Working with Words: Elizabeth Pearce

Elizabeth Pearce is a writer and researcher for Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art (Mona). She writes ‘gonzo’ content about the art on display at Mona, often based on interviews with artists or on her own reading and life experiences. She also writes for Mona’s blog and its many catalogues and books, such as Monanisms, Stories of O, The Red Queen and On the Origin of Art. She chatted with us about rorts, Rhett Butler and rigorous self-criticism.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Photograph of writer Elizabeth Pearce

Elizabeth Pearce

An academic paper on the fiction of Peter Carey. (I studied English Lit at the University of Tasmania.)

What’s the best part of your job?

The fact that it’s a direct extension of myself. I can’t believe I get paid to read and write about the things that interest me – what kind of a rort is that?

What’s the worst part of your job?

When I have the urge to write, I put it off as long as possible so that I’m bursting to do it – I get a better result that way.

It gets tiring putting myself on the line all the time. We all do it – it’s part of the deal for working at Mona. There’s a lot of self-criticism and analysis of our motives. For me it’s things like: Am I avoiding a topic because it’s unpopular? Am I trying to ingratiate myself with the art world? Do I care enough, but not too much, about what our audience likes and expects? Sometimes I just want to opt out but I can’t because my workmates are counting on me (and I am counting on them).

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

I was in a pub in Salamanca Place and one of my friends introduced me to this white-haired, ageing-rocker type of guy, called David. We had an argument about postcolonial literature (which is what I was studying at the time). He gave me a job – which was to travel to London, interview a heap of artists, and write about the experience. Can you believe my luck? I just happened to sass the right person at the right time.

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

Cover image of the book 'Stories of O'

There’s this sculptor called Ah Xian who said that when he has an idea, he tries to forget about it – if he can’t forget it, that’s how he knows it’s good. I’ve modified this for my own purposes: when I have the urge to write, I put it off as long as possible so that I’m bursting to do it – I get a better result that way.

And worst? I was once told to stop referencing my children in my writing because it was ‘bourgeois’ and bad for my image.

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

I hear a lot that I’m David Walsh’s ghost writer. A magazine even asked me to write an essay about what it was like to be his ghost writer. I got him to write it for me. That was fun.

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

Cover image of the book 'On the Origin of Art'

I’d like to be a teacher or a school counsellor. You know, a cool one – like Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights.

I read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test when I was a student and I was pretty excited to discover that grown-ups are allowed to be that exuberant.

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

I’ve never liked creative writing classes. But who’s to say they’re not worthwhile for someone else?

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

Stay away from people who don’t know what they don’t know.

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

I buy most of them in bookshops but – like a toddler – I am usually so over-excited about the experience that it ends up being a let-down/existential crisis: HOW AM I EVER GOING TO READ ALL THE BOOKS I WANT TO READ, what even is the point of life, etc.

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

I would tell Scarlett O’Hara to stop being such a bitch to Rhett. And also to stop being horrifyingly racist.

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

I read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test when I was a student and I was pretty excited to discover that grown-ups are allowed to be that exuberant. Of course I’m nowhere near as cool as Tom, I’ve never even ‘dropped’ (I think that’s how you say it) acid. I also read a book called Room for Maneuver by Ross Chambers – it’s about whether or not reading and writing can change the world. I realised how much I care about this question. Why are we doing this? I’m still not sure. But I think I’ve made some progress.

Portrait of Elizabeth Pearce

Elizabeth Pearce is a writer and researcher for Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art (Mona).

Related posts