Working with Words: Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist specialising in cultural criticism. She co-founded the award-winning publishing project Is Not Magazine and culture website The Enthusiast and is currently national film editor of The Thousands network of city guides. Her writing has appeared in the Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Crikey and Meanjin. She is currently working on her first book, Out of Shape, to be published by Affirm Press.

Mel was the recipient of one of our Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships (supported by the Readings Foundation) in 2012. She is currently in residence at the Wheeler Centre, and took time out from writing her book to be interviewed for Working with Words.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I like to think my grade one teacher, Mrs Leith, was my first editor and publisher. I’d been writing little stories on my own, but she helped me produce my first ‘book’, lovingly illustrated by me with typewritten text and a laminated cover. It was called ‘Two Warriors’, and when it was finished, it sat in our classroom’s library corner. I was indescribably proud.

What’s the best part of your job?

That exhilarating feeling that my brain is firing on all cylinders. I get such a thrill from digging up something wonderful in my research, finding a surprising connection between diverse aspects of culture and everyday life, or hitting on a phrase that expresses an idea perfectly. It’s like slotting the last piece of a puzzle in place to find the picture makes sense.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The penury, and the endless pressure I put on myself to succeed. I am a crueller taskmaster than any boss would be.

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

Signing my first publishing contract in January. Since I was a kid I have held up ‘a book deal’ as a major life goal, probably because the media always present it as such a galvanising rite of passage for a writer. I was determined to be the youngest published author in Australia and set myself a deadline of my fifteenth birthday to complete my cringeworthy YA fantasy manuscript. I was crushed when I heard about another 14-year-old who had already published a book. So yeah, finally inking that deal a mere 20 years later is a major triumph for me.

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

I have a Richard Ford quote on a Post-It on my pinboard: ‘Try to think of others’ good luck as an encouragement for yourself.’

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

I was once invited to appear on Channel Ten’s The Project as an expert on the random videochat website Chatroulette, since I’d just written an article in the Age about it. Afterwards I made the mistake of reading the reactions on Twitter. At the time I’d just had my hair cut in a very short, severe fringe, and someone tweeted that I ‘looked like [I’d] fallen over and broken [my] fringe.’

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

I honestly struggle to imagine pursuing a career that doesn’t involve writing. Once I thought about running a Disco Beer Ghost Tour. I would trundle one of those Eskys on wheels around various CBD buildings and regale my increasingly tipsy customers with made-up scary stories about the resident ghosts. At pre-arranged points, associates clad in sheets would leap from the shadows as party music began to play. Then everyone would dance, and the ghosts would crack a tinnie.

Since I recently saw the latest Step Up movie, this plan sounds more reasonable than ever, but liquor licensing regulations would probably put a stop to it.

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

Unfortunately, writing courses aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you tools to overcome lots of common stumbling blocks in writing, and they throw you into a supportive environment with mentors, peers and potential industry connections. What you do with those things is up to you.

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

Don’t let the writer-industrial complex intimidate you into deferring your writing to a hazy future point when it’ll be ‘good enough’. Just write. Keep a notebook or a blog. Reach out to other writers online, or through events such as the Emerging Writers’ Festival. And never, ever do it for the money, because there’s basically none in writing.

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

I usually go to a physical bookshop because I can’t bear how long online orders take to arrive. When I get excited about a book, I want to start reading it now. I especially love browsing op-shops and second-hand bookshops; I feel like a miner for literary gold.

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

Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, because he’s riotously witty and hopelessly romantic. Let’s face it; he knows how to make a girl feel special. We would talk in rhyme, and I would not be remotely bothered by the size of his nose.

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

I read The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, when I was small, and it was the first book that inspired visceral feelings in me. I felt sheer terror when Mole is lost in the malevolent Wild Wood, glee at Mr Toad’s obsession with motor-cars, creeping horror when Toad is thrown in jail and his house overrun by villainous Weasels, and a slowly blossoming, almost sacred wonder when Portly the baby Otter goes missing and is discovered at the feet of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

That book showed me the power of writing, and made me want fiercely to be able to work the same magic myself.

Portrait of Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and critic who co-hosts the fortnightly literature and culture podcast The Rereaders. She is a columnist on writing at Overland magazine, and a university lecturer and writer-for-hire on film, TV and media. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she’s currently co-writing a second romantic comedy novel with Anthony Morris; their first was The Hot Guy (2017).

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