Working with Words: Neha Kale

Neha Kale is the editor of art and culture magazine VAULT. She's also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Vice, i-D, SBS Life and more. We spoke with Neha about collaboration, commitment and her conflicting thoughts on the 'write what you know' mantra.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Photograph of writer and editor Neha Kale

Aside from a 'newspaper' I self-published and distributed to family members as a child, and some terrible poetry in my high-school yearbook? It was a feature on the underground art scene in Perth published in a local magazine called Relative.

What’s the best part of your job?

In terms of freelance writing, there’s nothing as exciting to me as wrestling with an idea and finding the right words to name it, or the physical sensation of knowing that you’ve found a story, and doing the work to realise it on the page. It’s also an enormous privilege to interview all kinds of people and for them to trust you enough to let you into their life.

When it comes to editing VAULT, I really love the collaborative nature of making a print magazine. Writing is so solitary, but as an editor I work with so many talented writers, designers and artists to create the publication and it’s really satisfying knowing that I’m working towards something that’s a lot bigger than just myself. Magazines were such a huge influence on my life growing up, so the notion that someone, somewhere could pick up the publication and read something in it that could challenge them or open up some sort of door in their head is pretty thrilling to me. I try to take that seriously.

I’m more interested in writing about what I want to know.

What’s the worst part of your job?

As a freelance writer, chasing invoices and non-stop admin is high on the list, but I’ve got to say that riding the constant cycle of confidence and self-doubt that comes with writing professionally can be exhausting. In terms of editing, it’s passing on ideas that are good but that I don’t have the space to commission – or which don’t fit into an issue for whatever reason.

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

It’s hard to single out one, but when I was first starting out as a young freelance writer in Melbourne, being edited by Caroline Clements and Dan Rule at Broadsheet was really formative for me, and gave me the confidence to hone my voice. When I moved to Sydney to freelance full-time, it was probably seeing a feature in print in the Sydney Morning Herald and having pitches accepted by Candice Chung and Sarah Oakes at Daily Life. Writing as a career can be such a leap of faith and involves so much rejection. I think it’s important to honour moments that remind you that you’re on the right path.

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

The best is probably to read obsessively, until it becomes a second instinct; to question everything, and to be curious about the world.

I’m still divided about ‘write what you know.’ I think that being instructed to do this can sometimes be a trap. Female writers or writers from marginalised backgrounds often aren’t trusted to be authorities on anything other than their own experience – which is ridiculous. I’m more interested in writing about what I want to know.

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

It’s surprising – in the best way possible – receiving an email from a reader who’s connected with your work. Conversely, it’s kind of unsettling to receive mansplaining messages about a piece, or to witness people twist your words to suit their own agenda.

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

I used to love drawing and painting when I was young, but honestly have never wanted to do anything but writing. I’m not big on Plan Bs.

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

I think that you can develop an ear for good sentences and become a better writer, but not 100 per cent sure that storytelling instinct can be taught. At the same time, though, I’m pretty wary of the idea that only certain people are entitled to be artists. You have to have some degree of talent, but most of it is about tenacity, commitment and hard work.

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

It’s important to believe in yourself and your work but I think it’s equally important to ... accept that you’re always learning ...

Develop a thick skin, put the hours in and back yourself. It’s important to believe in yourself and your work, but I think it’s equally important to be kind to yourself and accept that you’re always learning and that there are things that you don’t know.

Also, unless you have a trust fund, work out how to generate a steady income stream on the side – writing-related or not.

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

Mostly independent bookshops, but every so often I cave and download something from iBooks. 

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

Lila from the [Elena] Ferrante [Neapolitan] novels. I think she’d be amazing company. Also, the writer and journalist Eve Babitz, who wrote these addictive essays and fictionalised memoirs set in 1970s Los Angeles.

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

When I first read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth at 21, it completely opened my world up. Before that, I’d never read sentences with that kind of rhythm or cadence, or come across characters who looked like me or like people I knew and whose worldview I connected with. I’m also forever revisiting her essay collection, Changing My Mind.

Portrait of Neha Kale

Neha Kale is a writer, editor, journalist and critic based in Sydney. 

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