Working with Words: Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is the former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and the author of four novels: Summerland, A Private Man, Jamaica and The Life. He is also a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author of many non-fiction titles. His latest book is Boom: The Underground History of Australia, From Gold Rush to GFC.

Malcolm was one of five creative writers to take part in our Criticism Now series, crafting his own personal responses to a select series of Melbourne Festival works.

We spoke to him about not having a boss, burning bridges as a student so he could write a novel, and having books as his creative writing teachers.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a poem and a one-act play that I wrote under a pseudonym, out of embarrassment, in the Sydney University student magazine Hermes in 1988.

What’s the best part of your job?

No boss.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Having to ask my wife and children to repeat what they’re saying to me because I wasn’t listening.

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

Burning bridges as a student so I could write a novel. My parents gave me their blessing. If any of us had known it would be 14 years before I had a novel published, I would not have made the commitment and doubt my parents would have supported it.

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

Best advice: If you can live without writing, don’t write (Rilke).

Worst advice: There’s no money in it.

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

Via social media, someone judged from my picture-byline that I am old and cranky and have evidently made bad choices in my life. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me, but it did.

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

I nearly decided to study medicine, though I doubt I would have managed it. So: a doctor struck off by the medical board.

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

The only teachers I had were the books I read. I did want to study creative writing, but was never accepted into the courses I applied for. I still wonder if I could be a better writer with a more formal drilling in the fundamentals.

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

Don’t want, just write.

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

Both. I’ve also bought and read e-books while traveling, but when I came home I bought print copies of the e-books I’d read.

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

I’m not very quick in conversation, so all the best characters would leave me flailing. So can I say Roxeanne Smith, a treasure buried in Martin Amis’s otherwise pretty terrible second novel Dead Babies, and skip dinner?

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

The Red and the Black by Stendhal. First time I felt I’d read a real book.

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