Working with Words: Leigh Straw
Leigh Straw is an academic, historian and writer based in Perth. Her latest book, Lillian Armfield, is about Australia's first female detective. Leigh spoke with us about inventing stories at the footy and lunching with Robert Redford.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I cried happy tears when I found a letter of reply from an angel under my pillow. I was six and I would realise later it was my mum’s handwriting – what a beautiful thing to do for a child.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
As a teenager, I wrote a regular newspaper called the Beaton Times. Handwritten, unpublished and only my folks read it. I interviewed all the stars (in my head!) I still have them. Gee, they provide interesting insights into a teenager’s mind.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I've worked as a ticket-seller at footy games and as a ‘filing chick’. You see a lot of characters turning up to the footy. I'd watch them, then create stories around them in my head to stave off the boredom of being stuck in a filing room three days a week while I went through university. For the last 17 years, I have been a history lecturer. It’s a great gig for a writer because I tell stories (lecturing and writing) all week!
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’ve always fancied acting or being a politician but writing is all I’ve ever really wanted to do.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best advice I’ve received about writing was from another writer who told me to relax, don’t push trying to come up with the next project, and chances are I would be half-way through doing something else and come up with a brilliant idea. I did!
You see a lot of characters turning up to the footy. I'd watch them, then create stories around them in my head to stave off the boredom of being stuck in a filing room three days a week while I went through university.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I have kept a number of diaries over the years but I now keep a writing journal where I jot down lines, thoughts, feelings and inspirations.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
I think it’s a very subjective thing and more to do with not meeting individual reading tastes. I love so many classic books but one unsung gem is Strange Scottish Stories by William Owen. My older brother had it when we lived in Scotland and I won it from him in a bet (he’ll tell you I pinched it). Ghosts, witches, mysteries and the supernatural stories all told within Scottish settings. Brilliant stuff.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
For the last eight years I have been going to the same café to do writing for an hour or so in the morning. I don’t go every day but I have to be there at least once a week. I sit with a pot of tea and sour-dough toast and block everything out and write. I don’t write at any other café.
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
I would change my first non-fiction book. It was based on my PhD and I didn’t change it enough into a creatively written book. I’d go back now and rewrite it as less academic and more storytelling.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? (And what would you talk about?)
F. Scott Fitzgerald. We would drink gin, talk about the 1920s and scroll through online shopping so he could see how much a first edition Great Gatsby is worth. He’d know his achievements and success. I’d also love to have dinner with Jay Gatsby but in my head he looks like Robert Redford in the 1974 version of the film. Maybe I should just have dinner with Robert Redford ...