Working with Words: Louise Swinn

Louise Swinn is an all-rounder when it comes to working with words: a writer, editor, reviewer and publisher. She is editorial director and co-founder of Sleepers Publishing, lovers of new and emerging authors and publishers of novels and the annual Sleepers Almanac. Her stories and reviews have appeared places including Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Best Australian Stories, the Age, Times Literary Supplement and the Australian.

We spoke to Louise about the daily realisation that ‘people still read so much shite’, the happiness of bringing books into the world, and why you shouldn’t take any advice from publishers about what to write.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It would have been a pop quiz or fake agony aunt letter in the school magazine I co-founded when I was about nine. We hand-wrote onto Gestetner paper and printed them ourselves – it was utter joy.

What’s the best part of your job?

Producing books! Everything about bringing books into the world makes me very happy.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The daily realisation that people still read so much shite.

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

Probably starting Sleepers – the first day in the office together.

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

I have found that most advice, when I take it, doesn’t work for me. I’ve really needed to find my own way. I’m a bit like that in general (and it’s a pain) – I sort of have to make every mistake myself to learn from it.

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

When we started Sleepers, journalists wanted to fit us into a box, and wrote some weird things about us, likening us to other publishers and publishing companies when we are probably as different from them as we are similar. People often think we are particularly interested in young people, for example, but we’re not – emerging authors come in all shapes and ages.

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

Education policy.

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

My view is that we all talk about it way too much! Some of it can be taught, sure, but you have to have some talent, too. It’s great working with writers who are good editors – that’s a difference I really notice, and one of the great things about many creative writing and editing courses.

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

Don’t take any advice from publishers! Just write what you love to read – too much second-guessing can be problematic. I would say don’t write for a market, but some publishers would require you to do just that – so, don’t even start worrying about what other people want from your writing – work out what you want from it first.

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

Both.

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

Edith Campbell Berry, from Frank Moorhouse’s trilogy. We would talk about life, love, work, and the pursuit of a creative and fulfilling life, of course.

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

Probably still Franny and Zooey by Salinger. When I found it in the school library, I just couldn’t believe someone could write such minutiae and such angst. It was the first time I really realised that a book about people living somewhere different to me, living a completely different kind of life to mine, in a different time, could feel like a book about me. I am frequently taken aback by this realisation still, now. It’s just a little bit of magic.

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