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Working with Words: Emma Mary Hall

Read Thursday, 7 Mar 2019

Melbourne-based theatre-maker Emma Mary Hall talks day jobs, diary angst and marking time with words.

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

Oh, what a question!

Photograph of theatre-maker Emma Mary Hall

Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind, the way he articulates tragic reality with such melancholy. I’m a sucker for melancholy. I remember Zadie Smith’s On Beauty affecting me deeply, and Ursula Le Guin’s A Very Long Way from Anywhere Else. But when I was a child I mainly read Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, and there was nothing particularly extreme about them. I got my emotional kicks watching Judy Garland.

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

When I was seven, I wrote a poem about dinosaurs. But then I turned eight and decided that poems were only poems if they rhymed. So I quit.

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

I used to work at a fruit and veg shop, which meant early starts on weekends. I used that fruit and veg shop job as an excuse to leave every party by 9pm during undergrad, thereby avoiding pretty much all illicit behaviour during my coming of age. I often wonder if this is why I’m so neurotic and isolationist.

I’ve the luxury of performing most of my own writing … I learn more about my words during performance – they can morph and grow.

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

In my day job I work in social policy, spending a lot of time in meetings talking about ethereal and opaque Projects and Programs Achieving Community Outcomes. I enjoy listening to the way we humans collectively negotiate slippery concepts in this way.

I also do a lot of performance, which means wrestling with words publicly and viscerally. Both of these other jobs keep me honest. But if I were none of these things, I like to think I’d sing.

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

Ellen van Neerven speaking at the Emerging Writers Festival last year told writers to stay healthy, because we write with our whole body. I think it was also her (among others) who said people read the book they want to read, not the one you think you have written. Sarah Manguso says interaction with the world is the only way to find your voice.

And when I was 16, I read a poem in a street press with the line: ‘We are all writers, but some of us write it down.’ These thoughts have probably been my most resonant guidance in recent times.

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

I’d kept a diary fairly constantly throughout my teenage and young adult years, but when I started professional actor training I became too self conscious. Once you’re self-aware, writing in a diary takes a lot of courage: to commit a state of mind or tortuous attitude to paper. It feels so permanent!

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated? 

I love Thomas Hardy. I love Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia, and the courageous way Oswald Spengler spills his overwrought thoughts on Western culture out over 1200 pages. I love some of Norman Mailer’s writing. I love a lot of straight white male authors and feel very conflicted about this. 

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

I keep deciding to write by hand, buy a nice new notebook, jot down some paras, lose the notebook, forget all about it, buy another one, then use my laptop.

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

Not really. I’ve the luxury of performing most of my own writing, which keeps things iterative. I learn more about my words during performance, they can morph and grow. Sometimes I wish I knew things I didn’t know when I started writing; but that is all part of living, isn’t it? And we are lucky, to write. It marks time.

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

I want to cook dinner for David Markson and Sarah Manguso, and listen to them chat in the living room while I pour the wine. We’d discuss the limited fame and fortune they found, despite their evident punk brilliance.

Emma Mary Hall’s solo show, World Problems, is about human ecology and the future. It’s on in Melbourne from 12–24 March at FortyFiveDownstairs. 

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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.