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Working with Words: Heather Rose

Read Friday, 16 Sep 2016

Heather Rose is a novelist, art student and businesswoman, who writes for both adults and young readers. Her seventh novel, The Museum of Modern Love, is out now. Heather chatted with us about Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton and her dream of founding a School of Imagination.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Photograph of Heather Rose

It was a short story that won the junior section of the Tasmanian Short Story Competition back in 1981, when I was 16. It was published in the main Tasmanian newspaper, the Mercury. I can’t remember its title, but it was based on an old man I saw every week at the State Library. He used to read the Grove encyclopedia of music.

What’s the best part of your job?

I have a few jobs. I write novels for adults and I also write a children’s series – the Tuesday McGillycuddy books – together with Danielle Wood under our pseudonym Angelica Banks. As Angelica Banks, I get to visit lots of schools and wear a curly red wig, electric blue coat and very high boots. Children ask the best questions. I also love being a mother. I get to be a cook, philosopher, gardener, keeper of rats and cats and do it all wearing my pyjamas.

That also applies to writing. I don’t get to wear my pyjamas, or a wig, when I’m consulting in community engagement or branding, but if a client requested it …

What’s the worst part of your job?

A child asked me this the other day. The worst part about writing for me is there are so many projects I know I may never do – the poetry collection, the book of essays, the book of short stories, the 14 novels I still have to write. In Australia it is so hard to make any income as a writer that much of my time is taken up doing work that feeds my family and pays the essentials. I lament, in this era of Productivity Commission reports destined to cripple our industry, how little this government contributes to creativity when creativity is the wellspring of a healthy and prosperous society.

I think of all the literature that we’re missing out on because our writers simply cannot devote sufficient time … and how that literature might enrich our society, our economy and our global legacy.

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

I think having my seventh novel, The Museum of Modern Love, published this month feels pretty significant. Seven novels look good on the shelf …

Be willing to write early, or write late. Muses keep exotic hours.

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

Elizabeth Gilbert came to Hobart in February this year. I interviewed her at the Theatre Royal and she told us her mother’s advice on all projects was, ‘Better done than good’. That has really stayed with me. The worst advice was, ‘You’ll never make a living from writing’ when I was about 17. Actually, I’ve been a paid writer all my life in advertising, as a fiction writer, as a freelancer, as a business strategist. We’re a species that needs to communicate with words, so grappling with language has been richly rewarding in myriad ways.

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

I remain unsurprised. But that may be because so far very little has ever been written about me. I think if there were lots of things written about me, I would be surprised to find myself reading them.

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

Painting. It’s my new love affair. And drawing in charcoal. These days I am constantly weighing up whether I spend the next few hours writing or doing art. As I’m currently undertaking an undergrad in Fine Arts, the art has the more pressing deadlines, so it’s winning.

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

I am passionate about the idea of teaching creativity. I would love to start a School of Imagination for artists, engineers, doctors, scientists, writers, philosophers – completely multi-disciplinary. I have tutored students at the University of Tasmania in creative writing. It’s not the writing that’s the challenge. It’s stretching the brain. That’s where the School of Imagination comes in.

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

Read, read, read. A painter loves colour, a writer has to love words and sentences and characters. Be willing to write early, or write late. Muses keep exotic hours.

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

I buy books everywhere. I have a whole storage shed full of them because they don’t fit in the house. I buy new, second-hand, online, in person. I have favourite book stores all over the world and I love the little stickers on my books that remind me where I bought them.

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

I would like to go to dinner with Ellen Olenska from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. We could talk about art and love, Europe and America, intense husbands that one must leave, and beautiful lovers one must take, and how it would be 100 years and more before women had a glimpse of the social and moral freedom she craved.

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

I think it would be Anna Karenina. I have read it every decade of my life since I was 14 and each reading I have understood new things about myself. As a writer, I think it has taught me the importance of character, the craft of the novel, and the emotional landscape a writer must weave. The main character in The Museum of Modern Love is called Arky Levin – partly in honour of Tolstoy’s Levin.

Heather Rose’s seventh novel, The Museum of Modern Love, is out now. It is based on Marina Abramovic’s show, The Artist is Present, at MoMA in New York in 2010. It is published by Allen & Unwin.

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