Working with Words: Shastra Deo

We spoke with poet and author of The Agonist, Shastra Deo, about mecha pilots, conversations in retail and input/output phases of the writing process.

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

Photo: Patrick Hamilton Photography

I can’t remember the first, but the most recent piece that made me cry was Laura Elvery’s short story 'Something Close to Gold' in Ordinary Matter. I don’t have children – nor do I want to have them – but something about how that story just … captured the sense of a world opening, suffused with colour and light and all the brightness you could imagine? It ruined me. 

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

I did! In primary school I wrote and illustrated a small story (chapbook?) about mermaids. The main creative issue I had to work through was deciding whether the mermaids were comfortable tits out or if they’d prefer clamshell bras. 

I wrote a lot of fanfiction in my early teens (and still write a bit now) – the earliest I can remember was a self-insert set in the Zoids: Chaotic Century universe. I had a big crush on the character Irvine (and now that I’ve Googled him again … I still do). Most of my daydreams then involved being a mecha pilot; maybe that’s something to come back to in my writing life now.

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

Most of my daydreams [in my teens] involved being a mecha pilot; maybe that’s something to come back to in my writing life now.

I’ve been a deli worker at Coles, a body piercer and sales assistant at Cosmetics Plus, a sales assistant at EB Games, a sales assistant at QBD Books, a workshop coordinator at Queensland Writers Centre, a content writer at Queensland University of Technology, and I tutor/lecture every now and then at The University of Queensland.

I wouldn’t want to work in retail full time again, but I miss it. I miss the cadence of interacting with customers, and how scripted it was. And the surprise I’d feel when someone deviated from that script. It was a wonderful (and stressful, and tiring) place to spy on people. I love cataloguing movements and gestures, the ways people exist and travel through the world – especially when they think no-one’s watching.  

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

Hmm. I guess writing isn’t my whole life, you know? So I’d still be doing the things I’m doing. Reading. Gaming. Watching TV. Thinking about stuff. And I’d find other ways to digest and reflect on all of that.

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

Best advice was 'read'. Read more than you write! And read your own work out loud – sometimes when I’m stuck with a poem, reading what’s already there can help me draw out the next word, line, stanza (and help me pick up on what’s not working).

I miss the cadence of interacting with customers, and how scripted [retail work] was. And the surprise I’d feel when someone deviated from that script.

I don’t think I’ve ever received bad writing advice – just tips that don’t work for me or my practice. There aren’t any real rules, so I do what I want.

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

I don’t – I can’t find a way to make journalling stick. But I use Notion to track tasks, deadlines, and what I do at work. And Daylio is a great app if you’re looking to reflect on emotions and habits. I want to be the kind of person who has a bullet journal, but I always end up abandoning it after a month.

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

If you still have a working Playstation 2, I’d recommend tracking down Shadow Hearts  it’s an absolutely stellar and kooky game that unfortunately came out a week before Final Fantasy X, and thus never quite got the recognition it deserves. It moves through China and Europe during an alternate-history 1913, it’s gruesome and bizarre and unbelievably tender, and it has a brilliant soundtrack ('Beltconveyer for Killers' is probably my favourite track). The protagonist/player-character has a graveyard inside his soul; one of its gates opens out onto a cliff edge overlooking a red, red sunset. I’ve carried that image with me for a long time. 

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

No habits! If I don’t feel like writing, I don’t write! As of this moment I’ve only written two poems over the last three months! And now I feel like writing again. It’s a dream. I believe very strongly in input/output phases. Sometimes I gotta watch TV for eight hours. That’s an input phase. The output phase will come. 

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

This will be the most nitpicky answer in the world but I would delete the last line of 'blood from the stone', drop 'and stirs' down to its own line, and end the poem there instead. I’m sorry I’m like this.

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

Oh man. I would say Goro Majima from the Yakuza franchise, but he’s an utterly chaotic being and I doubt we’d get along well in real life. Anne Carson? I had a dream once in which I embarrassed myself in front of Anne Carson and while I don’t remember the details of the dream, I remember the feelings. I’ve been listening to 'Toss a Coin to Your Witcher' on repeat for three days so I guess my actual answer would be Jaskier from Netflix’s The Witcher, mainly for ballad-writing tips. And witcher gossip. I’d love to know if Geralt actually smells like onion.

Portrait of Shastra Deo

Shastra Deo is a writer, reader and video game enthusiast. Her first book, The Agonist (UQP 2017), won the 2016 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and the 2018 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal.

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