Working with Words: Cate Kennedy

The multi-talented Cate Kennedy (short-story writer, novelist and poet) is one of Australia’s most loved writers. Her books include the acclaimed short-story collection Dark Roots and the award-winning novel The World Beneath. Her latest book is Like a House on Fire, her long-awaited second story collection. Cate is currently completing a Wheeler Centre Zoo Fellowship.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I had a poem published in the then Sun Herald kids’ pages when I was about nine and a short story published by the Canberra Times when I was in Year 12. I hope both those newspapers can forgive and forget.

What’s the best part of your job?

Being able to experience, occasionally, the sense of working purely on instinct, being answerable to nobody.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Spending big chunks of time by myself when I’m bored with my own company.

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

Most ‘writing career’ things feel quite remote from my ‘real life’ but one time I was lucky enough to have a story accepted by the New Yorker magazine, and they wanted to fax some editorial changes through to me. I went into the ‘office’ to wait for the pages and when the clunky old fax machine connected and that first page came through with that unique font and typeface gradually appearing, it hit me that an editor at the New Yorker was sitting up at 10.30 at night their time, devoting time to a story of mine, and soon it would be in the actual magazine … the shock came home to me then. Literally.

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

Best advice: take your work seriously, not yourself. Worst advice: if you’re not at the desk at 9 am every day dutifully churning out a thousand words, you’re not a writer.

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

Somehow a suggestion of mine in a workshop once – that a good place to start cutting could be the first paragraph of your short story – had morphed into a hard and fast rule that I’d insisted that the first 300 words from every story needs to be deleted.

As someone who was born when my Australian parents did a short work stint overseas, returning when I was three, I was also gratified to learn from a US reviewer that I had, as a migrant, clearly learned to love my adopted country.

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

I’d like to say running a theatre company, but then I’d be making an even worse living. Maybe a curator or museum worker or restorer. A job to do with piecing lots of small disparate things together so they reveal something.

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

Hmm. I think craft and technique can definitely be honed, but only if there’s something there to work with. If this isn’t too simplistic an answer, I think writing can be taught, but creativity can’t be.

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

Read as widely as you can, with humility and curiosity, and just for the sheer pleasure of it. Learn what makes you feel energised, and explore it as deeply as you can.

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

Both. I buy a lot of secondhand books online that are hard to find, and I just can’t resist poking round in bookshops either, to find something I didn’t know I was looking for.

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

You want me to say Mr. Darcy, don’t you? There’d be long pauses while I tried to hold up my end of that exquisitely-honed Austen dialogue. Jay Gatsby would know where to get a good table, I guess. But on reflection, I’d like dinner with Jack Irish then a long chatty brunch the next day (my shout) with the Drover’s Wife.

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

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made an indelible impression on me both in terms of life and writing – I’m still finding new things to admire in it and it’s still a touchstone in terms of making the commitment to write with verve and conviction. It’s hard to pinpoint just one book, though – I also remember as a teenager being mesmerised by the way Ray Bradbury used language and the way Peter Carey’s short stories absolutely subverted everything I’d been taught in my fairly hidebound English class. It was like stumbling into a speakeasy during Prohibition. Sorry to have to add one more, but Lewis Hyde’s extraordinary book The Gift was the one that seemed to come into my hands at exactly the right time to encourage me to persist with writing.

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