Angela Meyer is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and literary journalist. Her publications include The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, Wet Ink, Seizure and The Australian. Her books are The Great Unknown (as editor, Spineless Wonders) and Captives (Inkerman & Blunt, available for pre-order here). Angela recently completed a Doctor of Creative Arts through the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. She has blogged for almost seven years: literaryminded.com.au / @LiteraryMinded on Twitter & Instagram / Facebook
What was the inspiration behind the short story collection The Great Unknown?
It all came about via Twitter. I had been watching blu-rays of the original series of The Twilight Zone and tweeting about the episodes when publisher Bronwyn Mehan contacted me to say she’d always wanted to publish a book based on the show. I told her I’d love to edit such a project, and that began an email conversation, where the idea shifted and evolved until we were happy with it: essentially, a collection of eerie or strange stories that in some way reflected contemporary Australia. Authors were then commissioned, or came through Spineless Wonders Carmel Bird competition, which ran with the theme of the anthology. I’m so happy with The Great Unknown, the stories really vary—speculative, spooky, literary, fun, absurd—and I was able to work with some of my favourite Australian writers.
How did Captives come to be written and published?
Captives, a collection of flash fiction, was commissioned before I had even finished it, which is rare for fiction; I’m incredibly grateful that Donna Ward of Inkerman & Blunt took such a chance on me. She’d read just a few stories when she decided to publish it, and I finished the book as I was travelling in Scotland and Norway last year. A few of the stories were influenced directly by panels at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I was doing some chairing. I was very lucky to have Amanda Curtin as editor, and Sandy Cull as designer—consummate professionals.
When did you first start writing? When did you decide that you wanted to ‘be a writer’?
I’ve been writing since I was very young, and was encouraged early on by my Oma (who published short fiction and articles in Holland and Australia), and my Year Three teacher Mrs Grant. For a while as a teenager, though, I was romanced by film and theatre and wanted to be an actor. I wasn’t a good actor, though, and my dad rescued me by saying: why don’t you work on your writing? I did a degree in film and literature, and began to write very seriously, producing incredible volumes of absolute crap. And I started blogging in my early twenties, which has led to a ridiculous amount of professional opportunities in the world of books and publishing. Eventually my fiction writing became less crap, and everything I’ve done in my professional life (reviewing books, interviewing authors, doing a doctorate) has all helped, not to mention, you know, general life experiences like heartbreak and sickness and travel… I hope I can only continue to get better. I’m currently working on my most ambitious project yet. I may fail, but I’ve failed plenty of times already; any writer or artist gets used to it. I can’t not write.
Who would you say are your writing influences?
I think my writing is influenced by visual and aural stimuli as much as it is by certain writers. David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs is an incredible work of science fiction, then there are the paintings of Edvard Munch, and the films of Stanley Kubrick. I think at a formative age I was more immersed in visual culture than in books, though I always read. It wasn’t until I worked in a bookstore in my early 20s that I rediscovered my love for literature. Some authors who’ve been a big influence are Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Richard Yates, Muriel Spark, Samuel Beckett, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, Janet Frame, and Michael Cunningham. In terms of Australian writers, Gail Jones is an incredible visual stylist, Alex Miller writes so well about desire, and then there’s MJ Hyland, Paddy O’Reilly, Krissy Kneen, Chris Womersley… basically anyone who captures the strangeness of the ordinary, and perhaps the ordinariness of the strange. Writers who manage to be dark, and sad, but also warm (or just cheeky). Stylistically, there’s a mix here, modernists and postmodernists: I wish I could get away with long sentences, parentheses and semicolons. But my best writing tends to ‘allude’ rather than explore. Maybe when I have a few more layers to myself I can unfurl sentences in a way that is interesting. Maybe I’m still too unsure.
You’ve done a great deal of chairing of literary events. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from meeting and talking to other writers?
One is that writers all have a different approach, and no approach is wrong. Some, like Sonia Hartnett, use colour codes for different characters and have the book all mapped out, others ‘fly by the seat of their pants’. Some, Like David Vann, go back over much of the material every single time they sit down to work. And many change their method from book to book. Some flow from one book to another, the ideas piling up like cars in traffic. Others need a break, sometimes of years, to create a new book in their mind. Some write in the morning, others write all through the night.
Writers who continue writing stay curious, even baffled, by life, by people. The world is always strange, said John Banville at Edinburgh International Book Festival last year. ‘I never, ever get used to clouds… these great pieces of silvery wreckage.’
Writers, when they get together off stage, often talk about money, the ‘state of the industry’, different experiences with their publishers and publicity departments (if any), other work, children, TV shows, and maybe after that the books they’ve read and want to, and the books they’ve written.
Famous writers are unapproachable (in the Green Room, at parties) if you haven’t read at least one of their books. Not because of their personalities, but because you feel so inadequate you can’t think of anything else to say. Avoid being introduced.
Most writers like to drink, quite a lot, and those who don’t once drank too much.
These aren’t really lessons, I guess, just observations.
What are your writing habits?
It seems to change with each project, but I write best mid-morning or mid-afternoon, and I don’t write for a long time in one stretch. I relate to the way Michael Cunningham imagines Virginia Woolf’s process:
‘She would like to write all day, to fill thirty pages instead of three, but after the first hours something within her falters, and she worries that if she pushes beyond her limits she will taint the whole enterprise.’
With the current project I go back over the last 10 or so pages before starting, and besides all the research I’ve done, I’m researching a lot as I go, so it’s quite different. I have to stop and ask questions. Sometimes I can’t find the answers but I’ve got a large complex story in my head and I trust I’ll find them out later, so I move on.
Mainly, before I write I feel afraid, and after a session I feel accomplished and exhilarated, for an hour or so, anyway. I know the second draft and beyond will be even harder, but that’s OK.
I have the desire to chew and sip as I write, probably due to the concentration required. Water and tea are good; carrots, celery, mandarins, almonds, all OK. But I’m a fiend for crackers. I definitely need to make sure I’m exercising when I’m writing a lot! If smoking wasn’t bad for you I’m sure I’d write and smoke. And yes, I’m aware of what Freud would have to say about this.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? And if so, how do you overcome it?
No, I am constantly stimulated by the world around me. I have the opposite problem: I have too many ideas, but not every idea is a good idea. I have to work through a lot of emotional response and overwhelm (what the kids call ‘the feels’) to get to the stuff that works. My receptors are wide open so part of finding my voice as a writer is honing my filters, and of course, continuing to read and listen and practice how to express the ideas that win out in a meaningful way.
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