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Working with Words: Sheila Ngoc Pham

Read Monday, 30 Nov 2020

We spoke with writer and radio-maker Sheila Ngoc Pham about crying over Philip Pullman, gravitating to documentary and writing complex family histories. 

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

Photograph of writer and radio-maker Sheila Pham

I couldn’t stop crying after the last book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Amber Spyglass. I was well into my twenties by the time I read the series but maybe that’s exactly why I cried so much at the end: I was an adult reading about two children realising just how bittersweet life can be. It wasn’t the first time I cried while reading, but I’ve never shed tears like that before, or since.

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

I have a distinct memory of standing in the school library looking at one of the covers of the Babysitters Club books, and thinking, ‘I could write a book like this’. I was ten and it was the first time I thought about writing. I was obsessed with books about young people who had a sense of agency, so that was what I tried to write. The first book I attempted was a Choose Your Own Adventure. I loved the challenge of trying to make the structure work. By the time I finished school I started writing first-person essay-like pieces, trying to make sense of the world. Twenty years later it’s a lot of what I write now, though I’m less earnest and much better at it!

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was sixteen I called up my local paper, The Canterbury-Bankstown Torch, to ask if they could help publicise our high school production of Cosi by Louis Nowra. They let me write the story and seeing myself in print for the first time was an important milestone in my early life. The Torch had its 100th birthday this year and it’s still owned and run by the Engisch family, which is unusual given the concentration of media ownership in Australia.

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

I’ve had dozens of jobs. My first casual job out of school was shelving books at my local library. I’ve worked in not-for-profits, media, government, hospitals, educational organisations, universities, as well as a few roles in the commercial sector. Almost all my work has been in Sydney but I’ve lived and worked in London and Chiang Mai as well. I’ve largely held communication and editorial roles, so the influence on my writing is direct in terms of how I developed my professional writing and editing skills. Also, I learned to not be precious about my writing a long time ago.

Working for Story Factory in 2016 on a statewide creative non-fiction project with high school students was a recent job I’ve written about, because the nature of the work made me reflect on the purpose of creative writing itself. I captured some of these reflections in a short piece in The New York Times.

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

I’m already doing those other things! The PhD I’m undertaking is in healthcare. My research focuses on women’s experiences of gestational diabetes. I’ve been in and out of health-related work for years, since working at Family Planning NSW after uni. I’m keen to work back in the field in the future.

‘I’ve always been better at writing letters, messages, emails and blogging because I think I prefer to be in conversation with others rather than with myself. That’s probably the main reason why I’m such a bad diarist.’

If you asked me what my dream job was growing up I would have said ‘documentary filmmaker’ – and now that’s more of a reality too. I made Saigon’s Wartime Beat, my first radio documentary in 2012, which is how I got started as a documentarian. Lately I’ve been gravitating towards screen-based work. The short documentary I co-produced with Vonne Patiag, connectIRL, premiered at Sydney Opera House’s Antidote festival last year. So I reckon I’d swap writing for film, though there’s a lot of writing involved with film, too. I recently contributed to The Heights plus a new series in development called Dalhousie, Melina Marchetta’s adaptation of her latest novel.

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

A few years ago I took a workshop led by Maria Tumarkin on non-fiction writing. The class had a long and robust discussion about ethics. One thing Maria told us was how she shelves her writing about others if they’re no longer happy to be written about. This included a huge chunk of writing which didn’t make it into the final version of Axiomatic. So it’s not just about consent, but re-consent, an important concept. She didn’t give this as ‘advice’ for writing per se, but that’s how I took it. Recently, I wrote about my conversation with a tradie for my piece in the upcoming anthology Cop This Lot, which focuses on social class. I emailed the tradie my story to make sure he was happy with how I represented him. I was completely committed to the idea of cutting his part out even though I felt his part was important in what I was trying to say. Luckily, he said yes.

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

I have so many half-used notebooks that began life as a diary. I’ve never had the discipline to stick with diaries but I keep trying. The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, for example, inspires me. How she documents her daily life in diary-like ways is wonderful. I’ve always been better at writing letters, messages, emails and blogging because I think I prefer to be in conversation with others rather than with myself. That’s probably the main reason why I’m such a bad diarist.

Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I’m always intrigued by work that’s considered a bona fide classic, even if it’s not my taste, so it’s hard for me to dismiss a work as ‘overrated’. Last year there was a book I loved called Falling out of love with Ivan Southall by Gabrielle Carey, which went a bit under the radar. It’s about a once-popular Australian children’s author, Ivan Southall, who has been all but forgotten even though he’s the only Australian to have ever won the Carnegie Medal. In this vein, there’s a book by an Australian writer I just re-read which has been a bit overlooked; but I don’t want to say more as I recently embarked on a writing project about it. It feels like it’s a big enough idea to be a book, which is exciting.

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

Women’s contributions and histories are often made invisible – yet I did exactly that in relation to my bà nội, my paternal grandmother. In 2013 I wrote and performed a two-part monologue entitled ‘Vietnam lost and found’, part of a six-person storytelling show called Stories Then and Now directed by William Yang and Annette Shun Wah. In my piece I describe my bà nội as ‘a lady of leisure’ but that’s not quite right. I asked my dad the wrong questions and didn’t fact-check well, which I regret. The truth is more complicated. Bà nội was once a bà mụ, a village midwife, an important role. I’ve been reflecting on this history because of my research. Birth was a positive experience for me both times, in no small part due to the incredible support of the hospital-based midwives.

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

One person I’ve been thinking about lately is Anthony Bourdain. Sitting on the floor in front of him at the Sydney Writers’ Festival back in 2003 ranks as one of my all-time favourite writers’ talks. I’d never heard of him before then but was bowled over by how warm and generous he seemed. A real raconteur and, of course, he went on to be a huge star. Later on I read his books, Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour, and watched him on-screen. I’m sure we would have heaps to talk about between the topics of food, travel and writing alone, but the point of us getting together would be to share a decent meal. I wish he was still here with us.

Sheila’s recent writing can be found in Sydney Review of Books, Kill Your Darlings and Running DogIn 2021, she’ll be in residence at UTS Library as a member of The Finishing School collective in collaboration with artist Marian Abboud for the Creative in Residence Program.

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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.