Working with Words: Evan Williams

Evan Williams is a writer and satirist from Sydney. He spoke with us about vengeance, listening to boring advice and getting robots to read your jokes.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photo of Evan Williams

My Mum tells me that when I was young I cried a lot because of The Ugly Duckling. But I think she actually means Infinite Jest. Yeah, on second thought, it was definitely Infinite Jest. Don’t even print The Ugly Duckling part.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about? 

Not really. I’m jealous of people who did. I’ve found that learning how to write well is a long and tedious process, and I wish I started earlier. I never even really read in primary school. One of my teachers made my parents come to the library and forced them to take home books for me to read. I also had another teacher who made my Mum cry by saying she 'could not think of anything positive to say about Evan'.

If you rub tiger balm on your palms while writing a tweet, that tweet will go viral.

Not that these experiences have stuck with me at all. I would never bring them up while being interviewed for the website of an esteemed literary institution. I’m just not spiteful like that.

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

I have listened to a lot of advice about writing comedy over the years. I think you’re often looking for that one magical tip or trick that will transform you into Tina Fey. 'If you write with your right eye closed while drinking grapefruit juice like Proust did, you’ll write a perfect novel!' That kind of thing.

In my experience, the advice that is boring and that you don’t want to hear is the advice that actually works. For example: practise a lot; read a lot; compare your writing with the writing you really like; write with generous, talented people who will tell you when your writing sucks (in a nice way). 

Okay, now that everyone looking for magical tips has stopped reading: if you rub tiger balm on your palms while writing a tweet, that tweet will go viral. 

Seriously though, for comedy writers, I really recommend Mike Sacks’s books of interviews with comedy writers.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions? 

Robots reading jokes is funnier than humans reading jokes and will boost your morale.

Okay, now this is something of value you can get out of this interview. I’m not confident about much in my writing, except this. When you’ve finished your final draft and you think you can’t read it anymore, listen to a robot read your piece.

Do this by using the text-to-speech function on your computer – or just use one of the free ones you can find in Google.

It’s useful for a few reasons. One, it’s better than you reading your piece out loud, because you’ve read it a million times, so you’ll skip over typos and parts that drag. Two, robots reading jokes is funnier than humans reading jokes and will boost your morale.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Basically everything I’ve written, besides maybe three things.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?

George Saunders. We’d eat one of those Ottolenghi-inspired salads that are surprisingly filling and wholesome and he would explain the meaning of life to me. If you don’t believe he’s capable of explaining the meaning of life, read this speech, which I think is the best career advice I’ve ever read.

Portrait of Evan Williams

Evan Williams is a Sydney-based writer whose writing has appeared in the New Yorker's Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s, the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Monthly. He writes satirical comedy for The Feed on SBS Viceland.

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