Working with Words: Rebecca Starford

Rebecca Starford is a Melbourne-based writer, reviewer, editor and publisher. She is editor of Kill Your Darlings, associate publisher at Affirm Press, and has been deputy editor at Australian Book Review. Her reviews are regularly published in the Age and the Australian.

Rebecca spoke to us about writing poetry about Catherine Deneuve (aged 15), the prevailing negativity about the book industry, and why there’s no shame in reading cheesy genre.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

That would be Voiceworks, circa 2005. I wrote a poem about imagining seeing Catherine Deneuve in my local supermarket.

What’s the best part of your job?

Working with incredibly talented writers – being invited into their creative world, sharing ideas, working with words every day. I feel very lucky.

What’s the worst part of your job?

There isn’t really a ‘worst’ part. Recently, the negativity about the industry has created a bit of trepidation about the longevity of book publishing (which I think is unfounded, we’re simply in a time of great transition) but I do think this collective attitude is turning around and we’re becoming bold and excited again.

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

Launching Kill Your Darlings – and seeing it grow over the past three years. That has been immensely satisfying, and a lot of fun. Also, along with my colleague Martin Hughes, building the publishing list at Affirm Press.

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

The best advice I received on writing (and this was specific to reviewing) was from my former colleague, Peter Rose, editor of Australian Book Review, who described the critic’s duty to the work and the work alone. That’s always stayed with me.

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

I don’t think I’ve actually ever read anything about myself, or my work – that’s one of the great things about being an editor; you exist behind the scenes. We’ve got some pretty strange mail at KYD in the past, however …

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

Something well paid? (Jokes.) I did consider teaching at one point during university, but I think I had a bit of a romanticised view of it (Mr Chips and all that). I think like most people in this profession, there’s nothing else for us but a life of writing and editing.

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

I’m a graduate of a creative writing course, so I’m biased. What my course taught me was how to read great writers more than how to write – which I don’t think can be taught, per se; rather aspiring writers can be directed in how to practice, hone and revise their craft.

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

Read as much as you can, and as varyingly as you can. Be an indiscriminant reader – if you’re an aspiring literary writer and you feel like reading cheesy genre, there’s no shame in that; you’ll probably learn a lot about particular components of fiction.

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

Both. I recently went on holidays and took a paper book and my Kindle, which is great to travel with.

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

Most of the characters I like most are not people you’d want to have dinner with – you might end up embroiled in something vicious, or dead. Though, if I was immune from anything psychologically or physically scarring, I’d dine with Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley – the Ripley books are up there as my favourites. Also, anyone from Richard Yates, though I might have to drown myself in gin afterwards.

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

Ah, so many! I think if I had to pick one, it would be Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which I read on the train on my way to university. I can distinctly remember this thrilling feeling as the story unfolded (especially when Clarissa and Sally walk in the gardens together – it’s so romantic!), my pulse literally quickening at the joy of finding this novel, of the layers and levels of concepts and authentic human feeling, and the craft itself. It was a wonderful, formative experience – and all on the Williamstown line!

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