Working with Words: Gabriella Coslovich
Gabriella Coslovich is an acclaimed arts journalist and the author of Whiteley on Trial, about the criminal trial surrounding the alleged forgery of Brett Whiteley paintings. She spoke with us about Stoner, The Cat in the Hat and her preference for understated writing.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I suspect that my first chuckle of delight was probably raised by the marvellous Dr Seuss and his The Cat in the Hat series and other children’s books. I loved his word play, crazy rhymes and absurd plots. I still do. And I have a very strong memory of sobbing with gut-wrenching sadness at the end of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (much later in life, of course).
It’s been decades since I read Disgrace, but picking up a dusty copy from my bookshelf to answer this question, I turned to the last few pages and recalled the wave of grief that hit me after so much tragedy in that book, when the extremely flawed main character, the middle-aged, twice-divorced academic David Lurie, carries 'in his arms like a lamb' a young stray dog into surgery to be put down. The final line heaves with meaning: 'Yes, I am giving him up'.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
Only for school, really, and constantly in my diary. I fancied myself more as a painter. I had an oil painting set, loved the smell of linseed oil, and would paint still lifes, portraits and copies of my favourite artists’ works. Funny that.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I was a casual record salesgirl back in the glory days of vinyl, a teacher of high-school English and Italian, and, after finishing post-graduate studies in journalism, I did a variety of jobs, including being a hopelessly clumsy waitress, a slightly better public-relations account manager, a publications officer, and co-coordinator of a multicultural youth learning exchange program, before landing a cadetship (aged 29) and settling into life as a journalist.
As an English teacher, I had to make sure I knew my grammar, which came in handy by the time I got to newspapers (misplaced apostrophes make me apoplectic!). Journalism opened up many new worlds, taught me discipline and brought me into contact with fabulous editors whose voices I still hear in my head each time I write. Ultimately, though, it’s life – relationships, family, and what I see, hear and read – that influences me most, especially the stuff I can’t understand, or that confuses, or disturbs, or angers me. Or that gives me joy.
It’s life – relationships, family, and what I see, hear and read – that influences me most, especially the stuff I can’t understand, or that confuses, or disturbs, or angers me. Or that gives me joy.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
After all these years as a journalist and a freelance writer I can’t imagine doing anything else with quite the same intensity. I’d like to think that I could give it all up and spend my time gardening and cooking, doing things that add beauty and comfort to people’s lives. But I’m kidding myself. Writing has become a habit that I don’t think I can kick. Or really want to.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best advice was very simple: just keep getting it down.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I have kept diaries since I was a child. There are dust-covered piles of them in my study. A lawyer I once mentioned this to advised me to destroy them. They were a liability, she said. I ignored her advice, wise though it was. Diaries are a place where one can write without censorship, record what happens, test ideas. They are a potential source of material. They are liberating; one can let loose and write without the anxiety that comes with being read and published.
Cinthia Gannett, in her 1992 book Gender and the Journal: Diaries and Academic Discourse, explores the idea of the diary as a place of refuge for female writers. I can relate to that. Although diaries are of course susceptible to prying eyes.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
I had never heard of John Williams and his 1965 novel Stoner. The book was recommended to my partner, who recommended it to me, and after reading it, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t better known. Neither of us could. While the book’s date and title might suggest it was set in the 1960s hippy drug haze, the story couldn’t be further from that scene. It’s a restrained, deeply felt feat of writing, about a humble and decent academic, William Stoner, whose happiness is constantly thwarted and reputation unfairly maligned.
These days I prefer the understated to the overstated. One keeps learning, as a writer and as a human.
The book is not quite as depressing as it sounds. There’s dignity in Stoner’s quiet resilience and acceptance that feels true to the human condition. We plod along, for better or worse. In 2013, The New Yorker dubbed it 'The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of'.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
I like to wear socks when writing, even on a relatively warm day. My feet need to feel cosy.
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
I’d rather not mention them as I’d rather they were forgotten, but they are pieces I've written where the tone isn’t quite right. For example, where I’m trying to be humorous but I come across as sneering. Or where I haven’t really fathomed the complexity of a situation or idea. Some pieces just don’t age well. Opinions change. These days I prefer the understated to the overstated. One keeps learning, as a writer and as a human.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
The late Brett Whiteley, so I could ask him, did you or did you not paint those big, brash paintings that ended up in court?