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Working with Words: Allee Richards

Read Monday, 25 Mar 2019

Playwright and short fiction writer Allee Richards talks Melbourne theatre, the chronology of paper diaries and what she’d ask Bindi Irwin.

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Allee Richards

Dogger, written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes. Dave loves his toy ‘Dogger’ more than anything. Tragedy strikes when Dogger goes missing and can’t be found anywhere. It turns out he was accidentally donated to be sold at the school fete. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, another little girl at the fete buys Dogger before Dave can get him back.

My Mum read to my siblings and me every night before bed. We had a big bookshelf of books that my siblings would rotate through. I chose Dogger every night (poor Mum).

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I remember bashing out one thinly veiled plagiarisation of the Lemony Snicket Unfortunate Events series when I was in primary school and that was it. I didn’t write as a teenager at all until Year 12, when I did creative writing assessments for both English and Literature. My English teacher encouraged me to keep writing, but it wasn’t until about four or five years after school that I wrote a short story of my own accord. 

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I’ve worked in hospitality and very briefly in publishing. I’ve been working in theatre for three years now and it’s been the most inspiring and nourishing job for my creativity. I work on a complete variety of shows – ballet, opera, comedy, plays, talks/lectures – and end up seeing shows that I would never usually buy a ticket to, often performed by people I’ve never heard of.

There’s so much great theatre in Melbourne, more than any other city I’ve visited.

It’s truly fascinating to see a show I’ll be working on and think, ‘Who is Colleen Ballinger?’ Then to arrive at work and see over 2,000 12-year-old girls lined up outside the theatre wearing bright pink lipstick and holding Tim Tams and think, ‘OMG WHO is Colleen Ballinger?’ I get so many ideas from work, I don’t ever want to leave (which is probably good given I can’t afford to). 

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’d be a programmer or artistic director of a mainstage theatre company. There’s so much great theatre in Melbourne, more than any other city I’ve visited. Most of what I love is on in the indie scene where people aren’t making money.

I’d love to be able to give companies like Riot Stage and theatremakers like Emily Goddard $200,000 to make a play. I’d probably then be fired for sending the company bankrupt and losing the entire subscriber base and have to go back to hospitality.

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

‘Stop writing short stories and finish your novel’. Seriously guys, if my priorities were financial pay-off and risk-aversion, I wouldn’t be writing fiction.      

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now? 

If my priorities were financial pay-off and risk-aversion, I wouldn’t be writing fiction.

I used to keep paper diaries, which included quotes copied down from books I was reading, drafts of stories and shopping lists. I predominantly read on a Kindle now, so just highlight passages of writing in there. Inspiration at inopportune times is usually plugged into my phone.

The thing I miss about paper diaries is their inherent chronology. I can pick up one from three years ago and be reminded that I read X book and wrote X story at the same time that I broke up with X person and had X job. The benefit of the phone, however, is that I can separate the notes into different topics: ‘Novel’, ‘Story’, ‘Shopping lists’. It’s really irritating to have to flick through three paper diaries looking for one paragraph you wrote and are convinced is worth finding.

Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

One of the best books I read in 2018 was Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides is hardly an unsung gem – he’s a literary superstar – but I didn’t hear anybody talking about the book and didn’t see it anywhere on Instagram. It’s an exquisite collection. A friend who works at a bookstore told me a large stack of the hardbacks (mistake) sat collecting dust on the display table. I guess it’s a sad truth that even literary superstars don’t make a splash with short stories.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

When I have an entire day off to write I will put my alarm to buzzer mode, as opposed to radio, so I won’t be distracted by any news. I turn my phone and the internet off. I will read a short story through twice before I begin writing, usually something by Lorrie Moore or Josephine Rowe. I listen to music when I do long sessions of writing but always something without lyrics – usually Ludovico Einaudi or Nils Frahm.

However, often I am working to a deadline and writing gets done in bursts: 40 minutes before work, 30 minutes on my lunch break, proofreading on my commute. There is no difference in the quality of my output in either mode. The rituals are really conducive to having a nice day rather than creating ‘better’ writing.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

I had a short story published by the Lifted Brow in 2016, a satirical piece written from the perspective of Bindi Irwin that questioned the mainstream media’s obsession with the Irwin family’s grief. I don’t regret publishing it. I think it’s well written and I think the media’s obsession with asking Bindi and Robert about their dad all the time is a kind of grief-related inspiration porn and that’s problematic.

But, I always feel uneasy about that story because Bindi Irwin is a real person, probably a very nice person, and her grief is real. Making people laugh at the media’s portrayal of her grief skirts very close to making people laugh at her grief.

Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with?

Bindi Irwin. I’d ask, ‘So what was it like losing your Dad at such a young age?’ 

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