Working with Words: Michael Robotham

Michael Robotham was a journalist for 14 years, before leaving to become a ghostwriter, collaborating with politicians, pop stars, psychologists, adventurers and showbusiness personalities to write their autobiographies. He’s now an internationally bestselling crime novelist; his latest novel is Watching You.

He will be in conversation with Michael Williams at the Wheeler Centre next Tuesday 18 February at 6.15pm. We spoke to him about his first newspaper story, aged 17, the recurring fear of being exposed as someone who ‘got lucky with a few books’, and why workshops and writing schools are unlikely to make someone a great writer.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I started as a 17-year-old cadet journalist on the old Sydney Sun in the same Fairfax cadet intake as Geraldine Brooks in 1979. On one of my first days I was sent up to cover a Sydney City Council meeting and wrote a story that began: ‘Not very much happened at last night’s Sydney City Council meeting.’ This was the source of great humiliation when the chief of staff decided to read to the newsroom. It was never published and from then on I learned to find a story before I wrote one.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love writing. Not every day or every sentence, but at those times when the words seem to flow and I feel my heart begin to race as the story unfolds. Success has meant that I can write full-time and I get to travel when I promote the novels overseas. I’m incredibly grateful for that.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Some days writing feels like wading through treacle. My wife will tell you that halfway through any book the doubts begin to emerge. What was I thinking? The story won’t work. The characters aren’t believable. I’m finally going to be exposed as somebody who got lucky with a few books, but now the truth is coming out. My wife, at this point, has taken to rolling her eyes and patting me on head.

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

Twelve years ago, in the first week of February, at the London Book Fair, a partial manuscript of 117 pages was the subject of a bidding war and sold into 22 languages. It doesn’t get much more significant than that. It changed my life.

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

Best advice: Make readers care.

Worst advice: Write what you know.

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

I’ve been very fortunate with all three of my careers. I loved being a journalist and a ghostwriter and now a novelist. If I weren’t writing novels, I’d still be ghostwriting. And if I weren’t ghostwriting, I’d hopefully still be writing newspaper features. Peter Corris summed it up when he said that writing was an addiction. To me it’s like breathing. I don’t have a choice.

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

I think workshops and writing schools can make a mediocre writer a slightly better one, but I don’t think they can make someone a great writer. They might inspire people to finish a novel – or give them extra confidence – or help them to solve a tricky structural problem, but they can also be a reason to procrastinate and dither and sign up for another workshop. My advice to most people is to buy a big drum of ‘bum glue’, paint your chair, sit down and write that sucker. Or as Hemingway said, ‘There’s nothing to writing. I just sit at the typewriter and bleed.’

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

Write, write and when you’re sick of writing, write some more. It’s the only way to get better. Read everything you can — not just the very best writers because some of them are so brilliant you will consider giving up because your prose might never match theirs. Read the lesser writers, the mere mortals, and ask yourself how each book could be improved. Take it apart. Why does it work? Why it doesn’t it work? Learn.

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?

Jay Gatsby. I know, I know he’s seen as a shallow character – a human chameleon who invented a persona for himself in order to make a fortune and win Daisy’s heart, but I think of him as a tragic hero. We would talk about money, status, class and how cruel it is when these things can get in the way of love.

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

I was 22 years old when I first read Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast about his early days as an unknown writer in Paris. Three years later, I carried a battered copy of the book with me when I visited Paris for the first time. I sat in the same cafes and walked the same streets, gazing at the blue door of No. 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine where Hem and Hadley first lived on the third floor; and around the corner to 39 rue Descartes, where he rented a garret room to do his writing.

I still have my original copy of the book, now patched, yellowed and dog-eared. Whenever I pick it up, I cannot shake the urge to write. I can picture myself in Paris, ordering a half-carafe of white wine and a dozen oysters before sharpening my pencils and opening my blue-backed notebook. I may never write a word to match that of Hemingway, but I can live the dream and strive to write one true sentence, the truest sentence that I can.

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