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Working with Words: Vern Field

Read Friday, 3 Jun 2016

Vern Field is the new managing editor of Island magazine in Hobart. She chatted with us about Shakespeare, Steinbeck and local libraries.


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What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

I do quite a bit of ghostwriting and rewriting in my freelance life, but my core skill and love is editing. I was the kind of child who’d try to convince parents of dire illness on school days involving creative writing. So I wouldn’t really say I’ve ever published any real ‘writing’. Does this make me one of the only people working at a literary magazine who has absolutely no aspiration to be a writer?

What’s the best part of your job?

At Island, I’m the managing editor. So I get to edit and proofread the content of the magazine, which I love. The job is never boring. It is such a pleasure to edit beautiful, insightful, well-crafted writing, to spend time reading poetry very closely, to be exposed to a range of contemporary art, and to select imagery and think about layout that will complement the content of each issue. At the moment, Island is working with the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) to develop an issue of Island that will connect with TMAG’s major upcoming exhibition themed ‘Tempest’, so I’ve been trawling through TMAG’s exhibition catalogue thinking about which images we might also use in the magazine. I’ve been enjoying rereading Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and talking with Island’s specialist editors about ways in which we can pick up on some of the themes. It is a real treat to work with a team of enormously talented people.

What’s the worst part of your job?

One of the worst aspects of any editorial role is very long hours sitting on your bottom peering at a screen. It is a terribly sedentary job! A terrifying aspect is sending the final copy off to the printer, wondering how many mistakes are still in it. But there comes a point when you’ve just got to let it go with a level of trust and the acceptance that you’ve done your best.

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

Taking on this role at Island is a significant event for me. I’ve held another senior role as a managing editor, but that was at Deakin University in the course materials unit. My other in-house communications roles have been in educational, scientific and technical organisations and corporates, so this is the first time I’m getting to connect my professional skills in editing and publishing with my love of literature and the arts.

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

When I studied editing at RMIT, one of the first things our lecturer said was that editing is 95% politics and diplomacy. This was really useful advice, and it is something I always impress on new editors. Ultimately, the author’s receptivity to editorial intervention depends at least to some extent on the way the editor pitches their feedback – healthy doses of tact and humility go a very long way! There are a few other things I’d strongly advise:

  • for consistency, develop good house style documentation and always use a style sheet to record decisions;
  • don’t make too many assumptions: always look things up, or ask, even if you think it might make you look a bit stupid, as even the most experienced writers make mistakes;
  • don’t make changes you can’t justify or explain: editing is not about personal preference.

Read. Read widely. Read carefully and slowly. Read quality.

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

I was amused to read our board chair’s introduction of me in the last issue of Island, in which he said I had a reputation for ‘exacting standards’. I probably do, but I’ve always thought of myself as quite pragmatic and flexible when it comes to editorial matters. I’m certainly not a pedant, and I’m a great believer in adapting to language change, and in ‘descriptive’ rather than ‘prescriptive’ grammar and usage, within reason.

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

If I could be paid to read, I’d be reading! If I had no need of income, I’d probably still be editing, but picking and choosing my projects.

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

As an editor, I certainly think some of the ‘craft’ aspects of creative writing – the techniques – can be improved through explicit attention, exploration and practice. But whether the ‘art’ aspect can be taught isn’t really something I can answer.

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

Read. Read widely. Read carefully and slowly. Read quality. I read something somewhere that encouraged writers to type out passages of writing by authors they admired. I can see the sense in that. It would slow you down and really make you focus on the structure, the rhythm, the language choices, the stylistics, etc. The other advice I’d give is to put aside a draft to allow it time to mature or develop, but then to return to it with fresh eyes and spend plenty of energy revising. 

I don’t know if God would go out for dinner. I certainly think God is fictional. I’d like to ask some of the big questions.

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

Usually in a physical bookshop. But with three young kids, I don’t often get the chance to spend time browsing. I do use the local library a lot, ordering items on the online catalogue and then rushing in to grab them off the holds shelves. We are so lucky in Tasmania to have a wonderful state-wide library network that is well-resourced and provides an excellent level of service. Long may it last!

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

God. I don’t know if God would go out for dinner. I certainly think God is fictional. I’d like to ask some of the big questions. I’m not sure it would be a fun dinner, but certainly interesting. If not God, I wouldn’t pass up a few glasses of red wine with David Owen’s Tassie detective Franz Heineken, aka ‘Pufferfish’. He’d have some great local stories to tell!

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

My ‘transformational book’ was The Grapes of Wrath. It taught me the genuine human urgency underpinning labour politics, and that has really stayed with me. The writing that affects me most is that which humanises issues. I don’t engage terribly well with the abstract or the theoretical, but human stories move me and change me. I’m not saying it’s the only way to write; of course readers vary so widely in whether they prefer appeals to the head or the heart. I’m just one of the latter.

Island is a national quarterly magazine of ideas, writing and culture. Issue #145 of Island is out now. The ‘Tempest’ issue (Issue #146) will be published at the end of August. For more information, or to subscribe, visit the Island website or follow the magazine on Twitter and Facebook.

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