Working with Words: Joel Deane

Joel Deane is the definition of a multi-tasking writer. He’s a poet, novelist and a short-story writer. And he’s been a professional journalist and speechwriter, including a stint working for Steve Bracks when he was Victorian Premier.

He has published two poetry collections and two novels, most recently The Norseman’s Song.

We spoke to Joel about the tyranny of the blank screen or page, why writing - at its best - is like a drug, and why you should be harder on your work than anyone else.

Joel Deane: 'Every time I start a new piece I’m an absolute beginner.'

Joel Deane: 'Every time I start a new piece I’m an absolute beginner.'

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

That depends whether you’re talking about journalism, speeches, poetry or fiction. My first published piece of journalism (about apartheid) appeared in The Sun News-Pictorial in 1987; my first speech (for then Health Minister Maureen Lyster) was delivered in 1992; my first published poem (‘Under Westgate’) appeared in Imago in 1993; my first published short story (‘The Great Wall of China’) appeared in Overland in 1995.

Looking back, the poem, ‘Under Westgate’, is where it all begins for me because, first and foremost, that’s how I see myself first – as a poet. ‘Under Westgate’ is a narrative poem I wrote in one sitting when I was 18. It’s long, rhythmic and cathartic, and I still don’t know how I wrote it; it just fell out. It’s one of my better poems.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best thing about writing is experiencing moments of grace. You see, writing is physical. You have to push that boulder up the hill every day. Some days, though, all that work pays off and you feel you’re outside yourself and beyond the limitations of words and everything is at your fingertips. It’s like a drug.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The tyranny of the blank screen or page; every time I start a new piece I’m an absolute beginner.

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

There’ve been three significant moments.

The first was the publication of my debut novel, Another. I’d been in San Francisco for six years. It had been, to paraphrase Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times, and I hadn’t published anything for nine years. It felt as though I’d been underwater for the best part of a decade and, just when I was about to drown, that book gave me air – brought me back to life. Saved me. And, no, that’s not an exaggeration.

The second significant moment was the writing of my second collection, Magisterium, and second novel, The Norseman’s Song. Both were written at the same time and came out of a period of all-consuming grief and anger. They were my way of saying, ‘Fuck you’ to the world. I didn’t care what anyone thought. Still don’t.

The third significant moment came a few months ago when I finished a very long poem that still doesn’t have a title. The reason that’s significant is that I had a stroke last year. It could’ve killed me, but didn’t. I’d recovered, but didn’t know whether I’d still be able to produce high-end writing – poetry and fiction. That poem answered the big question for me: I’m not extinct yet.

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

I’ve never had a teacher or a mentor and therefore never received any advice. For better or worse I’ve been a loner and made it up as I went along. Along the way I’ve just set myself a few rules: don’t repeat yourself, and be harder on your work than anyone else.

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

One review of my first poetry collection, Subterranean Radio Songs, made the assumption that I’d divorced my wife Kirsten. I hadn’t. I thought it was funny, Kirsten didn’t.

If you didn’t write for a living, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Nothing good. Writing has literally saved my life.

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

Journalistic writing can be taught. So, too, fiction. Not poetry, though: you either have the music in you or you don’t.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to work as a professional writer?

Read.

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

Both. I love Collected Works, the Paperback and Hill of Content in the city and Readings in Carlton.

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

Without a doubt it would be Marlow, the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Chance and Lord Jim. Heart of Darkness is the novel I’ve read more than any other. I’d love to sit in the dark and listen to Marlow – the sailor and alter ego of Conrad – talk all night, telling me one dark story after another.

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

The books that made the deepest impression on me as a young writer were Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Robert Frost’s second collection of poetry, North of Boston, and the collected works of Emily Dickinson. What those works have in common for me is the catalytic effect of the language. Each of them gave me a physical reaction; made me shiver, shudder, shake. That’s what language can and should do. That’s what Edgar Allan Poe was talking about when he spoke of the ‘unity of effect’ of a literary creation. That’s what I want. Nothing more, nothing less.

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