Working with Words: Luke Horton
Writer and editor Luke Horton on growing up around bookshops, his early detective stories and reading something at the right moment.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I’m doing a lot of storybook reading with my daughter at the moment, many books I loved as a child too, so I imagine the first book that made me laugh was something like The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Spot Goes to the Park. Who knows at what part of course. At the moment, the caterpillar popping out of the egg at the beginning of The Very Hungry Caterpillar makes Albertine laugh every time. A little later I remember finding Flat Stanley and The Shrinking of Treehorn very funny.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
The first things I remember writing were detective stories I wrote while bored on holidays, on an old typewriter of my mother’s. Maybe I was making my way through her P.D. James and Dick Francis collections at the time. The stories never got beyond a few pages. My parents had worked in publishing and mostly I was trying to impress their writer friends. These friends gave flattering feedback and I lost interest immediately.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
My parents ran bookshops and I worked in their country town shops through high school and their Melbourne shop later, while at university. I got a second education through these jobs. I can imagine without them I might not have pushed through certain phases of reading; that I might have settled for certain canons and not realised that there are always new writers to discover and learn from.
Working full-time in an office ... gave me lots of material about people being subtly awful to each other.
Other day jobs include a stint working full-time in an office, which only influenced me in the sense that it gave me lots of material about people being subtly awful to each other; and teaching, which I love and which influences my writing in many ways all the time, from learning about other people’s lives and work, to revisiting all the great writing we discuss in class.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
If this means in my spare time, I would probably be making music, which was central to my life for a long time. But I work as a creative writing teacher, an editor, and a freelance writer, so if none of this writing-related work had happened I would probably be trying to be an historian still, which I am very relieved to have left behind.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Occasionally you read something at the right moment. That quote from Ira Glass about how when you start there is a gap between your work and your ambitions, but you have to just keep working to close that gap, and it is in fact part of your sensitivity to good writing that makes the gap so painfully obvious to you; I read that at the right moment.
It took me a long time, too long, to get over the idea that my bad first drafts meant I was never going to write anything decent.
I’ve paraphrased it poorly, but it was the emphasis on hard work, that maybe it is possible, if you keep pushing, keeping working, that I found helpful. Mainly because it took me a long time, too long, to get over the idea that my bad first drafts meant I was never going to write anything decent.
Something else I heard recently is a piece of reading advice. The writer Yiyun Li has a rule: for every book she reads by a living writer, she reads at least one book by a dead writer. I think that’s good advice. To not only be paying attention to contemporary work.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I’ve tried a few times, or thought about trying, because my memory is terrible, and I have anxiety about forgetting things. But no, I have never been able to. I started a TinyLetter recently around this theme, and in three months I’ve sent out one.
Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
The classics I haven’t been able to get into I usually take as a personal failing. Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, for example. I gave up after a few hundred pages.
More recently – and this isn’t a classic, maybe a modern classic – I could not get through Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which everyone else seemed to love, Barack Obama included. I’ve read her short stories and liked them a lot, but Fates and Furies was just too painful. That they are a group of unbearably pretentious people is no excuse. The Greek Chorus asides! All those plays! Everyone said hang in there for the second half, but I just couldn’t.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
I don’t think so, but then again no one read my book until it was sold, and in fact hardly anyone knew I was even writing fiction. I think that was partly superstition. That if I told anyone about it, it was bound to not work out.
Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
I assume most writers answer ‘yes, almost everything’ here, and I’m the same. There’s always something I think I could do better or would lose when I reread, which I avoid doing. Mostly they are pretty minor stylistic things, word choices etc. In terms of fiction, The Fogging is the first thing I’ve written that I’ve reread many times and still like. Hopefully this remains the case.
Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with?
This question has far too many possible answers – you should really narrow that down to one category.
But I’ve been reading early Ferrante and dipping back into Frantumaglia, so Ferrante comes to mind. We’d talk about mining personal experience for fiction, and how to separate the self from the work. Then we’d exchange book recommendations, glass-free recipes, and beach holiday locations.