Working with Words: Kevin Brophy

Kevin Brophy has had 13 books of poetry, fiction and critical and personal essays published. His latest book is Walking: New and Selected Poems (John Leonard Press). In 2009 he was awarded the Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay. He teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.

We spoke to Kevin about why the worst part of writing is writing, starting up the literary journal Going Down Swinging, and why his favourite characters are best left in their fictional worlds.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first piece I remember having published was a short story called ‘In Print’, published by a small magazine called Inprint. It might have been the late 1970s. I have a photo somewhere, of me and Myron Lysenko holding up that issue of Inprint because we had both been published in it. This was after a decade of rejections, each rejection making me more determined, more focused and more pessimistic about my choice of obsessive passion.

What’s the best part of your job?

Job? Do you mean writing? If you mean writing, which isn’t a job, but a practice, then the best part of it is almost impossible to write about or speak of because it has to do with stepping out onto a track that leads me on, curving round a roughly treed hillside into a world that is not quite this one but points to this one.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part of writing is writing. What a despairingly infinite and inadequate production it is. The writing can’t happen, though, without it, so you do it.

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

Getting published in Inprint after all those years of rejection is one of them. The other moment lasted 14 years, and that was the decision to start up a small literary journal called Going Down Swinging. From 1980 to 1994, with friends Myron Lysenko, Nolan Tyrrell, Carol Carter, Lyn Boughton, Lauren Williams, Brendan Hennessy and many others, the little magazine introduced me to some of Australia’s most exciting new writers, made an editor and writer of me, gave me RSI, and changed my life. I can’t recommend the Gestetner too highly to any ambitious young writer out there.

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

The best advice I have come across is, ‘Read’. In fact Donald Barthelme suggests that aspiring writers need to read everything. Best if you give up eating and sleeping in favour of reading. I didn’t need much encouragement.

Of course the worst part of your ‘job’ as a writer is to read work that you wished you had written yourself, or more worst still, to read something you always intended to write but didn’t have the courage to write. I have just finished reading a work of fiction called A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and it is the book I thought I might write one day but have been too timid to sit down and do. This is very painful, but the book is beautiful.

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

One reviewer called my first novel Australia’s first novel of smell.

If you weren’t working in writing and publishing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Reading, most likely. Difficult to know what I’m good for apart from reading and writing: too small and weedy to be a labourer for long, too dreamy to be entrusted with anyone’s health, too uncertain about everything to be anyone’s counselor or councilor, too short-sighted for military endeavours or hunting or truck driving, too fond of my sleep to be a musician, not smart enough to be an engineer or an academic (though I do pose as one most days), too few needs and desires to work as a real estate agent or stockbroker, too easily bored to watch birds.

What I would like to be able to do is to paint beautiful pictures.

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

I have contributed to raising a family on the income from teaching creative writing, so of course I consider it a noble enterprise. Teaching creative writing is no different, in essence, from teaching history or English literature or philosophy. You are teaching a practice that has a long and complex history, and must be challenged and renewed by each fresh generation of practitioners. Not all students of history become historians, but hopefully they do become appreciative of what is involved in writing a book of history. Same goes for students of creative writing: hopefully they read with appreciation for the work of writing.

Writing does not come naturally to us as a species, and creativity is a cultural practice and cultural value. So, in fact, it is surprising that creative writing has only relatively recently emerged as a discipline within education. My guess is that it has always been taught, but mostly through teaching what was once called reading-and-writing. I didn’t do a creative writing course (there were none), so who taught me? I was taught by Enid Blyton, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, Capt. W. E. Johns, G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells and the rest of those men with double initials. They were good teachers. There were some real live English teachers among them from my secondary schooling too. So, creative writing can only be taught. It is a skill, and yes, some people have a facility for learning it, while most people (I am among them) find it takes a long time to get the hang of it.

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

See above, and above that too. No harm in re-reading all of it.

There are many kinds of writers and many reasons to write, so no single piece of advice can be applicable to everyone. I went to a workshop by John Marsden one night. He was experimenting with running a workshop that involved parents writing with their children. I was there with my daughter and it was a strange experience. In introducing himself, he said that there are two skills involved in being a writer: knowing how to use words, and knowing how to tell a story. He then said that you only need to have one of these skills to be a successful writer.

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

Both. About half and half now. So far it is only physical books that I buy, but I can imagine one day the books will be virtual and everything will fade before my eyes into the shape of a thin, glowing tablet.

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

The characters I love (Ahab, Holden Caulfield, Radion Raskolnikov, Anna Karenina, Frodo Bagins, King Lear) are best kept in their fictional worlds. I would not like to be confronted with them in my world. Besides, all they could do would be to quote themselves.

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

Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream (1970). It came along at a moment when I needed a way out of an emotional impasse, and at a time in my life when I was reckless enough about myself to put myself into a soundproof room and see what happened. It’s not necessarily the great books that have the most impact.

After that, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, Peter Carey’s Fat Man in History, Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, and all books by James Tate, Gwen Harwood and Billy Collins.

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