Working with Words: Brian Castro
Brian Castro is a celebrated novelist, poet and teacher, based in Adelaide. He passed on advice from his English grandmother, explained why chopping wood is good practice for writing polished sentences and revealed all about his exploits as a boarding-school subversive.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I think it was Huckleberry Finn. I loved the timbre of the voices and the humour of misplaced optimism. But I also struggled with the injustices exacted on African-American slaves. The racial slurs, which seemed to be acceptable usage, disturbed me deeply at the age of ten or eleven. When I arrived in Australia, I wondered if I were stepping back into that time.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
I was in boarding school without family for six years during my teenage period. The threat of being deported back to Hong Kong if I failed was a huge oppression. Inside, I was a mess; repressed and rebellious. I compiled a dictionary of Shakespeare’s bawdy words and phrases – things which the teachers refused to elucidate. This samizdat literature was handwritten by me and passed around by my cohort. Their essays at the end of the year were shocking but inspired. I was found out and was punished. My English grandmother told me always to read dictionaries. They are great for the imagination.
Diaries are air-swings to practise intimacy, then when the real writing comes you get more precise and more distant.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I have always been a teacher, a sessional tutor and finally now, a university professor. I will retire at the end of this year and will revert to full-time writing without all the stresses of institutions. Teaching can be draining: giving your students everything, which leaves very little for one’s writing and energy. But it also forces me to keep up with what my students are reading and sometimes that gives me another insight into millennials and what their lives are like.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Cutting timber for winter. Splitting logs, sawing biscuits from fallen trees. I do not harm anything living. But the rhythms of provisioning wood are wonderful for gestation and discipline and a good practical exercise for thinking in polished sentences.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Best: try to write every day, even if it’s rubbish.
Worst: reading primers on how to write, or how to plot a novel. It would be good to read a parody of these.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I have always kept a paper diary. Diaries are air-swings to practise intimacy, then when the real writing comes you get more precise and more distant. Of course a lot of my diary entries are merely records of moods: 'Depressed today. Shall go for a long walk. Imagine depravity.' Things like that.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
I read books that are terribly unknown in the English-speaking world. It pains me that we think everything is translated into English. If we read other languages, we enter very different worlds of colour, taste, music and atmosphere. Treasures that we miss in English. At the moment I am reading one of the strangest and possibly best of Portuguese writers: Maria Gabriela Llansol. Her book in English is entitled: The Geography of Rebels. And of course, she is dead.
If we read other languages, we enter very different worlds of colour, taste, music and atmosphere.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
I can only write in my room, which is full of books and bicycles. Murphy the dog comes in and head-butts my thigh. I have to let him out. Then let him back again. And so it goes. It’s a great distraction from the difficulty of writing. Maybe he knows that. As Emily Dickinson said: Dogs are better than human beings because they know but do not tell.
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
Non, je ne regrette rien. Of course first novels are a bit immature and possibly too ambitious, but they were necessary to test the tightrope.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
I don’t think I would like to meet any of them because they would be too disappointing in real life. Too much envy and jealousies abound in that company. I wouldn’t mind meeting Jacqueline Kennedy, who was a book editor, having a glass of wine with her and speaking French for a while.