Working with Words: Estelle Tang

Estelle Tang is online editor of Kill Your Darlings and a freelance writer and reviewer. She has been published in the Australian’s Review of Books, Australian Book Review and The Lifted Brow, and she blogs at 3000 Books. By day, she is an editor at Oxford University Press. Estelle is the author of the last essay in the Long View series of long-form literary criticism, ‘Pity the Monster: Abuse and Empathy in Fiction’.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I laughed when I read Anna Krien’s response to this question, because mine is really similar to Anna’s. Mine was a terrible poem about a toilet that was a ‘runner-up’ in a global poetry competition on the internet. The ‘placed’ poems were then published in a huge compendium. It was essentially a callous grab at the dimes of insecure teenagers. I don’t think I even bought the book in the end.

What’s the worst part of your job?

A writer friend of mine recently unearthed a great quote by the psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler: ‘Every writer, without exception, is a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an injustice collector and a depressed person constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity.’ Most writers I know suffer somehow from the fear that their writing isn’t good enough, that they’re not working enough, that the next piece is going to reveal that they’re a fraud. It can’t be all that good for you.

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

Not so much a moment, but the gradual realisation that people engage with and read what you write. (I’m not super quick on the uptake.)

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

The one that everyone says: read a lot.

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

Someone once told me that I look like Poh. Unfortunately, I can’t cook like her.

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

I’m actually an editor by day, and a writer by evenings and weekends. If I weren’t writing, though, I’d probably just be rereading Jane Eyre once a week and watching Millionaire Matchmaker the rest of the time. I’m a classy broad.

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

Two things: I did a law degree, and I am pretty sure I would have been a terrible lawyer if I had gone that way. (I’ll retract this if I ever consider a career change.) Also, some of my favourite books were written by students who went through creative writing programs.

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

The best thing I ever did was start a blog. Not because blogs are so cool LOL, but because I was effectively publicly declaring that I had a writing project and then putting myself in a kind of accountability panopticon. This helped me develop some discipline, and all the practice made me a much better writer. Strangely, I’m still a very poor typist.

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

I love Elif Batuman’s Guardian piece about buying e-books copiously while drunk. I am also addicted to the convenience and immediacy of buying e-books online. I still pop into bookshops about once a month – visually, they’re such a treat, and I love the inquisitive, engaged busyness. I also can’t resist digging up books in op shops and secondhand bookshops.

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

One of the aunties from Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing. This is on the basis that they would cook for me, and then we could re-enact The Sound of Music together.

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

I fell in love with reading probably because of strong female characters, so there’s been a very clear path from Matilda, via Jane Austen, Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, to Lilian’s Story.

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