Working with Words: Alex Landragin
We spoke with novelist Alex Landragin about printed artefacts, Charlotte's Web and his 'little red therapist'.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
Charlotte’s Web, Grade One, St Mary’s Primary School, Ararat. It’s a heartbreaker.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
According to my mother I wrote vivid stories about such universal themes as being eaten by a shark. Interestingly, in my first year of university I wrote a frame story (stories-within-a-story) that presaged the frame-story structure of Crossings, written some two decades later. It was in that same year that my creative writing instructor, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, told me about a story he’d just read that would later inspire my novel.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
My first job was a holiday job at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat. I was a ‘printer’s apprentice’. Of course all I did was print out ‘Wanted’ posters for tourists, but perhaps that was one of the sources of my love of the printed artefact. Later, being an author of travel guides helped give me the confidence to write about unfamiliar places – Crossings revels in its geographic sprawl and features such diverse locales as a fictional Pacific island, a Louisiana slave plantation, and Paris across several different periods. Being an Indigenous community support worker in Alice Springs taught me how the past continues to haunt the present, one of the novel’s primary themes. And being digital content manager at the Wheeler Centre taught me all about the publishing industry.
She grabbed my forearm in a vice-like grip and said, 'Don’t get stuck in the university system! Get out in the world and live!'
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
If my family hadn’t migrated to Australia, I might well have ended up a winemaker like my father and countless generations before him. My migrant mother very much wanted me to be a lawyer. As a child, I at one time yearned to be a Catholic priest, although the atheism I adopted as a teenager made that inadvisable. But nowadays I mostly wish I’d become a gardener.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The worst advice is to write daily. The best advice was from Helen Garner, who rightly judged my Masters in Creative Writing thesis as mediocre about 15 years ago. When I introduced myself to her a few months later at a book launch, she grabbed my forearm in a vice-like grip and said, 'Don’t get stuck in the university system! Get out in the world and live!' Helen, I took your advice, and I thank you for it.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
Too often derided as the pursuit of adolescents and narcissists, keeping a journal is, to me at least, indispensable – a cornerstone of my practice as a writer and my sanity (for lack of a better word) as a human being. I call it my little red therapist (the current one is red, although the colour varies). One of my favourite books is an anthology of diary-writing called The Assassin’s Cloak. There are some writers whose diary-writing is their finest work, and some of the unlikeliest people make fine diarists, like Brian Eno.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
Although I’m not a critic and don’t aspire to be one, the concept of literary value is an ongoing fascination. I must say I just never ‘got’ Dostoevsky, although I acknowledge it’s probably got more to do with a blind spot of my own. In fiction, some of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s short stories (translated from the Russian) are uniquely astonishing, while in non-fiction Misha Glenny’s McMafia (on which the TV series is only very loosely based) is, in my opinion, a key to my understanding of the current kleptocratic global moment.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
Several. I’m a late afternoon writer. Often it takes a couple of hours of procrastination before my mind finally and reluctantly turns its attention to the task at hand. A good day is two or three hours long – longer than that is very rare. To keep fresh and enthused, I tend to keep moving from one writing space to another.
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
Let’s just say it’s a good thing it took as long as it did (I’m 46) for me to finally get my first novel published.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
Artist: Caravaggio. Author: Colette. Fictional character: Ignatius Reilly. They could talk about whatever they wished, while I would try to keep my big mouth shut.