On Writing

Writers, editors, agents, publishers and more share their thoughts, experiences and stories.

Two years ago, I was given the key to my new writing studio, one of nine writers’ rooms nestled inside a Gothic Victorian house in Melbourne. Glenfern, built in 1857, was once the home of Captain Theodore and Lucy Boyd and their ten children in the late 1800s. Their third son, Arthur, married Minnie á Beckett and this painting couple were the grandparents of Arthur Boyd – one of several famous artistic and literary Boyds. 

Since my short story collection ‘Foreign Soil’ hit the shelves this May, many of the questions I’ve faced from readers have been around the research process for the book: how I was able to access the varied geographical locations, and tap into the local vernacular of a country, or region, or town. I myself am by no means a well-travelled person.

When historian Clare Wright first proposed a radical new book exploring the goldfields of Eureka, she was met with opposition. What was there possibly left to say about the Eureka Stockade that hadn’t already been said?

I began writing my latest book, ‘Transactions’, in Dubai, in early 2009, very soon after the Global Financial Crisis brought the hitherto obscenely rich Arabian Gulf emirate to its fiscal knees. As my own job at one of the city’s universities became precarious, and the airport’s car parks chocked with vehicles abandoned by unemployed expats running away from their debts, I made the astonishing realisation that my old guru Karl Marx had been right all along: that capitalists were busily digging their own graves.

Most primary teachers agree that the study of Australian Federation can be fairly dry for students. There are no ancient pyramids, fascinating pustule diseases or kings with reputations for chopping off their wives’ heads. Most of the key content relates to elderly men of Australian-European descent having lots of meetings and writing up notes on how the government of Australia should be run. Hardly stimulating if you’re 11 years old and think rubber band looms are the bee’s knees.

At this year’s Adelaide Writers Week, the Miles Franklin award winner – and mighty fine writer – Roger McDonald, had a deep dig at the Stella Prize. McDonald claimed that “they [women] were shooting themselves in the foot” by creating a literature prize exclusively for female authors.

Standing on Big Rock in the You Yangs on a clear day you can see the country in a wide sweep across to Corio Bay, then around to Geelong itself, the Barrabool Hills, Mount Anakie comes into view and behind it the Brisbane Ranges. The name You Yangs comes from the Aboriginal words Wurdi Yawang meaning “large mountain”.

The familiar Dublin greeting “What’s the story?” – the equivalent of Australia’s “G’day” – hints at a longstanding Irish tradition of oral history and storytelling, reflected in the capital city’s treasury of literary culture.

I pack my mother’s case.

“This is how you do it,” I say and I fold the nightdresses and the blouses and the skirts in neat piles and I roll up the undies and I place a lavender bag between the jumpers and I put the shoes in plastic bags.

On our first day, Anna sets us the task of interviewing someone and writing a profile piece to present in our final week. It would draw together everything that we’d learn: how to interview effectively and how to write clear, pared-back prose. “Painting” a vivid colour picture for the reader, using dialogue, anecdotes, observation and all five senses.