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Working with Words: Michael Nolan

Read Monday, 22 Jan 2018

Michael Nolan is the production editor of the Saturday Paper and winner of the 2017 Walkley Award for headline writing. He spoke with us about the power of puns, cultivating a wide range of interests and the correct collective noun for a group of Wookiees.

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

Photograph of Michael Nolan

I can’t remember the last piece of writing that made me laugh or cry. I’m not a demonstrative reader.

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

At high school a friend and I co-wrote a series of books called Speaking Frankly. It was the fantastical adventures of our fictionalised selves and a gallery of mostly food-based characters such as the villainous Baron von Beetroot, written with a pronounced Goon Show flavour. New releases in this multi-volume, illustrated series were required reading in certain factions of the staff room.

A recurring feature was a Pun Run, when a particular topic would set us off writing line after line of themed puns for as long as possible. Our maths teacher, Mr Remedios, would request to read it while the class worked on exercises, and when he’d reach a Pun Run, he’d look up and say drily, ‘No, this is too much.’ I’d like to drive slowly past his house with my Walkley attached to the bonnet. He’d look out through his blinds, shake his head and mouth ‘No’.

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

I spent my twenties on the dole, which I considered both an advance on my HECS debt and an arts subsidy. But since I began signing up for a salary, my day jobs have been in the written communications field: desktop publisher, features writer, communications officer, journal editor, speechwriter, book editor, and of late, newspaper production editor. 

It’s possible wide experience isn’t necessary for great writing, but I think it’s very helpful for good editing.

It’s possible wide experience isn’t necessary for great writing, but I think it’s very helpful for good editing. It’s important to look up from your books occasionally and step outside. Day jobs can help with thatobviously not mine – but I’d otherwise recommend cultivating a wide range of interests. I won’t offer a patronising list of suggestions, but … do say yes to your friend’s invitation to see their bluegrass shakuhachi band’s live debut, or whatever.

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

I’m not a great believer in those who say they must write as much as draw breath, and so on. But then, I’m also not beavering away at much in the way of great works. I sometimes say I’m a non-practising writer.

There’s writing in editing, of course, but if we’re talking vocationally, were I less involved in publishing I would likely be doing more in music. There isn’t an arts industry shrinking in profitability that I’m not interested in.

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

Ask a writer. (Ask a writer.)

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

Like most young teens I tried to keep a diary, but I couldn’t do it honestly. As a performer I played to an audience, so I was clearly writing a diary in the expectation it would be read by others, and it came with careful set-ups, knowing quips and no doubt less-than-worldly observations. Less a stream of consciousness than a lake of self-absorption, man-made but meant to look natural.

I can’t imagine why I’d keep a diary now. Either I’d still be imagining it as a bestselling hardback in 30 years, brought up for signing by young renegades trying to play it cool, or it’d be a record of private thoughts I’m happier to carry around in my head.

There isn’t an arts industry shrinking in profitability that I’m not interested in.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I might as well confess to not having read many classics. But on balance, you’d have to say many more books are overrated than underrated.

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

A significant early watershed in my relationship was when I presented to my girlfriend in my writing cardigan, as a behind-the-veil indication of what she was signing up for. This was no cool, Smith Street hipster apparel, but an eighties pale blue, Crystal Cylinders, synthetic number. Reader, she stayed. 

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

A friend and I published an ezine in the early nineties called Schmeggegy’s Speakeasy. My contributions delivered diminishing returns after the first issue, in which I offered a list of ways in which Wookiees were too seventies to appear in the George Lucas-directed Star Wars prequel. I’d like to change the line about the collective noun, because my first instinct was right: it’s a Supertramp of Wookiees. Either way, they’re back and I was wrong about the sensibilities of contemporary audiences.

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

Whisper it, but I don’t think of characters existing beyond the page. You are not their author. They are bound by the text that describes them and the limited dialogue they present. Imagine sharing a table and saying, ‘Does anyone want more potatoes?’, and Ahab responds, ‘Yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them’. In any case, what is it you would want to ask Ishmael? ‘So … got any other good stories?’

Honestly, I’m not much one for parlour games.

Michael is working towards a new Liner Notes show in 2018. 

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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.