Working with Words: Andrew McDonald

Andrew McDonald is the author of The Greatest Blogger in the World, published by Hardie Grant. He is currently working on his second book. This week, he published a stand-alone short story, ‘The Black Claw of Once, Not Twice’, online. Andrew has been online manager at Readings Books Music and Film, and achieved internet fame when his blog post ‘A Pictorial Guide to Avoiding Camera Loss’ went viral.

We spoke to Andrew about growing a neck beard, brainstorming and why it’s important to ‘be weird, read weird and write weird’.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first fiction I ever had published was a story called ‘Umbilical’, which appeared in Voiceworks magazine back in 2005. It concerned a character, a man of course, who never had his umbilical cord cut and lived his life while being physically attached to his mother. A perfectly creepy story written by a 23-year-old dude who – if I remember correctly – was about to move out of home for the first time. Ah, dear.

What’s the best part of your job?

I particularly enjoy the brainstorming part of the writing process, especially at the beginning of a project. I’m a planner so I like to scheme and plot and map things out before I write much. All of this allows me to be ‘mad scientist guy’ as I madly scribble across expanses of butcher’s paper, jot notes down on old Metcards and do pencil drawings of my characters on used envelopes. In my mind, this brainstorming period also involves me excusing myself from all human interaction, growing a neck beard, living on a diet of stray rats and writing quadratic equations on glass walls.

'This one is called misery selfie, taken from under a pile of paperwork and drafts a few months ago.'

'This one is called misery selfie, taken from under a pile of paperwork and drafts a few months ago.'

What’s the worst part of your job?

The boredom and anxiety of not writing when you’re supposed to be writing.

While not all writers are hermits with neck beards and mathematical obsessions, writing is not a team sport either. I can’t write or edit anything if I’m surrounded by music or noise or the internet. When I really need to be productive, the first thing I do is unplug the modem. Otherwise I find myself on BuzzFeed looking at 27 photos of llamas at frat parties. And as the llama photos scroll by I’m simultaneously gripped by the dread of being unproductive and the curiosity of what antics the next llama will be getting up to.

Time spent on the internet does not a book write.

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

As an author of books for young people I’m in the fortunate position of being able to go out to schools and actively engage with kids and teenagers about books and stories. Quite often they’ve already read my book – The Greatest Blogger in the World – before I show up. Seeing first hand the effects your writing has had on other people is a glorious thing. I love hearing kids tell me what their favourite part of the book is. It’s the best. So as milestoney as things like first book contracts are, it was the first few school visits I ever did that have remained fond and significant in my memory.

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

It wasn’t exactly advice directed at me specifically but author Kathy Charles wrote a wonderful blog post a while back advocating for weirdness. Specifically, weirdness in books for teenagers.

It was a good reminder to be weird, read weird and write weird. As a kid I was always more attracted to stories that were a bit off-kilter, a bit bent. And I still am. The Owl Service remains one of my favourite books and it’s batshit crazy. At the same time it’s anchored with characters who we really empathise with. Good writers can show someone else’s weird and make it feel oddly familiar.

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

You often hear people say that age isn’t necessarily an indicator of reading level. It’s a true statement, but it’s something else to see it in action before your eyes. As I’ve done more and more school visits I’ve come across a diverse range of readers who are into my book – from Grade Threes to Year Nines. This has been really surprising to me because I usually try to write with a vague idea of who my reader might be and how old they are. But holding the idea in your head of an audience that could be as young as Grade Three and as old as Year Nine is nigh on impossible.

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

I’d probably be a milk man, a pastry chef or a baker. I’m not a morning person but I’ve always had romantic notions of being awake and industrious at that hour, peddling baked goods or dairy products. Maybe I’ll still do it, in concert with my writing. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to a litre of milk, a box of croissants and a new book sitting on the front doorstep?

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

I’m a graduate of RMIT’s professional writing course. That course put me in touch with like-minded writers and publishing folk, focused my attention on certain literature and helped its students engage with local publishers, local bookshops and local authors. It indirectly resulted in me getting my first book contract so I’m grateful for that. I don’t know if I was ‘taught’ creative writing there, but I sure did learn how to work on, workshop and improve my writing. And that has been invaluable.

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

Write whatever you want and try to get at a truth.

You could, of course, write a lot and read a lot and work on sentence construction and storytelling techniques and be aware of moving between the active and passive voice. These are all good things. But in the end, writing about something you want to write about is all that matters. Because it’s likely that out of everyone who interacts with your writing, you’ll spend the most time with it. And if you’re willing to spend that much time doing it then you must have a truth worth telling.

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

I’ll visit and buy from bookshops if I’m in the area but I’m a lot more proactive when I’m buying online, chasing after books I desperately want and finding the best way to get them into my eyes. Australian bookshops like Readings, Bookworld and Booktopia all offer a solid online service. And I try to buy older classics from second-hand bookshops. When someone looks at my bookshelf and spots a decrepit copy of The Grapes of Wrath I want them to think that I’ve been reading that book over and over for so many years that I’ve leafed its pages into a state of disrepair.

From Andrew's blog post 'A Pictorial Guide to Avoiding Camera Loss'.

From Andrew's blog post 'A Pictorial Guide to Avoiding Camera Loss'.

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

I’ve always wanted to insert myself into stories so that I could explain the circumstances and quell the tensions. I remember watching The Addams Family on TV as a kid and thinking that if I could just go into that show and explain to Gomez and Morticia why people thought they were kooky, then all future misunderstandings would be avoided.

So I’d probably like to take some literary characters out to dinner to help them with their respective foibles: I’d explain to Captain Haddock that his drinking, while hilarious, is often the cause of his undoing; I’d get Baba Yaga to think back to a time when she was happier; I’d try to get a belly-laugh out of Heathcliff; I’d be a friend to Harriet the Spy in an effort to show her how; and I’d get the Cat in the Hat to see that his sense of fun, while not unappreciated, can sometimes be misplaced.

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

I couldn’t pick out just one book but Holes by Louis Sachar (a book that I consider to be a close-to-perfect novel for middle-grade readers), Sonya Harnett’s Of A Boy (a beautiful and heartbreaking portrayal of unhappy childhood) and so many of Roald Dahl’s books (especially Matilda, The BFG and that one about the chocolate factory) remain large in my mind and ever-present on my bookshelves.

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