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Working with Words: Stephanie Van Schilt

Read Wednesday, 6 Aug 2014

Stephanie Van Schilt is deputy editor of The Lifted Brow, co-host of The Rereaders podcast and the TV columnist at Kill Your Darlings. Her writing has featured in various local and international publications including Crikey, Metro and Cineaste.

We spoke to her about being so committed to her work that she watched Baz Luhrmann’s Australia twice before she wrote about it, why you should fake it til you make it (and exercise) to make it in writing and editing, and what she’d be doing with her life in the darkest timeline.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

If you count self-publishing, when I was about eight or nine I used to make little one off cut-and-paste zines by reconstituting old copies of TV Week and creating ‘stories’ on a typewriter. I desperately wanted to be Lynda Day from early-90s pre-teen TV show Press Gang and obviously TV Week offered hard-hitting social commentary and journalistic goods that a dedicated readership (my mum) needed to experience.

While it’s unlikely that these collectors items remain in circulation (pretty sure mum threw them away shortly after receiving a copy), my deep fascination with pop culture has lingered. My first published piece was a review of Baz Lurhmann’s bloated, nationalistic atrocity Australia for international screen journal Cineaste. I was so nervous about forming an opinion (and writing generally) that I went to see the movie twice: that’s 2 x 165 minute viewings of Australia. Sometimes we do suffer for our art.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love having the opportunity to learn new things and be engaged with culture on the regular. There’s something to be said for solitary research and the inspiring smell of a good, silent library, but I’m also constantly schooled by the awesome people around me.

I know there’s been some talk about literary cliques and the like of late, but the people who I’ve met over the past five or so years — from interning at MWF to working with Kill Your Darlings and now The Lifted Brow — have straight up changed my life. Things are different and exciting and great now — I owe them stacks for that. But maybe don’t tell them — I don’t want those jerks and jerkettes to think that, you know, I have a heart or am mushy or care or anything.

What’s the worst part of your job?

At times, I get pretty bad blocks and plummet down some killer anxiety holes. I also beat myself up about never doing enough. That’s why it’s great to balance the solo work with collaborative projects. When you are answering to others, or someone is waiting for an answer from you, there’s no choice but to (eventually) shake it off, suck it up and get on with work.

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

I’m still pretty new to all of this, but the opportunities I’ve been given since starting work with The Lifted Brow about a year-and-a-half ago have been incredible. Working with that magazine, alongside the Brow team, has been hugely significant.

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

I’ve heard ‘Fake it til you make it – that’s what I did’ heaps. I don’t know whether it’s the best or worst advice, totally optimistic or cynical, completely reassuring or terrifying or just the lamest thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t want to think too deeply about such a throwaway line (or what it says about me/the people offering up the words), but the general idea that crises of confidence are both a personal and shared experience makes me feel a bit better I guess.

Also: read. Always and forever.

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

Steph, you’re: ‘a wunderkind’, ‘outstanding and most popular’, ‘covered in sexy vampire cool’, ‘three times the woman Myf Warhurst is’, ‘a normcore icon’, ‘laidback and rustic fare’. That’s just a sample of the weird, surprising things my co-host Sam Twyford-Moore has said about me while recording The Rereaders podcast. Most of these descriptions are flat-out lies or don’t make sense (in or out of it), but I still think they’re great. He did once call Dion Kagan a ‘man-eating alien’ so I think I’ve got it okay thus far (we are only ten episodes in…).

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

Steadily climbing my way to number one on the ‘most likely to go postal’ office ranking in an admin job made for anyone but me. I’d be getting my kicks sending amusing emails to colleagues during the day and drinking my pay cheque away in the evening. In the same way I cruise real estate sites long after I’ve found a house, I’d be addicted to looking for a new job and that sting of disappointment that comes from rejection. But really, stepping away from the darkest timeline, I would have pursued a programming role with a film festival or arts organisation.

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

I don’t think it’s as formulaic as maths rather it’s more of a learning process. I mean, I’m still learning from each book or article I read, from editorial advice and from my MA in creative writing (via research).

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

‘Fake it til you make it’…no really, um, I guess it’s a bit tangential but don’t underestimate the power of physical exercise. I mean, I’m no athlete but can vouch for the power of going for a run around the block or a sweaty gym session. When you’re stuck behind a computer all day, it’s so good for your brain – it can make you feel lighter, clearer and inspired.

(NB: In the spirit of honesty, haven’t been to the gym for like two months. They’ve even stopped guilt-texting me.)

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

All of the above. I love a good secondhand book hunt or spending hours in a store, but I’m also quite lazy (see above gym hypocrisy) and often I just order in. I really love trolling through Brotherhood Books for hours to see whether I can find stuff for uni or work or leisure and then the package arrives only a couple of days later. So good.

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

I kinda have dinner with a fictional character most nights because I often consume food and television at the same time (obviously I’m all class and not remotely addicted to TV or anything, I don’t know what you’re talking about). I feel like I have a bunch of fictional friends already so this may be the hardest question to answer. It definitely changes week by week. Right now, I really feel like having an awesome, trashy dinner with the babes from Broad City (not unlike what happens in their season one finale). Yeah, I’m totally up for that.

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

David Rakoff’s writing grabs my heart and throws it out the window only to chase it down the street, pick it up, replace it, fill it with love and admiration and joy and humour, before ripping it out all over again (the Rakoff rinse and repeat). Rakoff was a rare acerbic wit who died too soon (a couple of years ago) but left behind a small, yet illuminating body of work that includes dazzling essay collections, radio plays and a posthumous rhyming couplet novella.

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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.