Working with Words: Shaun Carney

Shaun Carney was a journalist, editor and columnist with the Herald and the Age in a career spanning 35 years. Today, he's a memoirist, with a new book, Press Escape, out later this month. We caught up with Shaun to talk Fitzgerald, former lives and Monkees fandom.

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

Photograph of Shaun Carney

It was a letter in the Axes and Orchids section of the weekly Melbourne television paper Listener-in TV, complaining about Channel Seven’s decision to stop screening the Monkees’ TV show. I was 11 and I wrote under the pseudonym Saturday’s Child, a Monkees song that accorded with my real initials. I thought I was pretty clever, doing that. I was wrong about the show, which I described as the most entertaining thing in the world. I saw an episode recently and it was a laugh-free zone.

What’s the best part of your job?

I’ve never been able to get over how great it is to watch the world and to ask questions and think about it all, and then try to make sense of it and share the results with others. It’s all I ever wanted to do. As a memoirist and biographer, having the opportunity to examine a life and place it in a social context, weighing up the balance of psychology and fortune in determining personal action – well, that’s a privilege.

What’s the worst part of your job?

There’s not much that’s bad about it. Butting up hard against the limits of my knowledge is probably the worst part. A close second is saying something in print that someone has already said. Clichéd ideas are just as painful to encounter as clichéd words.

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

It’s a tie between getting a journalism cadetship at the Herald when I was 20, which allowed me to write full-time – although a fair bit of my work was more typing than writing – and signing the contract to write my memoir, Press Escape, which attempts to work out what happened in those 30-odd years I was a career newspaperman.

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

Very early in my time as a reporter, my chief-of-staff grabbed my copy and put a line through every ‘that’ in it, advising me to stay away from the word wherever possible because it was often superfluous. It was good advice. Few pieces of writing are improved by taking on additional words; the improvements usually come after something’s been cut.

Few pieces of writing are improved by taking on additional words; the improvements usually come after something’s been cut.

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

After years of writing on contemporary issues for mass audiences, I have come to understand that I am a latte-sucking inner-city leftist with a chip on my shoulder because I come from an outer suburb. I am a stooge of Peter Costello; a dupe of Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten; a hold-out for Whitlamism; a superficial know-nothing and an ivory tower egghead. Or so readers have told me.

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

I reckon if I’d missed out on being a journalist and author, I would have tried my hand at being a psychologist – and author. I’ve always been fascinated by personal motivations and the exercise of power in all its forms, so psychology would have been a good fit. But there would have been writing involved, based on what I observed as a psychologist. It’s the only way I know how to explain things to myself.

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

I work in non-fiction so it’s a bit rich for me to opine on this. I offer these observations: if you want to be a writer in any field you have to be a reader first, last and always; and you’re going to write more effectively if you never lose sight of the reader when you’re generating and editing your own material.

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

There is so much bad writing around, if you think you can help lift the average, then back yourself and do it. But don’t regard your words as sacrosanct. Editors aren’t always right, but you’ll find they’ll save you many more times than they’ll embarrass you.

Editors aren’t always right, but you’ll find they’ll save you many more times than they’ll embarrass you.

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

I do use a Kindle for holidays or when I have to obtain and read a book quickly, which is not that often. Sometimes I buy digital and hard copies of the same title, just in case my diary gets complicated and as a sort of donation to the writer. We have to support booksellers, who are taking ever greater risks to stay in business. As someone whose job was digitally erased, I’ll always stick with the physical bookseller.

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

The eponymous hero of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, although 'hero' is not quite the right word. I’d ask him why he didn’t at some stage during his journeys commit to a solid set of principles and accept that what he already had might be more rewarding than all that moving around.

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

As a teenager, it was The Great Gatsby and the combination of elegance and modernity in Fitzgerald’s sentences and observations. As a 10-year old, it was a caption in a Thor comic, something I recall at some length in Press Escape. The power of words, arranged effectively, hit me like a bolt of lightning (and yes, that is a corny reference to Thor’s superpowers). Just one throwaway sentence set me on my path.

Portrait of Shaun Carney

Shaun Carney is a journalist and memoirist.

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