Working with Words: Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland literary magazine, and has authored and co-edited several books. His latest book is Left Turn: Political Essays for the New Left, co-edited with Antony Loewenstein.

Jeff spoke to us for our Working with Words series about why writing a book is like an illness, the best thing about editing Overland and eating Norman Lindsay’s Magic Pudding.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Probably something in Farrago at Melbourne Uni, about a million years ago. Almost certainly, a denunciation – hopefully, of someone who deserved it.

What’s the best part of your job?

I work as editor for the literary journal Overland. The best part is being constantly confronted by new ideas and new writing, as well as collaborating with some very interesting and talented people. That’s what inspired Left Turn, actually – a sense that there were lots of progressive writers with interesting ideas that weren’t getting a hearing.

What’s the worst part of your job?

At literary magazine with very limited space, you spend a lot of time saying ‘no’ to writers. That’s not much fun – and it’s a good way to lose friends and irritate people.

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

Orwell says that writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. For me, the most significant moment is always finishing the project, though sometimes that feels less like recovering from a sickness and more like succumbing to it.

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

‘Write about what you know.’ Simultaneously inane and reactionary, it entirely misses the point of creativity. We’re inevitably wrong about the things we think we know, precisely because we think we know them. If you write about what you don’t know, you have a chance to say something interesting.

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

There’s another Jeff Sparrow, who writes books about beer. Once or twice, I’ve been praised for my knowledge of brewing.

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

Shouting angrily at the television.

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

Painting can be taught, music can be taught and so can writing – indeed, there’s courses doing precisely that in every university in Australia now. Really, the more interesting question is whether reading can be taught. Certainly, if everyone writing stories or poems today was equally interested in reading them, there’d be a lot more opportunities for Australian writers.

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

The older I get, the more I think Kenneth Koch’s warning to writers is as accurate as it’s depressing:

You want a social life, with friends.

A passionate love life and as well

To work hard every day. What’s true

Is of these three you may have two.

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?

Oh, Norman Linday’s Magic Pudding, of course. We’d begin the evening singing some of his songs (‘Oh, who would be a pudding/ a pudding in a pot…’). Later on, we’d eat him.

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

The current project was influenced early on by Mark Fisher’s brief but fantastic book Capitalist Realism.

More generally, I see something of my own writing in Ignatius Reilly’s description of his efforts in A Confederacy of Dunces: ‘I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.’

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