Working with Words: Katherine Tamiko Arguile
We spoke with Adelaide-based novelist Katherine Tamiko Arguile about past lives, pencil protagonists and writers who mix comedy and tragedy.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I’m not sure I remember the first; I was probably too young. But my earliest and most vivid memory is of laughing out loud while crying full-flowing tears over scenes in John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire when I was about 17. Irving puts the Berry family through unspeakable sorrow, suffering and tragedy, but the dark humour he peppers through the most appalling moments of humiliation and tragedy triggers visceral laughs, like sneezes, over stomach-churning sadness. The humour always felt appropriate. To me, it was a mechanism protecting the reader, stopping the sadness from making the book unbearable to read.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
I remember the frustration, when I was very young, of wanting to write before I knew how letters were put together to make words and sentences. Once I knew how, I wrote short stories. My primary school teacher recognised the little author trying to emerge and gave me extra topics to write about. I still have some of them; stories about runaway cookies that didn’t want to be eaten, skunks that hid inside ice cream cones and popped out to startle children mid-lick. There’s even a chapter outline for ‘Plinky & Planky The Pencils And The Great Adventure’, though I only managed two chapters; I must have grown bored of poor Plinky and Planky. As a teenager I wrote poems. They’re terrible – emotionally turbulent, sentimental and often hilariously moralising – but I can’t quite bring myself to throw them away.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I was strongly discouraged from a career path as a writer, so my early working life in London had me working as a ‘suit’ in advertising; a corporate communications manager for a Japanese logistics company; a Sneaker Pimp (a term coined by the Beastie Boys) for a well-known heritage sportswear brand (which involved doling out free gear to bands like Oasis and The Prodigy or underground house DJs), and a DJ. After my mother died I took a BSc in Health Studies and became a complementary health practioner for a while, paying my way by working part-time in university administration and retail. After coming to Australia, I worked in the arts for a while before starting a coffee business with my partner. We have a little coffee shop in Adelaide city centre. All of these jobs made me acutely aware I should have been forging ahead on a writer’s path all along; some of them made me unbelievably miserable, and all of them never felt quite right.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Slowly shrivelling away inside.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
I’ve bundled the best advice I’ve received into a package: treat writing like a job and get your bum on the seat every day. Keep writing without waiting for inspiration, even if what you’ve written makes you fear being hit by a bus because people might then find and read that shitty first draft. Be open to feedback from experienced writers and editors you trust, and never take it personally – if you feel a twist in the gut at something you hear, take it as a signal that there’s work to be done. Be careful about asking for feedback from well-meaning, non-writing friends or family, because it will lead you astray. Have a writing routine. Keep your body moving in whatever way you are able. Air your mind with time out in nature, meditating, dancing, or whatever you need to feed and replenish it. Observe everything. Drink in new experiences. Get enough sleep. And most important of all: grow as thick a skin as you can, and persist, persist, persist.
The humour always felt appropriate. To me, it was a mechanism protecting the reader, stopping the sadness from making the book unbearable to read.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I was given one of those old-fashioned five-year diaries when I was seven or eight. It had a lock and key. I was inspired by the heartbreaking diaries of Anne Frank and treated mine like a friend I could confide in, the way Anne treated hers. I’ve kept diaries ever since – it’s been sporadic – but it’s often been a solace to go back and read something from years ago, and see how much my life has changed for the better.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
Carol Lefevre’s novella Murmurations, recently released by Spinifex, has had excellent reviews, so it may seem odd to name this as my unsung, underrated gem. But too many people haven’t read or heard of this, or of other works by Lefevre, despite her being – in my opinion – one of Australia’s best writers. She’s up there alongside Elizabeth Strout, whose writing I love. Lefevre’s pared down, thoughtful, seemingly effortlessly written prose unravels the ordinary, quiet lives of people, and haunts you with profound feelings of melancholic beauty, touching something deep and universal within. Murmurations, like other fiction and non-fiction books she has written (Nights in the Asylum, If You Were Mine, Quiet City: Walking in West Terrace Cemetery, Of Bread & Roses, The Happiness Glass) are the kind of books you read again and again, gaining deeper insights each time. Classic literature.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
Not really. That may seem surprising to people who know me.
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
I look back at every piece I’ve written and published and aim to write better. I hope I never stop improving.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
The singular here is brutal. I’d have dinners every weekend for years if I listed all the people, real and fictional, I’d like to have dinner with. But since I’m forced to choose, I’d revel in nostalgic talk about the Japan of my childhood, now lost, with the late Miki Miura, better known as Momoko Sakura, a genre-bending manga essayist whose manga comic series, Chibi Maruko-chan, targeted a twenty-something female demographic and reflected her own life growing up in 1970s suburban Japan. I own her entire collection, annoted by my late mother with furigana so I could read the kanji characters. Her manga and essays could be so hilarious they’d make you snort out your tea one moment, and well up with grief the next. We’d have a lot to talk about, and of course, we’d tuck into a delicious home-cooked Japanese meal together.
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