Working with Words: Stephanie Wood
Stephanie Wood is an award-winning longform features writer and the author of Fake. She spoke with us about umlauts, journalism, and why she would be a police detective in another life.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
When I was a teenager I was madly devoted to the writing of Gerald Durrell, especially My Family and Other Animals. In what is clear to me now as somewhat exaggerated prose, Durrell described his family’s uproarious life on the Greek island of Corfu. I loved nature – I was a tomboy until I left home for university – and spent as much time as I could scrambling around the creek and gully that lay below our home on the edge of Toowoomba in Queensland, on the escarpment of the Great Dividing Range.
I longed to have a friend like the childhood Durrell had – the wise and twinkling Theodore – who offered wisdom on Corfu’s natural wonders. I suspect now that if I re-read his books I might find more sexism than wit, but when I was a teenager, he had me in constant stitches.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
Oh yes, but I don’t think I ever finished anything. I think most things I wrote had creeks in them – my affinity for water continues to this day – and I think there was usually some sort of drama or crime unfolding in the bush. I remember labouring at my desk for weeks over some story with a dark underbelly and then screwing it up and throwing it away.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work as a journalist for almost all my adult life – apart from brief detours into a couple of cooking jobs while I lived in the UK, and a stint in publishing. I’ve also been fortunate to mostly be on staff at tremendous newspapers including the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and, in Hong Kong, at the Asian Wall Street Journal. But I was timid for too long – I found making phone calls to strangers terrifying – and it has only been in the past decade or so that I have started reporting and writing full-time.
I’ve always thought it would be absolutely fascinating to be a police detective, to see the best and worst of human nature.
My first full-time writing job came when I was appointed as a features writer at Good Weekend magazine in 2012. (I took a redundancy from Fairfax Media in 2017.) Before I started to write full-time, I was an editor (and before that, a sub-editor).
Without doubt, my editing and sub-editing skills have helped my writing in countless ways: I am fanatical about structure, for a start. I spent months working on the structure of my book Fake before I even started to write. I’m also pretty good at writing tautly and culling flab. I pretty ruthlessly double-back to edit my own copy as I write, and I also fact-check everything.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’ve always thought it would be absolutely fascinating to be a police detective, to see the best and worst of human nature, to see stories unfolding before you, to have such an array of characters and psychological dramas and puzzles parade through your days.
But if I had more lives, I’d like to be a film director, or a visual artist, or a textile artist, or a potter, or a chef, or work in a garden, or on a farm, or be a marine biologist … I think that’s nine more lives I need!
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Just write. Just do it. It has taken me a long time to do this, in the sense that when I first started feature writing, I would labour over every word before I moved on to the next one. It would be days before I’d have a sentence. I think in the past few years, I’ve found the confidence in my voice to just put words down and keep moving through the work, then return to cut and polish. I think it was Hemingway who said that the first draft of anything is shit.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I started a diary in late high school and kept it through the first year or so of university, but thank god, I destroyed it years ago. I’d be mortified to read it again … all the silly fussing over boys! In more recent years, I have started to jot down notes or impressions or character sketches that come to me when I see things.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
Perhaps it’s not underrated, but I do think people talk too little about Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. It really is the most perfect little witty wonder – how the Queen discovers a passion for reading.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
I’m a neat freak, possibly a characteristic that dates back to my days as a sub-editor. So even in early drafts I like to make sure that spelling, grammar and punctuation are spot-on and I’m obsessed with italics for book titles and film titles and diacritical marks for foreign words. Give me an acute or a grave or a circumflex or an umlaut and I’m a happy woman. And they need to be there in the first draft! (Yes, this does rather contradict that good writing advice – 'just write'!)
Give me an acute or a grave or a circumflex or an umlaut and I’m a happy woman.
Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
Oh god yes. Some of my food writing from the 1990s when I was deputy editor of the Epicure section at the Age! It was florid! I remember writing a story about a Chinese New Year banquet at the Flower Drum and it was so purple that someone wrote a letter to the editor with quite a mean comment about it. Thank god it was published in the days before social media.
Which artist, writer or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
I’d have a salon and position around a table David Sedaris, Alan Bennett, Dorothy Parker and A. A. Gill. I’d pour them a great deal of Bollinger and insist they give me a lesson in how to be a humourist.