Working with Words: Bianca Nogrady
We spoke with science journalist, author and broadcaster Bianca Nogrady about writing screenplays in high school, getting first drafts done and what it might be like to get drunk with Terry Pratchett.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
It was the children’s book Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. I don’t know how old I was, but I remember sitting in the back of the car by myself, trying to read the last pages through a waterfall of tears. It might explain why I always try to relocate eight-legged house-guests rather than obliterate them.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
Entirely because of an embarrassing teenage celebrity crush, I wrote the first half of a screenplay in high school, with the express goal of having it made into a movie that would star myself and the object of my obsession in the leading roles. Thankfully, those words have long since been lost, as have my starry-eyed affections for that actor-who-will-remain-nameless.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I have worked as a writer since I finished university, so my experience of day jobs is limited to the usual assortment of teenage and young adult jobs in babysitting, hospitality and ironing. Those have influenced my writing only in making it very clear to me that I was not meant to be in a career that involved babysitting, working in hospitality, or ironing.
Entirely because of an embarrassing teenage celebrity crush, I wrote the first half of a screenplay in high school, with the express goal of having it made into a movie that would star myself and the object of my obsession in the leading roles.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Despite high school aspirations towards acting or medicine, I wanted to be a writer as soon as I realised it was possible to make a living doing it. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ll probably keep writing as long as my brain lets me do it, and people read it.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
When I was taking my first baby steps into writing fiction – and being appalled at how bad I was at it – I read a blog post by British science fiction author Alastair Reynolds about first drafts. He described first drafts as like pulling a big ugly rope across a chasm, which then enables you to pull more ropes over, then to build a bridge, make it solid and make it beautiful. It reassured me that first drafts can be absolutely hideous, but they are just a foundation; a starting point. They don’t have to be pretty, they just have to be there.
In my science writing, I was lucky to work for a time with an editor – Dr Kerri Parnell – who taught me how to analyse a scientific paper, interrogate the data, to never take the author's conclusions for granted, and to follow my instincts if something didn’t make sense or feel right.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
First drafts can be absolutely hideous, but they are just a foundation; a starting point. They don’t have to be pretty, they just have to be there.
I kept diaries all through high school, university and even into young adulthood, mainly because I found it therapeutic to write down my thoughts and feelings. I fervently hope no one ever finds them.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
They’re hardly obscure or unsung, but my two desert-island books are Contact by Carl Sagan, and Dune by Frank Herbert. I’ve lost count of how many times I have re-read both books, and I still go back to them almost on a yearly basis.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
When I’m deep into writing a piece, I sometimes find myself gesturing silently or making faces as I think through a sentence, like I’m reading my piece out loud to someone. Someone once said I write how I speak – I tend to wave my arms around a lot as I speak, so I guess I have to do the same as I write.
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
I wouldn’t mind another crack at that screenplay from high school, mainly to see if it was as awful as I imagine or if the first glimmers of writing ability were starting to manifest back then.
I think writers are never really 100% satisfied with their work, even after it’s printed or published. I always aspire to be a better science writer, especially when I read the extraordinary words and works that other science writers and science journalists are producing.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
The fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett, who unfortunately died in 2015. I adore his books (the Discworld series): the imaginative worlds, the dark and wonderful humour, the crispness of his wit, the kaleidoscope of characters, the simmering righteous fury that drives some of the most memorable of those characters. I’d love to get royally drunk with him and talk about how strange humans are.