Working with Words: Sonia Nair

Melbourne writer Sonia Nair spoke with us about writing regrets, unsung gems and tuna eyeballs. 

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

Photograph of Melbourne writer Sonia Nair

I can’t remember, truth be told. Reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Sirius Black died affected me tremendously, even though my stupid cousin spoiled it for me beforehand. More recently, I remember bawling towards the end of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo and at different points of Jessie Cole’s Staying.

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

Even though I’m not a poet, some of the first few things I wrote as a child were rhyming verses. I remember the first poem I wrote was about Bettina, a frog who sat on a log … and I forget the rest. I also wrote a lot of fictional stories revolving around my colour pencils as characters.

I didn’t write in my teenage years, other than in my diary, but my first stint of professional writing was when I had a piece published in my high school magazine. I was as obsessed with food then as I am now, and if my memory serves me correctly, it was a piece about the most unusual types of food people eat around the world. I’d couch the piece very differently if I were to write it now, and interrogate why exactly some foods are considered unusual while others aren’t, but at the time I was just like: check out these tuna eyeballs that people eat!

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

Apart from a sadly long-lived stint as a door bitch at Kmart, I’ve always held day jobs in writing, though they haven't always been creative. I started out as a journalist at the Fairfax Community Network, where I did random odd jobs like inspecting houses on sale, interviewing their owners and writing about them for the property section, or profiling minor celebrities like former Dancing with the Stars judge Mark Wilson. From there, I went on to work as a trade journalist at jewellery, tax, natural gas and sustainability publications – such a mish-mash of different fields. Now, I work within the communications team of a bank.

I find the appeal to ‘write every day’ steeped in privilege – many of us may not be able to write every day for whatever reason, but doing what you can when you can is enough.

As a writer working in fields that I wasn’t at all familiar with, I became adept at interviewing experts across a range of subject matter and asking them questions that allowed them to expand on what they did in a way that I could easily understand ... Working with people outside my creative bubble who don’t read every day or talk about reading every day has been instructive.

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

As writing creatively is something I do around my day job, I’d probably be one of those people who cooks all the time, has a clean house and is up-to-date with all the TV shows! Writing is a way for me to voice my discontent around a lot of things that irk me and I also write a lot of literary criticism so if I didn’t write, I’d be penning long, angry Twitter threads and writing in-depth reviews on Goodreads. 

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

The best advice I’ve received is ‘read widely’. This isn’t necessarily advice, but two things I keep in mind when I think about writing are nuggets of wisdom from fellow writer friends: Sam Van Zweden always reminds me that you can have a non-zero day by doing a little bit, even if you don’t do all the things, and when I was on a panel with her last year, Shu-Ling Chua talked about how thinking through what you want to write is as much a part of the writing process as putting words to paper.

I find the appeal to ‘write every day’ steeped in privilege – many of us may not be able to write every day for whatever reason, but doing what you can when you can is enough.

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

I don’t keep a diary! I do jot down in my iPhone loose thoughts that occur to me from time to time – these are often the beginnings of pieces that I then write – and maintain a list of my favourite pieces and my favourite quotes.

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

An underrated novel when I first read it was Elizabeth Harrower’s stunning and viscerally terrifying The Watch Tower, but I’m so glad to see it get the recognition it deserves in recent years.

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

I am sadly very boring when it comes to my writing! I write a lot on my bed, which I know most people would consider a strict no-no, and I love justifying all my paragraphs which I know editors hate. I can’t write with music on and I can’t write unless a deadline is fast approaching.

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

So many things! My thinking around issues is constantly changing and earlier pieces I’ve written, particularly around race politics, are terribly naïve and uninformed.

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

Even though she’d intimidate me to the point where I’d definitely need to pop a beta blocker or ten beforehand, I’d love to have dinner with Lila from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and talk about what a little shit Nino is and the complexity of female friendship.

Portrait of Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is Program Manager at the Melbourne Writers Festival as well as a writer and critic whose literary criticism and social commentary have been published by the Wheeler Centre, Kill Your Darlings, the Big Issue, Eureka Street and the Lifted Brow, among others. She has chaired conversations and interviews at the Emerging Writers' Festival, the Melbourne Writers Festival and Footscray Community Arts Centre.

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