Our interview with WV tutor and mentor Bethanie Blanchard, a freelance writer and critic based in Melbourne.
What’s your daily writing schedule like? Where do you do most of your writing?
The freelancing life means your days are dictated by however many essays or reviews you are trying to juggle. I generally write every day, but how much I do varies depending on which deadlines I have looming. If something is due the next day I might work for almost twenty hours straight, other days I might just leisurely read something that interests me. Having a day job has made me very disciplined. I get up at 6am and work beforehand, and sometimes will write until 1am when I get home. I’m neither a morning nor evening person, I just write whenever I can. As for where I write, I don’t have an office, so I do most of my writing in odd places. My workplace ends up being wherever my laptop is: my bed, my desk, the window of a cafe across the road.
What’s your favourite book of last year?
There were so many I loved from last year, but it’s hard to look past Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’. This was significant for so many reasons: the youngest author ever to win the Man Booker Prize, for the longest book in the Prize’s history. I am slightly in awe of Catton. ‘The Luminaries’ is such a wonderful, gripping tale, so you can enjoy it immensely just through plot; but structurally it’s incredible – the way it has an accelerating feel with each chapter exactly half the length of the one before. It’s a work that rewards you on so many levels. I also thought Christos Tsiolkas’ ‘Barracuda’ was his best yet, and I was fascinated by Alissa Nutting’s ‘Tampa’ too. Utterly different, but two of the most memorable, accomplished and challenging works from 2013.
When you read a book, are you already thinking about the review?
I really don’t treat a work I’m reviewing any differently than one I’m reading for pleasure. I’ve always read analytically – even when I’m reading a book I know I’ll never review I still have a pencil in my hand. It feels odd to read without it, I always mark interesting sentences or scribble notes in the margins. For most reviews you don’t have the luxury of time to completely read a work twice, however I type out every quote I’ve underlined from the text which essentially amounts to re-reading it. It’s not the quickest technique but it’s the way I’ve been doing it since university days. I can’t find another way that is as thorough and honours the writing.
How do you approach doing a review of something you really dislike?
For me, it’s less about like or dislike. I can personally dislike works about certain topics, while still being able to assess their literary merit. Literary criticism comes under a lot of scrutiny, particularly whenever a new publication is launched, due to a perceived timidity or partisanship. There’s much to be said about this, but I think most critics – whether working in film, TV, music or literature – get into it because they love the medium they’re reviewing. Otherwise why would you devote your time to it? If I truly believe a work is flawed or without merit, I am very careful to explain and justify why. I don’t go in for a whole review of zingers or scorn for scorn’s sake. You should always respect the fact that a writer spent a long time crafting it.
You’ve said that one of your most successful pieces was an article you wrote about Roald Dahl. So is literary journalism more than just reviewing the latest blockbuster?
It depends on the place you’re writing for. I was very lucky when I ran Liticism that I had the freedom to write about whatever I wished. The experience of literature, like most forms of art, is both about the work itself and the memories and feelings it evokes. The pleasure of returning to a book is remembering how you once felt. That was what I was trying to do with my essay on Dahl’s ‘Matilda’, to see what it was like returning to a work I loved in my childhood. (It helps that there’s an official Roald Dahl Day every year that keeps the hits coming on that particular piece!)
Is there any literary area that you feel hasn’t been written about enough?
Writers are in the business of self-examination, so there’s probably very few aspects of literature that haven’t been written about. When I find it I’ll be sure to fill the gap!
About Bethanie Blanchard
Bethanie Blanchard is a freelance writer and critic based in Melbourne. She is a books writer for Guardian Australia, the literary critic for Crikey with Liticism and a regular reviewer for The Australian. Her writing centres on literature, arts and culture, and has appeared in the Monthly, Guardian, Drum, Big Issue, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow and Limelight.
About the business of writing
Like this? You may also be interested in our Business Writing courses.