Working with Words: Kylie Ladd

Kylie Ladd is a Melbourne writer and novelist whose essays and articles have appeared in the Age, Griffith Review, Sydney’s Child and O magazine, among others. She works part-time as a neuropsychologist. Her third novel, Into my Arms (Allen & Unwin) was published this month.

We spoke to her about the horror of waiting for reviews, getting her first novel published as a result of literary speed-dating at the Emerging Writers Festival, and why writing is a compulsion.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A story about a baby elephant escaping from the zoo that was awarded the coveted centre-page spread in the school magazine when I was in Grade Three. My teacher, Mrs Whitla, was so proud that someone from her class had nabbed it instead of the usual Grade Six suspects that she awarded me 20 house points. It’s still one of my career highlights.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Needing a real job to fund it! I work as a neuropsychologist two or three days a week so I can write without worrying about how the bills will be paid on the others … The other horror is waiting for reviews. When I have a new novel out (like now) I make my husband go through the books sections in the papers each weekend while I stand flinching in a corner covering my hands with my eyes.

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

Attending the literary speed-dating event at the Emerging Writers Festival way back in 2006 - my first novel, After The Fall, had been rejected about 40 times, but got up thanks to that. Also being Highly Commended in the 2011 Federation of Australians Writers Christina Stead Award for Fiction for my second novel, Last Summer. I honestly feel that I exhaled a little as a writer after that. I hadn’t been completely kidding myself.

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

Zadie Smith’s essay ‘That Crafty Feeling’ is an absolute must-read for both aspiring and established writers. Often come back to this line in particular: ‘It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick is yourself.’ It’s true.

I think pretty much all writers go through stages of hating their work, particularly their first drafts, but you have to try and believe to keep going. No-one else is going to do the work for you, and no-one else can write what you can.

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

Hearing Helen Razer introduce me to a large ABC audience as “that brazen strumpet, Kylie Ladd” when she was interviewing me about Naked, a collection of essays about infidelity that I co-authored with Leigh Langtree. My small children were listening in. There were a lot of questions to be answered that night.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Still trying to be a writer. Being very grumpy about not being a writer. Making everyone else around me miserable because I wasn’t a writer. I do honestly enjoy my psych job - it stretches a different part of my brain, and gets me out of my head and my house - but that was a choice. Writing wasn’t. Like most writers I know, it’s been a compulsion for as long as I can remember.

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

I teach two-day creative writing courses a few times a year, so I have to say yes! That said, I genuinely do believe that the practice and principles of good writing can be taught: how to think about voice and character and structure, how to create realistic dialogue, how to edit yourself, amongst others. After that, though, it’s up to you - up to the talent, and far more importantly, time and dedication you bring to the endeavor.

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

There are five things I always tell my students right at the start: Read, both widely and forensically. Write what’s in you, not what you think the market wants. Don’t panic: everyone cringes when they first read their work back. Find your own way: There are no rules as to, say, whether you should plot or just dive right in, edit as you go or when you’re finished- everybody does it differently. And finally, just write. WRITE. Stop checking Twitter or thinking about dinner and get the words on the page.

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

A bit of both. I’ll never fall out of love with the sensory experience of being in a physical bookshop (All those colours and covers! The smell of fresh ink!), but the ease of ordering online is appealing too. I particularly love Booktopia, an all-Australian site that offers free shipping about once a month if you’re a member (membership is also free), great prices, regular sales and really gets behind Australian authors and publishers.

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

Jay Gatsby. I’ve always had a bit of a crush on Jay. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m madly in love with the man- as another hopeless romantic myself, how could I resist his longing, his loyalty; the sheer size and scale of his dream? Gatsby under the moonlight, stretching out one lonely hand to the green light at the end of a dock on the opposite side of the Sound … we’d drink champagne and gin slings and work out how to arrange an ‘accident’ for Tom Buchanan.

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

My all-time favourite novels are The Great Gatsby, The English Patient and Beloved, simply for what they do with words, the way they (as my 13-year-old son would say) use language like a boss. In terms of my own actual writing though, I am inspired by authors such as Joanna Trollope and Anne Tyler, who work with the everyday, as I do, who make magic out of ordinary people in ordinary suburbs. That’s real skill.

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