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Working with Words: Holly Childs

Read Wednesday, 2 Apr 2014
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Holly Childs is a writer, editor (Crazy in Love magazine) and artist. She makes work around digital semiotics, transformations of language and culture, aberration and fashion. Her first novella, No Limit, has just been released by Hologram.

We talked to her about writing poems about dishwashers, being sponsored as a writer by a Paris fashion label, working all the time but rarely getting paid, and creative feedback loops.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A poem I wrote about dishwashers. It was selected for publication in a South Australian high school poetry anthology. The launch was held at the private girls school next to my high school and my best friend and I spent the duration of the speeches outside at the snack table eating and filling our pockets with gummies and chocolates.

What’s the best part of your job?

I have a few jobs, all linked. I write fiction and poetry, and creative texts for art contexts. I am a co-editor of Crazy in Love magazine. I sometimes curate exhibitions and organise other art events. The best part of all of these jobs is reading, writing, publishing, and exhibiting works that expand my understanding of what is important, possible, true, real. I also like that I can making connections with people I wouldn’t have the chance to meet otherwise. Tangentially, I’m the first writer to be sponsored by Paris-based unisex label ASSK. We want to inject Rihanna-style tabloid disturbance, fashion and club music into literary contexts.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Working all the time but rarely getting paid. Never breaking even. I earned about $2 for every hour I wrote in 2013. Not quite enough to cover costs. Maybe I’ll get to $3 p/h in 2014.

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


I have three, but they’re short. The first was the moment I realised I could construct narrative. I had really severe allergies and for years I could only write kind of abstract poetry and pretty context-less phrase strings. But last year an Issey Miyake + Dyson limited edition hand-held vacuum cleaner from my mum was instrumental in the recession of my symptoms and the completion of my first ever fiction manuscript.

Then, a couple of weeks later I was sitting at home struggling to concentrate on whatever I was supposed to be doing. I started watching a documentary in which Björk and David Attenborough meet in a museum, suitably titled, When Björk met Attenborough. I was possibly crying softly because each person is so small and contains so much when I received an email from Johannes Jakob, that everything guy at Hologram, saying that he wanted to publish my first ever fiction manuscript which would become my debut novella No Limit.

Next moment in my writing career was a few months later. Rapper Le1f was at my house and he picked up an unproofed copy of No Limit and asked what it was. For a couple of months while writing No Limit I had listened to Le1f’s mixtapes to get zoned to write. I adopted ‘trigger words’, a strategy I read on The Fader that Le1f used to keep key concepts centred within his tracks. He mentioned ‘bass, fog, slither, purple, black, grit’; my triggers were more like ‘ash, dust, locust plague, smashed iPhone screen, lolz’. This was significant as it was the first time I realised that there could be creative feedback loops; that the artists I admire might also get something out of my work.

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

I like Stephen King’s idea that writing a story isn’t creating something new, it is digging up fossils, ‘part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world’, and trying to get them out of the ground as intact as possible. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s from his book On Writing.

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

The first thing Sam Twyford-Moore said to me in real life was something like, ‘I hope you weren’t watching the livestream earlier because I think I said your name pretty loudly and that you’re weird but really cool’.

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

Watching Ryan Trecartin deliver a lecture on my computer in bed with a blocked nose and a sore throat. Internet going pretty slow. A possum, or maybe a large rat, is possibly dying in the wall of my bedroom and flies are accruing in the cracks. I’m really cold you guys. Someone on the other side of the globe is calling me on Skype and while we talk, his face just a smudge, not one, not two, but three mice run across my bed, over my legs, but too fast for me to catch, and what would I do if I caught them anyway?

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

Though not integral, study, institutional or otherwise, seems a fairly reasonable starting point for those who intend to write, or better, are already writing. Study is commitment to reading, writing, expanding knowledge and enhancing skills, familiarising oneself with debates and discourse around what one is writing.

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

Read and write. Make the work first and then worry about getting published. If you feel weird about a job there’s probably a reason. Make everything cute so you can deal with it. Remember that editors and publishers are real people with biases and quirks.

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

The books I read are mostly borrowed from libraries. If local council and university libraries don’t have what I want I check real physical bookstores. If I still can’t find, I look online. Actually also my friends and I frequently swap and share books and other publications amongst ourselves.

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

I would take Chevette Washington and/or Cayce Pollard to the Italian restaurant at the top of OPA in Kyoto, I think it’s called Capricciosa. I would try to ascertain why William Gibson’s strong female protagonists so often end up with the loser chump guy at the end of the book. I would introduce Chevette and/or Cayce to Rose from Michelle Tea’s Rose of No Man’s Land, Bart Simpson, Princess Nokia, Grimes, Mookie from Do the Right Thing, Mack Evasion.

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

Honorable mentions go to the works of Hélène Cixous, Chelsey Minnis, Octavia Butler, Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus etc but right now I’m pretty focussed on Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama. This book feels like a nineties period piece written like five minutes ago by an extreme tumblr otaku going deep thru VFILES and The Face archives, uncovering long lost nineties tropes, but it’s all ‘authentic’, all written in the era. It’s supposed to be satire, poking fun at celebrity and consumer cultures of the time, but when I first read it I couldn’t get over the beauty and perfection of MTV and Mentos and confetti and melting ice and flies and fake tattoos and coloured sunglasses and Snapple and discarded and or broken cell phones as sinister motifs in a deeply sub- and pop- culturally nuanced long form gore-thriller. In fact, through the passage of time, Glamorama potentially becomes more powerful, now functioning as a nineties US alt-cultural encyclopedia for those not old enough to experience it all first hand. Written over an eight-year period in the 1990s, a couple of the hundreds of celeb names dropped throughout are spelt wrong because no Google back then. Time machine. Glamorama is actually so deep. Chloe mouthing Take … a … hike … absolute perfection.

No Limit is out now through Hologram Books.

Holly will be reading at The Next Big Thing at The Moat on Monday 28 April.

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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.