Working with Words: Zoe Norton Lodge
Zoe Norton Lodge is a writer/presenter on ABC1's The Check Out. She's also the co-creator of Story Club, a live storytelling night and podcast. In 2015, she released Almost Sincerely, a collection of 'autobiographicalish' short stories. Zoe spoke with us about Dylan Thomas, The Girl on the Train and how it's weird when readers are 'moved' by stuff that's just meant to be funny.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
It was a short story called 'Bumble Bee' which was a series of letters between a little girl and her grandfather and it was published in the 2010 UTS Writers' Anthology.
What’s the best part of your job?
Working one desk away from my husband.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Working one desk away from my husband. At the moment we work together every day at the ABC. Honestly, it’s pretty great, but as we now spend 24 hours a day together, we have recently enforced a ‘no talking to each other on the bus’ policy to keep ourselves sane and not divorced.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Having my book, Almost Sincerely, published. It’s a whole lotta me in there so it was very nerve-wracking. In TV there’s a lot of collaboration, which means you can point fingers in all sorts of directions if something goes wrong. Suddenly being completely responsible for something, with no-one to blame but myself if it didn’t go well, was just terrifying.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
I do believe that writing what you know is really good advice, cliched as it is. Being your most authentic self is high risk, and can make you feel so exposed, but at least you know you’ll be writing something original! To completely contradict that, I think it’s really important to learn how to write for other people - to write as ‘a job’. Learning how to work to someone else’s brief, to write something that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to you is an excellent skill as a writer. It also gives you a better chance of being a working writer.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
I’ve definitely had people respond to my stories in markedly different ways to what I had expected. A lot of people have found themselves ‘moved’ or described something as ‘tragic’ that I genuinely thought was just funny.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Honestly, I always wanted to be an actor. Not like a comic actor, but like a proper, fancy actor. I don’t think I would be doing that but I think maybe I’d be trying to.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I wouldn’t mind making up stories about strangers whilst sharing a KFC bucket and a bottle of wine with The Girl on the Train.
I do think it can be taught. I came out of my writing uni course a way better writer than when I walked in. Obviously practice is important - and that’s half of what you do when you’re studying, but also learning how to be open to critical feedback is invaluable. I think a lot of what hinders people when they’re trying to learn is defensiveness. There is no need to defend your work in a learning environment - you’re far better off just shutting up and listening to what everyone has to say. Obviously you can silently disregard things you don’t agree with, but I think being genuinely ready to receive critical feedback will make you a better writer. Also, certainly when I was studying, there were a lot of little tricks and rules which I found really useful and still use today - how to weight and structure events - when you write ‘summaries’, and when you write ‘scenes’, learning to ‘show not tell’, learning how to write about time etc.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Get a calendar and write down every submission deadline for every journal and anthology in the country and commit to sending off your stuff. Also, if you're so inclined, seek out performance opportunities to test out your writing. There are a lot of storytelling events around the place, and reading your stuff out loud to a room full of people is an excellent way of finding out what’s working and what isn’t.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I’m a bit of an e-reader fiend, but if I’m buying a physical book I tend to go into a bookshop. And that’s not just for the purposes of finding my own book and surreptitiously moving it to a more prominent location! I’ve only done that like once or so. It’s also because bookstores are just lovely.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I wouldn’t mind making up stories about strangers whilst sharing a KFC bucket and a bottle of wine with The Girl on the Train. I like her style.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. My Welsh dad used to read it to me when I was a kid, and I became so obsessed with it that I performed a one-woman version of it where I played all 64 characters. As a writer, it taught me that you can be experimental without being impenetrable. It taught me to play with words.