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Working with Words: Lia Hills

Read Sunday, 20 Aug 2017

Lia Hills is a Melbourne-based novelist, poet and translator of the French language. Her ambitious second novel, The Crying Place, is extensively researched, taking the reader into the heart of Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara country and raising questions about belonging, grief and mythology. We talked with Lia about wild minds, risk-taking and learning from reviews.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

Photograph of Lia Hills

When I was 13, I wrote a piece about a woman having a crisis of faith at the moment of her death, as the result of persecution. It was published in my college magazine. I was surprised that someone would include a story like that, since it was very different to the other pieces they published. This encouraged me to keep writing about things I thought were important.

What’s the best part of your job?

The rich connections you make with people when you’re working on a book, as well as once it’s released. The process opens up worlds. But what keeps me going in the most doubt-filled moments is that there is no other work I’ve ever done that satisfies me so fully as writing. It draws on everything I have, and then some.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The uncertainty of the industry. You can do your best, work your heart out, but the result is never guaranteed.

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

I’m tempted to say when I got my first contract or got nominated for the first big award – the buzz moments – but the true highlights have been less tangible: moments of flow, of clarity, of encounters with writers, dead and alive.

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

I spent years not only learning from great storytellers … but learning how to be a risk-taker, which I consider a key skill for being a writer.

Writ large above my work bench in my study is that great Kafka line from a letter he wrote to his friend Oskar Pollak: ‘A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.’ It greets me every time I enter. Reminds me why I write.

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

Cover image of the book, 'The Crying Place' by Lia Hills

Recently a reviewer, when writing about The Crying Place, pointed out that both Patrick White and I ‘wanted to show the mystery and poetry that lurks behind a disguise of ordinariness’, but went further to differentiate between White’s desire for transcendence and my own ‘yearning … for immanence’. What surprised me was that the reviewer was articulating something I hadn’t yet put into words, even though it’s fundamental to my work. Sometimes a review can be very useful.

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

I would most likely be working in the recovery and revivification of Indigenous languages.

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

The reviewer was articulating something I hadn’t yet put into words, even though it’s fundamental to my work.

I’m a shameless autodidact, so early on I joined what I thought of as the Hemingway school of writing – i.e I hit the road. I spent years not only learning from great storytellers I met along the way, but learning how to be a risk-taker, which I consider a key skill for being a writer. You need to have an understanding of how far you can go, and what it looks like when you’re hovering at the edge of a place from which you can’t come back. I couldn’t do that in a classroom, but I know others for whom a writing course was the best path.

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

Understand why it is you want to write. Confused motives can get you in all types of trouble. And write about what keeps you up at night. Anything less is not worth your time.

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

Mostly in a bookshop, unless it’s something really obscure. Bookshops are the lifeblood of the industry and there’s something beautiful about the randomness of a book you stumble across.

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

Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) from On the Road, though I doubt much solid fuel would be consumed. Wild minds have always fascinated me. It wouldn’t matter what we talked about; it would be the way we’d talk, the mad cadence of it.

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

Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being had a huge impact on me when I first read it. In terms of bravery, Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe and Keri Hulme’s The Bone People were pivotal works for me.

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Acknowledgment of Country

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.