Working with Words: Henry Reynolds
Henry Reynolds is one of Australia’s best-known and most prolific historians. His pioneering scholarly work, The Other Side of the Frontier (1981), was critical in changing understandings of the Australian frontier. His latest book, The Forgotten War, is currently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.
We spoke to him about the pleasure of writing as a craft, being advised early in his career that there was ‘not much future in writing about the Aborigines’, and being named ‘the thinking woman’s sex symbol’.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
My first piece of writing was a letter to the Tasmanian student newspaper Togartus attacking the British invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis in 1956.
What’s the best part of your job?
The pleasure of the craft itself, when the words come freely and sweetly … it’s akin to singing.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Marshalling vast quantities of evidence.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Winning the Ernest Scott Prize for my first major work, The Other Side of the Frontier.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Worst advice was from a very senior historian early in my career that there was not much future in writing about the Aborigines.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
A comment in the Sydney Morning Herald that I was the thinking woman’s sex symbol.
If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Have always combined writing with teaching and have always thought it was a happy combination with real synergy.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
When you are supervising honours and doctoral students you are implicitly teaching writing all the time … so obviously yes. But it is a particular genre and that assessment may not hold true for other kinds of writing.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Make sure you have something to say … that is so pressing you simply must find the words to express it …being a writer is simply the means not the end in itself … there must be that creative urgency.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Bookshops every time.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Heathcliffe, but would have some concern about his manners.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Perhaps The Law of the Land , which was written with great intellectual excitement and had a significant afterlife.