Through the streets of your town

Monday, September 3, 2018
By: 
Nick Gadd interviewed by Amelia Theodorakis

A portrait of Nick Gadd standing
Nick Gadd

There’s an idea that the suburbs are banal, but Nick Gadd believes that there are seeds for stories everywhere in the suburban environment. Ahead of his workshop in Prahran, we spoke to Nick to find out how he finds inspiration in the everyday.

It could be said that 'place is people and people are place'. How useful is place/setting in informing the identities of our characters, and vice versa?

We all have places that are particularly significant – the locations where we grew up, had formative experiences, met significant others, and so on. We carry these around with us in personal cartographies unique to ourselves. Your city is not the same as my city, or anyone else’s. If you write fiction, or non-fiction, think about the locations that have emotional resonance for your characters - you will understand the characters better, and it will add depth to what you write about them. 

Your upcoming workshop 'Writing the Suburbs' will explore how our ordinary suburban environments can be used to imbue our stories with a strong sense of place. In regards to your work, what do you find most inspiring about the Australian suburban environment?

I love the traces of the past that linger in odd little fragments of signage and architecture. They are like keys which open the doors to the lives of people who have walked the streets before us. If you get out of your car and start wandering, lifting your eyes above street level, there are clues everywhere. For a writer, these traces of the past can be the starting point for stories. For an idea of what I mean, see my piece about a Victorian quack doctor, Dr King, which I stumbled on via an old painted sign on a construction site.  

When it comes to writing place and setting, what are some common mistakes writers make in their work?

There’s an idea that suburban environments are banal and not worthy of being written about. But if you were an alien from the outer reaches of the galaxy arriving on Earth, a local shopping mall or milk bar would be as fascinating as the Pyramids.  The trick is to remain curious and find everything interesting. Anyone can write about a place that is far-flung and exotic. But to find something new to say about a place that seems familiar – such as an ordinary shopping strip – that is a more interesting challenge. That’s what I tried to do in my blog Melbourne Circle, about a walk circumnavigating the whole of Melbourne.

For people who might not be familiar with the Situationists and the idea of psychogeography, can you explain what they are and how they relate to writing place?

The Situationists were a group of French theorists of the 1950s whose work has influenced a wide range of literary and artistic practices. The aspect of their theory that appeals to me is the “derive” which involves “drifting” around an urban environment, on the alert for encounters with the hidden life and history of the place. “Psychogeography”, which is a quite broad term, is associated with this approach, and tends to focus on aspects of place that are lost, secret, abandoned and forgotten. Of course, the Situationists weren’t the first or last writers to be interested in cities, and others whose work will be mentioned in the workshop include people like Baudelaire, Thomas de Quincey, Virginia Woolf and Rebecca Solnit. These writers, with their various approaches, can inspire us to see our own urban environments with new eyes.

About Nick Gadd

Nick Gadd is the author of ‘Ghostlines’ (Scribe, 2008), which won a Victorian Premiers Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2007 and a Ned Kelly Award for best first crime novel. He has written non-fiction about signwriting and psychogeography for ‘Meanjin’, ‘Kill Your Darlings’, ‘Griffith Review’ and ‘The Guardian’. Nick was the 2015 winner of the Nature Conservancy Australia Nature Writing Prize and was shortlisted in the essay category of the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2015. He wrote the blog Melbourne Circle about a two-year walk around Melbourne. He lives in Yarraville.

About Amelia Theodorakis

Amelia Theodorakis is a Writers Victoria Program volunteer, and a Melbourne-based writer working on her first poetry collection. You can check out her poetry on her website.

Whether you write fiction, non-fiction, poetry or memoir, insights from Writing the Suburbs. held on 16 September, will stimulate ideas. Includes a workshop, writing time and a walk. Presented in partnership with the City of Stonnington Library and Information Service.