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Working with Words: Georgina Young

Read Monday, 24 Aug 2020

We spoke with Loner author Georgina Young about Billy Joel, definitions of success and lucky diamanté charms.

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

Photograph of author Georgina Young

Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I used to for some reason pride myself on the fact that I very rarely cried, but I have a vivid memory of sitting on my bed practically bawling after reading The Book Thief. I felt so many emotions I ended up writing a song about it. My family were in the other room and they said, ‘Come out and watch Merlin.’ But thanks to Markus Zusak I was dead inside and could not enjoy CGI dragons.

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

Yes! I loved story-writing time at primary school. I started writing my first book when I was about 12. It was the first in a medieval trilogy that had talking cats and time travel. I am going to go back and rework it someday. I spent a lot of my spare time during high school writing. Every new book I started I was always like, ‘this is the one!’ It was never the one. I’m glad I started early, because I’d already spent a lot of time essentially honing my craft before I even hit uni.

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

I wanted to write about having to be your own champion, and life-support to your ambition, and how easy it is to wonder whether you should just give up on ever succeeding in your creative field.

I was still studying and was working at a newsagency when I was writing my novel, Loner. I wanted to write about art and pursuing one’s craft in those years when all everyone wants to know is what ‘proper job’ you’re aiming for. I wanted to write about working in retail and casual jobs that are often viewed as transitory, and not acceptable as the right answer to ‘What are you doing with your life?’ I wanted to write about having to be your own champion, and life-support to your ambition, and how easy it is to wonder whether you should just give up on ever succeeding in your creative field. Also, the question of what exactly ‘success’ is – whether simply making art is enough, or whether its meaning is in its consumption by others. I don’t know yet. I am in the process of discovering what it means to write for other people. It had always been my ambition, but I never really considered what it would feel like psychologically. So far? It’s been kind of weird.

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

Cover image of the novel 'Loner', showing an illustration of a young person with short  blue hair and sunglasses

Weeping. But seriously, probably barely functioning. I always try to give myself a break after finishing a project, but it always ends up being a week of misery and existentialism. Then straight back to work.

I think in a parallel universe I would probably be an English or art teacher. For all my many crises over occupation in life, I would always eventually calm myself down by remembering that I would probably enjoy being a teacher. My only doubt was that I would most likely be intimidated by the students and they would be able to sniff out my fear like a pack of wild dogs.

In summation, it’s probably good I’m not a teacher. Not least because I have become jaded and disenchanted with the unquestionable divinity of ‘the right answer’.

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

This isn’t specifically about writing and it isn’t technically advice, but when I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious I sing ‘Vienna’ by Billy Joel to myself (‘Slow down you crazy child, you’re so ambitious for a juvenile …’). I remind myself that I don’t have to do everything all at once. Whatever I want, wherever I want to go, will still be there tomorrow and the day after. I have a propensity to freak when my own expectations fall through, and it makes me feel just a little bit better when things are not going exactly to plan.

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

Yes, veritable stacks. When I was younger it was very much ‘I went to dance, we did shuffle ball changes’, but over time it inevitably became moodier and more introspective. Journalling is important to me on a couple of fronts. One, because I love being able to reconstruct accurate timelines of past events, and two, because it’s the closest record I have of how I was and how I felt at various ages. Unfortunately, I did a class at uni called ‘Narrating the Self’, which did a lot to ruin journalling for me. It was all about insisting that no record is ever ‘true’, and that all writing is performative. Now, I constantly feel as if I’m looking over my own shoulder when I’m writing in my diary. I have become much more aware of when I am holding things back and when I am striking an affected tone. I look at what I’ve just written and think ‘that’s not the way it was!’ Moral of the story: university will ruin you for ever just enjoying something.

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

So, I recently read My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, and I am in love. I know it seems ridiculous to suggest that the writer who established our country’s most famous literary award could be ‘underrated’, but just take into account the fact that hardly anyone my age seems to know about or have read Miles Franklin, let alone be aware that she is a woman, and a fiery feminist at that. I so enjoyed both books and it has become my ambition to introduce as many people as possible to Sybylla Melvyn, a protagonist as sharp and wilful (and funny) as they come. If young women rebelling against gender/social norms is your jam, I’d advise you give them a read. In the introductory notes to My Career Goes Bung, it explains that the novel was considered far too outrageous to publish in the early 1900s (especially because it was particularly scathing of the literary and social elite of the era), and wasn’t printed until 40 years after it was written. If that’s not a ringing endorsement, what is?

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

If I don’t start writing in the morning, I find it very difficult to get into it later in the day. It is completely irrational, but I become convinced that my mind is already fogged up by the day’s happenings and nothing good will come out of it. I think largely due to anxiety, I find having a routine very beneficial. I get up in the morning, eat my Rice Bubbles, read a bit of my breakfast book (something non-fiction, essay, memoir, or maybe a short story or poem), get dressed and then sit down and write. When I get stuck, or if I’ve just been sitting still too long, I’ll make a cup of tea. Usually I write up until lunch, and then go back and do a bit afterwards. 

I also have this ring I rediscovered recently. My Year Twelve lit teacher found it in a box of junk in the classroom and said whoever wanted it could have it. It’s one of those cheap children’s rings, with a little green diamanté, and it’s bent. I took it at the time and used to wear it on my left ring finger when writing. It was a joke with myself, that it was a symbol of my most important relationship. I’ve returned to the habit of slipping it on when I’m at my desk. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of unnecessary possessions over the last few years, but I kept the ring. It’s silly. I love it.

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

I haven’t had much experience of this kind of regret yet. But I hope that I will continue to take the view that I don’t need to rewrite things past, I can just write something new. If I haven’t expressed myself clearly somewhere, or if my mind has changed about something, I don’t think it’s helpful or constructive to worry about editing or deleting it. If anything, I think it can be beneficial to look back at old work and see in it the potential to bring new ideas and learning to old concepts and narratives. I believe in kindness and empathy as forces for good, and that applies to looking back on ourselves. I always think: okay, so do better next time.

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

Having dinner with a stranger is basically my nightmare. Perhaps weirdly, I’ve never actually felt the need to meet anyone whose work I admire. It alarms me to think that someone at some point might want to meet me. 

I had two dreams last night, one about Schitt’s Creek and the other about Line of Duty, both television series I have been watching recently. My mind apparently has me covered in terms of constructing alternate realities in which I coexist with characters I want to spend more time with.

Georgina Young’s first novel, Loner, is out in August.

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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.