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Working with Words: Billy Geary

Read Saturday, 30 Jul 2016

Billy Geary started his writing career as a music journalist before making the jump to his other passion – the environment. Geary is currently the Science and Conservation Editor for ‘nature engagement’ non-profit Wild Melbourne.

He spoke to us about how science influences his work, why Victor Frankenstein would make an appealing dinner partner and why he finds nature writing so rich with discovery.

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Photo of Billy Geary
Billy Geary

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I started out blogging about music when I was still in high school, but my first paid published piece was a review of a hardcore band’s show at the Tote for a local music and culture magazine. It was the first time I’d had that surreal feeling of being paid to do something I loved and would have certainly done for free, anyway (not that I told my editor that!). That first gig review inspired a love affair with writing about sticky carpets and distorted guitars all across Melbourne.

‘The feeling of discovering or experiencing something in nature that is completely new can be pretty special. Nature writing gives you the opportunity to share that feeling with someone else.’

What’s the best part of your job?

As cheesy as it sounds, the best part of my job is being able to write about what I love. Australia’s natural environment and the people that work with it have some of the most beautiful and amazing stories to share, yet are completely unknown to many. That’s essentially why some close friends and I started Wild Melbourne – to tell stories about the environment in the hope that we can inspire others to care about it.

The feeling of discovering or experiencing something in nature that is completely new can be pretty special. Nature writing gives you the opportunity to share that feeling with someone else. Someone that may not get the opportunity to have that same experience.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I struggle a lot with writer’s block. The days where the words aren’t flowing can be really, really hard, and are often only cured by getting as far away from my MacBook as possible. Finding nice, large blocks of time to write is also really difficult, and often requires forgoing sleep. Twitter is a lovable scourge that can contribute to both of the aforementioned.  

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

Probably the decision to pare back writing about music in favour of writing about nature. I dearly love both areas, but the decision came down to which was the most productive use of my time. The epiphany came when trying to explain some of my ecological research to a family member – the only way I could get it across was writing it out as a story. Not long after, the idea for Wild Melbourne came about, and I haven’t looked back since. Publishing the first piece about my own research was also a great moment.

‘Once you think you’ve finished a piece, sleep on it for a day before returning.’

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

Once you think you’ve finished a piece, sleep on it for a day before returning. This sage advice from my Year Eight English teacher is something that I use all the time. The temptation is always there to send off a piece to your editor as soon as you feel like it’s done, but that’s never a good idea if you can help it. It’s always funny how fresh eyes after a run or sleep can pick up all sorts of errors and silly mistakes.  

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

I find it quite weird and awkward when something I’ve written affects someone on a personal level. I recently got a message referring to a piece I wrote as ‘powerful,’ to the point where it had reinvigorated their passion for their university studies. Whilst other writers have had very similar impacts on me, it feels absurd that I could do the same for someone else. 

Little Desert's predator-proof fence
Little Desert’s predator-proof fence, from Geary’s most recent feature for Wild Melbourne

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

I would probably be pursuing a career in academia more heavily – the compulsion to discover new things about plants and animals has been with me as long as I can remember. Funnily enough, that probably involves just as much writing as a writing career.

Taking a step further away, an AFL career was always attractive, save for the lack of any natural football ability. 

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

I think anyone can be taught to be a technically proficient writer. That is, anyone can learn how to use grammar correctly, structure sentences properly, and build a strong vocabulary. The ability to write with flair and creativity, however, I think comes naturally.

I say this with one huge qualification, though. I believe everyone has the ability to write creatively; they sometimes just need teaching and guidance in finding the topics or styles where their creativity peaks. I still don’t think I’ve found mine.

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

This probably comes from my scientific background, but I think it’s really important to read more words than you write. As a scientist, we rely on reading others’ research to give context to our own and I think it applies nicely to other styles of writing. Reading other people’s work can be incredibly valuable. You pick up new words, new styles and new interpretations of things. Inspiration can strike at any time – all it takes is a particular word or phrase and the words pour out.

It’s also so important to set aside regular time for writing, every day if you can. Writing consistently keeps your head in the game and your stories at the forefront of your mind. For me, trying to write after a long break away can be incredibly difficult and can take days to get going again.

‘As a scientist, we rely on reading others’ research to give context to our own and I think it applies nicely to other styles of writing.’

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

A bit of both. Anything science-related I generally get online, as local bookshops don’t stock a lot of technical stuff. However, nothing beats perusing the shelves of a physical shop for hours on end. Some of my favourite books are those I’ve picked up off the shelf at complete random.

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

This is a hard one to answer – perhaps Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is one of my favourite books of all time. I’ve always thought that it’d be quite interesting to pick Victor’s brain about what drove him to human experimentation and the creation of his ‘monster.’ Plus, who wouldn’t love to meet a slightly mad scientist?  

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

I read Throwim Way Leg by Tim Flannery just as I’d started my science degree, and it had an enormous impact on me. Tim’s ability to inject complex scientific information with a sense of adventure and lust for discovery helped me sharpen my passion for both nature writing and research. It was one of the first pieces that showed me science writing could be so much more than data, experiments and endless jargon.

It would be fair to say that Tim Flannery had a big influence in thrusting me into the world of nature writing. I’m yet to come across another author who can make three weeks of malaria in the New Guinea jungle in search of new mammal species so attractive.

Billy Geary’s latest article for Wild Melbourne – on the rewilding of Victoria’s Little Desert – is called ‘Oasis in the Desert’.

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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.