Working with Words: Kerryn Goldsworthy

Kerryn Goldsworthy is a freelance writer and critic with a long and illustrious career on the Australian literary scene. She is a former editor of Australian Book Review and a member of the editorial team that produced The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009), and she is currently chair of the Stella Prize judging panel. Her latest book is Adelaide, in the New South Cities series; it was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction last year.

We spoke to Kerryn about the joy of having written (as opposed to the ‘desperately difficult’ act of writing), why a sugar daddy or mommy would be a useful supplement to a writing career, and why she’s been told she’d be a great detective.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I guess it depends what you mean by ‘published’ – does the school magazine count? I wrote a piece on Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves for the Adelaide Advertiser’s education pages when I was a postgrad student, back in the late 1970s when the Advertiser still had such a thing. I think the first fiction I had published ‘properly’ was a pair of stories in a 1982 anthology of women’s writing called Frictions, edited by Anna Gibbs and Alison Tilson.

What’s the best part of your job?

Not having to be woken by the alarm and get ready, half-asleep, to drive or commute in peak hour to an office in which the day is spent being constantly interrupted. Also, finishing things. The act of writing can be desperately difficult, but the experience of having written is wonderful.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The unrelenting deadlines, especially when there are three on the same day. As someone once said, ‘being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life.’ So you can never really relax, because if you haven’t got a deadline looming then it means that shortly there’ll be no money coming in, which is even worse than having three on the same day.

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

I think it would be a four-way tie: being head-hunted in 1986 to edit Australian Book Review; being asked by Hilary McPhee in 1988 to put together a collection of short stories, and having it published by McPhee Gribble; being asked by Pip McGuinness at NewSouth Books in 2010 to write the Adelaide volume in their Cities series; and having Adelaide shortlisted for one of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards last year by a panel of judges for whom I have great respect.

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

The best is from Chekhov: write it, and then consider removing the first and last paragraphs. If I’ve ever received any bad advice about writing, I must have sensibly forgotten it.

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

It’s almost impossible to answer this question without sounding like a prat. If I say I was surprised by a compliment, it looks like humblebragging. If I say I was surprised by an insult, it suggests that I never expect to get any bad press. Pass.

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

I think I’d be a doctor, if I could ever have overcome my aversions to maths and vomit. Otherwise a psychotherapist of some sort. A friend of mine who used to be a police detective says I’d make a great detective, but he assures me that it’s not the way it looks on TV, which I am sure is true.

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

I agree with Auden: technique can certainly be taught. As can literary history and literary theory, and anyone who thinks those things aren’t fantastically useful for a writer in all sorts of practical ways has obviously never put it to the test.

But think the main thing that makes a good writer is the capacity to see the world in an unusual or even a unique way – and, having seen, to put the experience into words in a likewise unusual way. That’s true of every kind of writing and it can’t be taught.

For a fiction writer, emotional intelligence comes a close second, and empathy, though they are largely the same thing. And those things can’t be taught either.

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

Find a source of independent income. A sugar daddy or mommy would be best, as long as you choose carefully. And don’t ‘want to be a writer’. Want to write, and want to write something specific. If you’re more focused on Being A Writer than you are on pushing ahead with whatever piece of writing you currently have in hand, then you’re not a writer, you’re an actor.

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

Almost always in bookshops still. There’s only one way to keep bookshops alive, and that’s by shopping for books in them.

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

Dr Tertius Lydgate from Middlemarch. We would talk about medicine as it was practised in the 1830s, and I would tell him everything I could about medicine in 2013 so that once he went back into his context he really could make his name professionally, which he wants but never manages to do in the book. I would also explain to him why marrying Rosamond is a seriously bad idea, not that I think it would stop him.

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

No way can I identify just one, although they’re all novels. T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I read when I was 13 and loved for its humour and its emotional intelligence (see above), and which I still know bits of by heart; A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden, which showed me that it is possible to write an impassioned and riveting novel about intellectual life (and she did it again with Possession); John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I also read at school and in which the scene with the oranges and the scene with the breast milk opened my eyes politically more than any other fiction I’d read so far and showed me what a great vehicle for politics fiction can be; E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, which was a long way ahead of its time (at least for England) in its warm, clear and finely delineated perceptions of racial and other Otherness, and which owes so much to Leonard Woolf; and George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which is an absolute triumph of structure, and which Virginia Woolf called ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’.

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