Working with Words: Paddy O'Reilly

Paddy O'Reilly’s latest novel, The Fine Colour of Rust, was published in the US, UK and Australia this year; it was selected as one of the Wheeler Centre staff picks in our Best Books of 2012. Paddy’s debut novel was The Factory, which was followed by the acclaimed short-story collection The End of the World. Her stories have won a swag of awards, including the Age Short Story Competition.

We spoke to Paddy about being mistaken for a man (it’s the name), the thrill of seeing her printed books on bookshop shelves, and why it’s important to complete pieces of work if you want to be a writer.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A letter afire with outrage about something or other in the newspaper. I was 19. The next day I was mortified when a friend rang and jokingly called me Constance E. Little. (If you don’t know that name, she was a woman from Swan Reach who wrote a phenomenal number of letters to the editor over five decades. She was regarded with amused affection by readers of the Age and died in 2009, undoubtedly with a pen in her hand.)

What’s the worst part of your job?

The fact that I do all this work to produce a story or a novel, and I do it hoping I’ll get paid when the work is complete. What kind of idiot …

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

I get an enormous thrill each and every time I see one of my books on a shelf in a bookshop. The first time was incredible. I may have taken a photo or ten. I hope people keep reading paper books and buying from bookshops so I can continue to experience that thrill.

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

Best – don’t listen to too much advice about writing.

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

That I am a man (I guess it’s the Paddy). I am not a man, by the way.

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

Not making my living doing some other fanciful work. If there is a trade that earns less money than writing, I’d probably be in it. I started training as a marine biologist but that seemed way too sensible and I had to drop out.

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

If I said no, I would definitely have to apologise to the people who’ve sat in workshops I’ve run. Technique can be demonstrated with reference to great work, new writers can be challenged, and valuable friendships can be formed by the people who come together in writing classes. The true writers keep on writing after the classes are finished, simple as that. Also, it’s great to be in those workshops because the participants always produce something that breaks all convention and is wonderful.

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

The only writers who get published are the ones who finish the manuscript. It sounds facetious to say it, but it’s true. A lot of people keep starting new things and never finishing. If you want to be a writer, you must complete pieces of work (even though they will probably never be the great work you first imagined). I’m not even going to talk about reading, because if you aren’t doing that already why on earth do you want to be a writer?

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

Best thing – wandering around a bookshop, stumbling across a treasure or finding that a writer whose work I adore has put out a new book. I hang around in libraries too. Online is for difficult-to-source books.

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

Many of the fictional characters who interest me would be difficult dinner companions, possibly unbearable. But I would like to meet the (rather befuddled) Merlyn from The Once and Future King by E.B. White. While Merlyn was enjoying the dinner, I could be experiencing life as a fish or an owl the way Wart (Arthur) had.

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

There are too many fiction books to name, because each book has taught me so much (about life and writing both). But discovering the Paris Review interviews was a wonderful time for me. Reading all those writers' honest talk about the pleasures and difficulties of writing, about the craft and the life, was profoundly reassuring. It made me feel that there was no right way to do it, despite what I had been told by some people, and that the most important thing was to find my own way to write.

Paddy O'Reilly’s latest book is The Fine Colour of Rust.

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