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Working with Words: Elspeth Muir

Read Sunday, 28 May 2017

Elspeth Muir is a Brisbane author whose writing has appeared in the Lifted Brow, The Best of the Lifted Brow: Volume One, Griffith Review, Voiceworks and Bumf. Her memoir, Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and Death in Brisbane, was shortlisted for last year’s Queensland Premier’s Award for a Work of State Significance and longlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

We spoke with Elspeth about her thwarted dreams of priesthood, the hidden benefits of day jobs, and her Grade Two brush with literary success.

Photograph of writer Elspeth Muir
Elspeth Muir

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What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

A short story, ‘Fog’, in Voiceworks.

What’s the best part of your job?

Just lately, a few people have written to me to say my book helped them move through a period of grief or sadness. That was pretty nice.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Being lonely, anxious and paranoid for a sustained length of time.

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

When I was in Grade Two, my class had a story-writing competition for Book Week. It was serious – an outside judge was brought in as arbiter. The day the winner of the competition was announced, I was away, but I wasn’t particularly fussed, because weeks in advance it had been unofficially decided that a very bright and popular girl in the class was a shoo-in; she’d had the monopoly on prizes since Grade One.

Prior to being an award-winning writer, I had spent lunchtimes alone playing a made-up game where I taxied imaginary friends to different locations.

The day I returned to school – and I actually doubt this is what really happened, but this is how I remember it – one of the children in my class spotted me as I was walking to the classroom and yelled ‘YOU WON THE PRIZE!!’. Then everyone streamed up the hill towards me cheering and yelling  ‘YOU WON!!’

Prior to being an award-winning writer, I had spent lunchtimes alone playing a made-up game where I taxied imaginary friends to different locations. Tasting popularity helped me understand the power of the written word. It changed me.

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

If a reader doesn’t understand a piece of writing, it’s not that they’re deficient in some way – it’s because what you’ve written probably doesn’t make sense.

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

Ha – um … I did an interview last year, and the interviewer said, ‘I thought you’d be much rougher. I didn’t expect you to be so gentle.’ Immediately after he said this, I roundhouse kicked him in the face.

Book cover: Wasted, by Elspeth Muir
Muir’s memoir, <em>Wasted</em>

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

As a child, I wanted to be a priest; I enjoyed singing hymns and the idea of eating wafers. I frequently dressed up in a tablecloth to perform elaborate church services, and either my Grandma or the little atheist girl who lived next door to her would be the altar server.

I still kind of like the idea of swinging a thurible and visiting parishioners to eat warm teacake and discuss their gout, or whatever priests do. But, to my chagrin, the systemic misogyny inherent in my particular strain of Christianity means that female priests probably won’t be a thing anytime soon.

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

I didn’t learn creative writing, but I tutor it now. While some of my students are naturally talented, and they have an advantage, I think so much of what’s taught in creative writing classes is really useful and practical for everyone: e.g. how to tell a story, why redrafting is important, how to give and take constructive criticism, how to structure a piece, and how to read critically (among many other things).  On top of that is the exposure to some truly incredible writers and editors as guest lecturers.

If a reader doesn’t understand a piece of writing, it’s not that they’re deficient in some way, it’s because what you’ve written probably doesn’t make sense.

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

I don’t make enough money to live off my writing, so I work part-time as a communications officer at a university. This is mostly as dull as it sounds. I edit a lot of indexes.

While I sometimes despair of my lot (crankily slamming my novelty mug on the desk), what I do like about working in an area completely outside of writing is all the wonderful, strange, funny weirdos about. At 3pm most afternoons, two pods away from me, my favourite weirdo – a kind, cross woman – starts singing loudly, off-key, some wildly ambitious pop song. Lately, she’s been singing ‘Africa’ by Toto. Prior to that it was ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush. Because she’s wearing headphones, I don’t think she realises how loud she is. Her singing is polarising. While I wholeheartedly support it, she has officially been asked to stop. But she does it anyway.

There are interesting characters and stories everywhere, and I think (I hope) that sometimes the thing you believe is your side-job can be the source of your richest material.

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

Doc from Cannery Row.

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

My editor sent me Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates towards the end of the editing process for Wasted, when I was pretty stressed and unhinged. I had to force myself to read it – I was only reading fantasy novels at the time – but when I did, it was like I woke up and I remembered why writing is important, and what the best writing can achieve.

Coates’ book is a lyrical, political masterpiece; it made me upset and thoughtful and angry and self-reflective, and when I finished it, my worldview was opened and altered. It also made me want to write, and I started editing my own book again.

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