Working with Words: Andre Dao

André Dao is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in the Monthly, Meanjin, Going Down Swinging, Crikey, The New Philosopher, The Conversation, Harvest Magazine, The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks, Kill Your Darlings, Arena, and anthologies published by Oxford University Press, Penguin Australia, Wakefield Press and Finch Publishing.

André has been the editor-in-chief of Right Now, a human rights media organisation, since 2009, having joined the team as an editor in 2008. In recognition of his work with Right Now, he was a finalist for the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Young People’s Medal in 2011.

We spoke to him about why editing is like ‘getting to be the perfect reader’, why all writers are pretty insecure at heart (and how a grant helps soothe the insecurity), and why it’s a danger to think, ‘I want to be a writer’ and only then look for something to say.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

My first piece of writing was a story I wrote in high school about my aunt. She had fled Vietnam on a boat at the age of 14. I’d lived a pretty sheltered life up until then – sheltered even from my own family history. I think finding out about what they’d been through, coupled with my own lack of curiosity up to that point, spurred me on to write about it as an act of penance. It was published in an anthology called No Place Like Home, put together by Australians Against Racism.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part about writing is when someone starts a conversation with me about something I’ve written. There’s always a nagging fear that you’re wasting your time when you write, especially about things that matter a lot to yourself and potentially not to anyone else. So when someone engages with an idea in an article I’ve written, or is affected by a story I’ve told, it means I’m not just satisfying my own ego.

The best part of editing is the moment when you’ve been working with a piece that doesn’t quite work and you suddenly see how to make it better. Especially when the edit is a simple thing. Again it’s about engaging with ideas and stories, but this time it’s someone else’s thoughts. So it’s like getting to be the perfect reader, one who pays a special kind of attention to the author’s words. I like the behind-the-scenes nature of good editing.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I find that working for myself means that I put a lot of pressure on myself to be productive. It’s also really easy to take my work with me everywhere, all the time. So a holiday by the beach becomes an opportunity to read a book that I’ve been meaning to read for historical research. I also sometimes go through a whole day without speaking to anyone all day – when I get home my voice is croaky from lack of use.

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

I’ve been fortunate enough to have received a couple of grants for the novel I’m working on about the lives of my grandparents. Obviously, the money has helped me put aside time to write, but most importantly it helped me feel that my writing had a potential audience. It’s amazing how affirmative a grant can be for an emerging writer. For all the arrogance and bravado that it takes to say, ‘I’m going to write a book’, we’re all pretty insecure at heart.

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

At National Young Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago, I took a workshop with Zoe Dattner (of Sleepers Publishing). She gave us some advice that has stayed with me since – and this applies to both writers and editors – ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. And ask that question at regular intervals. This particular workshop was about self-publishing projects, and Zoe really pushed us hard to answer that ‘why’ question. If you drill down you might realise that the real reason you want to write a book is because you’d like to be rich (or at least famous) – in which case you might want to consider a career change. But if the reason you want to write a story is because you believe that story needs to be told – that it’s a story that people need to hear, and that the written form is the best medium for that story – then writing a book makes sense.

I think it’s a danger to think, ‘I want to be a writer’ and only then look for something to say; it should be the other way around – ‘I have something to say, so I’ll say it as a writer’.

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

People often assume that I only write non-fiction, because I edit a human rights magazine and I have been writing a lot of creative non-fic and journalism over the last couple of years. But I actually got into writing because of my love for fiction. Even now, the richness of imagined worlds – whether realistic or more fantastic – can feel more alive than the real one. Politically, I know that we can’t disengage entirely from reality, and I hope that I never will. But the vaulting possibilities of the imagination will always have a particular appeal to me.

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

I can imagine myself as an academic or a lawyer pretty easily – but then both those professions are absolutely mired in words. Moving beyond words entirely, I’d love to have been a musician. I learnt classical music as a child, so I know enough to know how little natural music talent I have – so I find something quite magical about the musically gifted, like they speak a half-remembered language that I can never quite grasp.

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

So much of writing is about craft, and of course that can be taught – to an extent. I don’t know any emerging writers who couldn’t do with more structured time thinking about characterisation or sentence structure and so on. But at some point there’s an element of instinct, and voice, that is very hard to teach, at least in a classroom. I think you learn that stuff by reading, as widely and as closely as possible.

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

Be nice to each other. I mean, sometimes writers see editors as the enemy, and vice versa, but at its best the writer/editor relationship should be a collaborative one. As a writer I know that some of my best prose is the direct result of someone else’s intervention. And on a practical level, the industry is too small to be mean to each other – word gets around.

Then again, my partner is my harshest – and best – critic. She basically just hacks away at my first drafts. It’s a pretty safe bet that if I’m particularly proud of an opening sentence or a turn of phrase that it’ll be the first thing cut. The end result is invariably better. So as an editor, a bit of tough love doesn’t go astray.

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

I’ve started to buy less physical novels. Most of my leisure reading is done through audiobooks these days – I just find it more relaxing to listen rather than to read, especially when I’ve been staring at words all day.

I download ebooks for holiday reading just as a matter of practicality – I used to pack something like 10kgs of books on big trips, and collect more while I was away until I bought an ereader.

But I still love physical books, especially when there’s an element of artistry in the production. I still buy graphic novels for that reason, and if I’m using a book for research in my writing, I’ll usually buy a physical copy.

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

Sancho Panza from Don Quixote. He’s a gourmand, so you know you’ll eat well – lots of wine and cheese. And he’s a born raconteur, a font of home-spun wisdom and absurd proverbs. I’d talk to him about his favourite subject – himself.

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

The book I keep turning back to is The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow. I wrote an honours thesis on it a few years ago, but despite spending a year of focused study on it, it still feels alive to me, full of possibilities. It’s a book full of ideas that have obsessed me for a while – intergenerational trauma, radical politics, how we honour the dead and what responsibilities we owe to the living – and at the same time it’s a novel that encompasses a full spectrum of human emotion. It’s a clever book, a self-aware book, but that doesn’t stop it from being a kick in the guts at the same time. It captures as perfectly as anything else I’ve ever read the impossible yearning for a better world.

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