Working with Words: Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna won the Prime Minister’s Award for Non-Fiction this week for his biography, An Eye For Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark. The judges said, ‘This is a masterful biography, a deeply compassionate portrait of a complex and flawed man.’

Mark is a research fellow at the University of Sydney and the author of several prize-winning books. We spoke to him for this week’s Working with Words.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I’m almost certain the first piece was published in the travel section of the SMH back in 1984 (I had just returned from Sudan and Europe), followed by another travel piece (on the Soviet Union) in the National Times in 1984.

What’s the best part of your job?

Being alone, writing, lost in whatever my current project is.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Days when nothing seems to work!

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

That’s hard. Two moments I suppose. Winning book of the year in the NSW Premier’s Awards back in 2003 for Looking for Blackfellas’ Point, and of course, just this week, winning the Prime Minister’s Prize for Non-Fiction for my biography of Manning Clark. Otherwise, it’s definitely the correspondence I’ve had with readers about my work.

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

The best advice came from David Malouf: ‘I write not to record what I think but to discover what I think’.

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

The most ridiculous: That I am trying to be another Manning Clark!

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

Teaching full-time, or working in a bookshop.

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

Some things can be taught, or at least demonstrated. But writing is a solitary pursuit. Insight cannot be taught.

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

Learning which advice to accept and which to reject. Follow your own path. Strive for independence.

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

Mostly offline, in bookshops, especially because they are struggling and if they disappear, so much of our present literary culture will disappear with them.

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

I would rather dine with a character from non-fiction. Someone I’ve never known or heard of.

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

If I had to chose one, it would be George Orwell’s 1984. It caught me at a particular moment in my life. Sixteen years of age. A novel that was both political and a love story, I identified with the isolation of Winston Smith. Must have been something about growing up in the Australian suburbs in the 1970s.

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