Working with Words: Chris Womersley
Chris Womersley is the author of the novels The Low Road and Bereft; the latter was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin last year. It won the Indie Award for Best Fiction and the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year. He also writes short stories, reviews and other bits and pieces. He has been published in Granta, Best Australian Stories, the Age, Griffith Review, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings*.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I think it was a review of The Bad Seeds album The Firstborn is Dead for the high school newspaper. 1985. Shit. I just realised how old that makes me seem.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is more or less making my own hours and not having to commute.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The long hours, the lack of a regular wage, the uncertainty, the gnawing fear of failure.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
The most significant moment for me was in writing a short story called ‘The Shed’ – it was the story that allowed me to at last step out of the long shadow of Raymond Carver and his ultra-realist buddies into more interesting imaginative realms. It was also a story that was published in Australia and the UK and led to Aviva Tuffield at Scribe wanting to read the manuscript that became my first novel, The Low Road.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
‘Write what you know’ is bad advice for a writer. Only looking inside for material generally makes for boring writing because most people are not as interesting as they think they are. Instead, look around you. Write what you want to know about.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
In France I had a review that said that my novel Bereft was like a cross between The Little Prince and Cormac McCarthy. That seemed like a weird combination to me.
If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I spent my twenties as a dishwasher. I guess I would have to go back to that. A grim thought.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I think there are certain tricks of craft – basic structure and economy of characterisation and so on – that can be passed on, but the thing that cannot be taught is the art of the thing; how to infuse a story with some sort of meaning.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Read everything you can get your hands on and then prepare to write awful shit for many years.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I bought my first ever book online a few weeks ago because I couldn’t find it anywhere and no bookstore could order it in for me. Not sure why they didn’t order it themselves from Book Depository for me just to get the business, which would be the smart thing to do… But I buy most of my books at Brunswick Street Bookstore or Readings. Great, knowledgeable staff and a wide selection of books.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
I’d go out drinking with The Cat in the Hat. He’s anarchic, charming, funny and, best of all, he gets away with it all in the end. There would probably be no need for conversation with a guy who can balance a fishbowl on the end of his cane and has a bunch of other cats hidden under his hat.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
That’s a really hard question because it changes. But if I absolutely had to name one book, I’d have to name Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I read it when I was a teenager and it blew me away. So strange, rich and unreal. Influence is always impossible to measure but there’s a scene involving a horse in my first novel The Low Road which I basically stole from Crime and Punishment.