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Working with Words: Michaela McGuire

Read Thursday, 27 Aug 2015

Michaela McGuire is the co-curator of the Women of Letters literary salon and the newly appointed director of the Emerging Writers Festival. She talks to us about jobs, journalism and Janet Malcolm.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I think it was a 100-word gig review for Brisbane street press, in my final year of uni. I can’t remember a thing about it other than that the band were fairly terrible, and I got paid $25 for the review. The first piece of published writing that I was really excited about and proud of was for The Lifted Brow. I remember being desperate to write for them, but I had no idea where to start. I mentioned this to the magazine’s editor, Ronnie Scott, one day and his eyes lit up and he told me, ‘That’s perfect, because I have a secret 236-page Word document that I’ve been cutting and pasting your Livejournal entries into for the past year.’ (It was 2006.) Ronnie edited all those entries into a piece called ‘Reports from the Streets of Brisbane,’ that documents a triumphant ‘fuck you’ to my most hated of all jobs, that of working as a waitress at Brisbane’s Treasury casino. 

What’s the best part of your new job at Emerging Writers Festival?

The best part of my job is the fact that I now have a job. I spent most of the last three years either travelling the world for Women of Letters, or in my pyjamas at home, writing books. I’m enormously gratified that all of the hard work I’ve put in with Women of Letters has lead to an actual, real-life job, and that I get to direct one of my favourite festivals. It still feels like a bit of a dream to be able to come into the Wheeler Centre every day and get paid to talk to a whole bunch of very clever people about festivals, writers and books.  

What’s the worst part of your job?

That I sadly can no longer wear pyjamas every day.

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

I’m reasonably certain that I wouldn’t have had a writing career if an essay I wrote hadn’t worked its way into the hands of Chloe Hooper, who sent it along to her friend Elisa Berg, who would become my editor at MUP. I signed a book deal with MUP when I was 24, and honestly, if I hadn’t been approached about writing Apply Within I reckon I was about a month away from signing up to do a Dip-Ed and becoming an English teacher.

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

The best advice I ever received, weirdly enough, was not to write. I’d signed a second book deal for a really ill-conceived, silly idea, and unsurprisingly enough, it was killing me. I was having a sook about it with Anna Krien one day, and she told me to just pay back the advance, take some time – maybe write one thing a month for the Big Issue – but not to worry about writing the book. I kept the advance, wrote maybe two pieces for the Big Issue, and otherwise didn’t write a thing for over a year. That time and space was so important for me, and when I realised what I really wanted to write about it was such an incredible feeling. It felt like a choice, not a jail sentence. I started work on Last Bets straight away.

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

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm … gave me permission, I think, not to be nice.

I was pretty nervous before my publicity tour for Last Bets. The first public appearance I did was at the Sydney Writers Festival, on a session about the institutional abuse of power, with David Marr, and I was shitting myself and feeling very out of my depth. The moderator introduced me as ‘Michaela McGuinness’. As a white woman of Irish descent I don’t get racially profiled very much, but now that I think about it, maybe we do all look the same.

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

I paid the bills throughout most of my twenties by working as a legal secretary, so probably that? I might have caved in entirely and studied law one day too.

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

I was a fairly terrible creative writing student, but I know if I hadn’t been in an environment where I was talking to teachers and other students about writing every day for three years, I never would have become a writer. Friends of mine at uni – Ronnie Scott and the Lifted Brow kids in particular – were so excited about writing that it was impossible not to catch at least a little of their enthusiasm. Being around people like that made me want to be a writer.

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

Find other writers who’ll have a drink with you and talk about books and writing. Festivals are really good for that – Emerging Writers Festival and National Young Writers Festival in particular. Also, just write. You can only talk about it for so long before you really need to just get to work.

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

Both. Usually in a bookstore, because I’m both traditional and impatient, but sometimes I’ll order something online if it isn’t readily available.

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

Moon-face, from The Faraway Tree. I’d specifically like to dine in The Land of Goodies, The Land of Take-What-You-Want, and The Land of Birthdays. We would probably talk about where I could find some antacids.

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

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm. The infamous first line, ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,’ gave me permission, I think, not to be nice. As a journalist you can be as scrupulous, intellectually and morally precise as you like for the most part, but sometimes you really need to be an arsehole, and there’s no use pretending otherwise.



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