Working with Words: Alistair Baldwin
Alistair Baldwin is a comedian, improviser and writer for The Weekly with Charlie Pickering. He spoke with us about writers as products, the potential for genetic modification to save and/or destroy us all, and writing an advice column using only knowledge of Agatha Christie.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
It'd probably be Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Most children learn from a young age that the world is unfair – but the Unfortunate Events series were the first kids' books I remember that seemed to broach that.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
When I was 13, living in Perth, I wrote a short story about a guy who has a twitch in his eye that won't go away and it drives him over the edge and he gouges his eye out with a spoon. Then he realises he misses the twitch (if memory serves it was an unearned metaphor for his wife leaving him), so he shoves a watch into his eye socket to feel the surrogate twitch of the second hand throughout his skull. Think A Tell-Tale Heart meets Saw meets my unhinged, puberty-stricken brain.
It won the Tim Winton Young Writer's Award for my age bracket – which says more about Perth's small population than it does me. It was bad, 'edgy' writing. But that's all it takes to make a lifelong writer, isn't it? Too much validation, too young.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I've worked a lot as an usher at festivals, scanning tickets and seating people. Which taught me that if a piece of information is truly important (e.g. toilet location), people like when you tell them in the most efficient, clear way possible.
That's all it takes to make a lifelong writer, isn't it? Too much validation, too young.
My very first office job was coming up with descriptions for wine products at a bottle-o. I never tasted the wine, I just sorta aggregated (1) the vibe of the vineyard's website; and (2) a couple of reviews on some wine forums. I don't know if it influenced my creative style as such, but it did teach me how to market myself. Somewhat disgustingly, being a writer is being a product. It's been quite helpful career-wise, knowing how to write persuasive bullshit about myself.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Something in biology or biotech. I have quite a niche type of muscular dystrophy so from a very young age I was always pretty across genetics. And I did this months-long internship at the CSIRO when I was in high school, working out how one might genetically modify wheat to make it resistant to a particular fungus.
The potential for genetic modification to save and/or destroy us all is quite interesting.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Best advice: sometimes you just have to go to bed. There’s a romantic ideal about writers working through the night to get something done – and I’ve pulled my fair share of all-nighters to meet a script deadline. But at a certain point of fatigue, all ideas become bad ideas even if you still believe they’re good. I only had to be told that by about 30 people before it sunk in.
At a certain point of fatigue, all ideas become bad ideas even if you still believe they’re good.
However, this is also my worst advice because I’ve weaponised it to justify mid-afternoon procrastination naps.
Which classic book/play/film do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
It’s pretty bold to claim the best-selling novelist of all time is underrated, but I do genuinely feel people don’t fully comprehend and respect Agatha Christie’s impact on modern literature, film and television. If you’re as much of a murder mystery nerd as I am, you’ll realise her plots and structures are the urtext that nearly every modern mystery, thriller and slasher flick is a riff on. Any 'twist' that today feels cliche because everyone’s done it? She invented it*.
* This is a tangent, but in uni I wrote a column for Farrago, the student magazine, called 'Agony Agatha'. It was an advice column from the perspective of someone with zero real life experience, but they had read every single Christie book. If there’s anyone reading with the publishing power to reboot this, find me on Twitter – my DMs are wide open.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
Sometimes I’ll go into a Google Doc I’m working on in a separate, incognito window, so that it will say, ‘Anonymous Penguin has entered this document’. That way it feels like someone is watching, holding me accountable.
Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
My answer to the ‘overrated/underrated’ question above. Mainly because I’m going to put Agatha Christie as my answer for the next question, and I’ll seem weirdly obsessed if I mention her across multiple questions.
Which artist, writer or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?