Working with Words: Michelle Scott Tucker
Michelle Scott Tucker is the author of a new biography of the fascinating farming entrepreneur, Elizabeth Macarthur. She spoke with us about deadlines, dead ponies and derivative bush ballads written from deep suburbia.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
As a kid, I inhaled all the old-fashioned pony books. Everything by the Pullein-Thompson sisters as well as Flambards, the Billabong books, My Friend Flicka, the Silver Brumby series. Each time a pony died, I cried my heart out – and the ponies died all the time! Literature is not a safe place for ponies.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
Only as required for school. I hit peak dorkiness when the school magazine published my derivative bush ballad, in which ‘the cattle wheeled away’. The ballad was clearly based on my lived experience (deepest suburbia, triple-fronted cream brick veneer, stay-at-home mum, zero cattle.)
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
I worked in government policy roles for over a decade, then moved into consulting (mainly for government clients). Essentially, I’ve always written for a living. And despite what you’ve heard about government writing, my various day jobs gave me considerable experience in turning complex issues and ideas into readable, accessible prose.
Literature is not a safe place for ponies.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Worst advice: write what you know. Irish/New York writer Colum McCann puts it best: ‘Don’t write about what you know, but towards what you want to know.’
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now? (Why or why not?)
Some Januarys, when I was younger, I’d start a journal, but it rarely lasted into February. Perhaps I’m not introspective enough. I still use a paper-based version in preference to the online kind, but my diary now is just for appointments and the occasional profound jotting like:
Charlie at 4:30
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
I never warmed to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Kate Bush’s version is enough for me.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
Nope. I always meet my deadlines, though. Is that strange?
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
I can’t bear to look at my own work, once it’s done. The urge to keep faffing with it, and the disappointment that I can’t, is too strong.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
A shipboard dinner during the Napoleonic wars with Captain Jack Aubrey R.N. and his particular friend Stephen Maturin, please. I’d flirt outrageously with Jack and encourage Stephen (a naval surgeon) to wash his hands between patients. See Patrick O’Brian’s excellent Master and Commander series for details. There’s only 20 or so books in the series – it won’t take long.