Charlotte Wood on The Writer’s Room Interviews

Novelist Charlotte Wood launched a new publication this week, The Writer’s Room Interviews, taking its inspiration from the famed Paris Review interviews with writers, by writers. We spoke to Charlotte about the hopes, goals and driving force behind it.

'I am approaching writers at a time when their focus is not publicity but the real work of being a writer – the day-to-day tinkering at the desk, and the private world of their book.'

'I am approaching writers at a time when their focus is not publicity but the real work of being a writer – the day-to-day tinkering at the desk, and the private world of their book.'

What is The Writer’s Room Interviews?

A bimonthly e-magazine focusing on the creative lives of writers in Australia.

What inspired you to start this project?

I have always loved long-form, Q&A interviews such as the Art of Writing pieces for which The Paris Review is renowned. Not long ago, a painter friend gave me an old Artist Profile magazine interview with the painter Euan Macleod, conducted by another artist, Steve Lopes. It was about the former’s work, and was a wonderfully detailed, fascinating interview about the artist’s process. I came to think its complexity and restful tone was because the interviewer was a fellow painter; at its base there seemed a quiet knowledge of a lot of stuff about painting. So they didn’t muck around on the surface but moved straight into a really rich discussion of how Macleod works. I just loved it, and I returned to it several times over a few weeks. Then I got into a little blue funk, wishing there were something like that for Australian writers, especially given the shrinking literary space in traditional media such as newspapers.

So then I just thought, well if nobody else is going to do it, I will! I have a background in journalism, have done a little basic design work over the years, and I have a huge enthusiasm for this project, so I figured it was a way for all my skills to come together as well as giving me an opportunity to develop my own writing life. I am always learning from other writers.

The interviews will be produced in PDF format and emailed to a subscriber base. How did you decide what format the project would take?

The Writer’s Room Interviews is an unashamedly old-fashioned publication – the interviews are long – and while I think it will be a great resource for serious students of writing who may be young and very tech-savvy, many of my colleagues in the writing world aren’t very technologically adventurous, so I didn’t want to go down the proper e-book route. Some of those I contacted as a sounding-board exercise early on told me they would love to subscribe to something like this but wanted to be able to print it out, which is another plus for the PDF format. I like the democracy of PDF; it will work for just about anybody and can still be read on an iPad or other reader as well as good old-fashioned paper. And it’s cheap and incredibly easy to produce.

The big drawback of PDF format for me is that my readers could forward it to non-subscribers, which could really ruin my chances of its success in the long term. But I’m banking on the honour principle and my readers’ goodwill, I guess, at least in the early stages, and will be asking subscribers not to share it beyond their households. I think the price of $27.50 for six issues is pretty good value – so I hope that fact, combined with a literary community desire for quality interviews, keeps me afloat for a while.

That said, I doubt this will ever be a money-spinner (at last estimate my rate of pay was anticipated at $7 an hour if I get a healthy subscriber base!) but I have already gained so much personally from my first interview, with Amanda Lohrey, that I really don’t care.

How did you choose your first subject, Amanda Lohrey? What was it that appealed to you about her?

I am a real admirer of Amanda’s work. She’s a very interesting writer – a respected essayist as well as fiction writer – and has a long career on which to draw. I had met her once before at a festival and found her refreshingly frank and forthright, as well as warm and funny and just engaging to talk to.

I want to talk to writers when they’re not in the midst of promoting new books, which is mostly the only time they are interviewed at length. I hadn’t seen Amanda in public for a while – she’s deep into work on a new novel of course – so the timing was right in that sense, although as it turned out she won the 2012 Patrick White Award the day before we spoke.

One of the reasons I want to talk to writers ‘between books’ is that - speaking personally at least - I am always very anxious around publication time, which can lead to one being a bit self-protective in interviews, or just very quickly tiring of hearing your own voice. You’re also very tired at that stage of coming out of a long work. You can get sort of stuck in an interview rut, where you find yourself going over and over the same ground.

I wanted my interviews to feel quite different from that. I am approaching writers at a time when their focus is not publicity but the real work of being a writer – the day-to-day tinkering at the desk, and the private world of their book.

I am asking writers about their body of work rather than just the latest book, as well as nerdy questions about routines and strategies and how they face familiar obstacles, and then much broader questions about creativity which never really get addressed in mainstream media interviews – quite rightly, as mainstream audiences are not necessarily writers and general readers can find technical talk about writing very boring. Not me.

What will your selection process be driven by? Will you be choosing writers based on your own curiosity about their work and processes, a desire to promote their work to readers – or something else entirely?

Entirely and utterly by my own curiosity about their work, and my own whims of the moment. The idea of being allowed to approach anyone I like and interrogating them for a few hours about how they work just seems like the greatest luxury to me. I do, though, want to get an interesting spread of different kinds of writers – my next interviewee is a male screenwriter, for example. Some will be well known, but lots won’t. Some will be people I’ve met through my writing career – like Amanda – and some will be people I don’t know but whose work I admire. I feel that I have an instinct for sniffing out whether people might have interesting things to say. I hope that as we go on, the magazine will develop its own standing, and become a record of writerly creativity in Australia. I will be really proud if I can achieve that.

You’ve embarked on this project as a one-woman show – you’re producing, promoting and distributing the interviews yourself. What made you decide on this approach? What are the challenges or advantages of doing it this way?

It’s so liberating to just be able to run the whole thing myself, with nobody else’s agenda driving it. I’ve worked on mainstream magazines in the past, so I think I have a reasonable idea of what’s involved in terms of schedules and production and planning and so forth. I am sure it could get exhausting, but my plan is to do it thoroughly and professionally for the first year, and see what happens. If there’s enough interest I’ll keep going for another. But the truth is that I find talking about writing and hearing about others’ creative practice so completely riveting that I expect I could do it forever. It’s just lovely to be able to have these conversations in a more formal way than I would be doing anyway.

As an author, you’ve been interviewed many times yourself. What do you think makes a good interviewer?

Anyone who listens well, reads well, thinks deeply, is genuinely interested in their subject and who is prepared to sit back and let the interviewee really speak can be a good interviewer.

What do you dislike when you’re reading an interview – what makes you cringe?

As a reader I find superficial ‘entertaining’ questions – the ‘if you could be any character in a book who would it be’ kind of thing – I find a bit tedious as they never really go anywhere or reveal much. When interviewers feel the need to step into focus and show that they too are interesting and clever, that can unbalance an interview I think. I’m actually just quite old-fashioned – most interviews are way too short for my liking; I find I’m just getting interested and then it’s all over. One thing I find mystifying about the internet is how often one is directed to write to a maximum length of 800 words. Surely the joy of the internet is that it provides the freedom to create really long, interesting conversations – but instead you get 500 words from the person you’re interested in, and ten thousand words of banal or insulting comments. Actually, I’ve just realised another great advantage of The Writer’s Room Interviews: no comments section!

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