The countdown is on! Next Thursday, the Emerging Writers’ Festival will be heading to Hobart to present the Hobart Roadshow. To celebrate Tasmanian literature, I have been interviewing writers, editors and comic artists.
I interviewed Adam Ouston about writers’ festivals, Hobart’s literary collectives and the influence of music on his writing.
What skills should emerging writers try and develop?
I think the two most admirable (and often competing) traits of the best writers are discipline and attitude. Writing anything takes a long time and a great deal of effort: the inner exploration, getting the words down and then rearranging them. I find editing exhausting, like lugging blocks. This requires sustained motivation and commitment to yourself and the story. Nothing gets done without discipline – even, dare I say it, routine. As a kid I raced go-karts in Queensland, and all the old guys had a saying : There’s no substitute for bum in seat. Same goes for writing. (What is it with me and sitting down?) The other thing is attitude, having faith in your own voice and ideas and turning a critical eye on things you’re dissatisfied with. I think a lot of us write from a place of dissatisfaction, and it is important to allow that fire to come through. The writing itself then is an act of hope, even if it is simply the hope that we might be able to express our sense of injustice or inequality. Oh, and one more thing: meet people.
Do you refresh your writing by traveling or do you find staying in one place gives you more stability?
Funny you should ask. I’m just about to head to Europe to ‘research’ my second novel. (Hint: ‘research’ means drinking with friends and staring out train windows.) I find travel important in articulating myself to myself. I mean that literally: actually being on the move. Not that I write then, but the ideas and the feeling of something happening come then. I write when I get back. I’ve just finished a PhD on Robert Dessaix’s travel writing, and his ideas of travel and home are so interwoven that his sense of stability comes from a place of instability. A feeling of home always involves a desire to hit the road. I think I gravitated towards his work because I share this feeling. Travel mirrors the strangeness of home. And the strangeness of home is one of the major imperatives for me to write.
You’ve written somewhat critically about writers’ festivals in the past, what do you think are the benefits of writers’ festivals?
Yes, I have been critical of writers’ festivals. But I am not opposed to them. I am critical of the way they seem to be vetting grounds for the uniformity and conservatism of the publishing industry here in Australia. At the same time they provide an excellent opportunity to meet people and see how and where your ideas fit. This, I think, is the key to attending a writers’ festival as a writer. (Attending as a reader is different, and perhaps far more enjoyable.) I’ve been to festivals and spoken to no one and left feeling a bit deflated and alienated for the experience. I guess this is a common enough scenario, as writers tend to keep to themselves, even the famous ones. But when I’ve got a dialogue going and met a few people, the whole landscape has changed. If nothing else, these exchanges can give you a sense of purpose and orientation. Also, meeting the right person never hurt anyone’s chances at being published!
What music do you listen to when you’re writing? I think I read you’re a musician, how does that influence your work?
I am a musician, though I use the term very loosely and with much self-consciousness. And music is very important to me. But I never listen to music when I write. For two reasons. Firstly, I want to hear the inner rhythms of my own writing – the music of the prose, if you like. As a vocalist and a writer, voice is very important to me because it is, I think, where the originality lies. With music on I can’t hear the voice of the piece I’m writing. I need silence. Secondly, I find music manipulates me into feeling things I wouldn’t otherwise be feeling. This is dangerous when writing, especially when you are feeling your way through a story. It gives me a false sense of what the words are doing.
Being in a band and writing music has had a tremendous influence on my writing. Firstly because being in a band is like being in an intimate relationship with (in my case) three other people. It’s different from other ‘team’ environments because music is based primarily on emotion, unlike sport or work. The insights this has given me in terms of character and the nature of certain ties have been invaluable. Writing lyrics teaches you about economy and rhythm and also about obscurity, about a kind of mystery that comes with strange lyrical turns. Writing prose is inherently grounded in logic, a rational flow of words and events. Music has taught me the effects of breaking with logic, and I’ve tried to weave this into my writing in a way that is still enjoyable and meaningful.
You were recently published in the Review of Australian Fiction in a volume with a number of terrific new Tasmanian writers, what’s happening in the Tasmanian or Hobart writing scene that’s making you excited?
In Hobart there are two great collectives of writers, both keen to create innovative ways of being a writer: Twitch and Under the Fat Man. In the past, the literary landscape in Tasmania has been patronised by older people and dominated by an old guard of wrietrs. Young writers have felt out of place and uninvited. But in the last couple of years this has changed. I think we’re all seeing that you don’t have to be sanctioned by the fraternity in order to consider yourself a writer. These groups are taking things into their own hands, organising events, encouraging each other, doing things, failing. Failing is important. In fact, Under the Fat Man just last week hosted a Failure Dinner where writers brought along rejection letters, failed pieces of writing, anecdotes of failure. This makes me excited.
Rachel Edwards has said that your writing is “energetic, lyrical, not necessarily narrative-based fiction” – what do you think omits the narrative? How do you work around narrative when writing?
As I indicated earlier, voice is very important to my writing. Probably most important. When I discover a writer with a spine-tingling voice, I can inhabit that world almost to the exclusion of all else: plot, character, place etc etc. I practically don’t care what happens in, say, Jeanette Winterson or Elizabeth Smart or Vladimir Nabokov. Their voices are places to be. (Incidentally, to weigh in on the gender/writing debate: women tend to be the best experimenters with voice. Men play around for a bit, find what works and repeat it over and over. Women in general are far bolder experimenters. I think this is the greatest difference between men’s and women’s writing.) This is something I also try to cultivate. I’m much more preoccupied with the how than the what. So although I might begin with an image or an idea, I let the tone of the piece do what it needs to do. It creates itself as it goes because the words become reliant on each other, trigger each other. I see reading as an act of inhabiting rather than as a means of moving from A to B. This is the mindset I take to writing. So while I’m aware of narrative and plot sequence, I’m far more aware of creating an emotional space for the reader (and me) to inhabit.
What will you be getting up to at the EWF Hobart roadshow?
There’s so much! Thank you for bringing it over. I’ll be going along to the Digital Writers’ Conference on the Thursday for ideas on all things cyberspace (a place I’m hopeless at navigating). And one can do much worse than Meet(ing) the Magazines on Friday. Also on Friday, myself and a bunch of other writery types will be taking part in the Lifted Brow’s Mixtape Memoirs at the Grand Poobah, talking about the music that’s shaped us as writers. And on the Saturday I’ll be popping along to the Twitch meets Stilts love-in. Should be fun!
The Emerging Writers’ Festival will bring it’s Roadshow to Tasmania from Thursday 31 October to Saturday 2 November 2013. For more the full program and to book, visit our events page. Adam will be appearing atMixtape Memoirs.
See this interview on the EWF blog.