We spoke with Fiona Wright, author of Small Acts of Disappearance (shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize), ahead of Between The Covers on March 23.
What have you been working on lately?
Over the last few months I’ve been writing more essays – which is something I would never have predicted I’d be doing a few years ago. I’ve really come to love the form, both because of its ability to draw in really disparate ideas and obsessions, strange sources and stories, and the way it allows for a thinking through. So far, they’re a continuation of some of the themes from Small Acts – embodiment, food, ideas about health and bodily integrity – but they’re broader, and less focussed on my own story than those of others, and in the world.
How do you balance your writing and editing work? Do you ever find it difficult to put aside your own in-progress pieces and set your mind to finessing the work of another writer?
I have very structured workdays, which I think is important for anyone working in multiple roles at once, or working from home or alone. I usually set aside a few hours in the morning, when I’m at my best, for solid writing time, and then edit and manage administrative necessities in the afternoon. So it’s not too difficult for me to switch between tasks these days – in any case, I’ve had a lot of practice.
Writing and editing require really different kinds of concentration, and I think they balance each other out really nicely. I love reading other peoples’ work, especially while it’s still in flux (and before too many other people have had a chance to see it). I also think working as an editor has given me an excellent understanding of the ‘other side’ of the publishing equation – seeing precisely how high slush piles can tower made me take rejection a lot less personally, for example, and I became much better at picking when a piece was not quite ready to go out into the world.
How do you engage with Sydney’s writing community? How do other writers influence your work?
I really love the writing community, I think it’s such a special thing to know so many people who are so creative and intelligent and passionate about what is really quite a strange pursuit. I’ve always felt very supported, and energized too by the kinds of conversations and interactions that take place there.
I’ve also been lucky enough to have been a part of some amazing writers groups, both for poetry and my essays. One of these is the Sweatshop Literacy Movement, of course, which is based in Western Sydney and does pretty incredible work across that region – the first two essays I wrote for Small Acts were part of Sweatshop projects, and the ideas that underpin the group, about self-determination and storytelling, really influenced the way I started writing the book.
The theme for this year’s performance night at the Between the Covers event is ‘Writing Home’. Can you tell us a little more about this theme and how you interpret it?
I’m really interested in suburbs, and the ways we write and think about suburbia, a lot of which I think is really about the ways in which we think about home. In part, it’s because so many of us live, or at least grew up, in suburbs – the statistic is about 95% of Australia’s population is suburban, which is a staggering amount, and so they form the landscape of so much of our everyday lives, are the backdrop of so many of our small rituals. But we have a really strange ambivalence about them too, a mixture of longing and despair, or belonging and alienation, and I’ve never been able to reconcile these things. My story is very much about how difficult it is to reconcile these things, and how truly peculiar a concept ‘home’ is.
Congratulations on being Shortlisted for the Stella Prize! How does it feel to be held amongst such amazing fellow writers? Additionally, how important do you think it is to acknowledge women’s achievements and projects in writing within Australia?
Thank you – it’s such a thrill, and an absolute honour as well. It is such a strong list, and includes writers who I really admire, so it’s amazing to be keeping such company.
The Stella Prize is an organisation very important to me – the very first Stella count, which looked at the gender disparity in reviewing in Australia, came out when I was just beginning to write reviews, and really encouraged me to be bolder in approaching review editors and in accepting commissions – and in establishing myself as a critic. The work they do for women writers is so important, and so valuable.
And lastly, have you any advice for emerging writers?
Remember to take care of yourself. I know so many emerging writers, and other kinds of artists as well, who work so damn hard – to meet deadlines, to prove themselves, because it feels like the only way to justify what you’re doing as ‘real work’ – that it’s punishing. It’s a fast ticket to burn out, and it’s not necessary – we only think it is. I learnt that lesson the hard way, but still catch myself falling into the trap sometimes. You’re no good to anyone strung-out and exhausted, and the work is the first thing to suffer when you do.
You can see Fiona Wright at Between The Covers next Wednesday. Book your tickets here