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Working with Words: Rachel Bin Salleh

Read Thursday, 18 Aug 2016

Rachel Bin Salleh is the publisher at Magabala Books in Broome. A Nimanburr, Yawuru and Bunuba woman, she began at Magabala as an editorial intern in 1993. This week, she talks to us about new ways to tell ‘ancient’ stories, pragmatism and the importance of reading (you twit!).

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Rachel Bin Salleh
Rachel Bin Salleh, pictured at the launch of <em>Steve goes to Carnival</em> by Joshua Button and Robyn Wells (supplied)

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first piece of writing I edited at Magabala Books was by a young Aboriginal woman from South Australia who no one had ever met or heard of – and whose book went on to win the Dobbie Literary Award. Turns out that she was really a white male taxi driver from Adelaide.

What’s the best part of your job?

Being inspired by the depth and breadth of Indigenous writing talent here in Australia. I love a good story told by a consummate storyteller, and I enjoy being challenged by culturally ‘ancient’ ideas getting told in new ways. You know: ‘what’s old is new again’.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Public speaking. That’s on my list of things to avoid alongside death, taxes and man flu.

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

Listening to the words of the Rolling Stones song, and knowing that it pretty much sums up life and book publishing:

‘You can’t always get what you want / but if you try sometime / you just might find / you get what you need.’

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

Best and worst advice: ‘there’s money in it.’

Bruce Pascoe's 'Mrs Whitlam'
Bruce Pascoe’s <em>Mrs Whitlam</em>, a recent middle fiction release from Magabala

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

I am constantly surprised when people ask me for my opinion, then take it seriously. Talking has never been my strongest trait. I have been known to rely on telepathy at work.

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

Stand up comedy.


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

I think there are those who are born with a wonderful sense of language, imagery and talent … and then there is everyone else that has to work for it.

Writing is a craft that is often misunderstood, and mistakenly thought of as ‘easy’. I truly believe that as a writer, you need to read widely and be challenged by new ways of thinking. I am constantly amazed by how many people write but don’t read.

‘I am constantly amazed by how many people write but don’t read.’

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

Read, you twit. Write. Do lots of both. Get rejected. Get critiqued. Get edited. Get owned. Get real. Just get started.

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

I do both. I live in a remote town, and sometimes it is difficult to get what you want.

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

Papa-Lo and Josey Wales from A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Why? I would be interested in their insights, their humour and their moral compasses. I think I’d start with politics.

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

I love reading and being exposed to new ways of thinking. Many books have impacted my life for a variety of reasons and sent me on journeys that I never saw coming. I never underestimate the power of the written word, and the lives that it can change.

Magabala Books is a not-for-profit Indigenous publishing house. Since its establishment in 1990, it has published over 150 titles.

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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.