Working with Words: Thuy On

Thuy On is books editor of the Big Issue and a Melbourne-based reviewer, copywriter, and manuscript assessor. For 14-odd years she has contributed freelance reviews to publications including Australian Book Review, the Age, the Australian, Bookseller & Publisher, and the Big Issue.

We spoke to her about how everyone wants to write but nobody seems to want to read, her long-time obsession with Roald Dahl, and why she buys her books in bricks-and-mortar bookshops.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I don’t actually remember. I think it may have been in Voiceworks (the magazine written and edited by those under 25). It may have been a review or a piece of poetry. Back in the day when I was unselfconscious enough to actually submit poetry.

What’s the best part of your job?

Being granted early access to the latest releases months before they become available commercially.

What’s the worst part of your job?

As books editor of the Big Issue, it’s rejecting the many worthy contenders for review because there just isn’t enough room in the magazine.

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

Obviously being asked to contribute to the Wheeler Centre in the form of this very questionnaire! Actually, I’ve been asked several times to be a judge at various literary competitions (including The Age Short Story Awards, The Age Book of the Year Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards). It’s a great honour (and sometimes quite controversial) to be in the position of choosing the best and most deserving work. At the moment I am in the process of shortlisting entries for the Big Issue Fiction Edition. The fiction edition is coming out mid-August.

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

I think the best is to consider it as a job. Some days you hardly believe people are paying you (though admittedly not very much) simply for your opinion about a book. Other days you’d rather grate your own eyeballs rather than have to read yet another hyperventilating blurb or press release.

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

Once, when I was reviewing theatre, I was criticised (via a handwritten letter no less!) for being too nice and lenient towards a production. The writer took me to task because the show in question wasn’t as good as one he’d seen in the 70s. As I would’ve been only a child then, I could hardly have made such a comparative assessment.

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

I will still be playing around with words in some capacity: editing it or proofing it. I like being a handmaiden.

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

I think writing can be honed and shaped into pleasing shapes but you have to have persistence and talent to begin with.

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

Read and read widely so you know what’s out there already. Emulate or destroy as you see fit. Everyone seems to want to write but not everyone reads as much as they should.

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

I buy them in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop. I am old-fashioned that way. I like to caress the covers and flick through the pages first.

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

I have a long-time obsession with Roald Dahl so I’d have to say Willy Wonka (even though I don’t even like chocolate that much.) I just think he’s a fascinating character, with a deep insight into the psychology of children and their desires. (I mean, lickable wallpaper! everlasting gum!)

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

There are too many to name but I have always admired the work (fiction and non-fiction) of George Orwell. I love the crispness and power of his prose.

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