Working with Words: Alan Vaarwerk
Alan Vaarwerk is a Melbourne-based writer and critic and the editor of Kill Your Darlings. He spoke with us about puzzling over narrative structure, emulating Douglas Adams and why suffering for your art is pointless and unproductive.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
When I was in Year Eight, I came second in a national short story competition, for a silly story about a superhero who came out of retirement. The pieces all got published in an anthology and they printed my story on a plaque, which is apparently still sitting in some awards cabinet at my school.
What’s the best part of your job?
I love being able to work with writers on a piece from pitch to publication, and champion the work of writers I love to a broad audience. It sounds cheesy as hell, but I often think that at its best, editing can feel like a really satisfying jigsaw puzzle, where patching a narrative hole or moving things around just the right way can suddenly bring a piece of writing to life. There’s nothing better than seeing readers respond to and engage with a piece that I’ve helped bring into the world.
… patching a narrative hole or moving things around just the right way can suddenly bring a piece of writing to life.
What’s the worst part of your job?
I hate saying no to people, particularly writers who’ve obviously poured so much of themselves into their work – but unfortunately making difficult decisions is part and parcel of being an editor. Like a lot of people in the arts, or anyone who works on something they’re passionate about, I find it hard to separate work and leisure – there’s always some bit of work that needs doing. I don’t get enough sleep.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Being promoted to editor of Kill Your Darlings. It still boggles my mind, the best part of a year on, that I’m now the editor of what had long been my favourite literary magazine.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
I’m firmly against the idea that one should suffer for one’s art. We all make sacrifices to do what we love, but there’s nothing romantic or ‘authentic’ – or even particularly productive – about deliberately sacrificing your physical or mental health for the sake of your writing. (Just because I know this to be true doesn’t necessarily mean I practise what I preach.)
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
I thankfully haven’t heard anything too surprising, though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. The weirdest thing so far is hearing a short piece I wrote for Stilts journal get discussed on the Rereaders podcast. It was pretty wild to be listening as a third party to a discussion of my own work.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’m more of an editor than a writer these days, but I honestly can’t even imagine myself in any other industry. The last thing I wanted to do as a kid before I wanted to be a writer was to be a car designer, which is an industry that I hear is on the up.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I did a creative writing degree, and I’m very glad I did, but I was already writing before I started. Effective writing can be taught, wide reading and critical thinking and good research and technique can be taught, as well as the social and career aspects of the writing industry – but the idea of writing as pleasurable or fulfilling, that comes built-in.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
I’d like to be one of the charming, slightly sinister but ultimately harmless red-herring characters sitting around the dining room in a Poirot denouement scene.
Don’t get hung up on whether you’ve earned the right to call yourself a writer, or a critic, or whatever – there’s no threshold where you have to write a certain amount, or a certain style, or be published a certain number of times within a year to be admitted into the club. Can’t find the time to write every day? Write once a week, or a month, or whatever you can do. Write in a journal, or write some funny tweets, or review things on Goodreads or Facebook or a blog. Congratulations, you’re a writer! But the next step is figuring out what you want to do with that.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I’m fortunate in my job that I get to read a lot of the advance reading copies that get sent to KYD, but for buying books I always like to head over to Readings in Carlton.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
This idea sounds more stressful than anything, to be honest – though I’d like to be one of the charming, slightly sinister but ultimately harmless red-herring characters sitting around the dining room in a Poirot denouement scene.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I can’t name a single piece that has influenced my writing and/or editing style, though it’s definitely changed over the years as I’ve begun reading more non-fiction than fiction. Reading Anna Krien’s Into The Woods was probably the first time I really saw the power of longform non-fiction. I never thought I’d be sitting up into the wee hours powering through a book about Tasmanian forestry, but it’s such a gripping book. But going back further than that, reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series in early high school was probably the book that actually got me into writing in a serious way. I thought (and still do think) Douglas Adams was one of the funniest and most interesting people on the planet, and felt that if I studied and emulated his style closely enough, I could be funny and interesting, too. In reality it probably just made me insufferable, but it was the first time I really became aware of the craft of writing.
The 2018 KYD New Critic Award is open for emerging book critics, offering a cash prize and an ongoing column in KYD. Entries close 1 December – full details here.