A Conversation with Myke Bartlett

Fire in the Sea by Myke Bartlett

As November is the month of NaNoWriMo, the time where most writers go into hibernation and the sound of tap-tap-tapping can be heard on keyboards all over the world in an attempt to churn out a record 50,000-word draft of a novel, I thought it would be a fitting time to have a Conversation with a real live published writer!

If you’ve been keeping up with the blog, you’d know that I’ve been attending workshops at the School of Life pop-up in Perth over the last couple of months. The facilitator at my first two workshops, How to Be Creative and How to Have Better Conversations, was a Perth-born, Melbourne-based writer and freelance journalist named Myke Bartlett and I sort of cornered him during the How to Have Better Conversations workshop and asked if I could interview him some time later about his career as a writer, his writing process and, well, writing in general.

Myke very kindly said yes and a little while later, we had set up an interview through Skype, which, I have to admit, is a new one for me as I generally do most of my interviews in person or over e-mail! We had a great chat about writing, books and the creative process and the result is the interview below. It’s much longer than my usual Conversations, but it’s well worth the read, particularly for any aspiring writer!

Hi Myke! Tell us a little about yourself.

My day job is working as a freelance journalist so for the last of five years, that’s been my core income. I work for a number of magazines. I work for a magazine called The Weekly Review, doing their culture stuff so that’s film, music, television, plays, festivals, et cetera. Also, I write fiction. I have a book published a couple of years ago which won the Text Prize, and I’ve just finished my second book. When I’m not doing that, I’ve been working for the School of Life in the last six months as one of their faculty.

You started off as a teacher at a girls’ school.

I was a teacher fairly briefly. I finished my arts degree without any particular employment opportunities opening up to me and I worked a few different jobs for a year or so and then decided I would do the sensible thing and train as a teacher. I had a couple of friends who did the same thing and they seemed to enjoy it. I probably enjoyed the first year and the second year a little less and by the time I came to third year I realized I probably… I like to think I was quite good at it. I think I just… all the other stuff that went with it was a bit draining, the various meetings, et cetera, et cetera. There were so many meetings, more than any other job. It was the meetings that were exhausting…

But while I was doing that, I was also working, increasingly doing freelance writing jobs. I’ve been sort of doing that for about 10 years and I realized that I enjoyed doing that far more than doing anything else. I mean, I knew that writing was always my kind of thing, but that was the first… I think doing the freelance work made me realized I could actually make money out of doing the thing that I really wanted to do. So I quit teaching and I retrained as a journalist

When you say you retrained as a journalist, did you take a course in journalism? 

I actually applied for a position as a journalist with a magazine with no real experience or training or anything and very nearly got that job. And that kind of encouraged me to apply for the RMIT course, the Grand Dip course which goes for a year, and they only take 25 people a year. A few thousand people apply for it every year. You have to go through some fairly rigorous interviews and exams and things. But I was lucky enough to get into that and that certainly opened up a few doors. It has provided a career for the last five years now.

I’ve always heard it’s pretty hard being a freelance journalist.

It is. It was my plan – in 20 years’ time I thought I’ll do news journalism, I’ll work with a newspaper, et cetera, work with a radio station, TV, and then in 10 years, try to do freelance. I really wanted to be my own boss. That was certainly one of the things when I quit teaching. I was sick of working for someone else. I wanted to work for myself and I thought freelance would be great but I thought it would take a while to get there. So I’ve been lucky. Touch wood, I’ve been lucky to date.

You published your first book around your mid-30s?

I’ve always sort of written, but I’ve never shown it to anyone, really. I started writing when I was in primary school and kept going when I was in high school. When I was at university, I studied under a fantastic writer called Elizabeth Jolley who was very encouraging and supportive and wrote me this beautiful letter that I’ve kept until this day. But I’ve never really, I think, had the confidence or the courage to actually send work in to anyone. I spent the next 15 years trying to get it right, I think.

And what changed for you? What made you decide that you wanted to start writing an actual book that became Fire in the Sea?

Well, a couple of things. One was that I experimented with – I blogged a book, I think, in 2004. So I wrote it as a blog while I was doing a not particularly exciting office job. I wrote that during work hours and that got a little bit of attention from people on the Internet.

In 2005, a site called Podiobooks.com started up and they were giving away free audio books. Unpublished writers were recording their unpublished books as audio books, giving away sort of a chapter a week to subscribers. And that seemed quite an exciting model for me. It was a way of skipping the slush pile, avoiding all those rejection letters that I’m sure would come when I start sending a book around to people.

So I had an idea for a book – I think I’d written three chapters of it – and I just started doing it week by week. I would write the book on the train on the way to work. I would write a chapter a week. I would record it on a Friday, edit it on Saturday morning, and upload the file over the weekend. So I did that. It took almost two years to do, I think. But it was quite good. It got quite a bit of attention. It got into the iTunes Podcast Top 10 in the US a few times. I had a couple of agents approach me about that. We did work on it for a little while and that probably gave me the confidence, I think, but it certainly made me aware of how a story worked and what people actually wanted from a story and I don’t think that was something I’ve ever been taught as a writer. I think that most of the focus on writing from workshops has been how you put words together and I, you know, I was quite happy putting words together. I was probably quite good at that. The actual storytelling was something that had never really been raised and certainly I hadn’t thought about it for a great deal. And probably it was thinking about that led me to write this first book, Fire in the Sea, with this fresh idea of what a story actually was, how a story worked and, you know, that book was picked up straightaway. It was really sort of very lucky.

That’s amazing because the writing industry can be such a hard field to break into.

Yeah! I think it was good that I wrote that book for the Text Prize. I’ve heard of this thing called the Text Prize in 2010. It was a prize for unpublished manuscripts for children’s and young adult fiction. And that gave me a year to write that book so I had a very fixed deadline. I had an idea for a young adult book so that was convenient. And I think sending it off for that prize was somehow less scary than sending it off to an agent or, you know, a publisher’s slush pile because the stakes were kind of higher, I think, the stakes were a bit ridiculous. It wasn’t that I was ever going to win the prize or if I didn’t win the prize, then that was okay because, you know, it was such a long shot anyway.

So I think it made me feel more comfortable with the idea of failing, really. I think that if that book hadn’t been picked up, if it hadn’t won the prize, then that’s okay. I would have felt fine because it was a long shot, whereas sending it off to a publisher, the stakes wouldn’t have seemed quite so high. The rejection would have hurt more. Failure would have been a little harder to come to terms with. But, you know, as luck would have had it, it won so I didn’t have to deal with that.

Was that the turning point? Was that what helped you find a literary agent after that?

Absolutely. I mean, I had an agent before which, for various reasons, didn’t work out and I quite liked the idea of having an agent – just in general, I quite liked the idea of… I’d like to have a life agent, you know, someone who found you interesting jobs to do and interesting people to spend time with…

That would be nice!

Yeah, it would be great! I’d love to have someone to do all that stuff for me. You know, the right clothes, et cetera, et cetera.

I met an agent at a literary festival and we got to chatting about Dr Who, actually. We built a rapport and I said to him, “Look, I’d love to send you some material,” and he was very polite [about it]. And then I did send it through and he liked it so that was good. So that’s what we’re working on now.

You gave yourself a year to write Fire in the Sea for the Text Prize. How did you find the time while balancing a family, a day job, social obligations, etc.?

I had a wife but other than the wife, no family [then]. I had a dog, a dog who needed a certain amount of my time. [laughs] No, I was very strict, actually. I got up at seven in the morning. I was working freelance so I had a certain amount of flexibility with my time. But I would get up at seven and work through till nine on that, and then I would start the day job, do the day job through to, you know, nine to five. And as the book sort of wore on, as the deadline encroached, I probably was sacrificing more of my day towards that.

I think that with writing, that kind of writing, it always involves a certain amount of sacrifice. You’re aware that you’re giving up… you know, when I was younger, I was aware that I could be going out and spending time with friends, going to the pub and so on. But I chose not to. I chose to stay in and practice my craft. I was aware that even though what I was probably writing then wasn’t going to get published, that was really important time to sort of dedicate myself to. But I think you also feel quite embarrassed, saying, “I need this time.” I need this time to do something that is possibly unproductive, but, you know, it’s training.

It’s the same way that, you know, if you want to be a great footballer, then you’re going to have to sacrifice other areas of your life to devote yourself to your training. I think it’s a little harder with creative pursuits because there’s no immediate career path obvious and it’s also something that… it sounds like a hobby, really, I think, is the main thing. It sounds like something that you shouldn’t be wasting your time on. And it’s also something so subjective, I guess, and so personal that I always do feel quite embarrassed. I had some understanding friends to whom I’d say, “Look, I’m going to stay home and write.” But with most people, you would just pretend to be busy, doing something else.

That’s so true!

I’ve been lucky that my wife’s always been very supportive and very understanding so I do… I have been able to make time.

You’ve touched on your writing process in previous interviews and I read an article once where you’ve spoken about the writing process for Fire in the Sea. You said you were glad something that caused you so much angst writing it was giving other people pleasure in the end!

Right, yeah! It’s funny, I don’t remember any angst about that. It’s now all gone and I don’t feel personally responsible for it, I guess. It’s out in the wild now and I don’t really remember the kind of birthing process to bring it into existence. I don’t even mind when people have an opinion on it now. It feels like something someone else did. Whereas the new thing, that’s a source of much angst and anxiety. I’m waiting at the moment for my agent to give me notes on the latest revisions and that’s incredibly stressful. I think when you’re waiting on anyone to give you feedback, on fiction writing particularly, it leads to a complete crisis of confidence. Can I do this at all? Have I made a mess of it? Have I done too much or have I done too little? It’s amazing, the various insecurities and self-doubts that will surface while you’re waiting for someone else’s opinion.

Is ‘the new thing’ the sequel to Fire in the Sea?

No, it’s actually something new. It’s something new that’s actually based on one of the books that I podcasted. You know, I podcasted that almost 10 years ago now and I still get probably an e-mail a week from people who have either just discovered it, or who have listened to it again, or are just curious, you know, wanting to know if there’s going to be a sequel to that or if I’m going to publish it. So it’s nice that there’s still some bubbling level of interest there from this thing that I did almost 10 years ago. So it’s a completely new thing that’s based on the old thing.

And that’s lovely to know that something you wrote from 10 years ago, simply because you wanted to write it, is still out there, touching people’s hearts.

Right. You know, I feel slightly embarrassed because I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote that. I had no idea how a story worked and, in fact, I think, in many ways, I think this is slightly… this can be an issue with Australian writers in some ways, but I think we do resist what’s seen as a kind of the Hollywood storytelling model, that narrative and, you know, to some extent, that means we’re often still resisting a good story.

It’s a criticism of Australian film, for example, that Australian films often lack the third act, that they will give you the set up of the problem, they will worsen the problem, they’ll take that problem on a sort of downward spiral to its absolute crisis point and then they’ll end the film without that redemption because they think that redemption is seen as being American or seen as being sentimental.

So I think I had that kind of model of storytelling in my head and in a sense that story was to be resisted in some ways. Now I look at those two, the podcasted book that’s out there and I can feel it resisting the storytelling structure. Whereas now I think I’m far more aware of the strengths in the storytelling structure, not that you have to stick to the formula necessarily, but there’s a reason that works and there are certain things, whether you’re telling a story about what happened to you on the weekend or reading a Greek myth. There are certain things that we want from a good story that is important for a writer to come to terms with.

That’s really interesting, what you said about the structure of Australian storytelling and how it’s influenced you as a writer growing up in Australia, mainly because I’ve never heard anyone put it that way before, yet it’s kind of true.

It was really only something I sort of became aware of when I started [writing], because it was mainly Americans who listened to the podcast. And the agents that I spoke to initially were American and I think they had a very different take on storytelling.

I think the problem that also existed for those first books was I was thinking I was writing literature and that was what I always wanted to write. I always wanted to write the books that perhaps nobody would really buy, the slightly quirky, slightly intellectual, arty kind of books. And it was only really talking to agents in the US and to the listeners that I realized I was actually trying to write commercial fiction. So I think there were two sort of jarring elements there and the commercial fiction one was definitely the one that relies more on what you might call traditional storytelling or plotting, whereas I think when I started, I was just interested in character and language and all those things.

So I think having it presented to me that perhaps I was more of a commercial writer, you know, I’ve come to terms with that and it’s sort of helped me focus, I think, my approach to writing books.

I found it really interesting reading an interview you did with Hypable about Fire in the Sea where you spoke about how some people were possibly classing your book as a girl’s book because it had a female protagonist, as opposed to being a book for both boys and girls. This classing of ‘books for boys’  or ‘books for girls’  is something you’ve touched on in quite a few other interviews and I found it intriguing, given there’s been a lot of talk lately, mainly in the US, about increasing diversity in books, not just for gender, but also race, sexuality and other issues.

When I set out to write Fire in the Sea, I was very much writing it as a reaction to a certain kind of female protagonist that I was seeing in teen fiction. The clearest example of that is Bella from the Twilight books. And I wanted to create a female protagonist as a reaction to that, who was not just, you know, an empty pair of shoes, who was not this kind of space in the book into which the reader could pour themselves. I wanted to create someone who had her own character, who was strong in certain ways and flawed in other ways. I just wanted to create a character where she felt quite real or felt like… I guess, well, teaching at a girls’ school at the time, it felt like some teenage girls I was seeing there and also the young women that I knew when I was growing up. I definitely wanted to create a sort of strong… not in the sense of being kick-arse or being a sort of Buffy clone, for example, but someone who, you know, stood out from the page a bit more, I guess. Who had facets, interesting facets.

I did certainly set out to write a book with a female protagonist, but I didn’t intend that to be a particularly statement, in the sense of ‘this is a book for girls’ or ‘this is a book for boys.’ I wrote it for myself, as I think you have to with any book, primarily. So I wrote a book that I wanted to read. I wrote a book that if I had read it when I was 15, 16, growing up in Perth, that I think I would have liked, or at least the sort of book that I would have really loved to read, growing up in Perth.

I think, more important to me than the gender of the protagonist, was the setting. And I think that I wanted to write the sort of story we were talking about before, the American model of storytelling, that kind of blockbuster Hollywood storytelling. I wanted to write a story like that but set in somewhere like Perth, somewhere that didn’t have those associations, that people didn’t imagine was a place in which a big, epic adventure story would take place.

That was far more important to me, really, than the gender issue at the time. I just thought if I was growing up as I did in Perth, feeling isolated and feeling that the world was happening somewhere else, that anything interesting in the world was happening somewhere else, that, you know, you’re standing on Cottesloe Beach or at Fremantle Harbor and watching the ships go out to this world that seemed so much more exciting than where I was because there were no stories told about that place. You know, when I first switched on the television, went to the cinema, if I picked up a book, all these stories were set somewhere else. There was nothing set in the place where I grew up. So it was really important to me, thinking that, you know, a kid like me in a very isolated place could find the book that tells them, “Look, you know, this place can be just as exciting as anywhere else.” Hopefully, it opens up their imagination in some way.

I did love that about your book because it was mentioned in your biography with Text Publishing that you spent the first 20 years of your life trying to escape Perth, and here you are setting Fire in the Sea in Perth! While I was reading the book, I did feel it was quite a homage to WA itself and to Cottesloe, in particular.

It is. No, absolutely. You know, I think it’s a book in love with its own setting. For all of Sadie’s complaints of, “Oh, I need to get out of here,” at the end of the book, she learns she’s not in such a hurry to leave anymore. She actually appreciates home and realizes that the various benefits about being in that place far outweigh any hypothetical adventure in, you know, imagined places, places that she hasn’t been to.

I’m glad that you think that because that bio did certainly cause it some problems with people from Perth. One of the first things that came up in interviews was, “What’s your problem with Perth?!?” I actually don’t have a problem with Perth. I love going back to Perth. Having spent those two weeks there with the School of Life, it was great. I had such a good time. It’s a place that feels very rich to me. You know, I’ve lived in Melbourne for 10 years. I’ve never felt tempted to write anything set in Melbourne. I don’t really know why. I think I’m very happy here, very content here. Perth has a kind of scale, you know, the setting, the sky is bigger, everything seems a lot more extreme, I think, which has partly to do with the isolation.

But to me, it’s a far more romantic place than Melbourne is, bizarrely. But, yes, to return to the gender point, sorry, which I did digress from. I think when I was writing [Fire in the Sea], I certainly didn’t have a sense that it was a girls’ book. I think I wrote it, assuming everyone would read it. It was really only during the editing process that it was kind of… well, it was actually sort of suggested to me that next time… it was a passing comment from my editors who said, “Oh, next time you should try writing a book for boys because, you know, there’s lots of really exciting action sequences in Fire in the Sea and boys really respond to that.”

It was probably the first time that I actually even twigged that there was a difference. I guess I’ve always known that, obviously, but I think naively perhaps I was writing a book thinking, “But everyone is going to read this book,” not thinking that boys would actually be necessarily put off by a female protagonist or that girls would not respond to the action scenes. I know boys and girls have read the book so I don’t know if it is harder for a boy to pick up a book with a female protagonist. I suspect that in some ways it is. But simply because reading, I think, is increasingly sort of seen as a feminine activity and like any other feminine activities, therefore not given much status within society. So if you look at industries that tend to be gender-feminine such as teaching and nursing, for example, they tend not to have as much importance attached to them, certainly not financially. So I think for a boy to enter a space that is sort of already classed as feminine and then pick up a book that is perhaps being marketed as – and Fire in the Sea certainly wasn’t marketed like that – but a book that is being marketed as being feminine, I think, is doubly dangerous for them, socially, perhaps.

Within the debate about gender-based books, there’s also been complaints about there not being quite as many books being written for boys as there are for girls.

I think the teenage market has discovered that girls read books, and not only do they read books, they also go see films based on books that star female characters. So that’s a new thing. I think the fact that Hollywood has certainly woken up to the fact – and again with books like Twilight and The Hunger Games – and went, “The teenage girls are actually a demographic we didn’t know existed. We can pitch things at them!” So in the last few years we’ve seen a massive number of books that are being aimed at that market and that demographic.

But, I think, you still look at most of the books that win awards and they tend to be by male authors, although female authors write more books than male authors. Most of the books that are studied still tend to have male protagonists or are written by male authors. So even in an industry or an area that’s perhaps being gendered as feminine, we’re still seeing the privilege of the masculine within that. I don’t know if that’s simply because a male author is perceived as being more extraordinary because there are fewer of us. I don’t think that’s the case. It’s interesting.

So I don’t think there are fewer books being aimed at boys necessarily. I think we are quite rightly seeing recognition of the fact that books can star female protagonists and still appeal to both genders.

I think so too. In fact, I think there shouldn’t be a segregation of books for different sexes, that if we let kids be, boys would find something interesting and appealing in ‘feminine’ books and girls would find something just as appealing in ‘masculine’ books.

Absolutely. I think there are still gatekeepers existing who will say to you – and I’ve had this said to me many times by some gatekeepers who would say, “Oh, boys want war books. Girls want feeling books,” which troubles me so much partly because I have no interest in war books, but also because the idea that those two things have to be separate is bizarre. The idea that you can’t write… and I guess this is what I really wanted to do. I wanted to write an exciting action adventure that still had the emotional depth that you perhaps associate with books for girls. So I absolutely disagree with the idea that they have to be separate, that a book can’t be a book that boys would find interesting and a book that girls find interesting.

But the fact that there is this problem, that there is still this lingering idea amongst the gatekeepers, whether they are within publishers or whether they’re in school libraries or whether that’s… you know, I think grandparents buy more books for kids than anyone else. And I hear this from friends that work in bookstores, that grandmothers would come in and say, Oh, I can’t buy that for my grandson because the cover is too girly,” or “I couldn’t buy that for my grandson because it’s got a female protagonist.” I think those kind of old-fashioned attitudes aren’t helping and I would like to think that behind those attitudes, we’re actually seeing a generation of readers who are increasingly happy to read both sides of the bookshelf. Certainly, when I talk to kids, it seems to be far less of an issue for many of them than perhaps it was for teenagers of my generation.

They’re a lot more open now.

I think so.

But now to a more conventional question – which authors are amongst your biggest influence?

Right.…um…

Too many to list? That’s always a hard one!

It is. It is because on one level you don’t really like acknowledging your own influences. I think for me, when it came to finding my voice as a writer or the specifics of way of writing that, you know, worked for me, there were two books that I read at the same time, more or less, which just kind of crystallized something. It was also the first time I’d just gone overseas so that probably helped as well. But first was Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.

That’s set in Fremantle!

Yeah. It was a book that had been pressed on me for years and years. People kept saying, “You must read this fantastic book by this West Australian author.” And I had no interest in reading that book, I think, while I was living in Perth particularly. I thought, “I lived here, why would I want to read it?” Which is funny, given what we were saying about Fire in the Sea earlier.

But since I left Perth, I’ve obviously developed some fondness for it and so I was just at the right time to read that, and just the language in that book and the sense of myth that Winton brings to his very familiar setting really clicked with me, that really just made sense. And reading his most recent book, Eyrie, I had exactly the same feeling. He’s one of those writers that you pick up and you go, “This is why I want to write, you know, this is why I am doing this.” It’s just the way he uses his language that speaks to me and reminds me of how I want to use language, I suppose.

So that’s the first book. And the second was a book called The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. It was written by a writer called Bruce Robinson who most famously wrote the screenplay for Withnail and I, which is one of my favourite films. And I think what that had in common with Cloudstreet, with Winton’s work, was it’s very literate. It was very intelligent and it was also quite crude and I think I really liked that balance. It felt very real to me that it was kind of… there’s parts of the Penman book that are utterly scatological, I think, the first chapter, particularly. It just felt very real and connected with me. I thought, okay, you can write with humor and you can write in a way that is very tactile, I think, that really feels kind of sweaty and sticky and visceral, I suppose. And you can still be clever. You can still use language in a really beautiful, kind of poetic way and I think that’s something that both of those books have in common, is the poetry of that. So I think through those books I was able to kind of reconcile the two sides of what interested me about writing, which was firstly being slightly poetic and secondly being very real and being real in a way that can present a sense of the mythic as well as, you know, something bigger.

What’s an average day like for you right now?

Really quite varied, which I think is how I like it. I usually spend Monday and Tuesday working on the page that I write for The Weekly Review. So that’s usually about a day’s work, but I spread it to two days. But there’s various film screenings, band launches and things that I need to go to. I try to squeeze in a bit of fiction while I can. At the moment, Thursday seems to be a good day for fiction writing because there’s not much else on. Wednesdays I have off to spend with my daughter so I look after her on Wednesdays and everything else just slots in around that. So it’s pretty varied.

I’m kind of aware that one day I’m probably going to have to go in and do some kind of more traditional work. I’m probably going to end up having to work a nine to five at some point, but right now I’m not sure how I will handle that. [Laughs.] It’s been five or six years in which I’ve enjoyed a great deal of flexibility and I would like to maintain that, if possible. But in between all that, I also do school visits and author residencies and all the fun and really interesting stuff that comes with having a book published.

Having Fire in the Sea published was really the first step and I think I… you know, I’ve said this before but I earn far more money talking about that book than I actually do writing it, and that continues to be the case and I really enjoy that. I mean, it’s got the element of teaching that I really enjoyed, as does my work for the School of Life. But it’s the chance to… well, I think there’s two appeals to teaching. One is the chance to actually realize that you’ve learned something and you actually have something that’s worth sharing. And certainly doing school visits as an author has been a revelation to me in that regard, that I kind of go, “Oh, do you know, I actually know stuff now!” I’ve kind of learned something. You know, I’ve talked before about not knowing anything about story when I started writing. Now I feel I actually know a bit about that and I can explain it to people and I can help people realize what a story is. So that’s nice. So that’s the first part.

And I think the second part is learning. And, certainly, doing the School of Life stuff, I’ve loved the reading that’s gone with that, the philosophy that I’ve had to read and the sort of non-fiction work I’ve had to read and books I haven’t read since I’ve left university. I’m enjoying them far more now than I certainly did when I was at university. So I love that stuff about teaching, the chance to learn and the chance to realize I actually know stuff. That’s great.

And that definitely fulfills a part of what you were trying to bring across to us at the School of Life workshop on How to be Creative, which is making creativity a big part of your every day life.

Yeah. Yeah, I guess so. You know, we talked at that class about the fact that all of us are creative, no matter what sort of work we’re doing, but it’s important to me to make time to actually pursue the kind of creativity that really interests me, but also to try to find different ways to bring that to all the different sort of spheres, or realizing rather that, yes, teaching does actually allow me to be creative and there are parts of my creative self that are rewarded through teaching in the same ways that there are parts of my creative self that are rewarded through doing journalism work. I think it’s important for me to actually recognize the sort of activities I find rewarding and look for opportunities to engage with those areas more, to find my own kind of foothold in things, if that makes sense.

Sounds like it’s been definitely very much a balancing act for you.

Well, it has, but it doesn’t really feel like that. I think the conscious decision I made five or six years ago was I don’t want this kind of life, I don’t really want the nine to five job. I want to try to do something more interesting. I want to try to do something more interesting. I want to try to actually live in a way that reflects my general approach to life, rather than just the idea of work being separate from your life. I thought I actually want to sort of bring work into my life and make [it so], you know, that is my life so I don’t feel bad when I have to go to work now. And when I’m really busy now, even though it can obviously become quite stressful at times, I’m then able to go, “Yeah, but I want to do this,” and the fact that I’ve said yes to doing this – and this is the great thing about being a freelancer is that ultimately you have the decision whether you’ll do the work – the fact that I said yes to doing this must mean that I actually really want to be doing this thing, even though it is taking up all my time, even though I could be at the beach or I could be at the pub. I must really want to do this thing.

I think that’s great, because you’re actually doing what you want to do with your life, you’re actually doing what you love doing, which is something a lot of people seem to struggle with.

I guess so. Yeah. And for me, a turning point was something I read of someone who was talking about this person, who was saying he was actually a kind of irritating person to know because he only did things he wanted to do and he says no to everything else. And at the time when I read that, I thought, “Yeah, that’s pretty selfish.” Then shortly after that I went, “Actually that’s really empowering!” You know? You actually say, “Well, do I want to do this or am I obliged to do this?” And there are going to be reasons that you’ll do things that may not be particularly pleasurable or enjoyable, but that’s because they’re giving you some other kind of reward.

Again, this may sound quite selfish, but you’re aware that, for example, you may not really want to go to some family function, you know, because of your girlfriend’s family dinner or something, or, you know, girlfriend’s cousin’s birthday or something like that. But, you know, that may not be your idea of a good time, but you’ll go because you’ll feel rewarded by the bonding with your partner’s family or that you realize that it’s important to your partner and so you get some sort of reward in that. So instead of going to a family function and going, “God, I really don’t want to be here,” you’re able to then go, “Well, I think I actually do want to be here.” And obviously I do want to be here because I am here and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be here. And being able to take that kind of positive mindset from what seems like quite a negative thing, the idea that you could say no, means that you’re actually able to enjoy yourself. I think if I felt just dragged along to something – and it may not be a family function or something else, some other sort of meeting, et cetera – if I felt dragged along there then I probably would be miserable the whole time I was there. But if I’d actually gone because I’ve made the decision to say yes, rather than I just felt obliged, then I’m probably in a better space to actually enjoy it.

That’s a great mindset to have.

I guess so. It sounds really negative and selfish, but to me it’s quite…

No, it sounds good. It sounds very positive.

Yeah.

And, finally, what’s your advice to other aspiring writers?

What’s my advice to aspiring writers? There aren’t enough jobs. Go do something else. No. [Laughs.] No. I’m occasionally asked by people who want to be journalists how they become journalists and I do feel like warning them off simply because they’re taking work away from me. [Laughs.] No, but I think the only advice for any kind of writer is to write and to read, and that’s really all you need to do. But it does… your apprenticeship is something you’re probably going to serve alone and it’s probably, you know, it could take six months, it could take, you know, 15 years. It’s something you’re probably going to do on your own without necessarily much feedback from the outside world. And, really, I think the feedback you’re probably getting if you’re not in a literary clique and if you’re not surrounded by likeminded people or a mentor or anything like that, then the best feedback you’re going to get is reading other people’s work and realizing what’s working, you know, why those books are great, what you enjoy about them. So I guess that’s the only advice, is write and read, I think.

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