In the lead-up to Summer School workshop, we asked Vanessa Russell for her tips on life-writing and how to portray real people.
What are the greatest challenges in portraying real people in a memoir?
Getting taken to court. Getting sued. Getting your book suppressed by the courts. Sigh.
Do you think there is such a thing as an experience that should not be written about?
There are a few things you can’t legally write about, but overall you have to understand that all writers are monsters and life is just raw material. To put any kind of boundaries on what shouldn’t be written about is to hide things away and help let them fester. Get it all out, I reckon, but have good lawyers.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a book about an asylum seeker who I used to write to while he was in mandatory detention in Port Hedland. His name was Ahmad Shah Abed, and last year I went to get back in contact with him and was shocked to find he’d been murdered. I’m piecing together his life and death to see if mandatory detention, trauma from escaping the Taliban and living with a Temporary Protection Visa contributed to his death.
I’m also mentoring writers and bringing together my studies in mindfulness and writing to give writers strategies that will get them writing, keep them writing and shut up that infernal inner critic.
What’s your take on the celebrity autobiography phenomenon?
If the ghostwriter is getting paid fairly and is getting their due credit then that’s great. I personally don’t mind because I’ll read anything, but it has to have a giant dose of misery to keep me interested. Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness, about her obsessions with her weight, was fascinating and showed the pain and insecurity fame can bring. Even though I’m not interested in sport, I also enjoyed Andre Agassi’s Open, mainly because it showed how utterly unhappy and neurotic he has been for most of his life.
How can a person know if their memorable experience is something that other people are going to want to read about?
A good start is when you talk about your experience to strangers and they don’t get watery eyes from trying not to yawn. You also have to look at your motives: if you’re doing it for revenge or catharsis then it’s going to be lousy to read. If you research and find that nobody else has written on the same subject as you, then go for your life. Otherwise, if you’re writing about a subject that others have covered, look at making it funnier or have more suffering or have that certain something else that will differentiate it for a publishing company.
How did you get your start in writing?
At the age of seven I tried hand-writing the entire Bible then gave up at the end of Genesis 1:1. After that, I didn’t write for a decade or two. In my late twenties I wrote an execrable book but it held the kernel of the story for Holy Bible. Soon after I went to uni and majored in creative writing and tried not to think about its lack of money-earning potential and instead focused on working at my writing and getting better. Then I did a PhD in creative writing and, after I graduated and rewrote Holy Bible, Sleepers decided to publish it and here I am, an overnight success.
What would you like written on your epitaph?
She gave everyone a chance, until they proved themselves to be d**kheads.
What was the last book to have a strong emotional impact on you?
I just read The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny about an Iraqi refugee called Ali Al Jenabi. The author writes from the point of view of Ali and details the unimaginable agony of Abu Ghraib then Ali’s escape to Indonesia where he briefly got into people smuggling to pay for his family to get out of Iraq. At the end of it, I could not believe Ali still hasn’t been granted a permanent visa in Australia, but instead lives with the uncertainty of a removal pending visa.
Which book do you most wish you’d written yourself?
Fifty Shades of Grey. So I could retire and live at the top of a mountain and not have to worry about my lack of money-earning potential.
Is there a person’s whose autobiography you can’t wait to be written?
I’d love to know what has been going on inside the head of Michael Stipe of R.E.M. for all these years.
About Vanessa Russell
Vanessa Russell is the author of the novel 'Holy Bible' and the memoir 'Loosestrife: Love and Losing It'. She has taught creative writing and writing for the media at the University of Melbourne and has a PhD in Creative Writing