Working with Words: Andrew Nette
Andrew Nette is a writer, reviewer, film lover, pulp scholar and lover of all things noir. His first novel, Ghost Money, a crime story set in Cambodia in the mid-nineties was published in 2012 by Snubnose Press, after the manuscript was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 – 1980, a non-fiction book he is jointly writing, will be published by Verse Chorus Press in late 2015.
We spoke to him about being paid for your literary labour, why the best advice for writers is to just get your first draft done, and why being a writer comes from deep down within a person – and you either have the hunger to do it, or you don’t.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Hell, that’s going back a bit. I’m pretty sure it was an article in the Melbourne University student magazine Farrago. I can’t remember what it was about. It was Melbourne Uni in the eighties, so it was probably something politically worthy and dull.
What’s the best part of your job?
The feeling I am making a living, almost, out of the written word. I have a number of strings to my bow. I doing writing consultancies, I work as a freelance journalist, I write fiction and non-fiction and do a lot of panel and interviewing work for festivals. They all involve writing of one sort or another. I love the variety and the fact that people are actually prepared to pay me for my literary labour.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Living by one’s literary wits doesn’t pay very well. You are only as good as your last pitch or piece of writing and I always feel like I’m hustling, for work or to get paid.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?
I’m not sure I can isolate one. Being shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript was pretty cool. Getting the subsequent novel out there was great. Working as a freelance journalist for a number of years in the nineties in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, was also fantastic.
It may sound trite, but every time I get an article or piece of writing accepted, whatever it is, and I see it in print, either in hard copy of on the screen, I get a buzz. Seriously. The novelty never wears off.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is just get the first draft done. That was given to me in relation to fiction, but I reckon it applies pretty well to anything you write.
Not so much a piece of advice, but there’s a great quote by an American crime writer called George V. Higgins, who wrote a number of highly regarded crime novels, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle in 1972. He said: ‘Writing is a hard game. No one asked you to start. No one will notice if you stop.’ That sounds a little bleak, indeed, it could almost have come from one of his characters. But it cuts through a lot of the bullshit that is around about writing and I recall it whenever I get pissed off with writing.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
Anything anyone says about my work is usually a surprise. One review of my debut novel, Ghost Money, called it ‘The Third Man of Asian noir’. I loved that.
If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
One way or another, I have always made my living through my ability to write. I don’t think I can do anything else.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
My problem with that question is it assumes there is a point at which one has ‘learnt’ how to write. I have been working with words for nearly 25 years. I had to ‘learn’ to be a journalist. I had to ‘learn’ how to write policy documents when I worked for a trade union and community organisations. Then, I decided I wanted to write fiction and I had to learn to do that. I don’t think I am a master of any of these types of writing. I am still learning all of them, particularly fiction writing, and always will be.
I think you can teach people certain rules and conventions of writing. But I’m not sure you can teach someone to be a writer (and the two are often conflated). That comes from somewhere deep within a person and you either have that hunger or you don’t. It’s as simple as that.
Publishing is an industry and learning how to write and get published has developed into a parallel industry. I have an ambivalent view of the industry of teaching people how to write and get published. On the one hand, it creates communities for writers and teaches them important skills. It is also an income stream for a lot of writers (at times, myself included). But I have a problem with any course or workshop that is prefaced on the notion that there is one way to write or one path to publication. This is not only untrue; it is harmful to aspiring writers.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?
Stop mucking around. Stop talking about writing. Write.
And read. A lot.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
To paraphrase Malcolm X, if I want/need a certain book I will get it, by whatever means necessary.
I buy from bookshops, although the cost means that does not take place as often as I would like. I love the convenience, ease and cost of e-books (and, yes, that includes Amazon). I buy from Book Depository and eBay.
And, because I collect old pulp novels and am currently co-writing a book on pulp and youth culture, I’m a frequent visitor to second-hand book sites like Abe Books. I can be found lurking in Melbourne’s diminishing number of second-hand bookstores (Oh, the joy of a untidy second-hand bookstore deep in a suburban arcade). And I love a good op shop, especially a non-chain one, preferably in a small country town.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
That’s a tough one. Mostly I read crime fiction and I wouldn’t want to hang out with most of the characters in these books. Maybe Billy Glasheen, the fifties Sydney lurk-merchant and small-time conman created by Australian writer Peter Doyle. I reckon Glasheen would be able to impart a few tips that could help me get ahead in the writing business. I would, of course, have to pick up the tab for dinner and drinks and he could probably cadge fifty dollars off me, which I would never see again.
If not him, then Jerry Cornelius, the time-travelling, sexually polymorphous swinging secret agent created by British SF writer, Michael Moorcock. We’d talk about history and all the hallucinogenic drugs he’s taken.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I am not sure I can answer that. There have been so many. In my teens I was obsessed with sci-fi and sword and sorcery fiction. But ever since my early twenties, my reading has been dominated by crime fiction. I credit my father with this. He had a large selection of paperbacks in his den, Australian pulp as well as Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane. The covers, the seamy cadence of the titles, fascinated me. I spent many hours in my teens thumbing through all these books.
If I had to nominate one, it’s probably The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley because it blew a giant hole in what I thought crime fiction could be. It felt real and urgent. It still does every time I re-read it. Crumley was also an incredible writer and the book has the best opening line ever: ‘When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma California, drinking the heart out of a fine spring afternoon.’