Interview: Working with Words

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— This interview originally appeared as part of the Wheeler Centre’s Working With Words Series.

Bethanie Blanchard is Crikey’s literary blogger, at Liticism, and a regular contributor to Guardian Australia. She reviews regularly for the Australian.

We spoke to Bethanie about her first piece – about Dexter, the doubt that comes with life as a freelancer, and the thrill of reading unproofed copies of books by writers she loves.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first piece ever was for Farrago, the undergrad student magazine at Melbourne University. It was a take-down of an article written in those pages about the TV show Dexter by another student. The student, it turned out, was Zora Sanders, now my friend and editor of Meanjin. If there’s one way to launch a successful writing career, it’s by critising (at length) the work of the future editor of our most esteemed literary journal, I’ve always thought.

What’s the best part of your job?

So many things. Being exposed to the ideas and work of other writers. I’m given a proximity to authors – through interviews, festivals, book launches – that is incredible. Also the books! I’m sent new releases every week – they spill out of a bright red PO BOX I had to rent because of the amount I was receiving. It still thrills me when I get unproofed copies of works by writers I love, it feels as though I’m reading the author’s thoughts more intimately. I hope that never wears off.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The freedom that comes with being a freelancer is intertwined with difficulties too. Doubt would be the worst part – doubt about when exactly you’ll be paid, whether your pitch will be accepted, whether you can make it as polished as the idea in your head within the word count and on time.

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

For me it’s always being published for the first time in a publication I love and want to be part of. This year I was published in several new places, but I’ll never forget the first time I was ever commissioned for a paid essay. It was for Kill Your Darlings, a journal I read compulsively, and I felt what they were doing was exciting and unique. That piece really launched my proper freelance writing career, so KYD will always be very special to me.

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

When writers look for advice, we’re looking less for tips on the craft than the consolation that comes with knowing others find it as defeating as we sometimes do.

I recently found Zadie Smith’s Rules for Writers and they were so beautiful and sad and true:

– ‘Try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.’

– ‘Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.’

– ‘Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.’

– ‘Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.’

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

I wrote a ‘What I’m Reading’ for Meanjin a little while ago, it was deeply personal and difficult to write. Just before I sent it off I felt sick about how honest I’d been, but the reaction to it was incredible. I guess that’s what surprises me – writing feels so solitary that you are shocked when people contact you saying what you expressed was something they had felt too.

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

Well I would still be writing in a sense, just in a more academic style. Before my freelance writing started taking off I was doing a PhD at Melbourne University. So I almost certainly would’ve been Dr Blanchard by now with the regulation leather patches on the elbows of all my jackets.

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

I think creative writing can be taught up to a point – the discipline can be drummed into you, the grammar, the techniques, the structure. They provide you with deadlines, and the feedback of peers. I admire anyone who writes creatively and allows others to critique it in its early stages – it would feel to me like baring your soul. But the will and the ideas and the way with words are often innate.

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

You will be poor and sometimes have panic attacks? In all seriousness, it’s difficult not to fall into cliché here, but I think reading everything you can to see the way in which writing has progressed, its structure, its form, its possibilities, makes you aware of the tradition that you’re writing in.

Also to be humble enough to learn from everyone, especially editors – to work alongside them and have them improve the words you are sometimes too close to is a privilege. And to learn from other writers, I am never more inspired than after being in the company of them.

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

My credit card is so overdrawn it’s like I’m running a reverse Pozible campaign against myself, so I couldn’t buy them online if I wanted to.

I’m incredibly lucky that most new releases are sent to me, but when I do buy books it’s always from my two favourites: Readings in Carlton and the Brunswick St Bookshop. I love to spend idle moments wandering the aisles.

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

When I think about my favourite works of fiction they’re all filled with dangerous and strange characters. So if there was someone I would want to meet from the pages of a book, it would be The White Albumand Slouching Towards Bethlehem era Joan Didion. I adore her writing from that period, she inspires me more than I can say.

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

My dad is a seafarer and when he went away to sea he would read a lot. Our bookshelf was stacked with all these incredible ideas novels – Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky, Joyce. In my teens I had it in my head that I wanted to read one, so I picked up Crime and Punishment. It affected me. It wasn’t like the stuff I had been made to read in early high school – it was dark and unsettling and transgressive. I loved that book – even with its tedious and interminable Marmeladov sections. I’ve read it six times (it became the basis of my postgrad research) and each time I get something new from it. I love the way he uses Russian folklore, demons and doppelgangers. I wish I could say it was something cool like DFW or Didion, but those classic ‘worthy’ books are indeed worthy for a reason.