Working with Words: Nicole Hayes

Nicole Hayes is a freelance writer, editor and teacher based in Melbourne. She teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne and Phoenix Park Neighbourhood House. Nicole’s first novel, The Whole of My World, has been shortlisted in the 2014 Young Australian Best Book Awards and longlisted for the 2014 Golden Inky Award.

We spoke to Nicole about why there’s never been a better time to be a writer in Melbourne, how it took 14-plus years to get her novel, The Whole of My World, published, and why you should ‘write what you love’ rather than ‘write what you know’.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Does my primary school magazine count? Actually, I remember my first ‘real’ published piece was in the Age, as a letter to the editor, written when I was about 14. I used a nom de plume – ‘Tezza’, after Terry Wallace, one of my favourite footballers at the time. I wrote about how boring it was to live in Glen Waverley. It was the early eighties, and every house was L-shaped cream brick veneer with the occasional weatherboard thrown in for aesthetic relief. The Glen Shopping Centre looked like a faded Lego construction, its only cultural offerings were a craft shop and a Chinese takeaway. No bookshop or cinema. But it was surrounded by footy ovals.

What’s the best part of your job?

Meeting readers and other writers, particularly at schools and festivals, where everyone seems to want to talk books, writing, and reading. I love hearing what people are reading, particularly young people. The cultural conversation in Melbourne is so vibrant right now, and – gradually – becoming more inclusive. Literary culture has never been richer. It’s a great time to be a writer in this city.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The money. I’m probably not meant to say that, but it’s really challenging to prioritise writing over better-paid work when the mortgage is due, or Christmas is approaching. Other than that, honestly? There’s no bad part. Even when I’m frustrated and hitting a wall creatively, or on deadline and stressed, I always make myself remember those years in unpublished hell. There is no comparison. I’ve also had some really crappy jobs in the past – overseas and in Australia. Brutal jobs. Teaching about writing, talking about writing – and the writing itself when I get to do it – is a delight, even when it’s not. I bet that makes me really annoying to be around.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Getting the call from my agent saying that Random House wanted to publish The Whole of My World. After 14-plus years of hearing nothing but rejection for this novel, as well as several others and a couple of film scripts, finally getting an offer felt other worldly. I will remember it forever.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best is also a play on the worst. It’s a variation of that annoying writing aphorism to write what you know. What’s the fun in that? What are you going to learn? Instead, I subscribe to the ‘write what you love’ piece of wisdom. It takes a really long time to write a book, and even longer to rewrite it. And after it’s published, you’ll be expected to talk about it. A lot. Forever, if you’re lucky. It had want to be something you care about.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Until several reviewers mentioned it, I didn’t realise that The Whole of My World was the first novel about AFL that featured a female character, or a female fan. Not a groupie, but a girl who loved footy. It was also the first novel about AFL written by a woman. I guess on some level I knew it was breaking new ground, but I didn’t realise just how new. I was stunned no one had done it before, given how many women and girls love football across the country.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Define ‘making a living’.

Let’s pretend that I do, actually, make enough money to live. If I couldn’t do this, I’d probably work in radio. I used to do a lot of community radio, and really loved the studio, the interview process, the editing and producing of a radio show. I’d definitely head toward that field. Having said that, I’d still be writing after hours – even without the money. (Just don’t tell my publisher.)

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Disclaimer – I teach creative writing and get paid for it. But I wouldn’t if I didn’t think it could make a difference. Writing absolutely can be taught. Which is not to say there isn’t an aspect of writing that is innate. There is. Some people just get words. They can move them and shape them to do what they want, without training or instruction beyond an understanding of basic grammar. But not many people fit this mould. And I’d argue that even the ‘natural’ writer can improve with guidance and attention to craft. A really good creative writing program – and I accept that not all would qualify – can nurture and expand on natural ability over time. I also think that people who struggle to write can learn how to write well. You can’t teach brilliance, but you can definitely teach storytelling.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Write a lot, for sure, but also make sure you read a lot. I’m amazed at how many aspiring writers tell me they don’t read. That defies logic.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I try to buy locally, whether online or in bookshops, as long as the books are available. I love the experience of being in a bookshop. I have a rule that I won’t leave an indie bookshop without buying at least one book. I’m okay walking out of the corporates empty-handed, but not the indies. (This is not something we should mention to my husband.)

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

I would love to have dinner with Johnny Wheelwright, the author-narrator of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I spent most of my teen years besotted with all things Irving, largely due to his acerbic observations and delicious descriptions. Johnny epitomised this. I felt incredibly sophisticated when he told me that the only way to get an American’s attention was ‘to tax them or draft them or kill them’. And I was slayed by his depiction of Owen’s ‘wrecked voice’ in ALL CAPS. He was so rebellious and witty and, I was convinced, handsome. Besides, who can resist a man whose ‘life is a reading list’?

The first thing I’d ask Johnny is if he’s still a Christian. I’m betting now he’d say no.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. After I read that novel I briefly stopped writing. I felt so overwhelmed by its power. Its simplicity. I remember getting to the end the first time, my heart pounding, too drained to even cry, and thinking to myself, what the hell do you think you’re doing pretending you’re a writer? I’d just read the perfect book. Why even bother when I knew I couldn’t write anything as powerful as The Road?

The problem is, I couldn’t just stop writing, even if I wanted to. It’s not a choice for me. I quickly found myself back at my desk, choosing, instead, to aim higher, work harder, and be better. My books, I decided, had to matter. At least to me, but hopefully to my readers too.

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