Working with Words: Siobhan McHugh

Siobhán McHugh is a documentary-maker, oral historian, and writer whose work has won prestigious awards, including the NSW Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction and a gold medal at the New York Radio Festival.

We spoke to her about why writers should train themselves to observe, how Cloudstreet helped her decide Australia could be home, and the experience of being told that ‘unless it emanates from a university, it can’t be considered research’.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A letter to In Dublin magazine, lamenting the ‘hamburgerisation’ of the city by the newly arrived McDonalds, c. 1980. Colm Toibin was a staff writer there at the time and I went on to write some features for it.

What’s the best part of your job?

Hearing about revealing moments in people’s lives – a turning point, a stuff-up, a chance encounter, an epiphany.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Post-interview housekeeping: timed summaries, logs, transcripts.

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

Winning the NSW Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction for my book, The Snowy: The People Behind the Power, a social history of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

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

Best: from my editor on the only fiction I’ve written, a young adult novel in the My Story series, The Diary of Eva Fischer, about a girl growing up on the Snowy Scheme, who writes about her love of her horses, skiing and the bush. The logistics of the diary format got hairy and one day I got a terse post-it note on the MS: ‘I note the horses haven’t been fed for three weeks’.

Worst: from Bill Fogarty, then at the Australian War Memorial. I had applied for funding to interview Australian women about their roles in the Vietnam War – what would eventually become the book and radio series Minefields and Miniskirts. He offered to pay for blank cassette tapes – provided I then gave the recorded interviews to the AWM. That would have worked out at about $2 an interview. The National Library later purchased the oral history collection, and the book went to a second edition.

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

A Sydney Morning Herald journalist interviewed an academic who had rehashed without attribution my pioneering work on Vietnam veterans’ wives (published in Minefields and Miniskirts). I rang the features editor to complain – and was told that ‘unless it emanates from a university, it can’t be considered research’. A fatuous and elitist remark, which insults excellent non-fiction writers from Tom Keneally to Anna Funder.

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

I can’t imagine. I did a science degree but never had the patience to wait for pipettes to drip to the end. Instead I started a magazine, Science Friction.

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

It can be polished. But ability is innate. You have to have the itch.

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

Train yourself to observe: yourself and others. Read the canon – absorb by osmosis. Listen to how people actually talk.

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

Mostly in a shop, on impulse.

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

Leopold Bloom, because of his rare blend of kindness, curiosity and sensuality. I’d ask him about being that rare thing, an Irish Jew, and about his yen for kidneys – and of course, as natives, we’d talk about Dublin’s distinctive character.

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

Cloudstreet – it made me understand and love the Australian ethos, and helped me decide this could be my home.

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