Working with Words: Melinda Houston

After 20 years writing everything from local news to celebrity profiles and hundreds of book, film, food and bar reviews, Melinda Houston scored her own dream job – TV critic – in 2006. These days she contributes as a critic and columnist to most Fairfax newspapers and to radio 3AW and 2UE. Melinda’s first book is Kat Jumps the Shark (Text Publishing).

We talked to Melinda about watching lots of telly as a job, hating deadlines, and why you have to make your readers want to read your writing.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I think it was a report on the workings of the Supreme Court of Christmas Island (my father was working there at the time) published in a Law Institute of Victoria newsletter! (I’d written it as a high school assignment – it was considered quite amusing …)

What’s the best part of your job?

Watching a lot of telly is something I never tire of, but there’s also just something about the process of writing – it’s difficult to explain – that both invigorates and soothes me, and that I absolutely love.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Deadlines.

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

That would have to be getting my first novel published! Although being given the gig as a full-time TV critic is also up there.

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

The best advice I ever received was: ‘No one wants to read this. You have to make them want to read it.’

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

A letter-writer to the Green Guide once complained that I liked everything I watched, which made me laugh.

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

It’s hard to imagine not working with words, but if I had to earn a living in some other way, I think I’d rather enjoy being a dog trainer.

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

I don’t think anyone can teach you to have a feel or a good ear for language – and if you don’t have that, you’re stuffed - but there are a thousand things about constructing stories that can definitely be taught.

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

Read a lot, especially the kinds of things you’d like to write.

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

Both. I love browsing in bookshops and taking away a big armful of books. But because I don’t often have the time, I LOVE Readings’ online service. It’s also really handy if I have a list of things (usually reviews I’ve saved that look interesting) – I can just order them up. Either way, supporting my local bookstores is important to me. I have used Amazon if I’m having trouble getting my hands on something locally, but I try to avoid it.

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

Jack Irish. My kind of bloke. We could talk books, ethics, music and footy over a couple of bottles of red in Brunswick Street somewhere. If he looked like Guy Pearce, that would be a bonus.

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

For work, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by Bill Blundell. It was recommended by the same person who gave me the excellent advice mentioned above, and it was incredibly useful when I started out in feature writing.

As a young teen I read Gail Sheehy’s Passages, and that had quite a profound effect on how I approached life.

As an adult, I think the writer who’s had the most impact on me is David Foster Wallace. I read Infinite Jest not long after it came out, and it completely blew my mind. You’d be a fool to try and imitate DFW but that combination of sophisticated prose with the feeling he’s speaking directly to you – not ‘writing’ at you – really helped me develop my own voice. I wept when he died. It felt like losing a friend.

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