This week, Amy Espeseth was longlisted for the prestigious Warwick Prize for Writing (UK) for her debut novel, Sufficient Grace, which won the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and was longlisted for the Stella Prize. Amy is a writer, publisher and academic who lectures in both writing and publishing at NMIT.
We spoke to her about writing to make sense of her world, why writing always seems impossible, and what she learned from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
It’s hard to remember the first thing I had published, but I do remember my most formative writing partnership. As middle-school kids, a dear friend and I co-wrote musicals for the Barron Buttercups, our all-girl 4-H group, to perform. The work often involved altering the words to traditional American folk songs and 1980s pop songs to extol the virtues of Wisconsin agriculture. The musicals weren’t published, but they were enthusiastically performed to great local acclaim/chagrin. That no scripts survive is both a loss and a mystery.
What’s the best part of your job?
I write to make sense of world. I don’t think I’ve done it yet, but trying to find the reasons and patterns in my past and my place has been very valuable. There isn’t always a reason, but there’s often a pattern.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Writing always seems impossible. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether what is written is good or not, so the process can feel like walking in the dark. I’ve been blessed by having great mentors, editors and writing partners to help me find my way.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Sometimes, readers will let me know that my book touched them. These brief writers’ festival conversations, cards and letters, and online messages have really touched me.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Write what you know. That’s the best advice there is.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work? A reviewer described my book as ‘like Winter’s Bone and God of Small Things had a baby and adopted it out to Laura Ingalls Wilder.” I thought that was fantastic.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
If I wasn’t writing, I’d love to be a farmer. I can’t stand to have dirt touch my skin, though, so I don’t think it would work out. My childhood dream was to be a dentist.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
The craft of creative writing can be taught, but creativity can’t. As a lecturer, I focus on developing my students’ reading, reasoning, editing and organisational skills. We devour good work and hope it changes us.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Read everything; learn to use semicolons; get a day job.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Whenever possible, I buy my books in physical bookshops. I love to shop at Readings in Carlton. When academic books are out of my reach physically or financially, I’ll try to find secondhand copies online.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath taught me that the lives of rural people have a significant and honourable place in literature. I’d love to take Rose of Sharon out to dinner and give her a good feed. I suppose we’d talk about home.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
My childhood immersion into the stories and rhythms of the King James Bible seems to affect almost everything I write. The themes, cadences, characters and extended metaphors of the bible – especially the books of poetry and prophecy – remain endlessly fascinating to me.
Amy Espeseth is the author of Sufficient Grace.