Working with Words: Anne Buist

We spoke with writer and psychiatrist Anne Buist about her teenage first drafts, other creative outlets and how her work in the field of medicine influences her writing.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Anne Buist

Photo: Lachlan Woods

I’m pretty sure I laughed during The World According to Garp, but I definitely laughed reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. Both are John Irving books (other than this, the only other I’ve really laughed at was The Rosie Project, by my husband Graeme Simsion). Why? I just had this vivid picture of Owen Meany being passed over people's heads, I think while Christmas Carols were being sung (it’s a while since I read it). There was something so poignant and life-affirming about the character and story that appealed, and the scene was slightly absurd but somehow real, too. 

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I wrote prolifically – and very badly. There are some people who were teenage virtuosos; I was not. Mostly I wrote the first paragraph only, at least until I was 15, when I wrote (longhand) several 'novels' which I guess were about 20,000 words.

My first tries were all set at boarding schools or pony clubs (think Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s series and Ruby Ferguson's books.) By 15, I added some appalling romance. The best of the bunch was one called Six Little MacAllisters, about my grandmother and her five siblings arriving in Australia from Scotland in the early 1900s. I still have it …

I did work briefly in a pathology lab and I guess one day that might inspire a more gruesome crime novel. Mostly I keep the blood off the page!

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I studied medicine, so worked briefly in medicine, surgery, paediatrics, emergency medicine, rehabilitation and general practice – but since then, it has been psychiatry. For the last 30 years I’ve primarily been a perinatal psychiatrist, with some forensic work in the last ten or so years. I still do this part-time, and it inspires both story and character very strongly.

I did work briefly in a pathology lab. I guess one day that might inspire a more gruesome crime novel. Mostly, I keep the blood off the page!

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

The obvious answer to this is psychiatry, as that is what I do still. But there is definitely a creative part of me that needs fulfilling – in my 20s, if I wasn’t writing, I was sewing, knitting or doing tapestries. When I stopped writing for a while in my 40s, I took up guitar and singing, so I suspect I’d be doing more of this … though on a recent holiday I took an art class and found that fun. Both my mother and aunt are quite talented, but I’m not sure I have that gene!

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you now? 

On and off throughout my teens, but never for more than a week or two. I don’t like the routine, and this may sound strange for a psychiatrist, but I find it too self-indulgent. I’m not interesting enough to want to spend too much time writing what I’ve done or what I'm thinking!

Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Overrated? Anything by Woody Allen other than Annie Hall and Sleeper. I just don’t think he’s funny, and that he indulges his neuroses rather than actually dealing with them. Seems like a waste of 30 or more years of analysis.

[Woody Allen] indulges his neuroses rather than actually dealing with them. Seems like a waste of 30 or more years of analysis.

On the underrated side, though it did get awards, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri definitely deserved the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is, to me, pitch perfect. Every character and their development, the worthiness of the story, the emotional arcs, the screenplay. It should have received all the Academy Awards!

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

Not that I think strange. But I don’t write every day, and when I’m on a roll, can write for eight to ten hours straight. And I can edit anywhere: planes, trains (no ships in this time of corona). 

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

The first books I had published (erotica). Let’s just say I was on a steep learning curve and was experimenting, but I'm not sure I want anyone to read them. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot, so I just think of that time as an interesting time but very much in the past. 

Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with?

I’m presuming I can choose people from the past, in which case, Lord Byron. Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know (besides inspiring one of my novel titles) is just too much of an epitaph for me not to want to meet the person who generated it. I rather fancy we’d be dressed up (which I love) and in Venice, so what’s not to like?

Portrait of Anne Buist

Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne. She has thirty years’ experience in perinatal psychiatry, and works with the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. Her Natalie King: Forensic Psychologist series of thrillers is published by Text.

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