Working with Words: Maria Tumarkin

In this week’s Working with Words, we talk to writer, cultural historian and Long View essayist Maria Tumarkin about writing, the value of self-doubt and teaching creative non-fiction.

Maria Tumarkin: 'Don’t fight doubt ... Writers who do not doubt themselves are charlatans (with a few notable exceptions).'

Maria Tumarkin: 'Don't fight doubt ... Writers who do not doubt themselves are charlatans (with a few notable exceptions).'

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

An article on sleep called ‘Stranger in the Night’ published in Meanjin in 1999 by the wonderful Stephanie Holt, who also published my second piece of writing – this one was about a baby born in the eye of Cyclone Tracy – the following year.

What’s the best part of your job?

Undoubtedly, the best part is doing my own thing. I’ve always craved independence, which is why I hated being a child. I just love it that these days I am beholden to one.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Constantly worrying about money. When will it be possible for writers to survive in Australia? This is a rhetorical question, I know, but really, when?

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

Deciding (not that long ago) that writing is what I do, that this is who I am.

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

Best advice: the difference between writers and non-writers is that writers write.

Worst advice: Do market research.

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

That I am reluctant to divulge personal information in my writing. If only.

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

Making documentaries, although I am not particularly good at teamwork.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what do you think?

I teach creative non-fiction at Writers Victoria once a month and it feels like an honest job. You recognise people, who have something important to say and you encourage them to say it. You treat people’s words and ideas with respect. You discuss books that will outlive all of us. You make sure you don’t pontificate or lecture. It really is okay.

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

Don’t fight doubt. Accept it as part of the process. Writers who do not doubt themselves are charlatans (with a few notable exceptions).

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

70% from bookshops, 30% online.

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

Hmmm…. I don’t know. I haven’t been reading much fiction lately, have been too excited by narrative non-fiction.

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

In the spirit of evasion, let me tell you of a book that made a huge impression on me this year – it is Tony Judt’s Memory Chalet. By the time he wrote this book, Judt, who was suffering from a motor neuron disease, was completely immobilised. He would compose parts of the book in his head and then dictate them. It’s incredible. Similarly, Christopher Hitchens’s essays in his final year have made an indelible impression. Two great men, who wrote till the very last moment. You have to bow to that.

Portrait of Maria Tumarkin

Maria Tumarkin writes books, essays, reviews, and pieces for performance and radio; she collaborates with sound and visual artists and has had her work carved into dockside tiles. She is the author of four books of ideas. Her fourth (and latest) book Axiomatic won the 2018 Melbourne Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award (US), the Stella Prize, and the Prime Minister’s, NSW and Victorian Premiers’ Awards. Axiomatic was named a New Yorker Top 10 Book of 2019.

Maria is a recipient of the 2020 Windham Campbell Prize in the category of nonfiction. She holds a PhD in cultural history and is a senior lecturer in the creative writing program at the University of Melbourne.

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