Working with Words: Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle
Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle is a writer from Auckland, New Zealand. Her latest novel Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life, follows an unnamed young woman in her late twenties navigating unemployment, boredom, chronic illness and online dating. We spoke to her about hating writing but loving having written.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
When I was 7 I used to self-publish little books made out of A4 sheets of paper with staples, and put them in my classroom library for people to read…Then when I was 10/11, I began entering writing competitions for kids, and poetry competitions at the local library, where they published the winners in a little booklet.
What’s the best part of your job?
I don’t really see writing as my job. I think it’s important to also have a regular day job unrelated to writing. I know a lot of people say their dream is to write full time but that seems undesirable to me. I don’t think I would have anything to write about if I only did writing, or only worked in arts-based jobs, I would be too much in a bubble. But, with writing, I think the best part is being able to write something that you like and other people connect with. Someone recently messaged me to say Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life really resonated with them as someone who also had chronic health and unemployment issues. If I can help someone feel a little less lonely/fucked through my work then that’s good to me.
What’s the worst part of your job?
I kind of hate writing haha, but I like having done it. I don’t like the time beforehand, and often during, but I like when I have managed to write something I like. There will be huge chunks of time where I don’t write and I never know how long that will last. I always feel like I might never be able to write anything again and then suddenly I’m able to work on something.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
It was nice when I was 18 and got asked to be the featured poet for Poetry NZ, my face was on the cover haha. Having my first MS accepted was significant, I had written it when I was 21, and it came out when I was 23. But also having this new book out in the world has been significant and I am grateful for Giramondo Publishing and my readers and feedback I’ve had so far.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
I don’t know about best, maybe something about it being important to ask yourself ‘What is at stake?’ when you’re writing. It doesn’t have to be emotional, but there should still be some ‘affective centre’. I think the worst advice actually is people telling you that you should write every day, or you should get up early and work and that’s what other people do. Everyone has their own optimal time of working. I can’t focus at all in the morning. If I followed advice about getting up early and working then, I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything good. I feel like it’s such a common thing for people to tell you to write every day, or write when you don’t want to, but I don’t agree with that. Whenever I write when I really don’t want to and am depressed, I end up hating myself more. I don’t think you can force yourself to write something good, but you can create conditions that will maybe lead to you being able to write something good.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
Various people have told me they thought I was religious or super conservative when they first saw me. I guess it’s not that surprising because I tend to wear long vintage dresses, but I do find it kinda funny and surprising that so many people have made that assumption about me. People also have been shocked that I swear.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Well, in my BA I was doing a double major in English and psychology, and then in my last year some of the creative writing papers I wanted to do clashed with my psych classes and I was like fuck it, I’m doing creative writing. I also couldn’t be bothered doing another statistics paper which was required for psych, so I changed it to a minor. I’ve still wanted to pursue mental health study over the years, and now finally I’ve been studying mental health support work this year, and hopefully will go on to do more training.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I have studied creative writing and I think studying did make me a better writer, but also how much you get out of something also depends on your attitude and the effort you put in, plus natural talent or skills already. Going to Uni doesn’t make you a writer or make you good at writing necessarily. But I also think an educational environment for writing can be helpful and create beneficial conditions for you to learn and grow as a writer. To me though, it’s important to always remain somewhat detached/critical/discerning, and not just take writing advice/influence from teachers blindly. You can take what resonates, you don’t have to take on board all of it.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Sort of both, I don’t tend to buy new books much anymore, I get things from the library, or else buy e-book versions so I don’t have to spend too much money. I used to hate e-books but they are cheaper and more practical and often the books I want to read I can’t get in bookshops near me or the shipping costs will be too great. When I buy books I tend to buy online though, and they will be books I know I will re-read. Bookshops kinda stress me out, lots of annoying people in there ha. I hate it when people are really performative about buying and having a lot of books, like owning books makes them superior in some way. I care about books, but I don’t want to buy books for the sake of it. I want to buy books that I know I will learn from and read again.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
An animal from one of Beatrix potter’s books, not sure who, but having dinner with a squirrel or hedgehog seems cute.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Reading My Life by Lyn Hejinian 10 years ago had an influence on the way I write, because it showed me a different way of writing with gaps and parataxis and the unknown, rather than just staying writing ‘nice’ lyric poems.