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Working with Words: Shaun Prescott

Read Monday, 7 Aug 2017

Shaun Prescott writes fiction and non-fiction. He’s the former editor of Crawlspace and his writing on games, music and culture has appeared in the Guardian, Meanjin, PC Gamer, the Lifted Brow and more. Shaun spoke with us about day jobs, Kafka and the thrilling release of his new novel, The Town

Photograph of Shaun Prescott
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What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

It was a poem, published in the Charles Sturt University student magazine Interp. I was 19 at the time. There are 19-year-olds who are excellent writers but I was not one of them.

What’s the best part of your job?

Fiction writing for me is not a job – I do it during my evenings. For my day job, I write about video games for PC Gamer, TechLife and APC magazines. The best part of this job is that it’s by anyone’s measure a good job. The job comes with its pressures and deadlines and occasional annoyances, but I am still surprised to call it ‘a job’. Before that I worked at call centres and car-washing centres and data-entry jobs, so I can barely believe my luck.

Cover image of the book 'The Town' by Shaun Prescott

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part of writing about video games is that sometimes it’s difficult to muster the levity needed to write about Crash Bandicoot. The worst part of writing fiction is the dread and self-doubt. And the feeling that all the threads you’ve gathered together are coming unstuck. And the feeling that it’s a ridiculous indulgence, for a person like me to write something and hope for a reader.

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

When I was nearing the end of a particular draft of my novel The Town, I emailed Sam Cooney for feedback. I was scared to solicit this kind of feedback because reading drafts of novels by non-friends is not a priority for busy people, but I knew Sam had read my self-published stories and I had written for the Lifted Brow before – and because this was the first novel I had written that I still felt positive about while nearing the end, I emailed him. His agreeing to read it was significant, but his eagerness to publish it was even more significant. Writing novels is the only thing I cannot rule out in my life aside from being a father and helping make a living with my partner Rachel, so I cannot overstate the significance.

Good books are good advice; bad books are bad advice.

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

Most of the advice that has been useful to me hasn’t been direct, it’s things I’ve gleaned from reading other writers. Good books are good advice; bad books are bad advice.

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

It’s usually surprising that some people enjoy my writing. When people say ‘I liked what you wrote’ – that is always surprising to me. I don’t think I’m being overly modest. I think many writers must feel this way. Reading requires a certain commitment that is a big ask in this day and age.

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

I don’t know, virtually anything. I don’t have any other vocation, but I’m sure something would have popped up.

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

More so than learning how, I think some people with the desire to do so should be taught that they can and should write. Encouraging people with the strong desire to do so is important, especially if they aren’t surrounded by people who tell them, from a position of authority, that they’re great all the time. If we only have writers who can afford to have someone teach them to write, then that doesn’t seem positive to me.

As for the finer details of how to go about teaching creative writing, I’m sure there are useful lessons to be learned and meaningful activities to carry out. It surely depends on the teacher.

As a primary school aged kid in rural NSW, the writer Jackie French visited my school and she invited me to send her my primary school aged stories. I would send them, and she would return them with feedback – feedback that was not pandering. Maybe if this never happened then I might have dropped the desire to write somewhere along the way. It would be nice if all writers could somehow be this person for someone else.

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

It’s possible that the writers we need the most in this age are those who simply can’t.

One semi-truthful piece of advice people are always dishing out is that to write, one must actually write. And this is true, even though many people who should write probably find it impossible to make the time to do so. Even a simple piece of advice like this can be more complicated than it seems. It’s possible that the writers we need the most in this age are those who simply can’t. Being able to write and having the time to do so, even after sacrificing pleasures, is far from a guarantee. So for those with the time and who are actively writing, being aware of this and working with that knowledge in mind seems like good advice to me.

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

Both. I only read books digitally if it’s the only format available.

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

Probably Harold Skimpole from Bleak House, because although he’s a total boor in that novel, it sounds like he would be a good laugh for just one evening. I could drink a lot of beer without worrying that I’m the one drinking more than everyone else. Also I’m terrible at having conversations with strangers.

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

It’s probably a dull answer and many will groan at how typical it is, but The Castle by Franz Kafka is without a doubt the answer. My friend at university, Kathryn, one year gifted me a copy for my birthday and she probably doesn’t realise the sinkhole it would open.

I don’t know if the things I love about Kafka are the significant things. His novels are so dream-like and strange, but I have rarely laughed as hard as I have at The Castle. I read it every couple of years, and each time I have forgotten huge sections of it. Not because they’re boring, but because they belong to a different plane of logic that can’t be anticipated even by those familiar. I would like to know this novel intimately one day, but it might be impossible.

The Town is available through Brow Books. It will launch at Better Read than Dead in Sydney on August 10, and at Readings in Melbourne on August 24.

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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.