Working with Words: Karen Andrews
Karen Andrews is program manager of the Emerging Writers' Festival. She is also an author and publisher at Miscellaneous Press, with two books under her belt - the picture book Surprise! and most recently, Crying in the Car: Reflections on Life and Motherhood. She also blogs at Miscellaneous Mum.
We spoke to Karen about why being an academic is mad (according to her friends), why she’d go out for dinner with Hamlet, and how you should choose the people you show your work to wisely.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
It’s quite embarrassing, actually: I was doing work experience in a publishing house that specialises in local histories, suburb by suburb, in Sydney. They were doing an update on Balmain at the time I was there and I was put in charge of the tiny bit of copy that needed writing and inserting into the existing text. So that’s what I did.
And when it came back from the printers … there was a spelling mistake. Oops.
What’s the best part of your job?
That exquisite joy deep in your chest when you sense that what you’re writing is coming together and it is working.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The odd bout of utter self-doubt.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
I’ll never forget taking the phone call saying that I’d won the local section of the Alan Marshall Short Story Award (2008). I remember hanging up the phone and thinking to myself, ‘Gosh, maybe I’m not a hack’. At the awards ceremony, talking with the judge Cate Kennedy about the ending to the story she said she thought it needed tweaking. I disagreed at the time, but when I looked at it later I thought she was right all along. Back to work I went!
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Two pieces of advice have always stayed with me: Thomas Keneally’s phrase, ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’, which is basically the same as that old favourite, ‘You can’t edit a blank page’.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
When Kirsten Krauth interviewed me on her Wild Colonial Girl blog and said, ‘Andrews’ style has an austerity and sophistication that suspends and transfixes you’, I admit a blush rose to my cheeks. Not only was that a very lovely thing to see in print, it was the first time someone had articulated one of the goals of my writing: trying to be ‘literary’ (or ‘quality’ would fit just as well), but also readable.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I don’t make a full-time living writing; if I wanted to devote my energies purely to blogging that could be possible, but I’ve never been interested in being a full-time blogger either. My work being program manager at the Emerging Writers’ Festival is a great fit in many ways – every day I’m there I’m part of a wider conversation about writing and how writers can develop professionally in these somewhat uncertain times, when we feel pressure to do it for free, as well as cultivating our ‘online presences’ … (the list goes on). It can be exhausting as I completely empathise.
I’ve also gone through periods when I’ve wanted to be an academic – but then all my academic friends clobber me over the head saying, ‘Don’t be mad!’
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
The mechanics of storytelling can be taught – otherwise there wouldn’t be so many ‘how to’ books about creative writing available on the market, let alone courses and degrees. I have been a student of a creative writing class myself, and while I’m not sure what I learned there that couldn’t have happened to me sitting alone in a room punching away at the keys, it did teach me other things: how the publishing industry works – which is equally (if not more) important – or the value of networking and sending your work out, picking yourself up after rejection etc.
It depends on the teacher too – my teacher was Doris Leadbetter, well known in Melbourne, who sadly passed away just after my daughter was born. I value her influence on me so much I mention her on the acknowledgments page in Crying in the Car.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Don’t be too sensitive about your writing.
If you need to show your work to someone, choose that person wisely.
Some people just don’t ‘get it’ – try not to let them bother you.
Consider joining an arts centre or attend writers’ festivals – it’s always nice to step out and remember you’re part of a wider community.
Read even more.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both – but nothing beats a terrific bookshop.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark – then I could figure out once and for all if he really went mad for a while, or if he was bunging it on.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
The book that had the most impact on my life is Dracula. I was in Year Nine when I first read it, the perfect age: sexual symbolism, blood, drama, a charismatic villain – all I wanted! I still get a thrill reading the passage when the ship carrying Dracula is at sea, on the way to England. Rollicking fun. In recent years, the only book that would even come close is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.