Working with Words: Jock Serong
Jock Serong is the author of two novels, Quota and The Rules of Backyard Cricket. He lives and works on the far south-west coast of Victoria and is also the editor of Great Ocean Quarterly. We caught up with Jock to talk criticism, crime writing and the contract between reader and writer.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I wrote an eight-page sequel to The Wind in the Willows in Grade Four. As I wasn’t confident of a mass market for this work, I self-published: sticky tape, Contact Clear, coloured pencils. Mum bought it, so I consider that a success.
What’s the best part of your job?
It’s the very direct sense that you’re sharing your imagination with strangers; that you’re creating people and events that mean something to a reader. There’s a great intimacy in that, and with it comes a responsibility to be genuine. That is, to avoid talking in clichés or using stereotypes, being lazy. The reader is saying to you, 'I’ll follow you through this tale, but I’m not going to invest the time and emotion lightly'. That’s a hell of a contract, and it’s the single biggest reason to do your work well.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The countless opportunities to give in to negativity. You can worry yourself sick about money, about perfectly legitimate criticism, about internet trolls, how well other writers are doing, or who does or doesn’t deserve their success. All of that stuff is of course a massive distraction from the central concern, which is writing to the best of your ability. That’s the one thing you can control.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
I think it was signing my first novel with Text. It had been a really arduous process: submitting, getting rejected and then having to do all sorts of reconstructive surgery on my manuscript before it was up to scratch. Being offered the contract felt like a validation of all that effort, and it was the first time I started to believe I had a place among professional writers.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
I feel like I ought to be hanging out in a bar with underworld types, drinking cheap scotch and betting on the greyhounds.
I’m pretty bloody-minded, so the biggest motivation I ever received was a couple of former colleagues who made clear that they thought I was deluded, trying to be a writer. From that point onwards it was, 'Right, you bastards'. That’s not advice, I know, but it got me going.
Most of the best advice I’ve had has come from my editor, Mandy Brett. She’s a great believer that you can cut vast amounts out of a story and you’re only going to improve it. Maybe that’s all editors, I don’t know. But it’s true.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
Ha! I think I’m worse at accepting praise than I am at accepting criticism, so when I read positive reviews I’m a little floored sometimes. The other thing that surprises me is the notion that I’m a crime writer. I’m a writer, and my books have crimes in them, but for some reason I struggle to connect the dots. I feel like I ought to be hanging out in a bar with underworld types, drinking cheap scotch and betting on the greyhounds.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I imagine I’d still be a lawyer. It was a pretty comfortable existence. When writers can work out how to charge money for every six minutes they spend thinking, Portsea is going to change hands.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I think it can, but only within limits. Writing is bloody hard, solitary work and it can be very humbling. So you have to start with a willingness to suffer through it, and to accept criticism and rejection. But if you have that temperament, then there is a lot that can be taught. Structure, brevity, where the emotional buttons are. What the great writers did that made them great. All writers approach the creative task with a certain set of preconceptions and methods, and those can be usefully shaken up by a good teacher.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Be careful what your true motivations are. If it’s wealth, glamour, hanging out with Salman Rushdie and fighting off Hollywood directors, forget it. If you think it’s going to be a whole lot of café-lurking with hipsters, scoffing single-origin coffee and talking Camus, you can forget that too – it’s just a bunch of procrastination, that scene. There’s an easy acid test for this: if you can sit stock still for two hours, typing or scrawling a story into existence and never look at your watch, you’re in. You have to get a buzz out of the storytelling. Nothing else matters.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Always in physical bookshops because I love the atmosphere they create. I love being somewhere where the staff really care about books and writing. In a brutal and greedy world, it’s – dare I say this? – civilised.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I can’t guarantee this is a fictional character because the lines are blurred here, but the narrator of Poe Ballantine’s Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. He’s busted up and defeated, yet never jaundiced. In fact, he's kind and deeply perceptive about people, without ever judging them. He’d be a great raconteur for that awkward period after you’ve ordered and the food hasn’t arrived, then the other bit when you’ve finished and they haven’t cleared the plates: that’s when the great weavers can carry the occasion. I hope we’d talk about the American Midwest, about the strange underside of small town life, about the place of truckstop diners in American life and about who he thinks really killed his friend …
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
My thoughts about the ocean have been heavily influenced by a book called Seven Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds. It was written by James Hamilton Paterson, a mystic with an eye for scientific detail, way back in about 1992, and it examines the ways in which humans respond psychologically and spiritually to the ocean. It's part science, part poetry, part memoir. It’s incredibly beautiful and at the same time a dispiriting prophecy of what’s come to pass environmentally in the ensuing 24 years. I probably read more non-fiction than fiction, and I’m a huge fan of Janet Malcolm. But on the fiction side of the ledger, two books I return to for their sheer gobsmacking brilliance are Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift.