Working with Words: Dennis Glover
Dennis Glover is a writer and novelist and has worked for two decades as an academic, newspaper columnist, policy adviser and speechwriter. He spoke with us about George Orwell, the aesthetics of the 1940s and responding to those who say you can't be a writer.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
All Quiet on the Western Front made me cry – it had a big influence on me as a teenager.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
I wrote short stories in primary school and (yes, like George Orwell also did) I knew from that moment on that I would somehow – eventually – end up a writer. Politics and the need to earn a living led me astray.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I did a lot of factory work when I was younger. I have written about this in my book An Economy is Not a Society, which was my attempt to write a version of The Road to Wigan Pier, based on my industrial working class childhood in Doveton.
Since then, I’ve worked for unions, tutored at Cambridge, minded John Maynard Keynes’s book collection (I had my own Shakespeare First Folio to read for a while) and been a political adviser and speechwriter. I was working in Kim Beazley’s office when the Tampa arrived – a traumatic experience for any idealist, as readers may imagine, but one that offers a slightly different perspective, and I may write about that in fiction one day. I touched on it in Orwell’s Australia.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
The obvious thing is politics – it’s what I know. I’d love to be a high school history teacher, but the prospect of a two–year teaching degree when I’ve spent half my life at university already is too daunting.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Leave your ego, but not your imagination and creativity, at the publisher’s front door.
The best is ‘listen to your editors’ (because they know what they’re doing) and remove any detail or scene which diverts from the trajectory of the story. Leave your ego, but not your imagination and creativity, at the publisher’s front door.
The worst is ‘you can’t be a writer because' ... you’re boring, working class, not one of us, etc. If anyone ever says that to you: (a) punch them in the face, then (b) go home and start writing.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I write all my creative work in a series of overlapping notebooks, which serve in a practical sense as a diary. But I think it would be far too draining to be creative in a diary at the end of each day. One of my early notebooks has an entry detailing a meeting with pollsters a few days before the Tampa arrived, telling us Labor would win the next (2001) election easily, ‘unless there’s a war or something.’ Cue the Tampa and 9/11. I’ll give that one to a library one day.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
I’ve never been able to finish reading To Kill a Mockingbird. As they say, the movie was better. An underrated novel is Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, his great story about nostalgia that holds the secret to understanding Nineteen Eighty-Four. Everyone should read J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, about damaged war veterans recuperating during an English summer just after the Great War; Don Charlwood’s No Moon Tonight, about Australian Bomber Command pilots in World War Two; and Albert Camus’s The Plague. I re-read these three books just about every year.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
I write the first drafts of all my creative (as opposed to commercial) work using an expensive mechanical pencil in expensive German notebooks. An indulgence, but I’m worth it! I then type it up using an archaic Remington Noiseless typewriter font – because, I suppose, I always seem to be writing about the 1940s and it just seems aesthetically right. I occasionally type a page or two on the same model of typewriter that Orwell owned.
Every book has to be a product of its time, including the shortage of time.
Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
Everything, but every book has to be a product of its time, including the shortage of time, and it would take the invention of a time machine to undo it and make it better.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
Orwell obviously – to see if I’ve really got him right. Arthur C. Clarke – to find out what 2001 A Space Odyssey is all about (I’ve never been able to work it out). Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell – to find out why it went so bad and whether that upset him or not. (Maybe he just liked being a bastard.)
Dennis is currently writing a dystopian novel about a man who is nostalgic for the world before the computer.