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Working with Words: Sean O’Beirne

Read Monday, 6 Jul 2020

We spoke with author, bookseller and critic Sean O’Beirne about Zadie Smith, eagles and how many writers are nothing like their writing.

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

Photo of Sean O'Beirne

I’m sorry, I can’t remember the first book that made me laugh, but lots of books make me laugh now. Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim can make me laugh. And P.G. Wodehouse, I’m maybe embarrassed to say. The Bertie Wooster books get a particular atmosphere going. Bertie Wooster is so happily stupid, so shamelessly stupid, and there’s something about the combination of his innocent irresponsibility, and all the mad longings and lusts around him that I find very funny – even though I feel guilty because it’s the kind of laughter that just excuses so much privilege: half the pleasure is because Bertie’s so rich and above it all and he never has to learn. Still, I’m not going to say there isn’t something delicious about a feeling of irresponsibility; everybody should have some of it, sometimes.

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

No. I just wrote bad essays for school. I actually found some of them the other day, in a box in a cupboard, and was humbled by how bad they were. How not-clever and not-showing-any-literary-promise I was at 15, writing about the character of Macbeth and his Motivations. 

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

What I really like in writing is the chance to be someone else for a while.

I’ve worked in warehouses and bars in the outer suburbs, which was useful for the kind of knockaround, no worries, Australian working-class talk I tried to include in my stories. But I’ve also worked in bookshops in the inner city, which gave a very special view of the upper-middle-classes. That was really useful for a story in my book called ‘Missy’, which is about an upper-middle-class family in the city when climate change is getting much, much worse, and there are serious water and food shortages. And then that upper-middle-class family trying to make quite sure it stays as lovely and safe as it’s always been.

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

I don’t know. Maybe teaching school. Helping kids write better Macbeth essays than I did. 

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

I reckon Zadie Smith, in her essays and public talks, gives very good advice about writing. There’s an essay she wrote for the Guardian, back in 2007, called ‘Fail Better’ that I’ve found really helpful, as well as her talks (you can see them on YouTube) at Barnard College, the Nashville Public Library and other places. There’s a talk she gives with Nathan Englander, at the SVA Theater in New York, where they both say some really affecting and valuable things about writing and why you might really, really need to do it. And she’s so good on the amount of strange willpower it takes to keep on doing it.

She says, I think in the Nashville library talk: if you want to be a writer, work out if you really like being alone, in a room, for hours every day, several days a week, for years. And if you don’t, think about something else you might want to do, because the first test of writing is: can you take the sheer amount of solitude. Someone else who’s good about the strange amount of alone time writing takes is Ted Solotaroff, in an essay called ‘Writing in the Cold’. It’s a bit hard to get that essay, but people can find it in a book called The Writer’s Reader, edited by Cohen and Parini, which has other helpful essays too.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

No. I know some writers find it a very useful way to understand themselves better and to keep practicing the skill of getting things down. But I’m too self-conscious, or self-insistent, already, if that makes sense. Me and my little insistent brain have been walking around all day and the last thing I want, at night, is to hear any more from me. What I really like in writing is the chance to be someone else for a while. And then find out what my self might actually really want to say, so long as it thinks that someone else is saying it.

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

I don’t want to say anything against any classic book, right now, just because if anyone can even get to a classic book, at this stage, and not more stuff on Instagram – that’s a win in a losing fight. As for a maybe obscure book: I’ll say Raimondo Cortese’s Roulette. It’s all scripts from stage shows he wrote in the 2000s, and the language is both very skilfully arranged and very ordinary; there’s a piece in the book called ‘Break-In’ which has some of the best, most accurate down-low Australian language I’ve ever read, that’s then shaped into a very sad and true story about addiction, and attachment, and more addiction.

People often make what they make, and work so hard at it, exactly because they’re not very much like it.

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

I dress as J.M. Coetzee. I can’t write a sentence unless I’m in costume as John. Often on the bike. Or I’ll put on all my Geoffrey Chaucer things. I don’t think that’s ‘strange’ though. 

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

No. I stand by all of it, even my science fiction novel/personal development book Eagle of Erin which everyone said is ‘too long’ and ‘too much’ (!!) about ME and ‘too much’ about eagles (!!!).

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

I am – and honestly, not jokin’ around now – a bit suspicious of this question. Only because it sort of presumes that if you love the writing, you’ll love the person. And I’ve worked in bookshops and met a lot of writers and seen how many of them are nothing like their writing. I met the critic Robert Hughes once: his writing is so superbly controlled, and he was untidy and boisterous and rude. And it did teach me the perverse truth that people often make what they make, and work so hard at it, exactly because they’re not very much like it.

Although maybe I should say a writer I want to have dinner with, now, just to learn that lesson again. Say ‘Shakespeare’ and then magically he’s here, and he’s small and rude and he just talks on and on about money.

Sean’s first book, A Couple of Things Before the End, is out now through Black Inc.

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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.