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Working with Words: Kate Lyons

Read Monday, 2 Jul 2018

Kate Lyons is the author of The Far-Back Country. She spoke with us about her least favourite time of day, the importance of editing and using the page like a camera.

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

Photograph of Kate Lyons

‘… my little desk made of a tin dinner tray, a pile of fresh bond paper, the satisfying busyness of typing, clickety clack.’

Black Beauty. I read it at seven, lying on the lounge recovering from tonsillitis, and while eating a banana and sugar sandwich my mother had made for me. I remember being equally ravenous for the sandwich and the story – Sewell’s riches to rags trajectory is a masterclass in plot – but also remember feeling unbearably anguished by the mistreatment of horses.

I adored horses and dogs from a very early age, and rode horses a lot when I was a teenager. Cruelty to any animal still makes me want to rage and cry.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years?

Yes, I remember starting an awful fantasy novel on my Dad’s typewriter, aged around 10. It involved witches (and no doubt, magic horses). I was obsessed with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, and with Lord of The Rings, at the time. In retrospect, I think I mostly liked all the writerly mise en scène – my little desk made of a tin dinner tray, a pile of fresh bond paper, the satisfying busyness of typing, clickety clack. I wrote bad poetry at high school, as many writers did, and had a small but disturbed following (my best friend).

By university, I was a little better at it and had some pieces published in journals, together with short prose. My first poem at school was about a deserted playground, when all the children had gone home, at dusk. The empty swing was creaking. Dusk is still my least favourite time of day.

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

I worked as a journalist straight out of university, writing about marketing, advertising and business – which I then took freelance because I was a single mother, I wanted to travel, and I wanted to work from home. At this stage, in the late 90s, you could live off it as journalists were decently paid. It was also pre-email, and I communicated with editors by fax.

I wrote about everything from advertising campaigns for tampons to the bespoke tailoring of men’s suits. Later, I combined freelance journalism with teaching writing and literature at university, which I really enjoyed, apart from the marking at end of term. I have been lucky enough not to have to work in a real office for many years now.

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

If the fear of becoming too old to enter had not prompted my entering the Australian Vogel Award with my first novel, The Water Underneath, and had coming runner up not resulted in that novel getting published, I would probably still be trying to write a novel, while working as a journalist and teaching at university when I could.

For a while, I had a hankering to become a ‘real’ academic and got a doctoral degree in creative arts to that end. I enjoyed writing my doctoral thesis and I still enjoy critical thinking, writing and reading, as a break from fiction writing. It brings different thinking and writing muscles to bear.

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

Margaret Atwood advised that if you hit a problem in a novel, don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. Follow your own bread crumbs back to where you went wrong. Don’t lose your nerve, in essence. While at university my tutor, Scottish novelist Alison Fell, loved a short story I showed her but told me it was actually a novel. Until then I hadn’t had the nerve to think that big.

Worst advice for me would be that one of doing a set number of words per day, as if you were making sausages. Getting words down in volume is not a problem for me (a side effect of time as a journalist). The problem is the more words I have, the more I might have to throw out the next day. I think editing is the hardest yet most rewarding and important task in writing.

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

Only when travelling, either overseas or outback – and I make sure it’s a writing diary, limited to on the hoof observations, quick descriptions, overhead conversations, natural colour, immediate impressions of landscapes and people who strike me. I try and do them a bit like a painter’s sketch, in quick loose phrases, without the filter or burden of thinking, ‘oh, this is some very important writing I am doing here’. I use the page like a camera and for that reason, I avoid taking photos.

I use the page like a camera and for that reason, I avoid taking photos.

Released from the idea that this is ‘writing’ for public consumption, these diaries often contain the most succinct and striking images and connections. I go back to them when I am writing for a fresh and unfettered approach to place, an entrée to a different, looser mood. For me, a daily diary too often turns into a haranguing list of imperatives or castigations, anathema to writing.

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

I wouldn’t go so far as calling him overrated, because this is probably a matter of taste and a failure of persistence on my part, but I have never been able to get on with Henry James, mostly because of the ponderous, thickety sentences. He makes me feel tired.

And without naming any names, I think that a number of American novels released in the last ten years or so are a bit overrated, partly because there is this overweening drive to write the ‘Great American Novel’, partly because they are so often too baggy, by which I mean under-edited and overwritten. Big publishing budget often seems to equate to minimal editing. Good books can get lost inside self-indulgence.

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

No superstitions as such, because I think superstition is silly. I have a bad neck, from years of work at a desk. More than half an hour at the desk means physical discomfort, which means getting up, which means breaking the flow. I write in bed, in a top floor bedroom, with lots of pillows, light, and views of clouds and birds. It is a peaceful place and most of all, comfortable. I try and write first thing in the morning and try to do it every day but I often break my own rules.

I love it when things are going well, when it consumes you in fierce, exhausting concentration.

I have tried in the past to write at my desk with everything just so, like a ‘proper writer’ – but creativity often flees in the face of too much perfection and I end up cleaning the bathroom instead. I find that the best writing arrives when you are in your dressing gown, with house and hair a mess, and only half an hour before you are meant to be somewhere else. I love it when things are going well, when it consumes you in fierce, exhausting concentration. During the final leg of a book, I can start work in the morning then look up and find it is sunset, with the feeling only minutes have passed.

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

If I look at my first two novels, after publication – which I avoid doing in case I find a typo – there are always infelicities or extravagances, but I see those mistakes as part of learning how to be a good craftsperson.

Writing is a craft which you have to learn by yourself, mostly, from reading, and from rewriting and rewriting, endless trial and error. A lot of it is about cutting away, like revealing a sculpture from a big hunk of wood or stone. What is left by the wayside is crucial because that’s the way you learn how to do it again.

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

Margaret Atwood, for her sharp wit, although I would be scared to say anything, as she seems a fearsome interviewee. Michael Ondaatje, for his calm poeticism. Colm Tóibín, who is equal parts comforting, funny, sage and stern about writing. 

Kate’s fourth novel, currently in research, is an historical fiction set in the late 1800s in the Barrier Ranges of NSW. It is based loosely on the life a female pioneer and the real life case of a missing child on a remote sheep station. It is part colonial murder mystery, part exploration of women’s lives in that place and time.

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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.