Working with Words: Ilka Tampke

Novelist Ilka Tampke talks secret passions, spring onions and Madeleine St John.

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

Photograph of novelist Ilka Tampke

I remember laughing at the cheeky and hapless animal characters of Australian children’s stories, like Blinky Bill and The Muddle-Headed Wombat. I loved that haughty cat character who was the constantly humiliated straight-man to Wombat’s bumbling antics. These animal characters were, ironically, so human.

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

I wrote constantly during my childhood. In school, my goal was always to write the longest story out of all the students in the class. Quantity over quality! Outside of school I wrote a novel in which the characters were all talking pigs. I can’t remember the subtleties of the plot, but it does seem that my interest in totemism and animals in fiction had early antecedents.

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

In school, my goal was always to write the longest story out of all the students in the class. Quantity over quality!

I’ve done everything from palm-reading to go-go dancing to book-keeping for the UK’s largest importer of spring onions from Egypt! My years working for the NSW Women’s Refuge Movement helped me shape my feminism and gave me an introduction to Indigenous politics in this country. I have never forgotten the stories I heard and the women I met. I think they are part of why I continue to write about Indigeneity in my fiction.

Another strand of my earlier career was directing arts festivals. The need to work toward absolutely immutable event deadlines was great training for a writer.

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

Cover image of 'Songwoman' by Ilka Tampke

My first love was always dance. If I had even one iota of talent, I would be telling stories with movement instead of with words. But I don’t, so words will have to do. My other abiding interest is public health. I’m fascinated by the intersection of culture, wellbeing and disease. So perhaps I would be researching and developing policy at VicHealth.

Or maybe I’d be a florist. Flowers are my secret passion ...

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

I’ve received so much wonderful advice from teachers, editors and other writers that it’s really hard to choose. I am constantly reading, going to workshops and seeking out advice from my betters. One of the best articulations of the creative process and how to approach it is in the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I often return to her advice such as: 'A good enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never.'

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

Yes, I have kept a diary since I was about 15. (My mum read that 15-year-old’s diary and saved me from a very sticky situation.) I don’t write every day, but it’s always rewarding when I do. Writing seems to help me find shape in my thoughts.

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

I was hugely moved by Han Kang’s The White Book. This is a slim, poetic rumination on the colour white, and also a lament for her unborn sister. It didn’t seem to rock the world, but it rocked my soul.  

Writing is such a physically unnatural ... thing to do to our bodies. I need to remind myself that I have bones, muscles and blood.

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

I set my phone for 40-minute intervals when I write. In between I get up and do two yoga salutes to the sun. Writing is such a physically unnatural and even damaging thing to do to our bodies. I need to remind myself that I have bones, muscles and blood, and am not just a buzzing brain.

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

Not really. I feel a little embarrassed when I read back over some parts of my first novel, but I know that feeling is entirely normal, so I don’t pay it much heed. I try to be kind to myself as a writer.

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

I am very interested in Madeleine St John, who wrote Women in Black (currently released as a film, Ladies in Black). We share a birthday and home city (Sydney) and a similar sense of disenchantment with that city. I’d like to talk to her about that and about her years with the Sydney Push – a seething counter-cultural libertarian movement in the 1950s. 

I’d love to share an outdoor picnic by a babbling stream with Marilynne Robinson and simply ask her how she imagines such exquisite, transcendent writing into being. 

Portrait of Ilka Tampke

Ilka Tampke teaches fiction at RMIT University. Her first novel, Skin, was published in eight countries and was nominated for the Voss Literary Prize and the Aurealis Awards in 2016. Her second novel, Songwoman, was published in October 2018. Ilka lives on five acres in the Macedon Ranges of Victoria.

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