Working with Words: Alan Attwood

Alan Attwood has been the editor of the Big Issue Australia since 2006. He is a Walkley award winner and former New York correspondent for the Age and Sydney Morning Herald. He has also been a columnist for the Age and has published two novels, one of which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

We spoke to Alan about refusing to look at spreadsheets, the life of books, why your editor is NOT your enemy … and his desire to dine with a woman from a Harold Robbins novel.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I started early. Self-publishing. At state school I had an inspiring librarian who, as a project, made us write our autobiographies… at the age of nine. I still have mine, stapled into a brown folder, called ‘Adventures In Life’. It is not very long.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Anything involving budgets or spreadsheets. I refuse to look at spreadsheets. I think they have something to do with bed-making.

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

Apart from first publication (1966; see above) I would say whenever someone says they have seen a book of mine in a library. Sometimes they have even read it. I have learned that while most journalism disappears fairly quickly, books have a life. Sometimes quite a handy one.

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

It was so memorable, I have forgotten it. But I have learned (and sometimes even tell people) that an editor is NOT your enemy. I have also learned that the hardest part of writing is getting something, anything, down. Once you have some kind of a first draft, however clunky, then you can start working on it. Until then, you have nothing… Oh – I was also once advised that the best response to a lousy review was NEVER to let on that you have even seen it. Responding simply validates the review.

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

One book reviewer (female; now moderately well known for her own work) suggested – on the basis of a book she didn’t care for – that I was clearly a deeply disturbed individual. She might have been right.

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

If I had any talent (which I don’t) I’d like to be a musician. Life as a gardener would be more feasible.

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

I have never in my life taken a creative writing class. To learn about writing, read. I fear, too, that many people enrol in classes as an excuse NOT to confront the hard part – actually sitting down, alone, and confronting a blank sheet of paper.

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

Just do it! All you need is a pencil and paper.

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

Both. Though I have a soft spot for old/second-hand bookstores where only the owner knows where things are.

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

One of those women from any novel by Harold Robbins, who would probably want to skip dinner and get to the scenes usually described around the end of Chapter Five.

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

Putting aside Harold Robbins, I’d say books recommended to me by that state school librarian (William books, even Biggles, historical books…). He got kids excited about books and reading. And that’s the best pathway to writing.

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