Working with Words: Kate Mildenhall
Kate Mildenhall is the author of Skylarking, a historical novel that traces two girls' paths to womanhood as they negotiate sexual desire and its effect on their close friendship. She spoke with us about how important it is to be determined and proactive in getting published, and why networks and friendships amongst writers are so valuable.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I was a massive John Marsden fan, and Tomorrow When the War Began came out while I was in Year Seven. Marsden ran a competition for students to write on the theme of ‘tomorrow’. I entered a short story and was shortlisted, which meant publication in a real book. I’m still slightly mortified by the earnest author pic of me staring out wistfully into the bush.
What’s the best part of your job?
Finally feeling able to call writing a job.
And, when it’s going well and the sun is slanting in on the desk just so and the coffee is hot and the words are just piling up to get down, urgent and somehow filled with grace, then it’s marvellous.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Self doubt. Keeping my bum in the seat. Having to get out of my own way. Every. Single. Day.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Being offered a contract with Black Inc. is the fireworks moment. But I suppose the moment I seized was the one where I offered a half-formed pitch to Aviva Tuffield at an Emerging Writers' Festival event, and she asked to see the manuscript. You have to make things happen.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Best: that it is tenacity and hard work that will get the words on the paper, not sheer talent (thanks Clare Strahan).
Worst: that ‘real’ writers write every day. Not true. No need to give ourselves another unrealistic goal to live up to.
'The incredible networks and writerly friendships that are fostered in writing courses and workshops are so integral to being a writer.'
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
When I was shortlisted for the Marsden competition, he wrote in the comments that ‘Mildenhall writes with the sophistication of a 40 year old’. As a 13 year old, it didn’t go down too well with my peers. Now, much closer to what then seemed a mythical age, I’m still not sure that I possess much sophistication at all.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’m a teacher by trade and do still hang about in the world of education, which I love. But I now know that I don’t have the stamina, grit, energy and enthusiasm required to teach in a classroom full time, and I am eternally grateful that there are people who do – it’s one of the toughest and most thankless gigs around.
'No one can publish your work from the bottom drawer. Put yourself out there.'
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I’ve learnt so much from studying writing. About the craft, books and writers I didn’t know, what gets in the way of good writing, editing, and being less precious about my own words. I also think the incredible networks and writerly friendships that are fostered in writing courses and workshops are so integral to being a writer.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Read prolifically and read outside your comfort zone. And write. Get out of your own way and get the words down. Also – no one can publish your work from the bottom drawer. Put yourself out there – submit to competitions and journals and go to events and network with other writers.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Mostly in a couple of favourite bookshops where I can browse and wander and wonder; nothing beats that. But also online! I recently had a chance to visit Booktopia’s extraordinary warehouse in Sydney and was so impressed by the number of titles they hold – it was very heartening.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
This question is so hard! I reread Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace while writing Skylarking, along with Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. These are novels that, in part, speculate on the gaps in history around the stories of women who are notorious, whose histories had always been reported a certain way; to shock, to titillate, to moralise, even.
If I could have a dinner party with Nancy Montgomery and Agnes Magnúsdóttir and even invite Kate Gibson – who Kate in Skylarking is based on – I think those women would find they had much to talk about, and I would be fascinated to listen.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I picked up Lisa Jacobson’s The Sunlit Zone, bleary eyed and breastfeeding in the early days after my second daughter was born. I devoured it, and was reminded of the absolute power of words to express beauty and meaning. When I finished it, I contacted Lisa (who had been a teacher of mine briefly) to congratulate her, and she encouraged me to do a short course. It was the push I needed to start writing again, and I am ever so grateful for it.