me in my sleep, punishing me for every second I wasted on you. Introducing me to violins and grapes. Scrawling Blake across my stomach. He pushes his thumb into my mouth and I suck the murky rainbows from beneath his fingernails. Bittermoon.

At first all I could think about was you. Your nails, your tongue and Wordsworth. I pictured your legs between hers. Hot pink backdrop. Caged canary. Monogamy is not for bohemians. Faithlessness is the key to an empty twenty-first. Everyone thought you were Don Juan when you were really just Rip Van Winkle. Wake up.

Slither beneath my crisp apple sheets. In the mornings. On alternate days. Between ten and twelve. Free float like the worm at the bottom of my tequila bottle. Translucent. Engorged. Try not to remember what it was like with her. Try not to conjure her large lips. Devouring my image. As I fade to black.

The train shuddered as it snaked its way through the loop. Flavell sliced the shiny peel from his apple crescent and tucked it into the envelope at his side. He’d travel the loop until it was dark, crossing and uncrossing his ankles. Waiting. Changing seats at every station. Moving the envelope from seat to seat.  At 2.37 he sketched her leaning against the Kensington station sign, sipping a hazelnut macchiato. She was there again at 3.10 with his Degas umbrella. He sketched her with longer hair this time. My hair. Her eyes. He wrote ‘fairy floss and turpentine’ and turned the page.


The genesis of the piece…the inspiration or trigger, process, difficulties. ‘Triptych’ is special to me as it is the first piece I had published in Meanjin and it felt like a huge achievement at the time.  I have always loved exhuming famous writers in my work.  This piece began after I had read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.  I wanted to craft a modern Pygmalion that foregrounded the idea of the body as a canvas.  I’ve always loved the idea of writing on the body and many of my short stories investigate this theme of indelible words on the skin.  The character, Flavell, is based on Daphne Du Maurier’s character of a similar name, in her novel Rebecca.  I wanted to associate him with apples like Nabokov’s Humbert to demonstrate his temptation.  In my writing process, I always start with some kind of literary obsession and build a story around my intertexts.  I like to write in long hand on paper to begin and then eventually transfer my words to my computer.  I always find it hard to relinquish a piece of writing – I think I could keep tinkering with them all for a decade, if I had the time.  I can see how Flaubert would spend the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it!

Links to Cassandra’s work


Griffith Review:

After Lolita (an excerpt in e-book format):


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