Working with Words: Jacinta Halloran

Melbourne GP Jacinta Halloran discovered a second career when she was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2007, leading to the publication of her first novel, Dissection, which was launched by Helen Garner. This year, she published her second novel, Pilgrimage. She’ll be taking part in a Wheeler Centre panel on travel and creative endeavour, Travelling with Intent, next Friday 16 November.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I guess we’re not counting my Year 7 horror story, ‘It’, published in Duce Maria, my school magazine. No? Then it was ‘Finding Joshua’: a short story published in Australian Doctor, a GP magazine, in 2005.

What’s the best part of your job?

Creating something from nothing. Having trained as a doctor, I still find creativity a novelty and a joy.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The grey, slow days when all the words are off-kilter and fake.

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

Getting my first publishing contract with Scribe (for my novel, Dissection). I literally jumped for joy when the email of offer came through.

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

The best advice came from my novel teacher at RMIT, Antoni Jach. Totally fed up with the novel I was writing, I’d come to class with a page of something in a new internal voice. After I’d read it aloud to the class, Antoni said to me, ‘Now that’s how you have to write your novel.’ And he was right: that page became the beginning of Dissection.

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

‘I think she has an endlessly appealing writing style, and the storyline has a ton of commercial potential.’ (From a US editor about my second novel, Pilgrimage.) The ‘ton of commercial potential’ bit was really, truly surprising.

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

I don’t make a living by writing: I also work as a GP. If I wasn’t writing then I’d be working in general practice full-time with a nagging suspicion that there was something else I should be doing with my life.

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

I think it depends on your definition of ‘taught’. Published writers often improve over their careers: I’m certainly banking on it. How are they learning to refine their skills? I imagine through careful reading of other writers, discussing their work with editors and writing peers, and of course through writing and more writing. But can creative writing be taught through institutions (which is what your question is most likely alluding to)? Yes, because these same activities (careful reading, peer review and redrafting) are the means by which students in creative writing programs also hone their skills. And a great teacher can also inspire would-be writers to dig deep and work harder.

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

Read the writers you love and those who challenge and extend you. Learn how to take criticism from others and learn whose criticism really matters. Don’t be too hard on yourself as you write: you can save the self-criticism until the draft is finished. And keep going. No one except you is going to care if you give up halfway through. Keep going until it’s done.

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

Both. E-books are so good for travelling, and I have bought the occasional hard copy online too. But nothing beats the local bookshop.

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

Well, since you ask me today … Frankie Addams (from The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, which I’ve just finished reading and loved every word of), so that I could tell her that better things are possible, and it’s right to anticipate and hope for change, and that she will escape her confined life and grow up to be wise and wonderful. Just the sort of thing that should be said to every 12-year-old girl.

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

The Owl Service by Alan Garner. It showed me the power and possibility of fiction at an early age. I’ve never forgotten it.

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