Working with Words: Bhakthi Puvanenthiran

Bhakthi Puvanenthiran is deputy arts editor of the Age. Her many and varied jobs have included working as a broadcaster at Triple R, a producer for ABC radio, a publishing assistant at Penguin, artist liaison at the Melbourne Writers Festival and co-director of the National Young Writers Festival.

We spoke to Bhakthi about why ‘the complete chaos’ of her job is fun, finding out that all journalists are essentially pretenders, and why her favourite thing about reading is ‘getting to know people without having to actually endure them’.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first piece I had published was a story in Farrago, the Melbourne Uni student paper about a campaign to get the Aussie cricket team to boycott Sri Lanka. That was back in 2007 when the war was still happening.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is the complete chaos of it. You can go into work and try and have a plan but things are always shifting, especially when a story breaks. That’s the most fun.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The hardest part is trying to be across everything all the time. Trying to keep an eye on all the different aspects of the music, theatre, books scenes in Melbourne, it’s a big job. But that’s what we have our great specialised contributors for as well.

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

I had a front page story in the Age a few weeks ago about the passing of Motown legend Gil Askey, which was ostensibly a really significant achievement. But really the most important moments have come whenever my writing invokes feedback from readers, when it’s meaningful to them. Similarly when I’ve been on radio and had a chat to a caller with listener who might not otherwise be on radio, that always makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

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

Jonathan Green, who was editing Crikey when I interned there, used to say ‘journalism is the art of instant expertise’, which I’m sure isn’t his originally but the first time I’d heard it. It was good to know at that point that basically all journalists are pretenders!

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

If people are saying surprising things about my work, it’s never gotten back to me!

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

Having seen Call the Midwife recently, I’ve become (perhaps delusionally) convinced I’d make a great midwife. Hanging out with women and babies all day, that’s my idea of fun.

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

It absolutely can be taught but not necessarily at a school. I think critical reading of other good writing is about the most important thing. Being still pretty new to print journalism, I’m definitely still learning thanks to my editor Debbie Cuthbertson. I have to believe it can be taught!

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

I’ve done a lot of workshops with teenagers and young people through my work for Express Media and I’ve answered versions of this question so many times now. My advice would be to find other people your own age who love writing and journalism as well, there are so many resources, including Express.

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

I tend to buy gifts for overseas friends and family online, and I subscribe to magazines, journals and Audible audiobooks online. I can still be caught be wasting plenty of time in bookshops too.

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

Is it heresy to say that Connie Britton’s character in Friday Night Lights (Tami Taylor) would be my pick? She would have such sage advice for me and doesn’t mind a glass or two chardy I imagine.

From the book world, I have most recently been captured by Ifemelu, the brash and bright protagonist in Americanah, Chimanande Ngozi Adiche’s book about Nigeria, women, blogging etc. I suspect Ifemelu and I would not really get on, she would probably think I was a snob or something. But that would be fun to find out. Ideally this dinner would take place in Nigeria because I really want to go to there.

Ultimately though, the premise of this question is flawed to me … my favourite thing about reading is getting to know people without having to actually endure them.

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

As daggy as it sounds, I read Power Without Glory when I was studying and writing for Farrago and it was very inspiring to me then. Hardy portrayed Melbourne as such a small place, which it still is in some ways, and it’s a book I still think about regularly.

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