Working with Words: Kate Richards

Kate Richards has a medical degree with honours and works part-time in medical research in Melbourne. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Madness: A Memoir and the Penguin Special Is There No Place for Me?. She writes fiction, narrative nonfiction and poetry.

We spoke to Kate about why you should push your story further than you think you can, how literary theory can be taught but writing geniuses are born, and why you should read books that challenge you as a reader and challenge you as a writer.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Two poems in a Fellowship of Australian Writers mag when I was 16 - long, long time ago.

What’s the best part of your job?

The creation of a new world (in fiction) and attempting to find new ways of looking at the world we know (non-fiction).

What’s the best advice you’ve received about writing?

When you think you’ve pushed yourself and your story as far as you can, push it further. (Thank you, Toni Jordan!)

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

Sadly, I’m unable to make a living by working in words. In order to pay the bills, I work in medical research - cancer medicine, and in mental health advocacy.

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

Literary theory and good technique can certainly be taught, and we can all improve with inspirational teaching/mentoring and hard work, but if I may paraphrase Jack Kerouac, there’s something within the geniuses of the writing art like Whitman, Thoreau, Morrison or Hopkins that is born.

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

Read as widely as you can: fiction and non-fiction, poetry and plays and essays. Read across generations and cultures, read books that challenge you as a reader and challenge you as a writer. Open up your mind and heart and soul. Take risks. Listen carefully to your teachers/mentors/editors/writing peers: most will be offering excellent advice.

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

ALWAYS a physical, preferably independent, bookshop (unless they can’t acquire something published overseas or out of print).

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

Sorry, I just can’t pick one: Kerewin, from Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, Miss Smilla, from Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and Raoul Duke from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. If I’m really lucky, we’ll meet around a fire and drink and talk (and maybe argue a bit) in the dark all through the night.

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

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and e.e. cummings’ poetry because both author and poet were brave enough and brilliant enough to throw all of the writing rules out the window and create something truly original in style and character – and both turned my little world upside down.

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