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Working with Words: Stephen Orr

Read Monday, 9 Jul 2018

Stephen Orr is the acclaimed, Adelaide-based author of seven novels, including Time’s Long Ruin and The Hands. His new book, The Fierce Country, is a work of literary true crime that draws on the disappearance of the Beaumont children in Adelaide in 1966. Stephen spoke with us about Storm Boy, Juan Rulfo and passing his real life off as fiction.

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? (And why?)

Photograph of author Stephen Orr

I remember being taken to see Storm Boy at primary school, and later reading the Colin Thiele story. I think I thought (or maybe I thought later) how strange the relationship was between Hide-Away Tom and Storm Boy. It didn’t seem very father-and-son to me, but you soon learn, as a kid (and from such a great writer), that your world is not everyone’s world.

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

I wrote a novel during Year 12 called A Drop in the Ocean, and sent it to a few publishers. Their rejections were kind. It was a sort of Courtship of Eddie’s Father, about a boy trying to find his dad a new wife. I gave up for ten years after that.

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

I worked in a video shop in the late eighties. Then I took bets on the phone at the TAB. This grated with my socialist leanings, and I discovered that the people who could least afford to throw away their money, did.

In the last 20 or so years, I’ve worked as a teacher. This has taught me that all kids start off sane, generous, curious, loving and optimistic. The problem is what happens later. Also, that books are portals to other worlds, and this starts early, and also, that kids are far more sophisticated readers than we give them credit for.

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

More teaching. I would’ve liked to run a school, realise some of my ideas about what we get right and wrong with education (similar to what John Marsden is doing with Alice Miller School). Also, something in agriculture. Growing cut flowers, or herbs.

I dream of moving to the country, eating peaches and working in isolation. But writers need to be around what annoys them most.

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

Best: read.

Worst: study writing. I think writers serve a 20-year apprenticeship, and the best work it out for themselves, like my old Pop fiddling around in his shed and making stuff.

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

No, never. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read about my life, and anyway, I pass it all off as fiction and hope no one makes the connection (my family do, and tell me how pathetic it is).

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

I’m not sure. I think you either like a book or you don’t, and anyone else’s opinion is sort of irrelevant. I still read Battle Picture Library comics. Great Boys’ Own storytelling. But then I’m always looking beyond what we’re all told to read (you know, the stories about the latest and greatest six-figure ‘discovery’).

A recent find is Juan Rulfo (I got there via Borges), and his single novel Pedro Páramo (and his book of stories, The Burning Plain). I go through phases. Right now I’m obsessing over the pre-Hitler writers like Alfred Doblin, Hans Fallada, Ernst Haffner and especially Robert Walser. 

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

My dog, Molly, sits with me while I write. I like silence, but I live in a neighbourhood full of power-tool people. I dream of moving to the country, eating peaches and working in isolation. But writers need to be around what annoys them most.

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

Not really. Once it’s printed it exists in that form. Ulysses, for example, has always been characterised by its misprints, omissions etc. Otherwise it’d all become a bit Winston Smith – changing the past.

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

James Agee. He didn’t write much, but what he did write, I get. In the end, it was almost as though the words were secondary to the ideas, the thoughts. His short Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a life-changer. I think that applies to all good writers. Most of them never write a thing.


Stephen Orr’s new book The Fierce Country: True stories from Australia’s unsettled heart, 1830 to today (Wakefield Press) is a literary true crime book that explores Australia’s anxiety about its outer-urban places through true stories of mysteries, murders and disappearances.

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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.