Working with Words: Antonia Hayes

Antonia Hayes is a Sydney-based writer and has written for publications all over the world, including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, and Vingt Paris. She is co-director of the National Young Writers' Festival, and merchandising and marketing manager at Copia Australia. She attended the first Faber Academy novel writing course in London in 2009 (with S.J. Watson!), lived in Paris for four years, and has previously worked as a book publicist for Random House Australia. She is working on her first novel.

We speak to Antonia about writing to The Simpsons magazine, organising the National Young Writers Festival and being Patrick White’s publicist.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The very first was a letter to The Simpsons magazine in 1992, where I aired some concerns about Lisa not getting as much attention as Bart. Then there were lots of poems in school magazines. But the first real article I ever had published was in Desktop in 2001. It was 1000 words in a real magazine, and they paid me 50 cents a word. I was 18 and thought writers must earn a lot of money.

What’s the best part of your job?

I spend a lot of time reading and writing and I get to call it working. For the National Young Writers Festival, I love coming up with weird event ideas and making them happen, and I really enjoy engaging with talented young writers across Australia and supporting them and their work. Writers’ festivals are galvanising moments for both readers and writers, and I think they have the power to ‘make a dent in the universe’ (to borrow from Steve Jobs). It’s exciting being part of NYWF, an event that so many young Australian writers hold very close to their hearts.

What’s the worst part of your job?

When you’re writing a manuscript, for such a long time your work is invisible. Even when you’ve had an amazing writing day and everything has aligned perfectly on the page, nobody is there to tell you you’ve done a really great job today and give you the thumbs up. Then the self doubt sets in: did you even have a great day at all? It’s hard to keep on writing without that regular validation, so it’s easy to make other tasks that do validate you more important.

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

For writing, it was making a room full of writers cry when I read a short story aloud at Shakespeare and Co. Realising that I could write something that affected people was a huge turning point for me as a writer. In my publishing career, I got to be the publicist for so many amazing writers: Haruki Murakami, Caitlin Moran, M.L. Stedman. But the highlight was being Patrick White’s publicist when The Hanging Garden was published in 2012; it was great to be part of an important moment in Australian publishing history. I wanted to take him on a zombie author tour with seance radio interviews, but the ghost of Patrick White wasn’t really keen. He’s a recalcitrant ghost.

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

In 2008 I did a creative writing course with Jeanette Winterson in Paris, and she told us to ‘write from the wound’ – to move people, change people with words. That’s the power of writing: it has the capacity to resonate so strongly with people that it can make them cry, or laugh, or change their DNA. That’s what I love about reading, and that’s what I want to do when I write.

More recently, I was at the ABA conference and Christos Tsiolkas gave the keynote address where he said ‘I dishonour my craft and I piss on my vocation if I give in to my laziness to not write.’ It’s a pretty good mantra.

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

People I’ve emailed, and then later met, often comment that they thought I was blonde. Maybe I email blonde. I don’t know!

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

In a parallel universe, I would have loved to have been a cinematographer. There’s something so appealing to me about telling stories with field and focus, lenses and light. Also I’m a huge nerd and get obsessed with the technical aspects of photography and film like the science of optics. Plus cinematography has an excellent vocabulary: fps, diaphragm aperture, aspect ratios.

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

I believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule: no matter how talented a writer you are, you need to put in the hours. So whether you’re teaching yourself to write in an empty room or you’re doing a creative writing degree, if you’re putting in the time then you’re learning how to write. For me, doing the Faber Academy course in London really solidified my work ethic when it came to writing, and I think that made me a better writer.

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

The more you read, the better you’ll write. The more you write, the better you’ll read.

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

I am a big supporter of independent bookshops (I used to work at Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt) but I now work for Copia, who partner with indies and some of the chains to help them sell ebooks. I once loved the instant gratification of Kindle book buying sprees, but can’t bring myself to do it anymore. With Copia the partner bookstores get 20% of each ebook sold, which is much better than giving more money to Amazon or Apple.

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

I’d play mahjong with everyone in The Joy Luck Club and we’d talk about secret infanticide, failed pianist careers, and recipes for famous crab.

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

There are three key players: Enduring Love by Ian McEwan because it made me want to write; the poems of W.B. Yeats because they made me love the cadence of language; and the play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard because it made me think about the beauty of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics.

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