Working with Words: Joanne van Os

Joanne van Os is a Darwin-based author of five books, including the bestselling memoir, Outback Heart. She spoke with us about zooplankton, the Braveheart soundtrack and her many brilliant careers. 

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

Photograph of writer Joanne van Os

There would’ve been earlier ones, but I remember trying unsuccessfully not to laugh out loud in a crowded waiting room, reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’d seen the TV series as well, so I could hear the voices as I was reading the book, which made it even more hilarious.

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

Apart from awful maudlin poetry as a teenager, I didn’t write much then, although I always knew I would be a writer. I spent every possible moment reading, which often got me into trouble. If I couldn’t read a book at the breakfast table, I’d read the label on the jam jar or the cereal pack. All that reading inspired and fuelled my writing in the future. Who knows – maybe I have the Monbulk Blackberry Jam label to thank for my first book.

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

I’ve been a radio operator at a remote mission, a bull-catcher, a mechanic, a camp cook, a nurse and home-schooling teacher out bush, a cartoonist, an illustrator and an electorate officer for an independent MP.

My first job was in a laboratory studying zooplankton. I moved to the NT at 20, and since then I’ve been a radio operator at a remote mission, a bull-catcher, a mechanic, a camp cook, a nurse and home-schooling teacher out bush, a cartoonist, an illustrator and an electorate officer for an independent MP. My husband Lex and I also lived aboard a yacht for eight years and sailed Southeast Asia. Each role let me observe many different people and gave me lots of experience in very different situations. I’ve drawn on that constantly. Well, maybe not the lab work so much. Plankton hasn’t made it into one of my books yet.

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

I don’t know! I don’t even want to think about a life where I can’t be writing.

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

The best advice was to sit down and do it. Don’t worry about getting it right, just get it written.

The worst advice was, 'Why don’t you find out what the market wants and write that?'

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

I used to try, but keeping a diary made me very self-conscious about all my writing, which is not good for a writer. Now I just keep basic diaries so that I can remember when we did what we did. Useful for settling family arguments. I do, however, have a weakness for notebooks with beautiful paper, where I write down story notes and ideas before they disappear into the ether.

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

It’s not exactly obscure, but it wasn't huge in Australia: Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. It’s a small book, with deceptively simple writing. A beautiful story, perfectly told. I read it for the first time a couple of years ago (before the film), and loved it.

Some words are better on paper than they sound out loud, like ‘penchant’.

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

Not habits, but I listened to the score of the film Braveheart for about two years while I wrote my memoir, Outback Heart. The music blocked out the sounds of the household while I worked – to the irritation of my husband, who’d complain about the mournful dirges emanating from my study every night. I think the music worked by telling my subconscious, ‘Right, you’re on the job now. Get on with it.’

I still put classical music on, especially when I get stuck, but not songs, because I end up focusing on those words instead of my own.

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

I don’t think any writer is ever 100 per cent happy with the final edit. You always think: just one more tweak … At some point you have to stop, and trust yourself. And your editor. Having said that, you do get a chance to change the odd word when you read your book for an audio production! Some words are better on paper than they sound out loud, like ‘penchant’.

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

I’d love to have Margaret Atwood and (although he’s dead) Terry Pratchett to dinner. Each has a wonderful imagination and a wry, bordering on weird, sense of humour. I think their conversation would be fascinating. I’d just pour the wine and listen.

Portrait of Joanne van Os

Joanne van Os is a Darwin-based writer for children and adults. Her first book, 0utback Heart, was a best-selling memoir about life with her first husband, the 'Real Crocodile Dundee' Rod Ansell. She has also written three novels for children, all set in the far north of Australia, and one historical novel for adults, Ronan's Echo.  Today she lives and works in Darwin – writing, teaching and mentoring primary school students to write their own books.

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