Working with Words: John Byron

John Byron is a writer and former federal ministerial adviser and executive director of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He spoke with us about the power of Jaws, sticking it to the man and avoiding regret.

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

Photograph of John Byron

I don’t remember that far back, but I read Jaws at about 11 years of age on a miserable rainy family beach holiday. It scared the shit out of me, but more importantly it was probably the first unmonitored contemporary adult fiction I’d read, and I distinctly remember thinking: 'So this is what they read and write when they’re not trying to educate us!' I never went back to the kids’ section. 

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

Short stories, mostly. A lot of it was fairly dark, as befits the teenage temperament, with a psychological bent, and often a twist. I think adolescents have a clearer – and unbearable – grasp of the true nature of our world, which we find ways to ignore in order to sleep at night as adults. You give something up to live past the trauma of those years, something to do with staring down the world with an honest return gaze.

Teenagers are pretty amazing, and their courage makes them terribly vulnerable. I have a lot of compassion for their pain, because they’re trying to be the best of us. 

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

Teenagers are pretty amazing, and their courage makes them terribly vulnerable. I have a lot of compassion for their pain, because they’re trying to be the best of us.

Growing up in a not wealthy household was absolutely the best preparation for writing – and for life, really. You go out at 14 years and 9 months, still a child in many ways, and you land a part-time job and then bam!, you’re in this  quite intimate environment with people from backgrounds vastly remote from your own, with totally different experiences and values and expectations.

And whatever it is you’re doing – in my case it was at Franklins supermarket in Westfield Parramatta – you have to trust these people, learn the job from them, negotiate with them, depend on them, socialise with them, conspire with them, and stick it up the man when you can, all through times of high stress and fun and skiving off and working flat out. It’s a whole other education.

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

My friend David Bromley promised to teach me to paint if writing didn’t work out, but since I can’t draw to save my life it would probably be a disaster. As a lifelong daily reader I’ve always known that words were my medium.

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

The best, from my PhD supervisor David Kelly: 'Just write. You don’t know what you need to find out until you’ve begun. Write first, research comes later.'

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

No, but I often take notes of interesting things I see or learn or that angle in to something I’m working on. A lot of that ends up in my writing.

Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I am so glad that Lucia Berlin is finally being recognised. She is insightful, sly, intelligent, gritty and absolutely authentic: Joyce Carol Oates meets Lydia Davis meets Raymond Carver. A Manual for Cleaning Women is the place to start. I also urge Guadalupe Nettel on everybody, particularly her astonishing Natural Histories.

I love the fiction of my partner Julienne van Loon, who won the Vogel in 2004 for Road Story and who has published two accomplished novels since. Literary fiction can be a tough gig in Australia, but Julienne’s work is an example of how rich our literary culture is here, and how important. She has a non-fiction book coming out with NewSouth soon, The Thinking Woman, and I hope it brings a wider audience to her fiction as well.

I don’t think writers can afford to indulge regret, because the other side of that coin is paralysis, from the fear that one day you may look back and cringe or blush.

While I’m boosting underrated Aussie novelists can I put in a word for Jane Rawson, whose strange, original, compelling writing just gets better and better with each book. James Bradley’s Clade should also be on every high school reading list. Another national treasure. There are many more. 

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

Like Steve Waugh’s red handkerchief? No, rituals of writing would risk becoming outstanding excuses for Olympic-grade procrastination. 

But espresso first, obviously.

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

Not really. Bad behaviour aside, I don’t think writers can afford to indulge regret, because the other side of that coin is paralysis, from the fear that one day you may look back and cringe or blush. And paralysis is silence. 

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

Katharine Hepburn would be vibrant company and a fascinating interlocutor. We share a birthday, so she’s always been on my radar, and I have a sense that she was a canny and observant human, as well as being a genuine original herself. At table I would hope she’d share a few good yarns – I bet she had a fair stock of them. I only wish she’d written (thinly veiled) fiction!

Portrait of John Byron

John Byron grew up in Sydney and studied medicine there before switching to the humanities, in the interest of the public’s safety. He earned degrees in English from the Universities of Adelaide and Sydney, and has worked since in higher education and research policy, including as a federal ministerial adviser and executive director of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

His writing has appeared in Meanjin, the Australian Book Review, the Conversation and the Australian. He lives in Melbourne, not far from Julienne van Loon’s place.

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