Working with Words: Anna Spargo-Ryan

Anna Spargo-Ryan is a novelist and essayist based in Melbourne. She spoke with us about Gillian Rubinstein, intuition and shrieking (with joy!) at her agent.

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

Photograph of author Anna Spargo-Ryan

In Year Five, a poem I wrote about Anzac Day was published in the school yearbook. It remains the only poem I’ve ever had published, and with good reason. The first fiction I had published was in the Suburban Review – a bit of an angry allegory about family violence, with magpies.

What’s the best part of your job?

The simple satisfaction of writing one really good sentence.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Doubt. I find it so hard to be objective about my work, especially when I’ve read and edited every single line 50 times. It’s not easy to send it into the world and trust that it will be received the way it was intended. And really, sometimes it isn’t. It’s necessary to let go of the desire to stand next to a reader and explain what you meant. Finished work doesn’t belong to you anymore, and you can’t change it, and that requires a lot more faith than an insecure writer (me) might have.

It’s necessary to let go of the desire to stand next to a reader and explain what you meant.

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

It’s hard to top the moment the first book deal comes through. I screeched at my poor agent, just 'WHAT! WHAT! WHAT!' over and over until she probably needed ear candling. And I called back later and said, 'Did that really happen?'. Luckily, when you’re a new author, people are happy to humour you in the very exciting moments.

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

Cover image of the  book, 'The Gulf' by Anna Spargo-Ryan

It makes me furious because it’s true, but the very best advice is 'just write'. No one else can do the work for you, and they don’t really care if you do it or not. It seems naff, but it took me a long, long time to realise it was true.

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

Jane Sullivan wrote a lovely profile of me in the Age this year. That was surprising in itself, but her opening line stopped me: 'Anna Spargo-Ryan doesn’t seem at all like a miserable person.' I felt like she really saw me.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

When I’m not writing, I’m a digital strategist. It’s quite a bit like writing, in some ways – there’s a lot of storytelling required. Understand the brand, find the stories in what they do, come up with the best ways to tell them. I love it because it’s creative without drawing on the same pool of imagination (my fiction imagination pool can be quite shallow and little kids sometimes get in it and, you know).

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

I think you can teach the craft and technical elements of writing – the shape of a story, what makes a character, the beginning-middle-end stuff. I’m not so sure you can teach someone how to listen. Writing is so much about intuition. I don’t know if you can teach someone to notice the older man who walks past the window every day, and wonder where he’s going and why he always wears the same hat and recognise him as the germ of a story. But maybe I’m taking it (and myself) too seriously.

Galax-Arena was the first time a book tricked me.

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

Read! Read so much. Don’t be afraid to mimic the writing you like to read – that’s how you learn. But also don’t be afraid when you find yourself veering away from it – that’s when the really good stuff happens.

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

I only read physical books, but I shop both online (independents only!) and in my local bookshops. Nothing compares to going in for one book and finding myself in an hour-long conversation with my favourite bookseller and the many other readers coming and going. It also helps that there’s a pie shop next door, so I can round off the whole glorious experience.

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

Rose, from John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, which is one of my very favourite books. My nanna is in her nineties and lives alone, and she has so many things still left to say but most people don’t have time to listen. I would take Rose out for a soup of the day and listen to everything she wanted to tell me.

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

When I was about 13, I read Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubinstein. I have always read lots of things, but Galax-Arena was the first time a book tricked me. It was the first book to teach me not to take things at face value. Discovering that you could tell one story but mean another … that was a revelation. Now, as a grown-up writer, subtext is my raison d'etre.

Along with Toni Jordan, Elliot Perlman, Matthew Reilly, Paul Coelho and some other great writers, Anna Spargo-Ryan has a short story in the 2017 Fiction Edition of the Big Issue magazine. The edition can be purchased from Big Issue vendors and is on sale now.

Portrait of Anna Spargo-Ryan

Anna Spargo-Ryan is a Melbourne writer and digital strategist.

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