Vanessa Russell’s first book, The Holy Bible, was published by Sleepers this month - and she was a guest at this week’s Debut Mondays. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Island, the Sleepers Almanac and Harpur Palate, among other places. She’s also working on a memoir, Hagued, to be published by Hardie Grant in 2014.
We talked to Vanessa about needing her internet connection confiscated, the worst writing advice she’s received (the family maxim ‘never write anything down’) and how Anna Karenina dramatically influenced her first novel.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
When I was an undergraduate, a mad short story I wrote about the Venus of Willendorf was published in the Spiny Babbler anthology in Nepal. The story was all wild topography and avant-garde leaps that only a fearless unpublished writer could make. Also, I loved saying that I was huge in Nepal. Huge.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Feeling like I never have enough time to write. When I do get time I either write furiously or trawl through celebrity gossip websites. I am very up-to-the-second on PR-manufactured relationships and pregnancies in Hollywood. Sometimes I need my internet connection confiscated.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
When Sleepers accepted my book Holy Bible for publication I could have leapt up and soared. It gave me such a confidence boost and made me feel like a real, validated writer. All I’d ever wanted was to go into a bookstore and see a book with my name on it, and it was actually going to happen. For months afterwards I was sure they were going to ring and say they’d changed their minds.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
My former creative writing supervisor, Kathleen Mary Fallon, told me to just finish the first draft and fiddle with it later. That’s been invaluable because otherwise I would have the most well-polished first chapter that the world had ever seen and no book. The worst advice is a family maxim to never write anything down.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
Kalinda Ashton compared me to Jeanette Winterson and Janette Turner Hospital who have written some of my most favourite books. That was a huge honour. I’d written my PhD on these authors, and Janet Frame as well, and wondered how she knew. There are only four people in the entire world who have read my thesis, so it wasn’t that. It’s still a mystery.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’d still be writing, still carving away. I can’t imagine doing anything else. For money, I’d be a bookkeeper in the back of a suburban garage.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Writing techniques can be taught: you can encourage people to write tighter, snappier sentences with active verbs and all of that. Some students I’ve taught at the University of Melbourne really respond to feedback, and they’re the ones who do well. They understand the process of reflection and rewriting and don’t believe that every word is a sacrosanct expression of their inner being.
In my time at uni studying creative writing, a combination of things worked. It was partly being taught technique, but also being part of a supportive environment where I had the space to experiment and hone my writing. The most important thing was that it finally made me take my writing seriously.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Just write, keep writing, rewrite and then rewrite some more. Read so you know in your bones what is working and what isn’t. Then rewrite. Then rewrite some more.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both. I had an unquenchable need to get an e-reader for Christmas, and I love being able to take a virtual suitcase of books on the train. But I love the ritual of opening a book: of going back and studying the cover when you’re halfway through, of deliberately not reading the blurb and then choosing when you will read it. Then again, they’re really annoying when you move house.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I’d go to the RSL with Jimmy Reubens and his mates, Solomon, Katz and Myer from Mark Dapin’s Spirit House. I’d love to be a part of their gang because they’ve survived Changi and the Thai–Burma railway and you know that underneath their put-downs and dirty jokes they share a deep loyalty and love for each other.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I took Anna Karenina with me on a month-long trip to the US and hefted it with me on and off Greyhound buses and into bedbug-ridden youth hostels. Rumbling past the cornfields of Indiana, with a just-freed prisoner eyeing me off like a challenge, I saw that I had to change the focus of Holy Bible. I had written it all from the point of view of 17-year-old Tranquillity Bloom, but saw how elegantly Tolstoy switched between characters’ points of view. I knew I had to at least try and do the same.
Vanessa Russell’s debut novel, Holy Bible (Sleepers Publishing), is available now.
The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships are designed to give writers space to work on their projects, and made possible by the generous support of the Readings Foundation. In 2013, twenty writers were offered a $1000 stipend and a workspace in the Wheeler Centre over a two month period.