Working with Words: Rachel Buchanan

Rachel Buchanan has worked in New Zealand and Australia for various newspapers, including the Age, as a reporter, feature writer, columnist, and subeditor. Her writing also appears in publications such as Australian Book Review, Meanjin, and Griffith REVIEW. Her new book, Stop Press: The Last Days of Newspapers (Scribe), provides a unique insider’s perspective on the rise and slow decline of the printed newspaper.

We spoke to Rachel about the benefits of a tough edit, sharing a meal (and getting feedback on her first book) with the Samoan head of state, and why she has thought of retraining as a paramedic or palliative care nurse.

Rachel Buchanan: 'With the collapse of print journalism, it is increasingly difficult to make a living from writing. I’ve thought of retraining.'

Rachel Buchanan: 'With the collapse of print journalism, it is increasingly difficult to make a living from writing. I’ve thought of retraining.'

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

An interview with magician Tim Woon and a review of his show, published in The Wairarapa Times-Age, Masterton, New Zealand. I was 16. Woon was marketed as ‘trendy’ and he wore a lot of goth makeup, sort of like Robert Smith from the Cure, but he still sawed a woman in a bikini in half.

What’s the best part of your job?

The people I’ve met (either in person or in archives) and the places I’ve had access to. In the past year, that has included a newsprint mill in the middle of a forest in the central North Island of New Zealand and the Age’s exquisite printing hall at Tullamarine - unforgettable, endangered, beautiful, monumental industrial sites. I also love those times when I lose myself in writing, when I am concentrating so hard and all these ideas are flowing in and I feel a great surge of power or something and when I stop it’s like I’ve woken up from a dream. That doesn’t happen very often but when it does, I feel so elated and free.

What’s the worst part of your job?

There are many excruciating aspects to being a writer and they change depending on circumstances. If you’d asked me this five months ago, I would have said poverty, self doubt and loneliness. Now I’m in the amazing position of having an Australia Council grant to get started on another book as well as a Creative Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria so no need to worry about money for now although I am pretty good at finding other things to worry about.

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

Deciding to spill the beans and write Stop Press and then letting go of the manuscript when Aviva Tuffield and Julia Carlomagno began to edit it. They were tougher than I had imagined. In fact, they were a bit shocking but boy does the book have great pace and clarity, thanks to them!

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

Historian Greg Dening: ‘Nothing is written until it is read.’ Poet Bill Manhire advised (via a great essay by short story writer Grace Paley) to write in the voice of the streets, to find language of your childhood. Write how you speak. Write how other people speak.

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

Earlier this year in Taranaki, New Zealand, it was my privilege to share a meal with the Samoan Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, and his entourage. This chiefly man descends from two of the heroes of Samoa’s long struggle for independence from New Zealand, a nation that had been a particularly brutal colonial ruler. I had been told His Highness had read my first book, The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget but I was taken aback when he explained his responses. His Highness said: ‘Your writing has so much anger in it but also so much fragility.’

This was a most surprising assessment of an 80,000-word book that began life as a history PhD but His Highness had told me something about myself and about my writing that I had not acknowledged before. What a gift. This exchange and the complex events that lead up to it may encourage other writers (but especially those of you who are writing doctoral theses) to see that our work can have purposes beyond anything we are able to imagine. Books are powerful objects with intrinsic value. Books can do their own work in the world and have their own identity, quite separate from the identity of their authors.

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

With the collapse of print journalism, it is increasingly difficult to make a living from writing. I’ve thought of retraining. I’d like to be a paramedic or a palliative care nurse. Saving lives or helping people die well both seem tasks that would quash the ‘what is the point?’ question quite well. I’ve also though of reading recovery teaching in primary schools.

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

More verbs, more full-stops, more metaphor. Some things can be taught but no amount of teaching can make up for practice, feel, passion and a lot of reading.

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

Toughen up. Open up. Listen and watch. Support other writers by subscribing to newspapers, magazines and journals and by buying books. Get a day job.

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

I have never bought a book online. At first it was fear of the new and now it is more of a desire to support bookshops and the people who work in them. Overall, I don’t buy as many books as I used to. Last year, I was broke so I only bought books as gifts but I read heaps, all from public libraries. In the last few months, I’ve enjoyed buying books again, mostly from The Sun Bookshop in Yarraville but also other bookshops in the city. I try and spread my book money around.

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

I’d like a group booking that included Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan, Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Harry Hole from the Joe Nesbo books and Kurt Wallander. The wildcard guest could be Ren the tough trapeze artist that works in the mermaid strip joint in Margaret Attwood’s Year of the Flood. A neurotic Glaswegian journalist turned detective, the broody Rebus and the damaged Scandanavian cops, plus a survivor of the apocalypse, what a night that would be! Actually, I’d really love to have dinner with Denise Mina. She left academia to write bestselling, feminist crime novels. Now there’s an appealing career path.

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

Sorry, I can’t list one. The book I remember reading most vividly is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It was the most exciting intellectual experience imaginable. I did a second-year philosophy course called ‘the history of science’ and we took 12 weeks to read Kuhn and discuss his ideas. John Bigelow was the lecturer. I felt a similar deep brain thrill when I read Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation a couple of years back.

A few other books stand out: Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry; Emily Perkins collection of short stories Not Her Real Name, Georgia Blain’s amazing collection of essays Births Deaths Marriages and Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work. I also love Patricia Grace’s short story ‘Parade’. Bill Manhire’s poem ‘Hotel Emergencies’ is the pinnacle of what a writer might hope to achieve. It’s on pages 126-127 of Selected Poems (2012). I heard Bill read this poem out loud last year. Talk about a punch in the guts. What a bloody masterpiece.

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