Working with Words: Delia Falconer

Delia Falconer is a Sydney-based novelist, essayist and writer of short stories; she’s also one of Australia’s finest critics. Her latest book, Sydney, was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s and National Biography Awards. Delia is the author of ‘All Me Make the Roar: On Animals in Australian Writing, the latest in our Long View series.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I can’t remember what it was, but it must have been when I was about nine or ten, in the magazine of the Puffin Club. This was a club for kids, the brainchild of a marvellous dynamo called Pam Sheldrake. My mum joined me up. It held lots of small, mind-stretching competitions with Puffin books as prizes – and even interstate workshops. I went to one in Melbourne and met other kids interested in writing. It was wonderful.

What’s the best part of your job?

Not having to leave my neighbourhood during the day. It’s a huge privilege to be able to see a suburb with its daytime face on, and to walk around in the sunlight. Now I can say I was doing research for Sydney all those years! A lot of the book came out of wandering around, looking and thinking.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Mustering self-belief daily. And not working collaboratively, which I love.

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

It’s not a moment per se – but I love the fact that people still give The Service of Clouds to friends moving to the Blue Mountains because they feel I captured something about the place.

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

Not advice, but I would say the two best things that ever happened to me as a writer were learning Latin at school, and doing a traditional English literature degree: 60 books over five centuries in fourth year alone. Invaluable.

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

Nothing I can think of. In terms of the work I think most writers over the long haul of working on a project have already thought of everything, both good and bad – especially bad – that a critic might say.

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

Working with animals, possibly. Though I also wish I’d trained as a historian: they’re doing some of the most creative and exciting thinking in Australia at the moment. And if we’re talking paths not taken, why oh why did I study French in my teens and not Japanese?

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

Well, I teach it – though often I feel my role is more to point students in the direction of work that will expand the talents and vision they already have. A lot of beginning to write is about feeling you have ‘permission’. The really great writers give you this somehow. I still feel a great creative updraft when I read Moby Dick (and Melville’s correspondence with Hawthorne about writing it).

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

Not to listen to too much advice, except from a few key people whose opinions you truly respect. I think too much advice in the early stages of writing can inhibit the development of the individual voice, making you believe there is a ‘right’ way to write. The awful fact of writing is that for the most part you have to make your own discoveries and false starts, own them, and learn from them. It’s also the wonderful part.

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

Both. Though with eight-month-old twins, it’s online everything at present.

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

Emperor Hadrian, as realised by Marguerite Yourcenar in Memoirs of Hadrian. I’d like to know if he did really build a ‘Hell’ under his villa; to hear about the Eleusinian mysteries; his wall; his travels… Most of all, I’d like to try to come to spend a few hours with the ancient Roman mind – so close to and so far from our own.

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

It’s hard to go past my mother having read Dickens, especially Bleak House, to me as a child. I still marvel at Dickens’ storytelling.

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