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Working with Words: Rohan Wilson

Read Monday, 29 Apr 2019

Brisbane-based novelist Rohan Wilson talks J.D. Salinger, unsung Australian fiction gems and forming daily writing habits.

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

Photograph of writer Rohan Wilson

The Catcher in the Rye was the first thing I read that left me moved. I suppose a lot of people have that reaction to the book – it’s just so raw and direct. The memories Holden Caulfield has of his brother, Allie, in particular struck me with great force. You can feel how much his death affected Holden. It’s really what’s leading him on his Quixotic journey. But the understated way that Salinger dealt with it was so powerful.

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

I’m not sure I can talk about it without humiliating myself, but I will say that I kept a journal where I wrote about the sad teenage things that happen – heartbreaks, punch-ups, a bit of self-pity, a bit of hopeful thinking. Every day, I thank my lucky stars that social media didn’t exist in 1993 or else I’d have been on Facebook, giving the world my unfiltered thoughts and feelings.

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

The job where I really learned the most was my job in Japan, working for an English-language school called NOVA. That was where I came to understand what working for a giant corporation felt like. Everything was regimented and timed to the minute. We had this bell that would sound in the office at the start and the end of every lesson. Brother, did I hate that bell. The cold electronic sound of it was impressed on my soul. I’d hear it in my sleep. I’d sing its stupid tune to myself all day.

You know how the Americans torture their prisoners with loud, grating music? Yeah, I had some empathy for what they went though. This stuff all gradually crept into my writing as a serious mistrust of corporate power to shape the way we think and act. It horrifies me. Is there anything more frightening than giving up your autonomy to serve shareholder greed?

Every day, I thank my lucky stars that social media didn’t exist in 1993 or else I’d have been on Facebook, giving the world my unfiltered thoughts and feelings.

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

Look, I’m probably not good enough, but I’d love to give professional gaming a red-hot go. I’d be one of the laid-back dudes you see on YouTube, playing my favourite games with an audience watching. What a life! Can you believe people are paid good money to play games? Before I die, I’ve resolved to write a book about computer games. That way, I can combine my two great loves.

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

Cover image of 'Daughter of Bad Times' by Rohan Wilson

The best? That’s easy. It’s from Kurt Vonnegut: ‘Every character must want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.’ Follow that advice and watch your writing start to spring to life. I read so many books where the characters are aimless. I want to read about people who are in charge of their own fates. Give them something to chase, goddamn it. Let them dream, let them hope. We love those kinds of characters.   

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

I really find everything Toni Morrison has written pretty tedious. I don’t know why exactly. It’s something about the lack of dialogue and the way she feeds us every detail about her characters on a spoon. I’d rather listen to people talk and get to know them that way. You don’t need to explain everything to me. For an obscure gem, you’ve got to read N by John A. Scott. It’s about an alternative past where Japan successfully invaded Australia and took control. The attention to detail is incredible. It feels less like a novel and more like an artifact from the 1940s. It’s brilliant but hardly anyone has read it. It’s certainly an unsung Australian classic.

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

No, not really. The only thing I know about writing is that it’s a habit. You’ve got to do it every day, ideally at the same time. That way, you’ll start to feel its absence when you don’t write. It keeps you on track, producing all those words you need. Just sit down at your desk at the same time every day and the magic will start to happen.

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

Of course. If I had my time over, I’d rewrite every book I’ve published. They’re all flawed. But what’s the point? Would you spend the rest of your life writing the same book over and over? No, you move on to the next book mostly because you’re completely sick of looking at the book you’re working on. You start to crave something new. It’s true what they say: books are abandoned, not finished.

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

I think it’d be tops to hang out with Cormac McCarthy over at the Santa Fe Institute. He’s a resident there, working with the scientists, mathematicians, and whatnot, looking at inter-disciplinary solutions to the sorts of problems we face in the 21st Century. It would be a lot of fun to talk big issues with McCarthy and the rest of those guys.  


Rohan Wilson is in-conversation with Amanda Johnson at Readings Carlton on Tuesday May 14, from 6:30pm, talking about his new book, Daughter of Bad Times.

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