Working with Words: Andrew Knight
Andrew Knight is one of Australia’s most celebrated writers for TV and film. His credits include Fast Forward, Rake and Jack Irish and he counts Clive James among his fans. Andrew chatted with us about avoiding amoebae and bad advice and explained the circumstances under which a writer should always storm out of a meeting.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
The Royal Rebel, written when I was 11. It sported such memorable lines as, ‘If Dante Freneck had only known there was just enough oxygen for one of them trapped in this upturned carriage in this raging river of fury’. Sadly it was read on ABC Radio – I have no idea regarding the derivation of the name ‘Freneck’.
What’s the best part of your job?
When the idea finally takes form in your head and you can see a way forward. And, as a screenwriter, I guess the big thrill is seeing often hundreds of people work their arses off to realise this thing that was once inside your head.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Writing. Agonising hours spent wrestling and savaging words to conform to the well-formed idea in your head that now turns out to be a lemon. You find yourself constantly working in a slime of your own creation, hoping to God it doesn’t end up being just another amoeba. My other great hate is voluminous notes from people you have never met explaining why your well-formed idea is a lemon.
You find yourself constantly working in a slime of your own creation, hoping to God it doesn’t end up being just another amoeba.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Probably getting my first TV series up. I wrote it with John Clarke and it was the first time I really felt I had a career.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
The best advice: genre is a French word meaning ‘no new ideas’. Try and find your own voice, not emulate others.
The worst advice: Not advice really, but you often hear from incompetent producers the words: ‘I’ll tell you why that won’t work’. At all costs, if you hear them say it, leave the room.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
Recently someone played me an interview with one of my great heroes, Clive James, who said he and his family loved Rake. That surprised and delighted me.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I worked in a paint and a glue factory after my degree. I was sacked. I followed this with a brief stint in the public service where I was told I had little hope of promotion. The short answer is: I was always going to be a writer.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
The basics, I suppose, can be taught – to a point – but ultimately it is not an academic exercise. Writing is a craft and a hell of a lot can be divined by simply reading good writers. You can learn the basics quickly but then spend the rest of your life just trying to get it right.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Be sure you have something to write about. Read widely, live out in the real world and have an attitude to the society you live in. Then be critical of your own work – not to the point of emasculation, but just with a view to improving your next effort.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Bookshops – but when travelling I admit to downloading the odd read on my Kindle. Much prefer books.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Oh God, I hate questions like this. I don’t know, Gatsby, just to get an invite to one of his parties.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Pretty much anything by Charles Dickens. Nothing teaches you more about creating distinct and memorable characters that his writing. Also, as a screenwriter, the script for the Billy Wilder film, The Apartment. It is a great example of the craft.