Working with Words: Gus Henderson

Gus Henderson is the author of The Wounded Sinner. He spoke with us about school writing clubs, mapping out a novel and living by what you write.

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

Photograph of Gus Henderson

Photo: Kate Heaslip

The Magic Pudding, because it was so funny! Norman Lindsay’s characters, his plot, his drawings. The penguin, Sam Sawn-Off, made me laugh.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? 

Yes. We had a writing club at school and we encouraged each other to write longer and longer stories/compositions. This was in primary school. The teachers were always saying, 'Don’t write them so long!' We invented different characters and plots and I can’t remember if there was a general theme.

We had a writing club at school and we encouraged each other to write longer and longer stories/compositions.

I didn’t attend high school that much but wrote when I had to.

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

I have worked across Australia and done just about everything from working with my father (sheet metal) to time in the army. I have worked in disability services, power stations and a university. My work had a huge impact when I started writing again in my 30s. I mainly wrote poetry and my writing was influenced by my lived experiences. University helped me to develop my writing because I learned to write in a more orderly manner.

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

I think I would still be writing but rather than novels, I would focus on poetry.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

From Mark Twain: 'Write what you know'. And the worst: 'You’ll never be a writer, you stupid idiot', from my father.

When you write, as I did, at a university – Edith Cowan University in Western Australia – your supervisors guide your learning and that is always incredibly important advice.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I had a yearly calendar which mapped out the chapters for my novel. Everything has got to be planned. I did keep notebooks and record certain conversations. I never kept a personal diary.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

It isn’t an obscure one, but Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front stays with me always. It not only expressed the horrors of war but also the thirst for life and love amid the carnage.

All Quiet on the Western Front stays with me always. It not only expressed the horrors of war but also the thirst for life and love amid the carnage.

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

It is my goal to write 250 quality words a day over a four-day period and edit and reflect on those words on the fifth day. Dorothy Hewitt wrote her prize-winning novel Bobbin Up over an eight-week period at night, over her kitchen table.

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

No. You live by what you write.

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

I would like to have dinner with my cousin Robert Henderson (the artist) and we would talk about the prevailing themes through the arts and how we could influence them. We both tell about what happened in Australia and what is still happening to the lives and histories of the first Australians.

Portrait of Gus Henderson

Gus Henderson was born in Sydney in 1950. His people are from the Flinders Ranges region in SA, and he spent his early years with an aunty and uncle. Gus and his siblings grew up without any of their Aboriginal family, and were always told not to tell anybody. It has been a struggle over the years for him to construct a realistic heritage.

Gus describes his schooling as forgettable, and he joined the Australian Army in 1967. In 2014, he was the first student to graduate from Edith Cowan University South West Campus (WA) with a PhD in Writing. Gus is now retired. The Wounded Sinner is his first book.

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