Working with Words: Tom Doig

Tom Doig is a writer, performer and editor who has been published in the Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, Sleepers Almanac and Voiceworks magazine (where he was once editor). His plays include Survival of the Prettiest, Hitlerhoff and Selling Ice to the Remains of the Eskimos. Tom is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University, researching the lived experience of climate change in Australia. Moron to Moron (Allen & Unwin) is his first book.

We spoke to Tom about multi-tasking nightmares, being an ‘anti-aesthete’ and why you can’t teach people How to Be a Genius.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was an undergrad at the University of Auckland in 1999, the student magazine Craccum published a news article I wrote about a kamikaze wolf blowing up the Auckland Sky Tower by crashing a biplane into it. The article was factually incorrect, but the editors were very indulgent.

What’s the worst part of your job?

If by ‘job’ you mean all the different administrative and money-earning things I have to juggle while simultaneously trying to write, that’s the worst thing: the juggling! Multi-tasking gives me nightmares.

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

When I got the email from Allen & Unwin offering me a contract for my first book, Mörön to Mörön. That felt like it changed everything, because it did.

More recently, I just launched Mörön to Mörön in Alice Springs. Later that day I saw a boy of 12 reading it avidly in a cafe. I introduced myself to the boy – Max – and signed his book and we got a photo together etc; I actually think it was more exciting for me than for Max! We are now Twitter friends.

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

At the end of a full-year creative writing course at Auckland Uni taught by Witi Ihimaera, Witi told me that I expended too much energy trying to make people love me. Instead, he suggested, I should work to make them respect me. This advice was directed at my writing but also at my life. It took me years to work out what he was talking about, but now I think I get it.

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

There hasn’t been much written about me or my work, so I’m not really sure. Back in 2006, just after I finished up as editor of Voiceworks magazine, a young Sam Twyford-Moore wrote a letter to the (new) editor calling me an ‘anti-aesthete’. This summed up my editorial philosophy perfectly.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I don’t consider myself to be exclusively a writer. I have worked on and off in arts admin and arts management and I have taught creative writing and I do plenty of freelance editing. Also I am a recidivist uni student, and I’ve just started a Journalism PhD at Monash. I also enjoy getting paid to dig holes. I imagine I will keep doing all these things and more till the end of my days.

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

Creative writing can definitely be taught! I’ve had some great teachers, and I hope I’m an okay tutor. Pedagogy can make bad writers into mediocre ones and good writers into very good ones. Unfortunately, however, you can’t teach people How to Be a Genius.

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

Write all the time. Write for yourself first and foremost; before you worry about getting published or keeping a blog, make sure you keep a journal and get to know your own voice and mind. Keeping a journal is as essential as going to the toilet; you should do it at least once a day.

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

Both. For years I resisted looking at abebooks.com.au, because I was worried I would get addicted. Now I am addicted. But in the early noughties I worked in a massive dusty second-hand bookshop and I still love browsing through random, badly categorised shelves, particularly in an unfamiliar town …

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

Benjamin Braddock, from The Graduate by Charles Webb. I’d like to hear Benjamin talk about his future, how he’s a little worried about it. I think we’d have a lot in common.

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

It’s embarrassing to admit this, but probably The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. I read it in high school and it made me want to become a writer. Exclamation! marks! and TYPOGRAPHY aside, Tom Wolfe showed me that you could write about real life but make it sound much, much crazier than any fiction.

Also, pretty much everything that Polish journalist Ryszard KapuściÅ„ski has ever written, but particularly The Soccer War. KapuściÅ„ski is a war correspondent, but his prose has more literary merit and is generally marvellous than most novelists.

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