Q & A with Paul Daley
Our 2016 Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing
23 November 2015
The National Library of Australia Creative Arts Fellowship for Australian Writing, supported by the Eva Kollsman and Ray Mathew Trust, specifically aims to support writers wishing to develop their creative ideas by immersing themselves in an aspect of the Library's collections.
Our 2016 fellow is award-winning journalist, novelist and playwright Paul Daley. Paul writes about Indigenous history, Australian culture and national identity. He will join us at the Library next year to work on his new project Jesustown.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve just finished William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. He’s one of my favourite New Yorker writers and as a life-long surfer, this book really speaks to me. I’m reading Tony Birch’s Ghost River, a sure fire bet, I’d reckon, to be Miles Franklin shortlisted. Tony is one of the best contemporary writers and storytellers around. I’m also dipping in and out of Latest Readings by Clive James; it’s a joy to see he’s still writing so passionately and evocatively about what he loves in his life’s winter. I read the New York Times most days and The Guardian. For research at the moment I’m reading a stack of books relating to mid-twentieth century anthropology in Australian Indigenous communities.
Can you give us a little teaser of your latest undertaking?
My current book is still pretty formative even though I’m writing it most days. It’s got the working title Jesustown, which reflects the fictional setting – an old mission town in northern Australia. It’s about the interface – and some times clash – of anthropology, European religion and values, and traditional Indigenous culture in the mid-twentieth century, and the painful contemporary legacy of all that. It’s about black/white politics really. I’m also co-writing with my mate, the playwright Katie Pollock, the second installment of our 2013 verbatim play The Hansard Monologues (this one is called Age of Entitlement and it will be staged in Sydney and Canberra next year). I’m writing weekly for The Guardian about Indigenous stuff, juggling a couple of lit mag pieces and I’m always working on a short story.
How has your past work influenced this latest undertaking?
Most of my past books and nearly all of the journalism I’ve done since late 2013 have directly contributed to the novel I’m now working on. All of my books have been heavily rooted in place – “country”. I found that I couldn’t write non-fiction about a place like Canberra or Collingwood in Melbourne or, for that matter, Israel and other parts of the Middle East, without looking at questions of original custodianship and displacement. Those books led directly to my decision to write about Indigenous – and whitefella – history for The Guardian. And that made me want to re-examine some of the multitude of personal questions that arise from all of those stories, in fiction. It’s a big itch to scratch and I feel like the best way to do it at the moment is through fiction. That said, I’ve got a thought bubble about a non-fiction book in that space, too.
How do you anticipate using the Library’s collection during your fellowship at the National Library?
I’m anticipating that some quite specific parts of the NLA collection (which I’m broadly aware of) will directly instruct some of the historic detail of the story I’m constructing. I’ll be targeting them in my research during the fellowship. I tend to experiment a lot with voice in my early drafts, and later with plot – and often it is the unexpected diary entry, newspaper clipping, official document or photograph that makes all the difference to that process. I love the unknown element of archival research – the unexpected find that can change the course of what you’re writing. In that sense I expect that the book I’m writing now will be influenced significantly by the fellowship. And who knows what else I’ll find that will instruct my other writing?
What books would any self-respecting journalist have on their shelves at home?
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is an exemplar of narrative non-fiction. His fastidiousness for detail – of time, of place, of character – coupled with incredible, flawless, writerly polish, distinguishes this book as both a work of outstanding journalism and literature. Robert Fisk’s The Great War of Civilisation is a must for any journalist thinking or writing about the terrorism of radical Islam. More Australian journalists would do well to read any book on frontier conflict by Henry Reynolds, and a critical reading of any volume of CEW Bean’s Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 is essential to understanding the hyper-inflated cultural influence of Anzac in Australia which too few journalists ever question or challenge.
What is the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
Be aware that every day is a confidence trick – you have to convince yourself that it’s going to work. Talk to other writers because they feel the same. But mostly, just get on with it – set targets and try to do it every day.
What do you love most about libraries?
More than ever before, libraries are the intellectual hubs of the communities they serve. They reconfirm the life of books – a great thing when the convergence of the old and the new has thoroughly upended writing and publishing of all sorts. I love the generosity of libraries and the empathy of the librarian (all of that mainstream, obscure, weird, compelling stuff for free and never the question “why?”).