Working with Words: Melissa Lucashenko

Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby is the winner of this year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing. It has also won the 2013 Queensland Literary Award, Best Fiction, and was longlisted for the 2014 Stella Prize.

We spoke to Melissa about her first poem, influenced by Alan Marshall, the joy of not having to sit in a revolting office, the personality type that makes an artist, and how Keri Hulme’s Bone People showed her that ‘lives like the ones I knew belonged in literary fiction’.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a poem about a man shooting an eagle in a combined high schools magazine in about 1979. ‘The bird is a plummeting shriek of brown’, I wrote at 13, probably influenced by Alan Marshall’s great story ‘My Bird’. I never published anything for another ten years, and then it was academic writing.

What’s the best part of your job?

I wake up and every single morning thank Buddha that I don’t have to go sit in some revolting office, or talk to anyone if I don’t want to. That’s freedom.

What’s the worst part of your job?

It can get quite lonely if you don’t structure your life intelligently. But that’s what you choose as a writer. And besides, lots of people are lonely at times. That’s how capitalism functions best, by creating and then exploiting isolation.

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

Getting a letter from UQP in 1995 telling me they wanted to publish my first novel, Steam Pigs. I was in hospital nursing my one-day-old son. That was a pretty awesome week. Also having an hour in private with Keri Hulme at the Dreaming Festival in 1997 and meeting Peter Carey for a nanosecond in London in 2000.

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

Oh I have fantasies about running a funky little café, like most people do. Or possibly robbing banks. Could I combine the two I wonder?

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

Very few people have ever given me any. My family never have, and I didn’t study writing beyond high school. I do remember an older Aboriginal woman firmly advising me to only write in my spare time as a hobby, because there’s no money in it. She was absolutely correct but being a young egomaniac I was enraged by her suggestion, and it spurred me on. So that’s probably simultaneously the best and the worst advice. Barry Lopez’s advice to ‘read everything and anything’ is also useful.

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

Reading a very stupid review of Steam Pigs riddled with factual errors by a middle-class twit who clearly hadn’t finished the book – it was in some Queensland law journal or other – who described the main character Sue Wilson as an alcoholic. I thought what the fuck? Is that alcoholism? Sue likes a drink but I never wrote her as an alcoholic.

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

A little bit. You can learn about syntax and character development. But there’s a personality type that makes an artist, and you can’t learn that, it’s innate. I have a conceit that there is a particular look in the eye of a good artist that isn’t in the eyes of others. You see it captured in well-constructed author photos sometimes. It may be Graham Greene’s sliver of ice, come to think of it.

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

I nearly always buy my books at Avid Reader in Brisbane because I never ever want Avid to close down. I would weep if it did.

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

Don’t listen to advice.

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

Oh, so many. Atticus Finch. Kerwyn Holmes. The protagonist of Alexie Sherman’s Reservation Blues. I’m magnetically drawn to eccentrics and Elders, so I’d grab most at the chance to sit around a campfire with The Harbour Master from The Swan Book, who is both those things. Dunno if he’d talk to me though. If he wouldn’t then I would go and visit Monkey from Monkey Magic. His nature is irrepressible, after all!

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

The Bone People by Keri Hulme. It showed me at about 25 that lives like the ones I knew belonged in literary fiction. Black lives, working class rural lives. The stories of the people who are simultaneously ordinary and marginal. It was like jumping into a freezing cold river on a hot summer day. Toni Morrison’s Beloved had an equal impact but I read it only a few years ago when I was already formed as a writer, and much older to boot.

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