Working with Words: Arnold Zable
Arnold Zable is one of Australia’s most loved writers and storytellers. His books, from the classic Cafe Scheherezade to his latest, Violin Lessons, are beloved by readers and admired by critics. Arnold is also an impassioned human rights advocate, known for his work on behalf of asylum seekers. He is currently president of the Melbourne Centre of International PEN.
He spoke to us for our Working with Words series about not losing your nerve, storytelling as empowerment and rafting with Huckleberry Finn.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I can’t remember exactly, probably pieces in Melbourne University’s weekly Farrago back in the late 1960s. I became a regular contributor and my pieces ranged from book reviews to political commentary to non-fiction stories. It was a very political time on campus, and the topics we debated, and which I wrote on, included the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Australian politics and the Vietnam War, in which young Australian were being drafted.
I travelled in PNG and wrote a series of articles for Farrago which included pieces on the Bougainville mining dispute, the West-Irian Freedom movement and a village based co-operative movement in New Britain which challenged and provided an alternative to the colonial plantation system.
I developed a love of travel and writing, and to seeing things at the grass roots level though my own eyes. One of those early journeys took me to Vietnam in the summer of 1969/70, the height of the war, and what I observed and wrote then formed the basis of my story ‘The Dust of Life’ which was published in my most recent book, Violin Lessons, over 40 years later.
What’s the best part of your job?
It forces me to be alert, to keep observing, and to notice the details of everyday life.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The inevitable brick walls, those moments when I come up against a seeming dead end. This is not so much writers’ block, but a time when I have to detour and find solutions to a problem. It is the moment when you realise, yet again, when it comes to a sustained piece of writing, there are no short cuts.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
It is always the moment when I know I have finally finished a particular story or novel. The editing is yet to come, but the essential work of getting it down and working it out is over. This usually arrives unexpectedly – one moment a novel I am writing has no end in sight and then, somehow it is over. What a relief.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best advice: do not lose your nerve.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work? In several reviews, the reviewer has taken something I have written and dwelled upon it as a metaphor of great significance. For instance, one review of my first book Jewels and Ashes made a big play of my description of my father’s potato latkes, which he made according to a recipe he had received from his mother. This reviewer saw the latkes as the central metaphor of the book, illustrating the way in which stories are transmitted from generation to generation, and so on. But from my point of view, I was simply writing about my father’s potato latkes.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
My fantasy answer is working as a gardener. There was a time when I travelled and worked in a series of related manual jobs: farm labourer, fruit picker, forest worker, landscaper’s assistant, and so on, and I loved it. As for the reality … well let’s stick to the fantasy.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what do you think?
Yes, I think it can be taught. Why not? Writing is a craft. There are techniques that take years of experience to gain, and these can certainly be imparted to others. Writing can also be a need, a means of trying to make sense of this chaos we call life. Many people who attend writing workshops are driven by such a need to express themselves. Expression actually means ‘getting it out’.
I have seen this need at work in many workshops – most recently in workshops I have run with Black Saturday bushfire survivors. In one of these workshops, a participant came up to me and said she was finding it more powerful than counselling. When I asked her why, she said that when she is counselled she feels like a victim, but when she writes she feels in charge and empowered.
There is so much snobbery involved when people say writing cannot be taught, and that writing workshops or creative writing courses are suspect. Sometimes the aim may be to simply write a family story, for the children and grand children – and a few techniques can inspire it to be just that bit more readable, creative and compelling.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Keep observing, keep reading, and keep writing. Especially writing. Like many other jobs, you learn on the job, not by thinking about it.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
In physical bookshops.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? What would you talk about?
Jim, in Huckleberry Finn – it would be great to spend time with him rafting down river and camping out. The stories and conversation would emerge in their own good time, out of the silences, out of the good company, and from the rhythm of being on the river.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
It keeps changing. Certain books help me find ways of solving problems in specific projects. For instance, Gabriel Garcia’s One Hundred Years of Solitude taught me how to move in time and space, and to be daring when I was writing my first book. The most recently read book that has had a deep impact on me was Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman. Completed in the 1960s, this is a novel of epic scope and deep compassion. It depicts the events that afflicted the Soviet Russia as it faced the twin yoke of Nazism and Stalinism. The novel’s greatness lies in its humanity, unswerving honesty, and in its empathetic characters. A novel that taught me a lot about the sensuousness of writing was The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schultz, written in the 1930s. And there are many more …