Working with Words: Jill Stark

Jill Stark is a senior writer for the Sunday Age who has worked for the Age since 2006, where she has predominantly covered health, specialising in alcohol and drug issues, mental health, and public-health policy. She began her journalism career in Scotland, working for newspapers like the Daily Record, The Scotsman, and the Evening Times. Her first book, High Sobriety, details her year’s break from alcohol.

We spoke to Jill about why you should stop procrastinating and start writing, banishing wasteful words, and having a beer with Ian Rankin’s detective John Rebus.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was 18, I wrote a piece for The Herald in Scotland about taking a gap year after finishing school. It was such a thrill to see my name in a national newspaper for the first time. I still have the cheque I received for the story in a frame.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I love my job at the Sunday Age and there aren’t many things about it I’d change. Although, occasionally I do envy my friends who work in what I like to call ‘civilian’ jobs who get the luxury of public holidays and sociable working hours.

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

Having High Sobriety published has been an absolute dream come true. The first time I walked into a bookshop and saw it on a shelf was one of the proudest, most surreal moments of my life.

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

Just do it. Seriously, stop procrastinating and start writing. And read as often and as widely as you can. My former Sunday Age editor Gay Alcorn also taught me the beauty of clean, crisp sentences. It helped me banish wasteful words.

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

I’ve written a lot on some fairly contentious mental health issues and I’ve been accused by certain sectors of the psychiatric profession of being in bed with the Scientology movement, which is very much against medication, and psychiatry in general. It makes me laugh because on the flip-side, I’ve been told by some in the anti-medication lobby that I’m in the pockets of Big Pharma. My take on that is that if both sides of a debate think you’re on the other guy’s side then you’ve probably got the balance just about right.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

The only other thing I know how to do is to pour beers. I’m pretty good at that so if I run out of writing work I know that people will always want a drink and I should be able to make a living once more in hospitality.

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

I wanted to tell stories since I was old enough to read, and I’m not sure if that passion for words is something you can be schooled in. However, I do think the craft of writing can be improved by good teachers. I studied Creative Writing at postgraduate level at Melbourne University for a year, and just being in that creative environment, reading more widely and being exposed to other new writers’ work, was really helpful in improving my own style.

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

Just start writing. And write often. Persistence, passion, hard work, and developing a thick skin to handle rejection are the cornerstones of success.

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

Both. I love nothing more than the feel and smell of new books and could spend hours in a bookshop browsing, but it’s also nice to get a package full of books you ordered online.

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

Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin has been a wonderful mentor to me and I’d love to have a beer at the Oxford Bar with his gruff Edinburgh detective John Rebus. He doesn’t really do dinner but I reckon he’d have some cracking tales to tell.

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

Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man was a revelation to me in the way it presented investigative journalism in a literary-style narrative. It was one of the most moving, elegant pieces of writing I’ve ever read. I found it incredibly inspiring.

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