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Working with Words: Mary Anne Butler

Read Friday, 27 May 2016

Mary Anne Butler is a Darwin-based playwright whose play, Broken, won the 2016 Victorian Prize for Literature, the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama and the 2014 Northern Territory Literary Award for Best Script. She spoke with us about literary heroes, trusting her gut and crying into her toasted chicken sandwich during a life-changing moment at an outback roadhouse.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was five years old, I self-published a children’s picture book entitled How the Rabbit Lost its Tail. I also did the illustrations. My artwork hasn’t improved much, but I like to think my themes and lexicon have developed a bit.

What’s the best part of your job?

There are many best parts to what I do; I truly love every bit of my job. But when a play that I’ve been working on for three or four years goes through a rehearsal period and builds into opening night; well, it’s an amazing process. So many incredibly talented people are involved: director, actors, design team, technical crew … That first opening night, I sit up the back and watch the audience to see how they’re responding. Sometimes they all sit forward as one, holding their collective breath. Sometimes there’s a belly-laugh so universal it lifts the whole room. Sometimes, audience members can’t hold back their tears – they’re so utterly immersed in the world of the characters. These moments are the best of the best.

What’s the worst part of your job?

My characters generally go through some bleak stuff in order to come out the other side. There are times I’m wrestling with a character and I become aware that I’m writing around the edges, instead of diving head-first into them. I don’t know if it’s fear that keeps me from writing into their core, or if it’s just part of my process of generating their backstory. At times like this I have to stop, garner my courage, and make myself dive deep into that character’s real story – which involves discarding masses of what I’ve written. I start from the blank page with a note to self: Go Deeper. 

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

My play Highway of Lost Hearts tells the story of a woman and her dog traversing 5,000 km of wide open road, down through the core of this country. The 2012 season in Darwin sold out, and there was a 2013 return season from which the play took off (literally), and we ended up touring around Australia for three months in 2014. I never dreamed that a play I wrote would take me so far, and could be so much fun. Our 50th show was in Cairns – life imitating art as we drove back across the Barkly Highway to Darwin.

Without question, the night my play Broken won the 2016 Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama was an incredibly significant moment for me. I live in Darwin – a regional centre. It’s hard to get mainstream companies in other states and territories to read regional works, let alone consider them for production. A handful are open to it, which is terrific – and hopefully this will grow, because there’s a wealth of strong regional writers and rich stories out there. 

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

‘I start from the blank page with a note to self: Go Deeper.’

Just before she died, my mother said, ‘Why can’t you write anything nice? Why is it all so miserable?’ Given the timing, I put the brakes on my writing for a while, as I pondered this question. Ultimately, I came back to the fact that I love dark literature: works that hurl me to the limits of human resilience. Give me Andrew Bovell’s Holy Day, Patricia Cornelius’s Do Not Go Gentle, Angela Betzien’s The Dark Room. Give me Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Courtney Collins’s The Burial, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.

So after a few years of pondering, I discarded my mum’s advice, and I couldn’t be happier. The lesson for me is to trust your gut. Don’t let others – or  ‘audience appeal’ – determine what you write.

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

So: I’m standing at Erldunda Roadhouse reading Andrew Bovell’s introduction to the Currency Press publication of Broken. I’ve been driving five days from Melbourne towards Darwin, and this is the last stretch. The last two days on the road I’ve had no reception – and there’s a deadline for me to respond to his intro. I’m finally at the turn-off to Uluru where there is some reception, so I’ve bought a toasted chicken sandwich and I’m waiting for my coffee, reading Andrew’s intro from my phone. He’s saying things about my work like: ‘This is exquisite writing. It’s immediate. It’s lean. It’s poetic. It’s visceral. It takes you right into the heart of the experiences it describes,’ and ‘[She has] a beautiful way with words, that at times, can quite literally take your breath away.’

I’m standing in the middle of a remote roadhouse, holding a (now soggy) toasted chicken sandwich, and I can’t stop crying at the words my literary hero is applying to my work. It’s a surreal moment in time, and I feel like I’ve finally arrived.

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

Writing. I can’t imagine an alternative. If it weren’t plays, it’d be novels.

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

I don’t know if I’d so much use the term ‘taught’ as ‘facilitated’. In my experience, the greatest enemy of writers – particularly emerging ones – is self-doubt. It can paralyse the process before you even begin. I studied Creative Writing at the University of Queensland under Jan McKemmish, and I remember her saying, ‘Just find the gut, then write out from there – you can fix up the technical bits later’. It is liberating advice, because often your gut knows far more than your head. As a masterclass facilitator and dramaturge, I encourage writers to write from the gut to spit out their first draft – no matter how rough – then fix up the detritus later. In that ‘fixing up’ stage, the role of the dramaturge – or facilitator – is to find the right questions at the right time, for both the writer and the work at hand. That takes a long time, sometimes – to find the right question/s, and frame them properly. But when it is the right question, and you see those light bulbs popping off in the writer’s head, and then they come back with a draft and you can see they’re well on the way to nailing it? That’s what I call facilitating.

‘Often your gut knows far more than your head.’

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

  1. Your best friends on this journey are resilience, persistence and courage.
  2. Implement and stick to a daily routine, which involves reading, writing and developing the craft skills you feel are your weakest. 

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

There are few bookshops in Darwin that stock the plays I need, so now I buy online.

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

Atticus Finch. I’d try to talk him into running for federal politics. I reckon he’d bring empathy into the game as a main platform. 

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

Plays: Mark O’Rowe’s play Terminus offers me rhythm and rhyme as tools to propel a story forward. Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling shows me how to leap eras and locations in a single second. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth reminds me to go deeper into the darkness of characters’ souls. Novels: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road shows me how to evoke, rather than to prescribe. Poetry: Pablo Neruda’s Extravagaria offers me a world of glorious, vivid imagery in the space of five words, or five lines. I’m constantly learning from his poems.

Broken will be presented at Sydney’s Darlinghurst Theatre Company in August 2016, and Highway of Lost Hearts has an international tour pending (as well as a four-part radio adaptation available for free listening from ABC RN). Both plays are available from Currency Press.

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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.