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Working with Words: Harry Saddler

Read Wednesday, 17 Dec 2014

Harry Saddler is the author of We Both Know: Ten Stories About Relationships (2005) and Small Moments (2007), a short novel about the aftermath of the Canberra bushfires of 2003, both published by Ginderra Press. Since 2008 he’s been writing and distributing weekly SMS stories and putting them on Twitter (@MondayStory). He writes about the ecological, physical, and philosophical interactions between humans and animals at his blog, Noticing Animals and was the joint winner of the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival/Blurb ‘Blog-to-Book’ Challenge, resulting in the new book Not Birdwatching: Reflections on Noticing Animals.

We spoke to Harry about needing a day job that’s not challenging in order to write, why if you’ve been told not to do something in your writing, that’s exactly what you should do, and his dream date with Lizzie Bennett.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was at Telopea Park High School in Canberra I had a story published in a magazine of high school writing from across the ACT. It was the first edition of the magazine and I think the next edition was probably the last. The story was about people turning into trees and trees turning into people – I wrote a lot of weird, sort of surreal stories when I was in high school – and when the magazine arrived the story had been published under the name Harry Seidler. As my high school English teacher quipped: ‘Harry was hoping to make a name for himself.’

Incidentally, that teacher was the one who first encouraged me to write. She loved my stories and would get me to read them out to the class. Years later when I had a book of short stories published by Ginninderra Press, I was able to repay the debt by dedicating the book to her. I also managed to track her down through the ACT school system and invite her to the launch. I suspect most writers have one special teacher who’s been instrumental in getting them to write, and it was pretty wonderful to be able to show her – her name was (is) Ellen Robertson – how much her encouragement had meant to me.

What’s the best part of your job?

My answer to this is going to be a bit unusual because I have a full-time day job. I grew up in Canberra which is a small city and an even smaller market, so the idea of being a professional writer just never occurred to me when I was growing up. I don’t think I’d ever even met a full-time freelance writer until I moved to Melbourne in 2004, though a lot of my mum’s friends were writers – some of them quite prominent. So the best part of my (day) job is that it isn’t too taxing. I work as a data analyst and it’s interesting but it doesn’t leave me so drained at the end of the day that I can’t come home and write. It took my parents a while to appreciate that what I wanted from a job was something that wasn’t challenging, but they understand now. I think.

Before my current day-job I worked from home for eight years as a contractor for the public service. I made up my own hours – as long as I got the requisite 7.6 hours a day done I could start and finish whenever I wanted – so if I felt like taking an hour off in the middle of the afternoon to go and write I could. It was a dream. Because I was being paid government money I regarded it as an unofficial arts grant.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Again, I’ll answer this in relation to my (current) day-job: the worst part, when it comes to writing, is having a sudden idea, or rush of ideas, at – say – three o’clock in the afternoon. I’m stuck at my desk. I can’t drop everything and go and write. When you get that sudden surge of excitement and your mind’s firing and ideas are coming at you from everywhere at a million miles an hour it’s lightning in a bottle. It’s so frustrating to have to let it pass and know that it won’t come back again unless you’re very, very lucky.

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

It’s still pretty early days for me so I’m at the stage where everything feels significant. Every piece of good news I get is super-exciting and every request to write something is a ‘Who, me?’ moment. At the same time I’m not quite sure what ‘significant’ means – was having my first book of short stories published way back in 2005 significant? Well sure, I guess so, I mean it sounds like it should be significant, doesn’t it? But that and the short novel that Ginninderra Press published in 2007 both sank without a trace and nobody’s ever heard of them, so just how significant were those moments?

Upon reflection I think maybe the most significant moment – or period – of my writing career so far has been making friends in Melbourne’s literary community. That started with going to the Emerging Writers Festival and meeting people and hanging out with them late at night at bars. I’ve found the Melbourne literary scene to be incredibly friendly and welcoming. It’s so easy to get involved and everyone’s really keen to hear what you’re up to. It’s tiny, too, which probably helps newcomers to get acquainted – tiny in the sense that everyone knows everyone else or knows somebody who does. Country town kind of tiny. The lit scene is basically a country town nested in the middle of Melbourne’s wider culture.

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

I’ve never studied writing or attended any writing courses or even talked very much about the writing process with any of my writer friends so I can’t say I’ve ever really directly received any writing advice – but of course I’ve heard plenty of advice floating around.

You can break writing advice down into two categories: there’s ‘How to sit down and make yourself put words on a page’, and there’s ‘How to make those words good.’ To be honest I think all advice that falls into the second of those categories is terrible.

By that I mean that if we as a reading culture want writing to be as dynamic and as exciting and as interesting as possible then ideally we want it to be as diverse as possible, and for that to happen we need all of our writers to figure out for themselves what works for them and how it works. There are a hell of a lot of very good writers in the world but there are depressingly few who are sui generis.

I think if you’ve ever been told that you shouldn’t do something in your writing then that’s exactly what you should do. To hell with rules and regulations and taste and appropriate use of the language. To hell with never using the passive voice and getting rid of all your adjectives and never writing dream sequences. To hell with it! Do it. Do it all.

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

Honestly, any time somebody says that they’ve read something I wrote it’s a surprise. If they say that they read it and they liked it – when that happens it gets a bit awkward because I’m not very good at taking compliments.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

God, if only I was making a living from writing! I’d actually be a terrible freelance writer. I’m awful at pushing my writing. I’m dreadful at pitching: when I write I make it up as I go and see where the story or the essay takes me, so when I pitch it’s basically ‘I have this collection of woolly ideas and they’re not really logically connected and they don’t really make sense when I try to explain them as a single idea but I know without a shadow of a doubt that I can make it work so please just trust me?’

A long time ago I dreamed of being a zoologist. I grew up watching David Attenborough documentaries and I studied biology at university. But it turns out I have a writer’s brain instead of a scientist’s brain.

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

Like I said in my answer to the question about writing advice, I’ve never knowingly been within fifty fathoms of a creative writing course so I’m not really in a position to talk about what they do or whether they’re effective. For my part, writing was learned rather than taught – by which I mean I learned by reading. Everyone says this but it bears repeating as often as humanly possible: if you want to be a writer you have to be a reader. Books are the best teachers you will ever have.

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

I’ve got a couple of pieces of advice. Firstly, don’t be too precious about writing. Don’t think that it needs to be done in perfect silence with a cup of tea at your side that’s exactly the right temperature and only at 9:30 at night.

Of course every writer’s advice and habits are as individual as their writing but for me any time can be writing time. If you’re waiting for the tram and it’s not due for ten minutes – that’s writing time. Hell, if you’re on the tram, that’s writing time. If you work a day-job, your lunch-break is writing time.

Snatch what you can, when you can, and write what you can. Be an opportunist. Accept that sometimes you’re going to have to be selfish and disappoint your friends when they want you to come out for the night.

Oh, but having said that: get out of the house. For god’s sake learn to love writing in cafes and bars and pubs and parks and anywhere where you’re going to bump into other people. Be curious about the world. Write about yourself if you must (god knows I do) but try to figure out how your story fits into something bigger than you. Have big eyes for the world and everything in it.

Secondly, trust your editors. I don’t know how it happened but over the course of the second half of the twentieth century it seems like we built up the cult of the author to ridiculous heights and started burning editors in effigy. We got this bizarre notion that editors get in the way of writers and that’s why now we have publishers getting awful ideas like publishing the unedited scroll of On the Road. Who the hell wants to read that? Trust your editors and learn to enjoy redrafting.

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

I very, very, very rarely buy books online, and even less so now that we’ve all come to realise exactly how awful Amazon is. I’m excessively devoted to buying books off the shelf. Even asking a bookshop to order a book for me feels like cheating. On many occasions I’ve spent years – actual years – circling and circling and circling back to the same bookshop or group of bookshops, waiting and hoping that the book I want to buy will have been reprinted in a new edition, or that somebody at the bookshop will have decided out of the blue to order and stock it. This has proven to be a surprisingly successful strategy and I’ve possibly startled more than one bookshop customer or staff member by gasping in disbelief and excitement when I’ve spotted a longed-for book I’d almost abandoned any hope of ever possessing.

Pretty much the only exception to this pattern of behaviour is for my birthday, when I order a job lot of books from the British website Caught By the River.

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

Elizabeth Bennet. Everybody always talks about what a great object of female desire Mr Darcy is but nobody really ever mentions Lizzie Bennet. And fair enough because it’s not like there’s any pressing need in contemporary society to hear yet more about male desire, but I really can’t emphasise this enough: Elizabeth Bennet is a total dream woman. She’s whip-smart and she doesn’t care who knows it; she’s got an opinion and she’s going to let you hear it; she’s quick-witted and well-read and independent and to be honest she doesn’t need you and she doesn’t have time for your crap and she’d tell you that in the classiest way possible – what a babe.

So I guess in my head this imaginary dinner with an imaginary person is actually a date. And I’d make a complete mess of it but that’s okay because we all know Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy are supposed to be together.

After my disastrous dinner-date with Elizabeth Bennet I’d drown my sorrows with another Elizabeth, Liz Corbett from the English writer Elizabeth (!) Taylor’s wonderful novel The Soul of Kindness. Liz would get me drunk and probably tell me to stop being an idiot and then she’d let me crash on her sofa and in the morning she’d kick me so that she could work on one of her paintings. I’d like to be friends with Liz.

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

This is the easiest question of the lot. I don’t even have to think about it. It was William Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. Like, I suspect, a lot of 90s kids, I came to Blake via Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man. I bought the soundtrack before I’d even seen the film (it was my introduction to Neil Young, too) and it was filled with recordings of Johnny Depp reciting William Blake poems.

‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ hit me like no other piece of writing ever has, before or since – in fact it wasn’t even the whole thing, it was just one line: ‘The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell.’

Before I read that sentence I didn’t know – I literally didn’t know – that you were allowed to just write stuff like that, and proclaim stuff, and not really offer any evidence to back it up. I didn’t know you were allowed to make stuff up. When you’re a teenager and William Blake tells you you’re allowed to just make stuff up – that’s pretty powerful.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.