Working with Words: Silvia Kwon

Silvia Kwon was born in Seoul, South Korea. She came to Australia at the age of nine and grew up in Perth. She has worked in community arts, publishing and PR and is now based in Melbourne. The Return (Hachette) is her first novel.

We talked to Silvia about what Holden Caulfield would be doing now, advice on writing from Neil Gaiman, and the struggle to approximate what’s in her head on the page - both the best and the worst parts of her job as a writer.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a piece I wrote about my early infatuation with Elvis Presley, whom I discovered when I was nine, not long after I arrived in Australia. It was 1977 and he had, recently, died and he was there every time you turned on the television. But, because no one in my family spoke any English, we had no idea that the world was mourning his death. It was only much later that I learned, to my horror, that he had died.

I emailed it to Sally Heath, then editor of A2 section of the Age, asking her whether it was of any merit, and, when she promptly replied to say, yes, they’d love to publish it, I was so thrilled, not only by her response, but by the prospect that I may be able to try my hand at writing, after all. It was also syndicated by the West Australian.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is that I get to escape into the world of my imagination, although, it can be a struggle at times to fully realise that world on paper. Nevertheless, I can’t seem to keep away, and returning to the screen every time, I am always filled with hope that I can get closer to capturing that vast, amorphous world in my head with words.

What’s the worst part of your job?

It’s probably the flipside of the best part of my job: the struggle to approximate what’s in my head onto the paper and never being satisfied with what ends up there. Yet, I feel very fortunate to be able follow the journey of my imagination.

There is also the vulnerability that can come with sharing the contents of your brain with the rest of the world. I try to remind myself that, this opportunity to communicate what’s in my head, is one of the reasons why I write.

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

Getting an offer of a publishing contract from Hachette.

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

The best advice I heard is from Neil Gaiman, who insisted that we should make mistakes, make glorious mistakes, make mistakes that have never been made before. I try to remember this every time I’m not happy with a piece of writing and decide to start again.

I also heard someone say that writing is a bit like bricklaying; we are trying to build something with just one word at a time, and I find this quite helpful.

There is also the advice that you should write what you know, and, although, I think this is true to some extent, if you have the writerly facility and the imagination, backed up with research … well, the world is your oyster.

There is a lot of advice out there about writing, and in the end, you have to find a method of working that works best for you – even if it is in pyjamas in bed, on some days!

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

That my writing is subtle and gentle. As a person, I’m pretty forthright, so to have people say my writing had these qualities was a real surprise.

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

I think I’d have tried to find a way to get paid to be a professional reader of some sort! I did work in publishing for a while, so I’d still be doing something with words and books.

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

I think you can acquire the toolbox needed for creative writing. There are many useful things like point of view, character, voice etc, that can give shape and form to the world you are trying to create in a fictional setting. I learned many of these things at a creative writing course and found the experience very helpful. So, yes, while these tools and skills can be taught, they are not for formulaic application, and what you may choose to do with the things inside the toolbox, as a writer, is up to you. And there are so many possibilities.

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

Be prepared to sit alone in a room for a lengthy periods of time facing that blank screen or piece of paper - whether anything happens or not.

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

I do both. If there are out-of-print titles that are not available in a bookshop, I try to get them on line. But I also like scouring second hand bookshops for these as well.

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

When I was a teenager, I did want to hang out with Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. Like many others, I identified with his disaffected world view at that critical time between childhood and adulthood, and somehow, knowing that Salinger had managed to capture the psychology of this period so acutely, through Holden, was a great comfort to me.

It would be interesting, I think, to revisit Holden in middle age, to see where he ended up, and to hear his life tales since Catcher in the Rye. I suspect he became an advertising copywriter or a screenwriter, with at least one marriage behind him, and like all of us, juggling kids with work, and along the way, trying hard to hold onto that spark of life that we all possessed, once, early in our life.

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

I’m not sure I can answer this with one book. Of course, Catcher in the Rye was an early favourite, but there have been many books that have had an impact on my life at various stages, and, I think, have added to my work in ways that I’m, probably, not even aware of. I reread Margurite Duras’ The Lover, recently, after nearly 20 years, and it still managed to grip me with its mesmerising language, so this is a favourite, as is The Dubliners by James Joyce, which, I also reread not that long ago, thoroughly enjoying its simplicity and power, all over again.

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