by Rossella Venturi
Michael Wilding has spent more than four decades writing and editing, also helping to promote and publish other alternative writers. A great admirer of Christopher Isherwood, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D H Lawrence, in the ’70s and ’80s, he was one of the prime movers behind an Australian literary Renaissance. He founded the literary magazine Tabloid Story in 1972 and the independent press Wild and Woolley in 1974. With his sharp pen he narrated it all in amazing literary memoirs such as Wild Amazement, Wildest Dreams, Growing Wildest. Today Wilding is still a prolific author, mainly of literary crime fiction (his latest novel, The Travel Writer, has just been published) and lives on Scotland Island.
We were going to visit him there but he kindly decided to join us near The Rocks instead. ‘You just can’t park your car near Scotland Island anymore,’ he says. After he starts talking, his English Breakfast is getting cooler and cooler. He will never drink it, I think. Sorry, Prof, for being so cheeky. And thanks for giving your time for Sydney School of Arts & Humanities’ readers and writers.
You first introduced the teaching of Creative Writing at an Australian university here in Sydney?
It was the late ’80s. I taught writing for six months at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I came back to Sydney and my literature courses had all been cancelled. So I suggested creative writing. I thought it would have been useful to those students doing literature because they wanted to write. When I went to Oxford in the early ’60s I had one exam for the first two terms and no exams until the end of three years. You had lot of spare time for writing – now it is all continuous assessment.
What sort of writer are you? How does your writing process work?
You need to have a routine. I will write six pages a day, between half an hour and two hours, 5-6 days a week. The only way to write a novel is just keep at it. Just sit down and do it. Write wherever you are, about whatever you know, whenever you can. 365 days a year. My friend, the late Peter Corris, who was a top crime writer, wrote something like 70 books. He would write for an hour in the morning, have a drink, go off to play golf, write for an hour at night; it was all he ever did. Like Georges Simenon.
5 January 1942
A writer and academic, Wilding has had a distinguished career as a literary scholar, critic and editor.
In the late 1980s, back from California, he introduced the Creative Writing Course at Sydney University
How many pages do you write in an hour?
A thousand words, which is three pages I suppose. I write first thing in the morning, before I speak to anybody. You must make it a priority. Leave me alone until I run out and then I stop. I finish the sentence though. Graham Greene would write 300-600 words. When he got to the bottom of the page, even in the middle of a sentence, he just stopped. He would pick it up the next day
"Robert Duncan, the American poet, once told me WH Auden was in fashion when he started writing so he tried to imitate him and he couldn’t do it at all, and created his own style"
What do you do if you get stuck?
Leave it. Mark Twain got stuck writing Huckleberry Finn. It was 2-3 years before he could finish it. I alternate between writing fiction and writing other kinds of stuff, criticism, doing research, like crop rotation in farming. So you don’t beat your fiction to death. Usually I write for 2-3 weeks then the well has run dry.
Flannery O’Connor once said: ‘It is dangerous if you have too much time to write’.
It’s true. I write the first draft in longhand. It is important to rewrite. I usually do three drafts, and the third one I just print out. The second draft is not very different from the first one but I notice the detail of the language, or if there is incoherence in the plot.
How much is reading important for writing?
Absolutely important. This is how you learn to write. Robert Duncan, the American poet, once told me WH Auden was in fashion when he started writing so he tried to imitate him and he couldn’t do it at all, and created his own style. You read people, you get ideas. Especially today when English is dominated by American rubbish on the web. All the subjunctive cases are going to go and this is going to limit the subtlety of what you can say. Anyway, don’t read good fiction when you are writing. Read it at other times.
What do you read when you are writing?
Crappy crime fiction. If I am reading a writer I admire in the course of writing it creeps in and it messes up what I am doing. Patrick White said he didn’t read anything when he was writing fiction.
You have been a publisher for all your life, you founded more than one press. How is the state of publishing in Australia today?
Pat Woolley and I started Wild and Woolley in 1974. Since the late ’60s there had been a cultural change, there was a lot of energy, a sense of community, poetry readings in the pubs of Balmain. There was a lot of writing around but publishing was dominated by big overseas companies. The media were interested in something new and we got a lot of attention. We went to San Francisco and met Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights bookshop and became the supplier of their books in Australia. We published Australian authors such as poets Robert Adamson and Vicki Viidikas. That was the start of independent publishing. I think today publishing is in a state of transition and e-publishers are the new independent publishers. The one thing that has changed is printing technologies. In the past to get a book at a cheap price you had to print 10,000 copies. Now you just press a button and print 50 or 200 copies, it makes no difference to price per copy. That’s good because you don’t have to invest lot of money in printing; it is a lot easier to get published with e-books. The problem is getting attention, as always.
You were born in Worcester and came to Australia at 21, and never went back to England to live. Are you still so much in love with Sydney?
Sydney has changed considerably but it’s still a wonderful city. I arrived in 1963 coming from a puritan country; Australia was a liberating experience. Even if politically it was conservative, the lifestyle was hedonistic. It was a much freer society here – beaches were the centre of life and the people were friendlier. I haven’t been back to England for 20 years. In 1993 I moved to Scotland Island
And you don’t have a mobile phone.
No. Leave a message on my answering machine. I gave up the credit card too. Off the radar as much as possible.
In your autobiography Growing Wild, you write: ‘Three years at Oxford had made it clear to me that if you came from the working class you were never going to be accepted by the ruling elite’. Did Australia mend that feeling a bit?
Your idea that you don’t need to be wealthy to be warm in Sydney! The class system here was not so apparent. And nobody knew where I came from. This is why Australians did so well in Britain, people like Clive James and Germaine Greer, undaunted. I always felt an intruder at Oxford. I came here as an old leftie. As I grow older and I see migrant shop workers at Coles are getting paid less than the minimum wage and it is the same as colonialism, I have sort of moved further left.
Wilding's latest book: The Travel Writer is the next installment in his mystery and crime series featuring private investigator, Plant.
"The Plant novels … are hybrids of satire and crime fiction, too funny to be called bleak, but concealing a complex seriousness of purpose." – Kerryn Goldsworthy, The Age, on In the Valley of the Weed
"[Wilding] dares those among us who are averse to conspiracy theories to wonder whether we have been too sceptical."
TIPS FROM A SKILFUL WORD CONJUROR
Don’t look back at what you have written until you pass the pivot. Wait until you have 10,000-15,000 words before you look, otherwise you’ll start to change it and you’ll mess it up. I wait until I have written a third or a half. With the first draft put everything in – you can always cut something out. It is much harder to add in because it looks like a patchwork.
Don’t over-revise. You can rewrite to death and spoil the freshness. You can totally rewrite what you have done and then you think that looks crappy and the original was much better.
Keep everything you have written. It may be that later you will retrieve a file with bits and pieces written at different times and put them together. I am a great fan of recycling materials.