Ep 309 Meet Elliot Perlman, author of ‘Maybe the Horse Will Talk’.

In Episode 309 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Learn exercises for writers you can do at your desk. You’ll meet Elliot Perlman, author of Maybe the Horse Will Talk. Discover gift vouchers for writers. Plus, we have three copies of The Truants by Kate Weinberg to give away.

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Show Notes

Gift vouchers for writers

Exercises for writers: Keeping healthy at your desk

Book Boy’s new single

Book Boy’s fan page

Writer in Residence

Elliot Perlman

Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars won the Age Book of the Year Award, the Betty Trask Award (UK), the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn-Rhys/Mail On Sunday Book of the Year Award (UK) as well as for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Perlman’s second novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was a bestseller in France and the United States. In Australia, it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award as well as for the Queensland Premier’s Award for Fiction.

Elliot Perlman is the recipient of the Queensland Premier’s award for Advancing Public Debate and has been described by the Times Literary Supplement (UK) as ‘Australia’s outstanding social novelist’, by Le Nouvelle Observateur (France) as the ‘Zola d’Australie’ and by Lire (France) as ‘the classic of tomorrow’, one of the ’50 most important writers in the world’.

His most recent novel is Maybe the Horse Will Talk.

Find out more about him on the Penguin website 

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(If you click the link above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

Competition

WIN ‘The Truants’ by Kate Weinberg

This podcast is brought to you by the Australian Writers’ Centre

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Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Elliot.

Elliot

My pleasure, Valerie.

Valerie

Congratulations on your latest book, Maybe the Horse Will Talk. Just for some of the readers who haven’t read your book yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Elliot

Look, it’s about toxicity in the workplace spilling over into your personal life and your family life. I can elaborate on the plot if you would like?

Valerie

Yeah, just tell us the premise, about the main character, the situation that he finds himself in, that kind of thing.

Elliot

Sure. Sure. Well, the central protagonist is Stephen Maserov. And Stephen is 32, he was a teacher, he married fellow teacher Eleanor. But they found… And they had at that time one child. And they kept finding these waves of financial insecurity splashing on their faces right up to their nostrils. And they came to the conclusion that at least one of them needed a better paying job. So they decided that he, Stephen, would go back to university and get a law degree, if he could. And then he would try to get a job which would hopefully make them in a financially more secure position.

The problem was that by the time he was in the middle of his degree, they were as a couple drifting. They naively thought that when he finished and got a job, things would be much better. Well, of course, things only got worse.

And when we meet Stephen, they have two children, he’s working in a mega corporate commercial law firm in the CBD, in this case of Melbourne. And one of those places on the 50th floor, etc. And they’re not living together. Eleanor has asked him to move out. He comes home every night at 6 o’clock to help bathe and feed the kids, put them to bed, tell them the stories and help clean up the kitchen, with the not so secret hope of reconciling with Eleanor. And then he goes back into the city, back to the office, to add more hours to his timesheet in the hope of making budget for the day.

And when we meet him for the first time, he comes – at about 3:30 in the morning – he comes to the realisation in his rented flat alone, I am absolutely terrified of losing a job I absolutely hate.

Valerie

And that is going to become an iconic phrase. And I can already see it on the publicity posters for the mini-series. But anyway… So he’s a lawyer, you have a background as a lawyer. But that was a long time ago, because you’ve been writing novels for quite some time now. How much did you draw on that? Or did you have to revisit your contemporaries at the time to see if it’s still like that from when you were there?

Elliot

That’s a really good question. I did both, if you like. I had the very strong hunch that things were at least as bad if not worse. I did ask my contemporaries, and I also asked younger lawyers. And what I would find with my contemporaries is those who were still in the law had often, almost by definition, been the survivors. And they had found perhaps an oasis of sanity. And I don’t want to suggest firstly that everybody in that world is insane. But it does lend itself to corporate psychopaths.

And the other thing I wanted to suggest is that, as you’ve alluded, I drew on that background because it’s my personal background. But the kind of toxicity in the workplace I think is frankly everywhere in contemporary Australia, if not in developed countries all around the world. And so while it is set in a law firm, all of the craziness, the need to be contactable 24/7, the setting of absolutely crazy arbitrary targets for people to meet, the managerial jargon, the attempt to create a new language out of words that have just been made up to make it sound like certain people know things that are a discipline that other people don’t know or haven’t studied. All of that. Not to mention, of course, the bullying, the sexual harassment. All of that is definitely not found only in law firms. It’s everywhere.

And I saw this kind of disgusting behaviour when I was a baby lawyer. And I should say I’m a recovering lawyer now. And for a while, I did both. I wasn’t… When I was a solicitor in places like the law firm I’ve described, Freely Savage Carter Blanche…

Valerie

Great name! Great name!

Elliot

Thank you. I certainly couldn’t write, I mean, I could barely get my head off the pillow to get into work every day. It was exhausting and frankly soul destroying. But then I took a position as an associate to a Supreme Court judge. And I went back to short story writing, which I’d been doing before becoming even a law student. And then I went to the Bar to become a barrister.

And for a while I did both. And then I found I couldn’t do both, particularly given the kind of novels I wanted to write, which daunted me in terms of the ambition of the plots and the themes that I wanted to tackle. I felt I couldn’t dabble in it. I needed to make a choice. And I thought I’ll stop being a lawyer for a while. And as it turned out I haven’t gone back.

Valerie

Well, the rest is history, so they say. You’ve carved out this incredible career as an author and your books have been made into movies. This one I’m already seeing as a movie or a series, as I’ve mentioned.

This is set very much in the corporate world. And is that something, is that a setting or an environment that you particularly wanted to explore? I know you wanted to explore these themes of toxicity. But I feel that there’s a real lack of novels set in this environment compared to all the other novels out there. And I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s refreshing and I think it’s such a great setting. What did you have to make sure you did in order to make it relatable to all those people who aren’t in the corporate space?

Elliot

I hope that it is.

Valerie

Oh yeah.

Elliot

Thank you. I think essentially the idea of there being honest, hard-working, well-meaning people that get bullied and get tripped up by circumstances beyond their control in a system that is largely frankly rigged against ordinary people, I think that that’s relatable to people in all walks of life.

This feeling, I sort of began with a view that there is an epidemic of chronic stress in Australia. And that it’s coming from the world of work. At both extremes. So those people that are forced to be, as I said, disgusting hours which are frankly more hours than medieval serfs. And even then, you think, oh well, I have a friend who has one of those jobs in the city and they wear suits every day and I imagine they’re making tremendous money. But these people, they’re oppressed. They’re white collar wage slaves.

And then there are the people at the other extreme. Firstly, the much maligned unemployed. And then a larger category than the much maligned unemployed who don’t really get spoken about by really either side of politics very much, but they’re ever growing this category, and that is the category of the involuntarily underemployed. These are the people who are scrambling in the gig economy for more hours. So they have at least one hour, by definition they have one hour, otherwise they’d be counted as unemployed. But they don’t have anywhere near enough hours to feel any sense of safety, security, to be able to plan for their future, to be able to pay or pay off or pay for their education. Often to just put food on the table for their children.

And the knowledge of this… I should say, that group of people, the involuntarily underemployed in the gig economy, variously depending on the cycle, the time and the economic cycle, will equal between 15 and 20%. And so when you add the underemployed to the unemployed, you get variously between 18 and 25% of the Australian workforce who don’t have enough hours. And it’s the knowledge of this, not necessarily the precise statistic, but the intuitive knowledge that it’s really scary down there, without enough hours, that forces the people with fulltime jobs to put up with appalling behaviour and have people above them leave their footprints all over their foreheads.

And I thought, there will be very few people in the workforce, or who have been in the workforce, who won’t be able to relate to this in some way.

And what I found on the book tour so far is I get stopped by people who have so many stories and they are not just lawyers by any means. People in government, people in health, people in pretty much any institution. We’ve gone nuts and people don’t behave very well in the workforce.

Valerie

Yes. Now, you explore these very big themes. But the story itself, and this isn’t a spoiler, because this is how it starts the book, but the main character Stephen essentially in order to keep this job that he doesn’t like at all, that he hates, kind of takes on this massive thing that he needs to achieve.

Elliot

A risk.

Valerie

And then he goes about attempting to achieve it. And it’s massive. So did you already know how he was going to achieve it? I know there’s other lines through the book as well. But in this particular aspect, did you know from the outset what was going to unfold? Or did you think, oh, let’s just see what happens?

Elliot

No, I always know the end. To me, it’s terribly important. And it might be a function of my personality, which is anxious. I need to know perhaps not for a short story, although even then for a longer short story, and particularly in my short story collection, the longest story is really a novella. It’s about 100 pages. I certainly with longer pieces, I need to know how it’s going to end, for a number of reasons.

And I know that listeners to the podcast are writers, or aspiring writers. But for me personally, it helps me to be able to craft the plot and to see things coming. And I get excited about it if I think, oh, what a lovely connection that is. It makes me feel more confident. I know you often, and probably you’ve spoken to, you’ve interviewed writers who are the opposite to me in this respect, writers that say, look, I find my characters and they lead me around their plots. I hardly ever do that.

It might be that in getting from A to Z, I’ll go to G before W, no, sorry, W before G, just by chance because it seemed funny or something. But essentially, I need to know how it’s going to go. Because you could get to the end, after spending years of work on something, and think, you know the first part of this might be terrific, or the idea for it’s terrific, but the ending is terrible. And as much as we need to excite people with the beginning, we can’t rip them off with the ending just as much. I mean, the ending obviously is incredibly important.

So I need to know how it ends. So yes, in this case, as with my other novels, I knew how it was going to end.

Valerie

So obviously you have this great story planned out, to some level anyway, before you start. But one of the things also is that with this book in particular is very much about human relationships of all different kinds of relationships. And the way certain characters interact with each other. And you manage to really help the reader get to know the characters just by these very, very small descriptions. Even of a reaction to an email, or the way a child is being spoken to. Or just these very small nuances that tell us more about the character.

What do you do to develop those characters in your brain and flesh them out? And on a practical level, how do you flesh them out? Do you write whole back stories for them? So you have like a backgrounder on them or something? How do you let your characters form to such a level that all these little nuances can show up through the text?

Elliot

It’s funny, I don’t really write a back story for them. But I seem to almost have it. When I picture. So for example, Maserov, Stephen Maserov is our every person. And in order for the novel to succeed, I need the reader to like him and feel that they could be him. How do you deal with an unfair situation, an impossible situation, trying to achieve more than one thing at once when everything seems stacked against you? And you’re honest? That is what informs him, for me.

But then I decided, wouldn’t it be a great idea to have another lawyer who is technically his adversary but almost becomes a combination of best friend and mentor. But somebody who is completely different to him in personality in the sense that Maserov is the lawyer you would hope you would find everywhere, in the sense of being completely straight down the line, honest, doesn’t cut any corners. You want to rely on a person like that.

But the other lawyer I have in mind, the character called Betga, AA Betga, is the opposite. He’s kind of a Mr Fix It. He’s a rogue, really. A loveable rogue, I hope. A very entertaining, funny rogue. But still, somebody, if you said, look, I have a problem and I need to solve this problem, but I can’t because in order to achieve X I would need to do Y and Y I think is probably illegal. And then Betga would say, Valerie, leave it with me. And you’d say, hang on, wait a minute, what are you going to do? And he goes, no, shh, don’t, just leave it with me. So I should have this fixed for you by next Wednesday.

And you know, my sister said everybody should have their own Betga in their lives to take, to dive into a problem, lift it up, and throw it out of your life. That would be fantastic. So I knew that he was kind of roguish, but he has a heart of gold. And definitely his intentions are good.

But knowing that, I knew that he would occasionally do things that make you roll your eyes. And even he might say things like, you know, he’s trying to be integrated into the life of a small child without giving away too many spoilers but he’s never been really closely connected to a tiny child. So he sometimes, in speaking to other people, refers to the child the way we would refer to a dog. Even though he adores the child, he loves the child, but he’s a bit of a clumsy parent.

So that sort of thing shapes my view of him and what he would say if he’s forced to take the small child somewhere that is incongruous for a small child to be.

Sorry, this is a very long-winded answer.

Valerie

No, it’s fine.

Elliot

It’s more, I get a picture of the character and then I pretty much know how they would behave in the situations I am going to put them in. Of course, sometimes I’ll get it wrong and I’ll change it and I’ll think, no, that’s actually, he wouldn’t go that far. Or he would. He’d go further. Something like that.

So I see my characters quite well defined. I just see them that way. Like the character of Jessica, who is in many senses the heroine of the novel, and I’m being very careful. I don’t want to give too much away. But she’s quite feisty and plucky and super smart. So I know that she will, in terms of her audacity, in terms of hutzpah, she will come somewhere between Maserov and Betga. She won’t do things that Betga would do. But she’ll definitely do a little more than Maserov would do.

And so in this way I start to see them, and I know almost instinctively what they would do.

Valerie

When you’re actually in the depths of writing, so you’ve figured out where your story’s going and then you’re basically doing your first draft, can you give us an idea of firstly how long did this first draft take for this book? But also whether you have any kind of routine or writing practice? Like you aim for a certain number of word count per day? Or you write in the morning and you edit in the afternoon? Or not edit, you research, or whatever, do something else. Just some kind of idea of your creative practice.

Elliot

Oh, edit, actually.

Valerie

Oh you do?

Elliot

Yeah, right, yeah. I mean, what I tend to do, I try and write all of a part before editing it. But like so many writers, it’s so difficult starting on any given day. And you’re tired and you know that your house needs milk. And these sort of things. My car was making a squeaking noise. What is that? All of the practicalities of mundane quotidian existence kind of come and stop you. And in my case I have two small kids. So all of that means, in principle, I want to be a writer. But this morning, I don’t want to be a writer. I want to go back to bed. Or I need to call a plumber.

And the way I kid myself into work is to tell myself, I get myself to my desk as early as my children will let me. I’m responsible for the kinder drop off. And once I drop the kids off and I get to my office, I now, since having children, I had to get an office away from where I live.

Valerie

Away from home?

Elliot

Yeah.

Valerie

Oh.

Elliot

This is the first adult novel – I wrote a novel for children that came out last year called The Adventures of Catvinkle – but those two books are the first books I’ve written away from where I was living ever. Before that, I’ve written all my books where I was living.

Valerie

What’s your office like? How did you choose this office? I’m intrigued.

Elliot

Well, my wife found it for me, actually. And it’s fantastic. Although at the moment, currently, disgustingly untidy. But it’s probably one and a half k away from where we live. And it’s in a… There was a 19th century mansion that was ten or twelve years ago converted into apartments. And so it has high ceilings and everything. And I have the smallest of the apartments. And everybody else lives here except me. I work here. And I come and go from here. And I can conceivably walk home. And it’s really a lovely spot. And it’s quite central. It’s not at all far from shops. But it’s tucked in a little side street that’s all leafy green. So I really, you know, along with many other reasons, I have my wife to thank for this too.

Valerie

That sounds great.

 

Elliot

I know. I’ve really been lucky in this regard.

Valerie

So can you leave work there? Or do you find yourself editing and start bringing it home and editing and start doing stuff with it?

Elliot

Well, that’s the only downside, that because it’s not literally where I live, I can make notes, and I email parts of my work to myself. But I invariably find that I can’t really work from home with the kids there and domestic duties and stuff. So I’m barely tempted to try to add a bit more or do some editing at the end of the day.

But it’s the advantage of being a fulltime writer. The disadvantage of course is incredible economic insecurity. But it means I come to this office and that’s where I work, that’s where I get it done. But having said that, yes, of course, like pretty much every writer, there are many occasions where you don’t feel like writing. You’re not in the mood. And you’re thinking, I’m not feeling like any kind of writer. I’m feeling like somebody who is worried about a squeaking noise in their car or a leaky tap in your house.

And I kid myself, okay, you know, don’t worry, you’re not being asked to work. You’re just going to your desk. You’ll look at your computer to read over what you wrote yesterday.

And then invariably I start editing. Not a wholesale edit, but just tinkering I guess you’d call it. And then once I’ve tinkered right up to the last sentence I wrote the day before, I gently start adding a line or two. And before you know it, I’m writing new stuff.

And I know I’m doing this, because I’ve been doing it for years. But it’s how I con myself into getting back to work when I don’t feel like it. And then you find that you do feel like it. And that’s quite a nice idea and I’m back with these characters that I want to be with and I’m furthering the plot and here’s the scene that I was looking forward to writing. And bang, I’m back in it. And it’s a way of sort of conning myself into work when you don’t necessarily feel like it.

Valerie

So do you have a wordcount target?

Elliot

Not really. I mean, I have more a scene target, if you like.

Valerie

Right.

Elliot

But having said that, I’ll do anything to forgive myself. So I’m thinking, okay, well, you didn’t finish the scene but it’s a long scene! Look how many words there are! Or, you know, you didn’t write much but you finished the scene! That’s great!

So I think as a writer, you’ve always got to be kind to yourself because the rest of the world is frequently not kind to you.

Valerie

But presumably you had a deadline for this? Did you? Did you have a deadline for this one?

Elliot

I did. I always have a deadline. And I have contracts for the books. and I ran late with the deadline in part because I was involved in the adaptation of one of my previous novels, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was adapted into a six part series for the ABC.

Valerie

Yes.

Elliot

And I was involved with that. And it took up a lot of time. And then in the middle of working on the novel, on Maybe the Horse Will Talk, Trump was elected. And I was, like a lot of people, very upset about this. And particularly despondent about the growing tolerance for intolerance around the world. And I thought, where do we even start?

And it led me back to an idea that I’d had and told my young niece when she was a little girl about a cat and a dog who are forced to live together and not expected to get along. And they become best friends. And then they have to worry about the fallout from the respective cat and dog communities.

And my niece kept telling me… I first told her this story when she was four. And over the years, she’d been telling me, you’ve got to write this down, you’ve got to write this down. And I was working on other things, like The Street Sweeper and then the TV show.

And then when Trump came in she said, you really have to write this down now. And by this stage, she was seventeen.

Valerie

Oh, wow.

Elliot

And I thought, you know what? You’re absolutely right. So I took a break from the novel that I didn’t tell anyone about, including my adult publisher, publisher of my adult books. And I’ve said, look, I’ve got good news and bad news. I’ll give you the bad news first. I wanted to write a children’s novel. Here’s the good news: I’ve already done it! So you might be thinking that’s going to take time away from the novel, but I’ve already done it so it won’t take any more time away!

And fortunately, Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin, my publisher, wanted to publish it. So that’s how I got my entre into the world of children’s lit.

So there were lots of things that interrupted me, not to mention two small kids. So all of these things meant it was a long time between the original concept of the novel and delivering it. And I did have to ask for more time, which fortunately I was granted.

Valerie

What was it like writing the children’s book? Did you find it to have different challenges? Or that you had to go through a different process to get your headspace into that age group?

Elliot

Definitely different challenges. But I should say, incredible fun. On the one hand you’re freer because you can be whimsical, as I was. And it’s written for the age group between seven to eleven.

And the world of it doesn’t conform to the real world, but it has to be internally consistent within itself. But it is animals talk. And there are all sorts of animals that turn up in cities that you don’t normally see. It’s set in Amsterdam and there’s a llama there. So you don’t normally see llamas walking down the streets of Amsterdam, among other things that happen that don’t really happen.

So that was freeing. But what was in a sense much more constrained was my word choice. I would try, even in the first draft, not to use too many words that I wasn’t certain kids in that age group would understand. And that means you run the risk of repeating yourself, because if you only have a certain, you have a smaller word choice, so you’re going to have to draw on the same words more often than you normally would.

And then there is the issue of, well, which words do you use if… I mean, I have a, maybe calling it a philosophy might be putting it too highly, but a view, an opinion, that it’s no bad thing to have the occasional word is just slightly out of the ken of children so that they would reach for it. They have to stretch to grasp it. And they will understand it in context, but they wouldn’t understand on its own. They wouldn’t necessarily be able to define it or use it in a sentence by themselves. Because I think that’s how we learn.

And also, I had the view that I wanted to make this entertaining for adults because if you can get a reading experience going where you’ve got a parent or a grandparent or a teacher or a caregiver of any kind, sharing the experience with the child, it’s so much richer. And it’s a lovely experience. And of course, if the parent is enthused about the story, the child can’t help but notice that.

So I tried to do what is often attempted, and one of the best most successful examples of this would be The Simpsons, where it’s got so many layers of understanding that the tiniest children can just enjoy the images, and think it’s a bit silly and a bit funny. And then older children enjoy a bit more. And adults are getting it because it’s quite satirical. So I’m not saying it’s like The Simpsons, but that was an example of something that was very successful, incredibly successful at doing something I wanted to try and do with The Adventures of Catvinkle.

Valerie

So you have your finger in many pies, fingers in many pies. Have you already started thinking about your next novel?

Elliot

What often happens is I get ideas all the time. And I have these little blue notebooks – I have one in front of me right now – and I make notes. And the notes are… They can be as small as a few words, a phrase. Something that I heard or misheard. Something that I read. Or it can be a paragraph, that it’s the beginning of something, as though that were the final draft of something. Or it can be sentences that form a plot but they’re not, it’s not good quality writing, but it’s an idea that appeals to me in terms of linking one event to another.

And I have little books of these notes that I make over the years. And they form ideas that sort of leap up at me and say, choose me! Choose me! You know? Make me your next thing.

Valerie

Yes. I’m curious to know…

Elliot

I haven’t actually, I haven’t yet put a ring around any one of these yet. I’m still promoting Maybe the Horse Will Talk.

Valerie

I’m curious to know, with your little blue notebooks, how are they actually used? In that, are they used in your office? Or is it the kind of thing that you carry around and if you’re on the bus or whatever and you notice something interesting you’re jotting stuff down?

Elliot

I used to carry them around. And then I got so terrified of losing them.

Valerie

Oh!

Elliot

That I left them in my office. And look, I’ve had all sorts of… This is going to point to a kind of neurosis in me, so let’s get it out in the open. I used to have notebooks beside my bed. When I still worked from home, I’d have a notebook beside my bed. And when I say a notebook, I don’t mean a laptop. I mean literally a pen and paper of some kind.

Valerie

An actual notebook, yeah.

Elliot

And I’d have a notebook on my desk in the office, the home office where I would work. And I found if I had a notebook by my bed, the quality of the notes I was making significantly diminished. But if I was forced to get up out of bed and go down the hall to my home office, I found that what I was writing was more likely to be useful and good than some bit of rubbish I might scrawl as I lay beside my bed. Because it was so easy, you know.

Valerie

Right.

Elliot

Anything that came into my head, you just write down, and you think, why did I write that down? That’s… That’s not very good. So that was one stage. And then, I mean, my notebooks would be incredibly useless to anybody else. They’re not proper sentences or they’re scrawled. But I’ve looked at them over the years and seen just how much that ends up in my books. Starts, finds, is born inside these notebooks. It’s quite crazy.

Valerie

Do you think it’s the mere act of writing it down? Even you might not have even gone back to look at the particular notebooks but it’s ended up in your books? You know what I mean?

Elliot

Yeah, definitely. It’s definitely the act of writing it down. And then what would happen is… Especially since… You know, I wrote my first couple of books long hand.

Valerie

Are you serious?

Elliot

I’m serious. Like my first novel, Three Dollars, the first draft was long hand.

Valerie

No!

Elliot

And it was only later when I started writing my first drafts on computer that I would then make what I call for myself worksheets. It’s not that they’re worksheets, but they’re just… Think of it as a canvas and you throw stuff at it. And the stuff you throw can be anything from the idea ‘Valerie calls Elliot. The phoneline drops out at exactly the moment when she says what time they’re due to meet. He goes to meet her. She’s not there. He forms a wrong idea.’ You know. We’re off. So something that was going to work really well.

And then it could be… So that’s like the beginning of a plot. So it’s fairly fundamental to a story. But then there could be some sort of description that will come next. And then there’ll be another plot idea. And then I move them all around. And that’s done on computer. But I used to not do it on computer and I used to do it all longhand in the first place and then only edit on computer.

Valerie

Right. Wow. That’s extraordinary. Okay.

Elliot

Ridiculous.

Valerie

Well, it’s, I’m still processing it! I could talk to you all day, but we’re almost at the end of our chat. So I have to ask you what your top three bits of advice are for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position like you are one day. Where they’re writing stuff that they’re passionate about, and they’re writing full time, they’re writing novels. What are your top three bits of advice?

Elliot

Wow. Top three bits of advice. Um… I think this one’s important. Don’t let other people tell you that you can’t do it. But don’t keep doing it indefinitely if it’s hurting you.

Valerie

What do you mean?

Elliot

What I mean by that is… So I got started, I got published because I won The Age short story competition, which I don’t think they even have anymore, some 25 years ago. And had I come second, we probably wouldn’t be talking now. And the difference between coming first and second is entirely subjective. And it’s not fair on a person who comes second. And you can make that same point about a person who doesn’t place. They were going to come third but they didn’t and now they’re fifth and we’ve never heard of them. And no one knows that they’re fifth and they don’t know that they’re fifth. So they were going to give up. They nearly won. And when another judge was about to be appointed to judge that short story competition, you would have won. Because that other judge likes the stuff you try and write more than the winner. But they weren’t appointed because something happened in their life and now you find you didn’t win and you’re about to quit.

Don’t quit because you haven’t won prizes or you haven’t yet been published. There is a time to quit. And the test I think is this: when it hurts you more to keep going than it does to stop, then you should stop. And why should it hurt you to keep going? Because if you’re really serious about it as a craft and you keep going and you turn down social invitations because you’re working on it and you… It’s eating into your self-confidence because it’s not working out and it’s so important to you. Ask yourself, how would I feel if I stopped? And if you stopped and felt better than continuing to go…

Because I have this conversation with a lot of aspiring writers when I go and give classes at times, and they’re often young people, usually young people, very bright young people. And they might have friends that go on to become lawyers or something and they’re getting pay cheques regularly put into their bank account. And the aspiring writer is taking jobs that will sooner or later economically humiliate them. And they see their friends getting, I don’t know, a new car or a deposit on an apartment and then a house and they’re still not, because they’re putting all of their passion into the writing. That’s when you’ve got to ask yourself the question. If you’re in your late 20s, maybe it’s not too bad, if you’re in your late 30s, maybe you’re starting to worry about it. If you’re in your 40s and you are still doing a job that economically humiliates you, and nothing’s happened with your writing yet, ask yourself the question – would it hurt me more to stop or to keep going? And the answer, which is entirely personal, should dictate what you do.

Valerie

Wow. Okay. That’s a mammoth tip. That’s… Can give me a lot of food for thought, too, and I’m sure many other people. But I’m going to ask you for your other two.

Elliot

Oh, was that not two? That was so big, it’s almost…

Valerie

It was worth two, I’ll give you that.

Elliot

Well, look, my other one, which I’ve sort of said already, and this is my choice, I strongly recommend it but there are people who prefer not to do this, try and think of your ending before you get too far into it. Because that will determine whether even you think it’s a good idea, I think. And it’ll strengthen, it’ll make more taut, it’ll make your writing more taut, I think.

Valerie

Awesome. All right. I won’t push you for another one because that first one was quite mammoth. But look, thank you so much for your time today. Congratulations on Maybe the Horse Will Talk. I highly recommend it for everyone listening. Go get it. Go read it. It’s awesome. And thank you so much, Elliot.

Elliot

Thanks, Valerie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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