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Working with Words: Lana Guineay

Read Monday, 7 Dec 2020

We spoke with writer and editor Lana Guineay about kindness, letting the brain run wild and using scent in the writing process.

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

Photograph of Lana Guineay
Cover of Dark Wave, featuring an illustration of a body reflected in water

I don’t recall either of those firsts, but I do remember the first word I ever read. I was studying a flyer on the fridge with the microscopic intensity peculiar to children, when I realised that the shapes made sense. I tried them out on my tongue: PIZZA. This moment started the love of reading, and of pizza, that’s been with me ever since.

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

I’ve always written. My first ambitious piece was a novel I began in my bedroom as a teenager, a space opera meets Hackers. Sadly(?) lost to time.

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

I’ve always been beguiled by words, and apart from my first job as a waitress at my local surf club, my jobs have all been writing-adjacent. I started in communications before I was drawn to the gloss of magazine land, then worked as a fashion editor in Melbourne, Sydney and London for a decade or so. Today I’m back home in Adelaide freelancing and looking after marketing at Writers SA.

Thanks to my past life as a fashion editor, I’ve learned economy and speed (a lesson in progress), to be audience-centric, and how we tell stories about ourselves and others. I’ve collected synonyms and adjudicated verbs. As a freelancer I’ve worked largely across journalism, copywriting and content editing, and learned a lot that has directly influenced my prose. But the subtler arts of the long-term freelancer have been invaluable when writing my first novel: the freedom and challenges of directing your own work, writing sustainably, deadlines and food reward systems, cultivating a gentle core of self-belief.

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

In an alternate reality, I’m ducking out of the London rain and into the V&A museum, where I spend the afternoon digging through opulent archives of treasures for the exhibition I’m curating.

All of my dream jobs are just variations on being a writer: detail-oriented, socially observant, obsessed with the place where imagination and skill meet. I’m talking forensic anthropology, archaeology, curation, art conservation, spy-craft. Life’s long, I can probably fit in another one or two more of these.

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

I’m stubborn, some of the best writing advice of all has been delivered obliquely. I learn best by seeing things done well and with care: well-written books, lives lived with beauty and bravery, well-crafted films.

All of my dream jobs are just variations on being a writer: detail-oriented, socially observant, obsessed with the place where imagination and skill meet.

I sometimes think of Zadie Smith’s writing tip: ‘When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books.’ I also like the more achievable: ‘Writing is getting the words down, editing is making them not shitty.’ Chuck Wendig said this, but variations on this advice float around everywhere, and with good reason. That writing is rewriting became clear to me during my first book, and while I imagine there are mythical beings who get the words down near-perfect from start to finish, for most of us (me) it’s important to start a project without perfectionism and expectation – to let the right brain run wild for a while.

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

Morning Pages is a practice I find myself coming back to. It’s from The Artist’s Way – it’s not a diary but a daily stream of consciousness written as soon as you wake up, which is meant to free you up to get to the good stuff in your creative work. Some days those three longhand pages are tough, yet on others a curious thing happens about halfway in. I imagine it as everything settling and clarifying: there’s an inspiration, a way forward for a scene, an idea for a piece I’ve been writing, a sentence, a personal insight. The subconscious speaks and I wouldn’t have heard it otherwise.

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

I don’t know if it’s strange but people have been interested that I use scent in my writing process. For my debut Dark Wave, I gave each of my main characters a perfume, as well as a mood board and character study. Like many writers I exist a lot in my own head – I wanted to pull myself back into the body and try to evoke some of that on the page. It’s that power of the tactile and the imaginative working in harmony. Little clues that likely won’t surface explicitly in the writing but help define the shape and texture of the thing.

I learn best by seeing things done well and with care: well-written books, lives lived with beauty and bravery, well-crafted films.

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

I believe in the power of kindness and attempt to practice it on myself (this is not always a successful plan). I don’t re-read my writing often, but I try to accept that I did the best with what I had, and then cringe heartily. It’s healthy. That said, my publisher offered these comforting words just before my book launch: there’s a reason there are second print runs.

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

I fancy a long Elizabethan dinner with Shakespeare to get a few things straight. I personally believe the authorship dissension is a reflection of the deeply embedded prejudices of the English class system. But Keanu Reeves, perfect human, is an Oxfordian! So now I don’t know what to think. Either way Shakespeare would be entertaining, and after the authorship question is out of the way we could talk about sonnet 33, and his use of discordia concors.

That, or M.F.K. Fisher would invite me to her home in pre-war France and cook for me. We’d have the most charming lunch in history, with all of the intimacy of women on our second glass of good honest wine, rambling late into the afternoon.

Lana’s debut Dark Wave was recently awarded the Viva La Novella prize for 2020 and is out now. She is currently writing her second book and being distracted on Twitter.

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