Working with Words: Patrick Allington

Patrick Allington’s debut novel, Figurehead (Black Inc.) was longlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin Literary Award. His short fiction has appeared in MeanjinGriffith ReviewKill Your DarlingsThe Big IssueSoutherly and elsewhere. His novels-in-progress are Potatoes in all their glory and Skylights. Patrick was the inaugural fiction editor of literary magazine Etchings and has been commissioning editor at the University of Adelaide Press. As a freelance editor, he has edited everything from fiction to scholarly works to medical handbooks. He is a lecturer in creative writing at Flinders University in Adelaide.

We spoke to Patrick about the privilege of getting to read unpublished writing, why ‘write what you know’ is the worst advice, and his childhood dream of imitating Enid Blyton.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was a kid, I had a poem published in the Uniting Church’s newspaper (or they might still have been Methodists then). I’ve got it somewhere, but, I’m relieved to say, I couldn’t find it just now amongst the jumble of papers I like to call my ‘portfolio’. The gist of it was something like, ‘I’d like to be a pleesman direcking the trafic … but I’d rather be myself’ (I’m paraphrasing). As it turns out, I haven’t gone on to a career as a famous Christian poet – or any sort of poet.

My first published adult short story – ‘adult’ meaning that I was an over 18, not that it had a 50 shades of purple theme – was a short story called ‘Good Bloke’s Diatribe’. It appeared in a 1995 anthology called Every Colour but Blue, published by a small Fremantle publisher called Cliff Street Publishing (long gone, I think). All the contributors to the anthology responded to a painting by WA artist Jane Martin (from memory, the publisher put a tiny ad in the Weekend Australian and sent out a postcard of the painting to anyone who asked for it). My story starts, ‘I swim because I hate them.’

What’s the best part of your job?

So much: (1) The mix of roles: writing, editing, reviewing, commissioning, manuscript assessment, judging, teaching, festival chairing, etc. I’ve been working at Flinders Uni for nearly a year, so I’m doing somewhat less juggling at the moment, but it’s still a terrifically varied working life. (2) All the reading, not least the unpublished writing I get to read. Published writing is mostly (not always) the cream, but it’s a privilege to have the chance to read unpublished writing. Australia is packed full of writers. That’s a good thing. (3) When I write something that I’m happy with.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Multiple deadlines. Crap money for some gigs, usually the best ones. Leaving the house without a pen.

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

Black Inc. choosing to publish my novel, Figurehead. I remain in their debt.

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

Best advice: try again. Worst advice: write what you know. Beyond that, without wanting to highlight a particular person or piece of knowledge, I have learnt, and continue to learn, a huge amount from my writing heroes, from my peers and, probably most of all, from editors I’ve been lucky enough to work with. But I can’t break it down into chunks.

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

I haven’t got a clue. (That isn’t something that somebody said about me that surprised me, that’s my answer to the question.)

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

I’d probably be trying to sell secondhand books, not the easiest thing to do these days. Other than that, I’d have to resort to my childhood dreams: captain of the Australian cricket team, Enid Blyton imitator, Neil Young wannabe, blah blah blah.

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

Well, I’m biased: did a Creative Writing PhD and one of the things I do now is teach creative writing. But, honestly, the debate bores me. Doing some sort of creative writing course suits and benefits some people but not others. It’s one way – just one way – of getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘C’. Writers who emerge from the academy can be brilliant, they can produce work that warrants a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars, they can be technically excellent but banal, they can be so-so or they can be terrible … just like all writers, regardless of how they trained or self-trained. If readers judge books on their individual merits, then I doubt that any particular trend is apparent.

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

Persist.

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

Both, but probably more so online (because I read a lot on the screen). If I’m buying a hard copy, I’ll buy it from a shop, usually Imprints in Hindley Street, Adelaide. Plus libraries: long may libraries live, in whatever shape and form, because they offer the chance to read the unusual, the unexpected, the ‘this looks interesting but I can’t fork out $30 for it’.

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

Gawd: one person? Maybe Frank Moorhouse’s glorious and wonderfully realised character, Edith Campbell Berry. I’ll talk to her earnestly about world peace while slowly getting slightly drunk and worrying that I am slurring my words. I’d let her choose the restaurant, and order for me.

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

That’s an impossible question. Probably Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books. My earliest stories were Blyton imitations. Moving forward a few years, it’s a toss up between Peter Carey’s Illywhacker and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I read both of them in my early adulthood, and I can still remember being stunned that Carey and Atwood were capable of pulling off such tremendously ambitious stories. They are more monuments than books and I feel as if I own them, a little, at least as much as Carey and Atwood own them. But, truly, ask me another day and I’ll give you a whole different answer.

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