Working with Words: Simon Castles

Simon Castles is an editor at the Age and a former editor of the Big Issue. He spoke with us about the marvel of great newspaper journalists, returning to lucky cafes and being a clean freak.

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

Photograph of Simon Castles
The Big Issue 2019 Fiction Edition Cover Art, featuring an illustration of a woman reading a book as fish jump out of it

What first comes to mind, as far as crying, is that part in Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield is at the Natural History Museum, and he’s remembering going there on Saturdays as a kid, and how he loved it because it was quiet and the displays never changed. Everything was always right where it was. The Eskimo was always just catching the fish, the deer was always drinking at the waterhole. And of course Holden is thinking of his cool little sister Phoebe, and wishing she would stay the same forever. Those pages broke me when I read them at 16, and they still break me, I guess because I’m the kind of person who wishes things wouldn’t change.  

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

I didn’t write in my childhood. In my teenage years I kept a journal for a time, which I filled with the usual things – girls and longing, anxieties, searches for meaning. It did include some poetry, all of the rhyming kind and all truly terrible. And no, you can’t see it.

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

I’ve worked as a milkman and a theatre usher, but mostly I’ve worked as an editor in magazines and newspapers. Working as an editor, you’re exposed to great writing, and to not-so-great writing, and I hope over the years I’ve learnt from both. Working with great newspaper journalists daily has been an inspiration to me. They get straight to work, have no time for bullshit, and strive always for absolute clarity. I marvel at them and have learnt so much from them.

Working as an editor you’re exposed to great writing, and to not-so-great writing, and I hope over the years I’ve learnt from both.

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

My main work has always been as an editor, so I guess I’ve always done that instead of writing. But if I didn’t work with words? Hmm. My wife says I’d probably be managing a Bruce Springsteen fan site. Other than that, I don’t know. I’m a pretty organised, tidy, clean freak kind of person. So maybe an admin assistant or house cleaner.

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

I think the best advice I’ve come across is from Anne Lamott’s wonderful Bird by Bird, and particularly what she says about perfectionism and it being 'the voice of the oppressor' that will keep 'you cramped and insane your whole life'. It’s hard advice to follow, particularly if you’re a clean freak like me (see above), but it’s good advice that I often whisper to myself when I’ve rewritten a sentence twelve times.

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

I did keep a journal as a teenager (full of longings and bad poetry, see above), but I haven’t kept a diary with any consistency since then. I wish I had. Keep a diary, kids, and start today! 

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

I think J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is a gem, but I had never heard of it until a few years back. And I guess that’s because when you think Salinger you tend to just think of that one book. But Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is wonderful – just so graceful and pitch-perfect, and laugh-out-loud funny even while you’re crying on the inside. I say it’s an unsung gem, though I note that both Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence have talked up this book in recent years, so for all I know they helped it shift a bazillion units.

If I ever have any luck writing in a particular location, I will keep going back to that location in the hope that it will be lucky again.

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

The only one really is that if I ever have any luck writing in a particular location, I will keep going back to that location in the hope that it will be lucky again. So if I write something I like in a particular cafe, then that cafe can pretty much lock me in for a coffee every day for a year.

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

Pretty much everything I’ve ever written, if I re-read it, I want to change. It’s not usually that I want to change what I said or the point I was trying to make, more just that at the level of word and sentence and flow, there’s always something I wish was different and better. I guess I want to clean it up (see above about me being a clean freak). 

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

Whenever I read Geoff Dyer on anything, it feels kind of like the most lovely dinner conversation. His breezy style, the breadth of his intelligence, his humour, his likability, the diversity of his passions. I’d happily listen to him talk about anything, and just hope that some tiny, teeny bit of his natural, unpretentious intelligence rubbed off on me.

Portrait of Simon Castles

Simon Castles is an editor at the Age and a former editor of the Big Issue. His writing has appeared in a range of publications including Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and Dazed & Confused. He has a short story in the annual fiction edition of the Big Issue, out now.

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