Working with Words: Katherine Collette

Debut author and environmental engineer Katherine Collette talks literary heroes, office weirdness, dialogue advice ... and sewerage.

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

Photograph of author Katherine Collette

I loved Robin Klein growing up. Came Back to Show You I Could Fly made me cry, and Penny Pollard was my spirit animal. Penny wore leggings with redback spiders on them – I wanted them so bad. 

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

I wrote a lot of letters as a kid, and these often included terrible poetry. As a teen, my besties and I drew stick-figure comics of each other in our school diaries. They were mostly about ourselves, our non-existent love lives, and what we did on the weekend. Some of them were very funny.

Other than that, I liked English and have fond memories of creative projects I did for school, but I came late to the idea of writing for writing’s sake. I didn’t realise you could. 

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

Most of my career, insofar as you would call it that, I’ve worked as an engineer – planning and designing sewers. I’ve always worked in offices, and always for government. Offices are weird places. I like how artifical they are, how ridiculous. I think what’s ordinary or mundane is inspiring in a strange way. 

Offices are weird places. I like how artificial they are, how ridiculous. I think what’s ordinary or mundane is inspiring in a strange way.

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

For money, I’d keep working as a sewerage engineer. For joy, I’d make a mockumentary series. I’ll probably try and do that anyway, once I find someone who wants to do the hard (ie. technical/editing) bits.

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

I took a class with Toni Jordan through Writers Victoria a few years ago. Toni is unbelievable at dialogue. Her advice, at least as I took it, was that dialogue is not about progressing story, it’s about revealing character. Full stop, no exceptions.   

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

I did when I was young, but I’d always rip out the best entries and destroy them, almost as they were being written. I was worried someone (ie. a brother) would read them … I guess the act of writing was still therapeutic, though. 

I don’t keep one anymore, because of time. I do record audio of myself when things happen, about how I’m feeling, etc. It’s helpful in the moment but I never listen back to it. The sound of my own voice …

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

Overrated – Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I hated that book. 

I loved Miranda July’s The First Bad Man. I could hardly read it, I was that jealous of her sentences. And it’s not unsung, but Catcher in the Rye is so, so, so great. It’s in my top ten books of all time, maybe even top five.

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

Her advice, at least as I took it, was that dialogue is not about progressing story, it’s about revealing character. Full stop, no exceptions.

Not really. When the writing is hard and I don’t want to do it, I use the Pomodoro technique, where you set an alarm for 25 mintues, write intensely, then stop for five minutes.

I also spent a lot of time writing at McDonalds, trying to escape my children. No ambiance, and as a coeliac I can’t eat anything, but it’s open 24 hours and you don’t feel bad about occupying a table for a long time. I wish libraries were 24 hours. That’s one law I’d make if I were Prime Minister.

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

I wrote a blog for a long while and was probably a bit liberal with the truth. Also, I got comp tickets to a show on the proviso I’d review it, and never did. I regret that, it was a great show. Sunny Leunig, The Magosipher. I give it five stars. Sorry that wasn’t more timely, Sunny. 

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

I’d love to have dinner with Roald Dahl, Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling. We would talk books, writing and comedy. I’d let those guys do most of the talking, though. I’d just sit and listen.

Portrait of Katherine Collette

Katherine Collette is a writer and sewage engineer living in Melbourne with her husband and two children. Her debut novel, The Helpline, is being published in Australia and New Zealand by Text Publishing in September and then in the UK, North America and Italy next year.

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