Working with Words: Tiger Webb
We spoke with Tiger Webb, who helps maintain the ABC’s style guide and a pronunciation database, about the clarifying effect of boredom, the question of needless words and an ice cream sandwich factory.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I can tell you what the last one was! I cried reading John Williams’s Stoner for the first time, about a month ago. I think it does a very good job of communicating the mundanity of existence and then shattering it with these really profound glimpses of death, or love, or grief. Puts Proust to shame, too, doing all that in 288 pages.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
When I think about the roles I had prior to entering the media (service station attendant, ice cream sandwich factoryhand, mobile phone repair peon, etc.) the overwhelming memory is of boredom: a sensation that, despite its faults, has a certain clarifying effect.
When you are slicing thousands of cylindrical pieces of ice cream, and are animated by some story or idea or another, you have little choice but to make a mental first draft: What is the fundamentally interesting thing about this story? Where are the gaps in my knowledge? Boredom is more difficult to come by these days, so I achieve a similar effect by leaving my phone in the next room, or forgetting to bring headphones to the gym.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Boredom is more difficult to come by these days, so I achieve a similar effect by leaving my phone in the next room, or forgetting to bring headphones to the gym.
In the pantheon of useless English writing advice, ‘omit needless words’ has to be up there. Which are the needless words, Strunk, you dead bastard? If mechanics gave advice like that, they’d be deregistered. But the best advice I’ve ever received is from my old boss (and current friend) Alex McClintock. I remember the first few things of mine he edited came back with small notes to be aware of the stylistic crutches I was prone to lean on. These included, if I recall, parentheses, logorrhoea, and an over-reliance on the word ‘nebulous’. To me, that’s the best advice you can give a writer: keep an eye on your own tendencies, and be honest about them in your edits.
Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
Riddley Walker deserves a renaissance. The language is probably the main draw card – it’s written in a sort of devolved English, a millennium after the destruction of England, nominally as diary entries following the death of the Riddley’s father. But where Burgess’s nadsat was a genuine work of slang lexicology, and Kingsnorth’s pseudo-Saxon an attempt at historical fidelity, Riddleyspeak feels like a frustration of language itself. There’s a bluntness that is emblematic of the characters’ struggle to find meaning, and all the richer for it. The human soul, one haltingly articulates, is ‘some kynd of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals … It puts us on like we put on our does. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part.’
That’s the best advice you can give a writer: keep an eye on your own tendencies, and be honest about them in your edits.
Russell Hoban once described the book as being concerned with power and knowledge, the urge to preserve and the urge to destroy. Particularly relevant these days is the cargo cult mythos dreamed up by these survivors of atomic war: an odd mix of Orthodox hagiography, computer worship, and paganism. One exemplar deity, the Little Shyning Man the Addom, is at once Biblical Adam, St Eustace at the river, and (ha!) the atom of chemistry. We are all of us rent apart by the world, Hoban seems to be saying. But need we all do it quite so destructively?
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Probably still working at the ice cream sandwich factory. I hear they’ve since expanded.
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