Working with Words: Favel Parrett
Favel Parrett’s debut novel, Past the Shallows, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012. She won Newcomer of the Year in the Australian Book Industry Awards and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2012. Favel has also had a number of short stories published in literary journals, including the Griffith REVIEW, Island and Wet Ink.
We spoke to Favel about why writing is hard work (but worth it), that it’s easy to hear the negatives and forget the compliments, and why you should ‘back yourself’ as a writer, even if it takes decades.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I wrote a 300-word story called ‘Waterproof, Lightweight, Good in Snow’ about something that happened to me while trekking in Bhutan. Wet Ink published it in 2009 and that gave me the most incredible feeling. I was inspired to keep sending work out, to keep writing. Wet Ink gave me that first big nod of approval and I will never forget it.
What’s the worst part of your job?
I often think people assume that being a writer is so free and fun and that you can just do it anywhere, anytime when the inspiration strikes. But it is not like that for me.
Writing is hard work, sometimes even uncomfortable. It is often lonely, or at least a very solo road, and I think most writers are brave.
George Orwell said, ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.’ I wouldn’t go that far, although some days it does feel horrible. But there are moment when it feels right, brilliant even – when a problem is solved, when something slots into place and has come from my own mind, from my own creativity. Those moments are worth all the work and doubt and all the time alone. When something in my writing is working, running, it feels great.
*What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
When my publisher, Vanessa Radnidge told me she loved Past the Shallows and believed in it, that she would try her hardest to get it through. At that point there was a 50/50 chance of it being published, but even with those odds it was a defining moment for me. Someone from the industry believed in my work and was my champion.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about writing?
A creative writing teacher gave me this quote from Annie Dillard, and it helps me often.
‘Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? And, Can I do it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too – the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling.’ - Annie Dillard, This Writing Life
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
When I was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, the whole thing was a bit of blur. I couldn’t take it all in at the time, but months later, I read the judges’ notes properly for the first time. They said something about one of the characters, Harry, being a remarkable achievement. And even though most of me didn’t believe it, I tried to sit with those words and let them sink in. It is easy to hear all the negatives, to focus on them, and hard to believe the compliments.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I would love to work at sea in some capacity, specifically on the southern ocean on a ship like the CSIRO vessel Southern Surveyor. If I could go back in time I would tell my 20-year old self to think about going to maritime college or becoming a trainee seaman. Working at sea is hard, but I know I would love it. It is very much in me.
I would also love to work with sea birds in some way. To work on Macquarie Island or somewhere similar is a kind of dream job for me. No surfing, but Macquarie Island is one of the most amazing places on the planet, so it’s a fair trade.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I have learned so much from a few fantastic teachers and writing mentors. I have also had some not-so-great teachers who wanted to lead me down a boring and dull road of planning and plotting. Your voice can’t be taught, but as writers we need tools and they can indeed be taught. I am also very grateful for the teachers and fellow students who have brought writers into my life that I might never have read. That has certainly made a great difference to my own writing.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Keep going, keep writing, keep reading. When you have a piece that is the best it can be, send it in for something. Don’t put it in your drawer and let doubt win. Back yourself. It is a long road. It can take years, decades even, but if you want to be a writer you have to keep going, keep writing, keep sending your work in for publication and rejection.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Always, ALWAYS in a bookshop. They are places of sanctuary for me, galleries of imagination. I love walking around bookshops with no destination in mind, no particular book in mind. I just like to look, to wander aimlessly, my brain resting. We are lucky to have such passionate booksellers in this country.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I am going to bend this question a little and choose an author instead of a character. I would love to sit and listen to Maya Angelou speak about what writing and words and poetry mean to her. I think she is one of the bright lights in this world – a gift. I listen to her read her own work often and it always calms me down and grounds me.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson impacted my life in a way I can’t really explain. That story, read out loud to my class by a primary school teacher, changed something inside of me forever. I felt it deeply – an actual physical response to the words. I never knew that books could do that. The world was different after that book.