Working with Words: Nic Low

Nic Low is an author and artist of Ngai Tahu and European descent. His fiction, essays and criticism have appeared in the Big Issue, Monthly, Griffith REVIEW, Lifted Brow, Art Monthly and Australian Book Review, and until recently he ran Asialink’s international writing program. His first book is the short-story collection Arms Race.

We spoke to Nic about loving the undo button, talking writing with Alex Miller, raising our kids on a diet of stories, and accidentally writing activist literature.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

At the age of ten I wrote disastrously bad film scripts about a man named Tom Blood. They remain locked in my parents garage. The first thing to actually make it into print was a strange story about two elderly sisters returning to their childhood home to dig up something buried in the garden. The idea came from a habit I developed during undergrad: in the library I always sat at a desk that already had books on it. I’d open them at random and read a few pages before starting work. One day I chanced across a whole stack of books that were about, of all things, viking burials, and wrote the story on the spot.

What’s the best part of your job?

I do most of my writing in a little mud-brick cottage out in the Castlemaine National Heritage Park. The best part of the job is waking up to the bush and the birds with the knowledge that I get to spend the whole day making up stories.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part is that moment when you read back over something you’ve been working on for weeks or months – something you know is so very close to finished – and you realise that the last change you made, however small, has killed it. (Undo button? I love you.)

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Finishing my first book Arms Race. I’ve been working on it for a few years now and at times it was tough going, so it’s a real highlight being able to finally share it with family and friends, seeing it in bookshops and getting messages from readers.

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

I once went to visit Alex Miller to ask him if he wanted to take part in a project. We both live in Castlemaine, so I dropped into his house for a coffee. I was a touch hung over, and I was delighted when he offered me a beer. We spoke for a long time about writing, and he said something that’s stayed with me ever since: whatever happens, just keep punching.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

There was a review of Arms Race on New Zealand Radio National from a critic named Paul Diamond, and he described the book as ‘activist literature’. It came as a surprise because that wasn’t my intention when I sat down to write. I was just curious about questions like: what would happen if an Aboriginal mining company got a permit to dig up the Shrine of Remembrance in search of gold? But then when I thought about it, it was more of a surprise that I hadn’t thought of it before. It’s a book of polemical, satirical short fiction. Of course it’s activist literature!

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I love a good argument, so there’s a parallel universe in which I make my living as a lawyer. I defend murderers, have a wardrobe full of slimline Italian suits, and when I throw a party, cases of whiskey turn up on my back porch unasked.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

The common answer is that it can’t be taught, but it can be nurtured and supported, and my own experience doing a Masters bears that out. That said, I think we focus too much on the question at a tertiary level, when it’s as kids that so many of the habits that make good writers are formed. If we raise our kids on a diet of stories, encourage them to read and think and write creatively, and engage generously with the wider world of ideas, then I think we’ll see a lot more quality writing down the track.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Do it! Write as much and as often and as wildly as you can. Experiment. Make mistakes. Fail spectacularly. Enjoy it. And go to the National Young Writers' Festival in Newcastle. It’s a train-smash of enthusiastic, supportive, creative kindred spirits, and it’s one of the reasons I’m a writer today.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

I’m fascinated by tales of apocalypse, so I’d sit down for dinner with Dr Robert Kerans, the enigmatic hero of J.G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World. We’d drink vintage champagne and eat cold tinned beef atop a ruined luxury hotel, and stare in silence across the tropical lagoons of what might once have been London or Paris. I’d ask Kerans why he was so deeply enamoured of the end of the world. He would sip his champagne and give a small smile.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I’m terrible at mosts and bests and favourites. At primary school I remember arbitrarily choosing a favourite colour (blue) and a favourite movie (Top Gun) and a favourite song (Highway to the Danger Zone) so I’d have something to say when asked. So the most significant book in my life is Yesterday’s Weather by Anne Enright. She manages to pack more emotional resonance into one story than most of us manage in a lifetime. For a writer like me who tends to focus on ideas rather than characters, that resonance in her work is a constant source of inspiration.

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