Working with Words: Helen Elliott

We spoke with literary journalist Helen Elliott about writing against the clock, burning diaries and her primary-school adventures in plagiarism.

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

Photograph of Helen Elliott

My father had a beautiful voice and he used to read to me before I could read. I remember both of us weeping over Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. It was heart-breaking. I cried for a year over Judy’s death in Seven Little Australians. I tend to judge people on this, still. I could never befriend a non-crier.

Laughter? Reading Catch 22 on the train coming home from work in 1965. I couldn’t stop laughing and was embarrassed. People were circumspect then. It just wasn’t done. I read Anna Karenina on the same train and cried all the way home. Loud, hopeless sobs. Everyone pretended not to notice.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I can’t remember not writing things. In third grade, I wrote a composition called 'Autumn Leaves', totally plagiarised from somewhere, but the instinct behind it was to say these words that were so beautiful and capture them on paper.The teacher was impressed with my carpet of golden and red threads. I also had a penfriend in Canada and wrote letters, long letters, to her.

In sixth grade, I remember trying to work out how something I was reading about a cat leaping through a room was funny, and trying to imitate it. I was a great imitator/plagiariser. I was extremely interested in how writing was done, and why some authors were interesting and others dull. I disliked long, detailed descriptions of landscape. Liked conversation. I had a book habit that was obviously annoying to teachers and they banned me from the library because I wouldn’t stop reading. I had a book open in my desk and wouldn’t pay attention to the teacher. He used to throw chalk dusters at me. I had a brutal education; in fact, 'education' is  the antonym to what I had.

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

I started work when I was just 16 because the family were broke. I was a clerk in a federal government department, and had to do computations. I had no idea what I was doing – WHAT are computations, anyway? – and lost them a lot of money because the girl who was checking my work had no idea either. I read for one hour on the train every morning and again for one hour at night. Sobbing or laughing. I got through a lot. My office was full of young women who had gone from private schools to do Arts at university, and happily failed because the point of Arts at university was to meet a superior husband. They were kind and gave me their curriculum books.

I try, often fail, to read a poem every night because it keeps language fresh ... Writing is, at one level, about choosing the exact word. There is always just one that is a cut above.

After a year, I got a job in a suburban library. I finished my work by 10am and often slunk off to the stacks and read all day. I was there for five years and managed to read most of the library. I also met interesting people at the library desk. I went to university at 21 and discovered I had a tremendous advantage. I was sometimes asked why I spoke like someone from a past century and another country. It was already 1969 and the fabulous 1960s had passed me by. I moved to a small country town in 1980 and real time, real life – as a mother, partner, gardener, member of a community – gave me ideas which I turned into money. Necessity, mother of etc etc. Easy for me. Besides, everyone was renovating and there is nothing I hate more.

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

I read more than write. Maybe I should be called a reader, not a writer? Most of my writing these days is reviewing. I don’t dismiss this. Alberto Manguel told me that a perceptive reviewer is rarer than a good writer. I’ve tried to write novels but I don’t have the imaginative grasp and a few other things that are essential. I have four novels behind me. Unpublished, thank heavens, although I have published (self-absorbed) short stories over time.

I am extremely visual and interested in surfaces and believe they illuminate depths. If I had known there was such a thing, I would have been a stage designer. Or done something in fashion. Clothes are important to me.  If I were young now, I’d be in LA trying to get a job as a writer on something HBO or Hulu were doing. 

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

I try, often fail, to read a poem every night, because it keeps language fresh. I read that somewhere. Fantastic advice. Writing is, at one level, about choosing the exact word. There is always just one that is a cut above. It teaches patience in the hunting.

Having worked as a journalist most of my adult life, there was always a push to get a pieces in: get it written and then let it go to print. 'Just get some words in', an editor would say and I would oblige. Words! It would rarely be good enough because there wasn’t time to revise or think. I try now to take more care, revise, revise, cut, cut, cut.

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

I have bits of diaries I started when I was 10. I have a five-year diary I started when I was 14 ... The early bits of writing shock me. Stuff I was writing when I was 14 or 15 I would consider idiotic if my eight-year-old granddaughter had written them. I was a very dopey child. I came across this stuff when I moved house a few years ago, read bits with alarm and despair, and threw it all out. A great burn-up. 

Most of my life I have written for money, against the clock. So I am used to sitting down and doing it. To pay the bills. I have no illusions about it as a romantic or celebrity thing.

So no diaries. I’m not Virginia W. I enjoy the process of becoming someone and changing as I age, and feel remote from that woman in the past. And that self-absorbed adolescent just isn’t interesting. Or that desperate mother, either ... I’ve started keeping a small book to note things, moments, people that have made me happy, or make me happy; my sweet peas for instance. I also have a good memory, so that helps.

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

Moby-Dick. So overblown. (Compare it with Middlemarch, written a decade later. Check the tone, voice, thought. Note how MM shines and shines.) Moby-Dick seems shockingly male. I just don’t get it. And L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between. Mystifying how that dull and phoney pomp could be revered.

Unsung gems are hard to come by. Olivia Manning’s 1951 School For Love gave me immense pleasure recently. It is small and almost perfect. 

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

Nope. Most of my life I have written for money, against the clock. So I am used to sitting down and doing it. To pay the bills. I have no illusions about it as a romantic or celebrity thing. For me, it is a facility I have and I’ve had to put it to practical use. I do intersperse writing with other activities for a while, going into the garden to weed or dig, and that works well. When I had a weekly column to deliver at noon on Wednesday and nothing in my head at 9am, a walk would always work. Always!In extreme moments I had a 9am nip of whiskey. And I hate whiskey. I am not a drinker.

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

Every single thing. Thank god the fish is wrapped in it.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? (And what would you talk about?)

Hands down Elena Ferrante’s Lenu and Lila. I could talk with them both for a lifetime because their lives are my life/lives. Ferrante is a genius. I’d also like to meet George Eliot, because she’s got that luminous moral compass. Woolf? To sit down and gas with Virginia Woolf would be dazzling. She had a streak of malice – dangerous but alluring. She loved clothes, she understood friendship, she was erudite. Things I value. I would ask, 'Have you ever met an author?' I have. Most of them are totally unlike their books, so perhaps better to keep it imaginary. 

Portrait of Helen Elliott

Helen Elliott is a literary journalist. 

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