Working with Words: Chris Boyd

Chris Boyd is an arts writer and critic, mostly of performing arts. He is currently Melbourne theatre critic for the Australian and has had long spells with the Financial Review, the Herald Sun (reviewing theatre and ballet), the Big Issue (as arts and literary editor) and the Melbourne Times. He has also worked for the Age as contemporary dance writer and as their first ‘fringe’ critic. He blogs at The Morning After.

We spoke to Chris about why dwelling on a ‘shocker of a show’ tends to amplify a negative opinion, why being paid for writing means you’re talented (according to Stephen King), and being influenced by Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse.

Image by Pamela Talty

Image by Pamela Talty

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Apart from the odd journal article, I reckon it was a concert review for the Monash student newspaper Lot’s Wife. My first pro review was of a Circus Oz show for the Melbourne Times. (I got that job on the strength of a ballet review I had submitted to my local paper.)

What’s the best part of your job?

Responding creatively to other people’s creativity. And, hey, I get to do for a living what regular folks do on their weekends and nights off.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Sometimes you see a shocker of a show and never want to think about it ever again. That’s an option I don’t have. I have to pick the thing apart. Dwell on it. And will tend to amplify a negative reaction.

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

My standard line is ‘I’m not a writer, I just make a living from writing’. I guess my ‘significant moments’ would be the rare times when I have actually felt like a writer. Most recently, it was when I received royalties. It’s the best part of a tax return, actually. Finding that bit up the back which is used for scholarships, lottery and game show wins, jury duty attendance fees and money earned from ‘inventions’. Royalties are that improbable. That ridiculous.

But the first time I felt like a writer, it was cos someone misquoted Stephen King at me. You’ll know the quotation: ‘If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.’ When I first heard that quotation, it ended ‘I consider you a writer’. And I was quite chuffed. Serves me right for not double-checking my sources.

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

The mantra at the Financial Review was to assume that the reader was intelligent but not necessarily informed.

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

That I am ‘much prone to inverse sexism in an apparently career-long attempt to disavow any possible hint of misogyny’. Mea maxima culpa! That (otherwise negative) appraisal ends, rather bizarrely, with a ‘Go Chris’. Maybe, you know, he meant: just go.

On a more positive note, Anne-Marie Peard wrote this about me, last year: ‘To be awake at 3 am (after opening night drinks) is a skill; to be articulate and intelligent and not make typos, swear or confess undying lust to a performer is an art… He inspires me to write better, or at least to not settle for the obvious adjective.’

Oh, and Rachel Griffiths describes my reviews as ‘post-emotional responses’. She’s a smarty, our R.G.

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

Given the (financially downward) trajectory of my life to date – from software engineer to lecturer to critic – it’s hard to imagine a job that would pay any less! Or one that would be anywhere near as satisfying. Honestly, I am now officially unemployable.

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

I learn about a thing by writing about it, so I’m not sure if my opinion is all that valuable or generally applicable. As a kid, I learned how to write by reading voraciously and by writing. It really was a kind of osmosis. I kept a diary for 25 years … the first fifteen years were rubbish.

I suspect narrative structure and some basic journalistic-style skills can be passed on. But I fear that creative writing courses will tend to limit the potential of the most imaginative and divergent writers.

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

Don’t be lazy. Every time you’re tempted to reach into your capacious bag of clichés, stop. Do a John Banville: the day is damp and fresh as a peeled stick.

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

All of the above. More than ‘all of the above’.

As much as I love the object in my hand, hardbacks especially, I don’t spend much time in book stores. I’m not a browser. I decide what I want, get in, pay, and get out. That said, I am a sucker for a pile of books on a ‘sale’ table.

I have a tiny Kobo ebook reader which I keep with me, pretty much all day every day. I hate DRM with a passion, I find it very intrusive, so I’d prefer to buy ebooks from smashwords (which trusts you not to distribute or upload what you’ve bought) rather than Amazon, say.

I used to love the AudioGo web site … the immediate gratification of buying an unabridged audiobook and downloading it within the hour. (That company went under last year I believe.) And I still hunt through the regular Clouston and Hall lists of remaindered books.

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

I won a subscription to Meanjin answering a question like this! Which character would you spend a day at the beach with? It was a no brainer. I picked Meursault from L’Étranger. But dinner? Hmm. Maybe Odette de Crécy? We could chat about orchids. Or Anthony B-B-Blanche perhaps? He’d do all the talking and we’d both get shitfaced drunk on Brandy Alexanders. Eww, no. Okay, let’s say Oedipa Maas. We could eat take-away in front of the TV and fall mushily in love.

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

It’s probably Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin … more for its style than its content, devastating though that is. It took a while – years – for me to understand just how dense, economical and precise Dworkin’s writing is. There’s not a wasted syllable.

Ditto Ken Tynan’s diaries.

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