Working with Words: Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of several acclaimed novels, including the award-winning Camille’s Bread, as well as Vertigo, The Philosopher’s Doll and The Morality of Gentlemen. She has also written two Quarterly Essays, Groundswell and Voting for Jesus. Her latest book is Reading Madame Bovary, her first collection of short fiction, published by Black Inc.

Amanda was one of five creative writers to take part in our Criticism Now series, crafting her own personal responses to a select series of Melbourne Festival works.

We spoke to her about the freedom of working for yourself, the mystery of other people’s subjectivity, and why characters in books are never ‘real’ enough that she could imagine having dinner with them.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I think it was an article in Meanjin in maybe 1979 when Jim Davidson was editor. It was called ‘The Liberated Heroine’ and was a review essay on some recent women’s writing (a big issue then). I took the title from a terrific piece in The Times Literary Supplement by Diana Trilling whose take on the notion was ironic, to say the least.

The first fiction I published was my novel, The Morality of Gentlemen (1984).

What’s the best part of your job?

Working for myself. The freedom to invent, to use the language I choose. I don’t have to sit in meetings, I don’t have to deal with bureaucratic documents where language dies a slow death.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The isolation – alone in a room with a computer - and not knowing when the money fairy is going to wave her wand and help you reduce the overdraft.

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

There hasn’t been one. It’s a steady continuum of making mistakes and trying to correct them.

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

I’ve received much less useful advice than I would have liked. The late Sasha Soldatow once read a work-in-progress of mine and told me that I finished too many scenes with what he called ‘a dying fall’. ‘You nail it,’ he said, ‘and then you dribble on for another 10-20 lines and dissipate the effect.’ As soon as he pointed it out I saw what he meant and I look out for that now, not only in my own work but when I’m mentoring or editing other writers.

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

Probably the most surprising thing overall has been the response to my work in terms of who does or doesn’t like it. In my experience it tends to be the very opposite of what I expect. My assumptions about readers have so often proved to be wrong. Other people’s subjectivity is a mystery.

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

Teaching politics in a university. That was supposed to be my role in life when I started out and I still harbor a desire to teach undergraduates, particularly those who say in recent surveys that they’re not sure that democracy is the best system.

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

Aspects of it can be taught, like the use of verbs and how crucial they are to your style, and also the necessity for a little suspense in even the most avant-garde work, i.e. how delay works in furthering the pleasure of story-telling. The rest of the time what passes for teaching is a process of giving moral support to someone on a tightrope and trying to provide a metaphorical safety net.

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

You either are or you aren’t a writer. If you are you will know it because you can’t give it up, even though you may resolve to at least once a year. My old friend and colleague, Jan McKemmish used to say to her students, ‘Writers write: that’s what they do. They don’t ‘want’ to do it, they don’t talk about it, they get on with it. They may not be talented, they may not get published, but they are driven to write.’ If I perceive that someone is infected with this incurable disease I might advise them to marry a dentist, someone who can subsidise a career of uncertain financial returns.

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

Both. I live in a remote area so I can’t always get to bookshops, but I’m reluctant to buy a book online unless I’ve looked at it somewhere, in a library or whatever. I’ve wasted too much money ordering books sight unseen. Just a five minute flick through a book in a bookshop will almost immediately tell you if the book is worth reading.

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

I can’t answer this. All characters in books are constructions for me and I find myself thinking about the ways in which the writer constructed the character out of words. In that sense they are never ‘real’ enough for me to be able to imagine having dinner with them.

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

There isn’t a single book, just hundreds of them. At the time I’m reading a book I like I feel it’s having a significant influence on me and then I absorb it and thereafter it becomes ‘obvious’ knowledge, and a part of me, and it’s on to the next set of revelations which soon become ‘obvious’ as well. And so on.

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