Working with Words: Ellie Marney

Ellie Marney is a teacher and young adult author who specialises in crime (writing it, not committing it). Her highly awarded adult short stories have been published in Australia and the UK, and her latest YA crime thriller Every Word (June 2014), the second in a trilogy, has just been published. The first in the series was Every Breath

We talked to her about bringing her daydreams to life on the page, why being a writer is a bit like being a stand-up comedian or a tightrope-walker, and the value of Bum Glue.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

You mean, physically in print? Um, I wrote a prize-winning essay in Grade 8, I think, about the natural environment on Fraser Island – I believe it may have made the local paper up in Brisbane somewhere! I remember I won a book about Fraser Island – that was the prize. Non-fiction, so not really my scene, I’m afraid. I don’t think I ever read it (please don’t tell the organisers!)

What’s the best part of your job?

Making shit up. No, really, that’s the best part! Being given permission – nay, being encouraged! – to bring my daydreams to life on the page. Developing a relationship with a character, so you know them like you know your own breath. Like their heartbeat is matched with your own. Incredible.

I mean, you have to do it anyway, or you go a bit crazy. But being allowed to do that as a job? – that is a unique and priceless gift.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Balancing writing work, domestic life and online engagement. I find that really hard. The writing is pervasive. It’s like a constant background hum all around you: in bed, on family holidays, while you’re parenting … It’s distracting. You can’t switch it off. I guess you wouldn’t want to. The online stuff is very busy. I actually enjoy the social media engagement, but oh my god, sometimes I feel like my phone is permanently glued to my hand. My partner has threatened to throw it in the dam, on a number of occasions.

I share the domestic load with my partner, but I know he often carries the can – that’s hard, and unfair. There’s just never enough hours in the day. I mean, I don’t exercise, or garden, or go out, or watch TV right now – I don’t know where I’m supposed to fit everything in. I’m still trying to work out a balance. I’m hoping it will come with time – I’m still pretty new to all this.

I guess the other thing I’ve found hard to manage is my own constant sense of mild panic about it all – it’s like being a stand-up comedian or a tight-rope walker or something, you really feel like you’re living by your wits. Again, I hope to find a balance…one day.

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

Winning the Scarlet Stiletto Award in 2010 was a big thing. I had a good feeling about it, that something was going to happen. But in terms of profound moments, I guess it was signing with Allen & Unwin for my first book, Every Breath, and getting the call from my agent, Catherine Drayton, all in one week. In the space of a few days, I had a New York agent and a two-book deal – it was a bit overwhelming. I called my partner at work to tell him, and he was, like, ‘So can I just walk out of work right now and quit?’ and I laughed and said ‘Whoah, hold on there, tiger…’ I think his expectations were a bit less realistic than mine!

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

The best advice was from Stephen King. When I read what he said about having Bum Glue in his book/memoir On Writing, that really resonated with me. I thought, ‘Yep, that’s what it is.’ Good old Bum Glue: just sitting there and thumping away at the keyboard until you’ve got it done. Treating it like a job, being professional about it, like a plumber or a bricklayer. Because writing is work. And it doesn’t become real work until you make it a job in your head. Not just the writing part, the rest of it too – you have deadlines, you have to have a professional approach.

I don’t know if I’ve had any bad advice about writing. Everybody is different, so what works for me may not work for someone else. ‘Waiting for the muse to strike’ always sounds a bit like bullshit to me, though. You live with your muse, sure, you get inspiration all the time. But in my experience, waiting around for inspiration to arrive before you write, like waiting for some divine bolt from heaven, is just a great excuse for not doing anything. Like I said, though, that’s me. I have a big family – if I’m not using this time to work, right now, then I may as well be packing school lunches or something.

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

That my writing is good! Seriously, I find every positive review of my work kind of astonishing. Because I’m never completely happy with it, not really. In my head, it’s never quite the right word, or exactly the right phrase. It’s just … what comes out. And I use as much craft as I can to make it into something better, something more approximating what I’d like it to be – I just craft it all to hell. Sometimes I’m happy with a phrase or two, but I often look at a piece as a whole and think ‘Yeah, it’s still not exact’. I’m learning as I go. I think we’re all learning, aren’t we?

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

Probably teaching! I like teaching quite a lot. Not as much as writing. But who knows, I might still end up teaching – another author I know has just gone back to nursing. Ask me in a few years time! We’ll see where all this goes.

I was just about to resign myself to going back to teaching part-time when I got the call about the book. That was the year, you know? I was really on a knife-edge that year – all our children (we have four boys) were ready to enter school, the time for me to go back to teaching work was looming up fast, there was financial pressure … It was the year of ‘fish or cut bait’. I felt like if I didn’t achieve something with my writing at that stage, it would be my last year of yearning, my last year of wishing for the dream…

I consider myself incredibly lucky, I have to say. That was the year I needed some good luck, and my god, it came through.

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

That’s a hard question. Because yeah, like I said, I still feel like I’m being taught. I tend to learn through reading, though. I’ve never studied. I have gotten something out of writing courses, but the bulk of my learning is through reading, and an ongoing writing practice.

I think you have to have something inside you that begs to be let out. Something that drives you a little insane if you don’t write. I have seen students in creative writing classes – the kids with talent, their work has this glow. So yes, I believe in talent. That’s not to say that a promising student can’t be made better by being taught craft. I would still class myself as ‘a promising student trying to be better’.

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

Keep working – I mean, both jobs. The paying one and the writing one. Keep writing. Don’t stop. Just write and write and write. Enter competitions, set yourself deadlines, find reasons to keep going. Learn craft. And read as much as you can.

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

Both, but primarily in bookshops. I love touching covers, admiring them, I love seeing the displays, I love the feel of the pages. I buy books for my e-reader, and then go and buy hardcopies of the same books. I’m incorrigible. I desperately need more shelves.

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

My god, what a question! I’m tempted to say Hannibal Lecter, but he would scare me to death. And I’d have to eat vegetarian.

You know, I think I would like to go out with Don Tillman and his wife, Rosie. Don is a bit of a gourmand, so the food would be good. I would bring my partner along, and we’d all have a few drinks and get a bit tipsy, and sit around and talk about, oh, a huge range of things, and have a bit of a laugh. I think we’d all have a pretty good time, actually.

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

The Bible, probably, because I was brought up religious. Not so much now, though! I discovered Shakespeare in high school, and I thought ‘This – yes, this is how words work’.

I read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris about once a year. I keep going back to it, I’m not sure why. Every element of that book – the characters, the dialogue, the detail - has a tone that contributes to an entire menacing symphony. It’s a masterful piece of writing. The police procedures have dated a bit, so it’s like an historical record, but the writing is as startling and clear as a new-struck bell.

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