Working with Words: Dawn Barker
Dawn Barker is a practising psychiatrist and the author of two novels, Fractured and Let Her Go. She chatted with us about John Irving, Iain Banks, Lionel Shriver and the importance of persistence.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I had never published anything until my first novel, Fractured! I had never even written any other pieces of fiction, so I was very lucky. I had, however, written some non-fiction articles for online newsletters and I kept a blog, but in terms of being professionally published, it was Fractured.
Once, I came across the phrase: 'If you want to be a writer, you have to write'. That’s the best piece of advice – there’s no point dreaming about being a writer if you haven’t written anything.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best thing for me has been the connection with the writing industry. I’ve always been a huge reader, and still am, and I love that I have been able to meet so many talented people and discuss literature with both writers and readers. There’s nothing better than chatting with someone who has connected with my work.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The hardest thing for me is trying to keep my writing time sacred in amongst my busy life. I work three days a week in my ‘day job’ and have three children under seven so it’s a constant juggle. It’s no secret that writing alone rarely pays the bills, and prioritising writing time over paid work and my family is by far the most difficult part of my writing job. Even just thinking of writing as a job – instead of a luxury – is hard for me.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
When Fractured was chosen for the Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre’s manuscript development programme, it was the first time I really believed that my dream of writing could become a reality. Having a team of professionals choose my work in that competition was incredibly humbling and validating, and gave me the confidence to keep writing. There have been many other significant moments, but that first moment when real writing people believed in my work is a time I will never forget.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Once when I was wasting time looking on the internet for something about publishing, I came across the phrase: 'If you want to be a writer, you have to write'. That’s the best piece of advice, and it’s still written above my desk. There’s no point dreaming about being a writer if you haven’t written anything. It makes me get back to my desk and gets those words onto the page.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
I used to read all my reviews obsessively but, after a couple of bad experiences, I try not to seek them out anymore! I’ve experienced huge joy when I’ve read wonderful praise of my writing, and been devastated when people have written quite mean-spirited things. I’ve had to try and learn that I can’t please everyone, and I don’t need to. That’s not why I write.
I’ve had to try and learn that I can’t please everyone, and I don’t need to. That’s not why I write.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Sleeping! My writing is crammed into a few hours during the week when I’m not at my day job as a psychiatrist, or reading in kindergarten, or accompanying my daughter on a school excursion, or taking the children to ballet or swimming. Those parts of my life would easily extend into the little writing time I have if I put the writing aside, as I often have to!
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I think that there are definitely elements of it that can be taught: structure, in particular, or grammar. I began writing Fractured as part of the Queensland Writers Centre’s Year of the Novel course, and before that had done some creative writing evening classes. It taught to me to think more logically and critically about my writing. But I don’t think you can teach people how to have the ideas or passions that the best writing has, or find the drive to write every day or the persistence and love that you need to see a book-length project through until the end. It’s like any job: you can teach the basics, but you need the innate instinct for it to flourish.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Don’t procrastinate: write and write and write, then go back and write it all again and make your work the best it can be before you send it out there. It’s not easy to get published, but you’ll never get published until you actually have something finished. Read every day, think about why your favourite books work and speak to you, and make sure you write for someone just like you, not for anyone else or any other reason.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I buy both. I always buy Australian authors in my local bookshops, but it’s hard to ignore the convenience and price of ebooks. I have also run out of room on my bookshelf as I read a lot! I have often finished a book at 9.30pm and immediately bought another one online and started reading it. I do try to support bookshops where possible, but I also know as an author that I want my readers to access my book in the way that’s best for them.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
My favourite fictional character is Owen Meany from A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I’ve never forgotten the descriptions of this odd, fiercely intelligent little boy with a strange, high-pitched voice, even though it’s been at least ten years since I read the book. I’d talk with him about his odd beliefs, the traumas he faced and his belief that he’s the instrument of God. I think that the psychiatrist in me would want to work out if he’s delusional, or has a spiritual purpose, something that remains ambiguous in the book. John Irving is fantastic at writing memorable characters and is a big role model of mine.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks was perhaps the first contemporary ‘literature’ book that I read as a teenager, and it blew me away. It was dark, it had a massive twist that I didn’t see coming and it dealt with issues that I’d never seen explored in novels before. It increased my interest in mental health and families - the career I now work in - and also made me realise that you can write about difficult issues in fiction. We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver had a similar effect on me.