Working with Words: Colin Batrouney

Colin Batrouney is a Melbourne-based writer. His second novel, Creative Writing for Beginners, was published by Affirm Press this month. He has occasionally worked in professional theatre as both an actor and director. He has never attended a creative writing course.

We spoke to Colin about getting fantastic feedback on his work from Wells Tower, why you should make sure your writing stays true to your gut intention, and why referring to someone as a ‘queer’ writer is ‘bullshit’ and sets up lowered expectations.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Years ago there was a national gay magazine called Outrage. In 1991 they decided to have a short story competition and I entered it with a story called ‘Fever’, and it won! The competition was judged by the late Peter Blazey and he ended up being very supportive of my work.

What’s the worst part of your job?

My day job is filled with very scary responsibilities – that’s not fun. But in writing, I guess the worst thing that can happen is ending up in a corner and not knowing how to write your way out of it. If it happens I tend just to pick up a book randomly on my desk and read someone else – that can help.

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

Name drop alert! Getting fantastic feedback on my writing from the American writer Wells Tower. In a way, sharing my work with him and him reassuring me that I have talent and that my stuff was ‘wonderful’, was just what I needed, just when I needed it.

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

Not original, but the best advice I’ve been given is to just write it and to be sure that the writing stays true to your gut intention.

The worst advice I received was from an editor who said I needed to write things that engaged him – how was I going to do that? I didn’t even know him, and if I wrote things that ‘engaged him’ would they engage others, or, more importantly, me? Ultimately these stupid subjective questions are unhelpful and counterproductive.

Often one is given this advice by people who are more concerned with marketing than literature, and they are legitimate marketing challenges, but ones that need to be met by marketers and not writers.

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

Someone once referred to me as a ‘queer’ writer. That was such bullshit. One is a writer, or not. Affixing a prefix like ‘queer’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘gay’ is like putting up a road sign for the reader that states ‘lower your expectations – special needs writing ahead!’

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

I would love to become an art historian specialising in the works of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, otherwise known as El Greco. I’m not kidding, and you did ask.

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

I think writing can be taught, but those courses do not include a unit on ‘Acquiring talent’. Acting, writing, painting can all be taught but the trick with writing is to turn an idea, an impulse into prose that jumps off the page into the mind of a reader with the thrill of recognition. That’s not something as mundane as ‘creative’, it’s in another league and it’s what I aspire to. If there is a course that can teach that, I’ll sign up.

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

Read. Read lots of great writing, and read all the time. Don’t just read fiction, read great essayists and poets too. Absorb as much writing as you can. Record things for yourself – ideas and impressions, even just words. Make it personal – always – write for yourself.

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

Both. I love bookshops, but they have to survive – they aren’t economically competitive, but they offer something that an online bookstore doesn’t; the weight, smell and feel of a book, lots of books. Physical browsing is such a great pastime and sometimes you get to pick up strangers, you just can’t beat it.

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

Ruth Wilcox, the matriarch from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Like many of Forster’s women characters, she is strange, mysterious and wise. We’d talk about her family, particularly the men in her family and why they are so intractably stupid and tragically stubborn, this would lead us to a very rich vein.

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

Patrick White’s The Tree of Man. You can open it anywhere and find writing that is completely distinctive, poetic, instinctive, direct, coarse and transcendental. I’ve read everything he’s written and it seems to come from a place of visceral imaginative power, hot-wired to his nervous system – completely awe-inspiring.

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