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Working with Words: Robbie Arnott

Read Thursday, 20 Aug 2015

Copywriter at a Hobart ad agency by day, prize-winning essayist by night – Robbie Arnott works with words around the clock. He talks to us about day jobs, David Foster Wallace and winning last year’s Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. 

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What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

I think it was a short story in Island magazine a few years ago. It was a short piece where the narrator discovers that one of his friends finds him totally unbearable and arrogant. It was billed as fiction but really it wasn’t.

What’s the best part of your job?

Outside of my own writing, I work as a copywriter at an advertising agency. The best part about that is getting to muck around with words in order to make my boss smile. If he smiles, I’m having a good day. If he doesn’t, I have to keep mucking around with words, which is what I was having fun doing anyway.

The best part about doing my own writing is having someone tell me they liked my work, or that it had a significant impact on them in some way. You can’t really top that.

What’s the worst part of your job?

With the advertising stuff, the worst part is the endless loop of changes, second guesses and feedback that is apparently necessary in order to make an ad. It often ends up in something you thought was a good idea turning into the sort of boring dreck you normally see on telly. It’s a bit dispiriting.

The worst part about my own writing is the near-constant feeling that I’m an idiot with no talent who is wasting his time and/or life doing something self-indulgent at best and offensively banal at worst.

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

This one’s easy – when I found out I’d won the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers in 2014. The shortlist was full of experienced and talented writers whose work I regularly read, admire and bang on about in pubs. I’d given myself no chance of winning – I was just thrilled to be on the shortlist beside them. So when I got an email saying I’d won, my head did this weird wobbly thing – it felt a bit like I was underwater – and then I fell over and hit my head on a stack of printer paper.

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

I’ve always liked this Hemingway quote: ‘write hard and clear about what hurts’. It’s served me pretty well, I think. Except the time I wrote a rock opera about an ingrown toenail, which Michiko Kakutani described as ‘a bit too heavy on pus’.

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

A girl once showed me a text message her friend had sent her about me that said, ‘He’s soooo funny! And his nose isn’t even that big!’ When I’d met this girl I’d been trying to be very serious, and I was unaware that I had a large nose.

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

Annoying someone (or large groups of people) in some other professional capacity – maybe as a lawyer. My dad’s a lawyer. So is my mum. And so is my sister, my girlfriend, my uncle, two cousins and a fair few of my friends. Oh God. When I say it like that, I realise how dire this situation is. At least I’ll never be short of legal advice.

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

Well, parts of it can certainly be taught – plot structures, techniques, dialogue, characterisation, blah, blah, although you can probably figure all that stuff out yourself if you read as widely and passionately as possible. I’m sure creative writing courses are very helpful for lots of writers in terms of getting helpful feedback, meeting inspiring people and having time dedicated to writing. What I think can’t be taught is voice. That’s something you have to figure out yourself.

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

Don’t read quotes containing advice from other writers. Nobody really knows what they’re doing; we’re all just tall children with good vocabularies.

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

Physical bookshops, 100%. I spend bloody ages in them. And I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like bookshops. My favourites are Fullers Bookshop and Cracked & Spineless New & Used Books in Hobart.

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

I’d probably go eat a burger with John Self from Money, by Martin Amis. He’s this horrible, absurd, uber-capitalist filmmaker with loads of unhealthy addictions, vices and appetites. He spends most of the book getting in tons of trouble while he’s on massive, unstoppable benders. I wouldn’t want to have him as a friend, but one night with him could be a lot of fun.

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

It’d have to be Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. I read it one summer a few years ago and it completely changed everything I thought I knew about what language and fiction can do. Go read it.

Robbie Arnott was the winner of the 2014 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. His fiction and nonfiction work has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Seizure and the Review of Australian Fiction. He will be appearing, scaring people, then disappearing at the Tasmanian Readers and Writers’ Festival on September 11-13. 

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