Toby Fehily is a senior writer at Three Thousand, sometimes writes for Smith Journal and freelances as an arts writer and copywriter. He’s also the editorial and communications coordinator for Paper Radio.
We spoke to Toby about how his career has been driven by a desire to prove his Grade Five teacher wrong, how writing opens him up to the world, and that time his father and his editor agreed that they found him ‘odd’.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
My Grade Five teacher told me I’d never be published after I handed in my first news story. It was about the devastating 1998 Papua New Guinea earthquake, but was written from the perspective of an anthropomorphic tsunami who felt his actions were misunderstood, so she was probably on to something there. Still, since then I’ve been writing frantically to prove that teacher wrong. First, it was online with a piece about a hip-hop party for Three Thousand. Then, for my first story in print, a short article on drinking recycled sewage for VICE. Followed up by my first print feature for Smith Journal, for which I shaved my head, assumed a false identity and tried to flee the country. Egg on your face, Brenda.
What’s the best part of your job?
By temperament, I’m a timid and anxious person who rarely pays attention to the outside world. Writing opens me up – to people, experiences and ideas. That part of it is interesting and challenging and it’s slowly making me less insufferable.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Never not working. There’s always something to do on a minute-by-minute basis. Sometimes I write in my sleep; occasionally it’s not even for something I’m working on, it’s more of a reflex. I don’t think this is healthy.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Bear with me here, but it was seeing my younger brother genuinely enjoy something I wrote. Not for sappy reasons, but because the kid’s the future of the written word. Like many his age, he can’t stand reading and has plenty of non-reading hobbies and activities at his disposal. The fact that from time to time people like him can be brought on board bodes well for me, my career and the health of the publishing industry in general, I think.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received wasn’t given to me but I took it anyway. It’s from an introduction Adam Gopnik wrote for a collection of St Clair McKelway’s pieces and it’s become something of a mantra for me. It goes: ‘find weird data, funny facts, and align them nicely; listen to strange people and give them space to talk; keep a cartoonist’s license but not a caricaturist’s smugness; rely on the force of simple words, but don’t be afraid of big ideas, or of the stuff of history, if you can make it sound like learning casually attained.’
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
What was said wasn’t the surprising part, but I was taken aback to hear that my father and one of my editors bumped into each other one time and had a chat about how they both find me odd.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I would go back and finish my psychology degree and then go on to do something else not related to psychology. There are a few ditched careers I could pick up again. I was a passable clown with a knack for making balloon animals some years ago. Either that or back to bookselling.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
You can be taught how to not write poorly, but for writing well you can only be guided towards the rough vicinity of the right direction, which is still invaluable. Maybe it’s more a matter of whether it can be learnt – it can, but it calls for an especially active kind of learning.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Don’t be too happy with yourself. By all means, write – that’s an important part of it – but tear apart everything you finish and see each new project as an opportunity to make up for all your previous shortcomings. And, somehow, find a way to have fun while you’re being horrible to yourself (it’s doable). Also, listen to Cajun music. It lends itself surprisingly well to writing. I have never met a creative block that Cajun music couldn’t break.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both. I keep a backlit ebook reader for night reading and a mini ebook reader for reading while walking, but I try to get the bulk of my books from Avenue Bookstore. Everyone there is friendly and the place is close to one of the very few convenience stores that stock Welch’s grape soda.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to grab a meal with Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows. I even had dreams about it as a child. The dinner would be a brief affair and would be followed by some kind of madcap caper.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
P.G. Wodehouse, all of it, for life and for work. I stash his books everywhere: in my bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and car (one in the boot, one in the glovebox). There’s something rather neat, almost funny, about the all-time master of the English language – king of the apt analogy, the crafted sentence, the elaborate plot – using his gift for nothing but innocent and unadulterated comic delight.