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Working with Words: Luke Stegemann

Read Monday, 2 Oct 2017

Luke Stegemann is a writer, editor, publisher and Hispanist, based in south-east Queensland. His recently published work, The Beautiful Obscure, explores the interweaving cultural histories of Australia and Spain, blending art, history, politics and memoir. Luke spoke with us about his life in reading and writing – and went into bat for adjectives and adverbs in creative writing.

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Photo of Luke Stegemann
Luke Stegemann

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

Apart from juvenilia in school magazines, my first piece was published in an obscure education journal in 1990. At his request, I’d sent a 2000 word article to the editor – my former high school principal – describing the life of a 25-year-old English teacher in the wild Madrid of the late 1980s. Extraordinary to think my first ever published piece was in fact commissioned.

What’s the best part of your job?

I work a range of jobs in education, publishing and amateur boxing. In terms of editing and publishing, the greatest joy is finding and helping develop material from unknown or unrecognised writers which you know will find an appreciative audience. I’m reminded of that Clive James quote about turning a phrase until it catches the light – that’s where the joy is found.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I come across many writers who have the talent but lack the courage to be stylistically brave. The fear of disapproval is a powerful deterrent; perhaps intimidated by convention, or the prospect of ostracism, they stay within the tram tracks.

In a country as diverse as Australia, we should have multiple literatures bursting out all over the place. And those stylistically dissident literatures we do have should be gaining more acceptance. So a corollary of that is: readers need to be braver too.

In a country as diverse as Australia, we should have multiple literatures bursting out all over the place.

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

Seeing The Beautiful Obscure published this year, and being warmly surprised by its reception. Editing the Adelaide Review from 2008, and founding the Melbourne Review in 2011, provided me with opportunities to write more often and across a broader range of genres. It also allowed me to commission excellent local writers who had been otherwise overlooked.

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

[Jorge Luis] Borges gave the simplest advice: read, read, read and write, write, write. I’ve never been given what I consider bad advice about the process of writing, as I’m both self-taught and instinctual. For better or worse, I follow my own path.

I do worry, however, when I hear reports of creative writing teachers on the warpath against adjectives and adverbs. Properly controlled, there is nothing so thrilling as richly layered, dense, poetic language.

Book cover image: The Beautiful Obscure by Luke Stegemann
Stegemann’s book, <em>The Beautiful Obscure</em>

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

A decade ago, I delivered a conference keynote in Spanish, at Valencia Polytechnic, on the Australian model of multiculturalism. I was quoted the next day in the newspaper as ‘Luke Stegemann, Professor of Islamic History at the University of Valencia’. While flattered, I was horrified to think what the professor who held that actual role might have thought of this Aussie usurper!

I’m pleased to have received some very flattering comments about my writing style, including from international readers who have come across some of my work on art and cultural history, or the odd example of my short fiction.

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

After using the sport for 20 years as a means to general physical fitness, over the past five or six years I’ve moved into developing my skills as a boxing referee. I sometimes think I would like to have started earlier, so that now I might be working my way around the world, tournament by tournament. Important boxing tournaments are often held in countries not known for their tourism, such as Kazakhstan, so it would be a very ‘alternative’ way to see the world.

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

In my case, I have never studied creative writing, so I couldn’t say how effective it is or isn’t. Whatever qualities I might have as a writer have been developed simply by reading and writing as much as I can. Perhaps my defects might have been improved by a formal course of study? I can’t say – it remains a hypothetical.

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

All literary streams flow from somewhere; it’s always better, and more enriching, to know those springs.

Write as often as possible. Expect plenty of rejection. Be prepared for a long apprenticeship – it will only do you good. And regardless of how unfashionable it may be at times, steep yourself in literary tradition.

The canon is of course never an exclusive reading list, but a solid grounding in what came before is vital to appreciate why things stand as they do. All literary streams flow from somewhere; it’s always better, and more enriching, to know those springs. It also allows a much better appreciation of stylistic experiments – why some work, and others don’t. Lastly, don’t forget to read plenty of literature in translation.

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

Almost always in the physical bookshop. I’m quite a traditionalist in this. I do plenty of other purchases online so it’s nothing to do with technophobia. I simply like to hold and leaf through a book before purchasing. And of course, you support local bookshops, which is critical.

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

How better to discuss everything under the sun (and below the earth) than with Satan from Paradise Lost? If I could add another guest or two, I’d throw in Macbeth alongside Fredy Boettcher from Les Murray’s epic poem, Fredy Neptune, and Ippolit Terentyev, the feverish consumptive from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. To take the edge off this collection of male misfits, I’d invite Emily Dickinson and Lady Macbeth.

It would be a humble dinner, nothing flash, but there’d be a lot of discussion of God, and fate, and love, and good and evil. What else matters?

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

Since my mid-20s, I’ve been immeasurably enriched by reading in Spanish, as it is a language and a literary tradition that delights in the inventive, the circular and the wandering prose sentence. It is unashamed to be both complex and florid; more power to it. Since my teenage years, I have been very influenced by – and continue to derive great joy from – many 19th-century writers. The 19th Century was responsible, in so many ways, for the creation of our intellectual and conceptual present.

Luke Stegemann is currently working on a deeper exploration of one of the themes covered in his recent book The Beautiful Obscure. This is, in relation to Australia, Spain and selected other countries, the long path to resolution of historic injustice, the role of memory, the conflict over truth and ‘poetic capital’ and the various ways of interpreting – or forgetting – our often violent pasts. 

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