Working with Words: Wendy James

Wendy James is the author of six books, including Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime fiction and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie Award for women’s writing. Her latest novel is The Lost Girls (Penguin).

We spoke to Wendy about working in her pyjamas, writing to discover the new, and why she wouldn’t mind a date with the protagonist of her work-in-progress.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Probably the first ever was in Manly Girls High School magazine when I was in year 7 … I remember it involved an unlikely union of cavemen and The Manly Pie Shop, which was some sort of local hangout. I think it may have been an early (and never to be repeated) attempt at satire. My first ‘real’ publication was a story called ‘You In Your Small Corner’, and it was published in the National Library’s beautiful journal Voices, which is now sadly defunct. It was hugely exciting – and also paid very well. I find it impossible to re-read the story now –an attempt at lyricism that shall never be repeated.

What’s the best part of your job?

Pyjamas.

What’s the worst part of your job?

My rather restricted wardrobe – which consists largely of variations on a pyjama theme.

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

Winning the Ned Kelly Award for Out Of The Silence was a wonderful – and totally unexpected – moment.

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

‘Write what you know’ – Writing for me is always about discovering and uncovering things I didn’t know – or perhaps didn’t know that I knew: new voices, new ideas, new directions. It keeps the process interesting.

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

One reviewer of my short stories said that the stories were humourless. That really hurt! Perhaps the humour is a bit sidelong, but I like to think it’s there. The reviewer was male, so perhaps it was just a weird gender miscommunication thing.

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

I’m currently studying to be a secondary English/Drama teacher – so eventually I hope to be working with words in two very different, but equally exhilarating, ways.

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

At a higher, that is, ‘professional’ level, I think writing can be taught in much the same way that music or art can be taught – it’s to do with direction and encouragement as much as rules, and mostly relies on the engagement of the student. No one ever learned to write well by listening to a teacher, just as no one learns to play an instrument by taking notes. You can know all the theory in the world, but if you don’t actually practice – hard and with all of your heart and soul – you won’t learn.

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

Always my first advice is to read. Reading should be as essential to you, and as automatic, as breathing. And then write.

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

Both.

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

Right now I wouldn’t mind a date with the protagonist of my work-in-progress – she could give me a few tips about how she’s feeling, and most importantly, what happens next!

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

I probably reread Jane Austen’s Persuasion more than any other novel. I don’t know how significant it is in terms of my own work, (though perhaps the concern with family life is shared), but not only does my admiration for her artistry increase on every re-reading, I still find it incredibly moving – even though I know so well what’s coming up. When I was a teenager – devouring romances by the dozen – any scenes of love and loss would always induce a terrible/wonderful physical response, what I always thought of as a heartache. Persuasion still gives me that mild chest pain – although for very different reasons now. (Well, I hope it’s the book and not actually my heart.)

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