I was going to be a writer when I grew up. That belief forged my identity from the age of six, when I won the Keilor City Library short story competition with a priggish moral tale called ‘The Rabbit Who Loved Smoking’.
As an earnest fourteen-year-old, standing by the Murray River, I had an exciting conversation with a Penguin editor, who told me how I might go about building a writing career (enter short story competitions, build a profile, work towards a novel). The belief sustained me and defined my leisure time as I trod a middling course through an arts law degree at the University of Melbourne, doing far better in the English Department than I ever did in law.
When it came time to earn my keep, though, I worked as a paralegal in a number of corporate law firms. I was too soft-hearted for the debt recovery department and unhelpfully resistant to the idea of billable hours. But I did a brilliant job as the most overqualified filing clerk ever. The salary paid the rent and I got up early each morning to work on short stories, and then a couple of novels. I spent my lunch hours sitting on the steps of a gloomy church in the city, revising drafts and dreaming of winning the Vogel. I won a bunch of short story competitions (ever pitted against a nemesis with the fancy name of Whish-Wilson) and had my stories published in a number of literary journals. After a while, Bruce Pascoe told me that I wrote really well but seemed to be writing the same story over and over. Another lawyer read my first novel and said it ran like a beautiful well-oiled bike, that didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
I ditched my law degree with two years to go and left Melbourne to do a master of arts in creative writing – one of only a couple available in Australia at that time. In 1993, Antonio Casella and I comprised the very first cohort at UWA. There, as a postgrad, I started to experience what it was like to be part of a strong and supportive writing community. I understood that there was something open and generous about these West Australians, who understood themselves in the context of isolation, and who were producing writing of an exciting calibre.
After a while, it dawned on me that Cloudstreet wasn’t set in an imaginary landscape, and when I saw Fremantle for the first time, I experienced a feeling of recognition and homecoming. I knew that this was the place for me. In my first weeks in WA, I attended the Perth Writers Festival at the Fremantle Arts Centre and saw the lean and bearded publisher Ray Coffey loping by. He seemed to have a kind of halo about him, that was formed by the bright light of my admiration and my desire to be published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press. In the second year of my MA, the Fellowship of Australian Writers granted me a writing residency, and I plugged away through a chilly September in Mattie Furphy House, running a few workshops and feeling every bit a real writer.
Somewhere along the way, though, something happened to my dreams. I never won the Vogel, and I didn’t make it anywhere in the T.A.G. Hungerford manuscript competition either. After I submitted my novel to Fremantle Press, editor Wendy Jenkins called me in for a chat and told me that she liked my writing very much, but she wondered a little at my absence of plot.
Mostly, with the help of all those accrued, kindly observations, I began to realise that, while I was good at saying things, I didn’t have much to say. During my masters, I started teaching, and I loved it. From my own writing practice, I understood the writing process from the inside out, and I enjoyed thinking about the way stories were put together. I loved interrogating texts and working out a writer’s intention, and how to help a writer achieve it.
And somewhere in there, I came to learn that editing was an actual profession. I did a short course in editing at night school. I began working as a proofreader of classified ads for the Post newspaper with my good friend and UWA masters graduate Deb Fitzpatrick. Young and green as we were, Deb and I got a job editing a coronary care manual for a bunch of medical professionals. At some stage, I took my CV to Fremantle Press, then publishing out of an old house on South Terrace. I sat their proofreading test. I bought a Macquarie Dictionary on the strength of the possibility of becoming a freelancer for them, but they never phoned me back.
Deb and I both kept writing and Deb began to build her profile as a children’s author, but, increasingly, people wanted to pay us for our editing skills. In the years that I began to teach professional and creative writing at Curtin, Deb and I formed a freelance business called ProofEd Editing Services. We had as much work as we could handle. Our business meetings were held in the park while our young kids played around us. The wonderful and absorbing task of editing took place at the kitchen table during the kids’ day sleeps or after they had gone to bed.
It was while I was teaching at Curtin University that I was invited to edit the manuscript of what was to become Jon Doust’s Boy on a Wire. Not long after I had handed in my first editor’s report to Fremantle Press in 2008, Ray Coffey retired, and I was invited to join the press as its fiction and poetry publisher. Even then, struggling to balance work with the needs of young school-age children, I understood what a rare opportunity I had been given. Jobs like this come along once in a blue moon.
Through editing and publishing books by Western Australians, I have gained a much deeper understanding of our rich cultural context. I have seen how writers not only respond to, but define our sense of place. I studied Noongar for three years to help me understand the language that is now present in our stories a lot more than it used to be. I have enjoyed going to universities and writers centres every year and meeting the new writers coming through. I have felt the zeitgeist as hundreds of manuscripts flow in every year (novels and poetry collections about how to connect to place, about drug abuse, social dysfunction, gender identity and climate change). I have enjoyed watching as our books have garnered strong reviews, been translated into other languages, and have been successful at home and overseas. I have celebrated with our authors when they’ve been recognised in the Miles Franklin, the Ned Kelly, the Ngaio Marsh, the Dobbie, the Jefferis, the Premier’s, the Dublin Literary Award, and I have shared the jubilation during winners’ acceptance speeches on Hungerford and Fogarty awards night.
Above all, the part of my job I still love best is working with writers and sharing their vision – helping them make their manuscript the best it can possibly be. The kitchen table is still an excellent place to have good thoughts and to move a manuscript forward. I love the way that every work has its own conundrum that requires resolution. And how every partnership with every writer is unique. Every day, and every book, I count myself lucky to be able to work with writers to help them to tell great stories. I feel very fortunate to be working with some of the best Western Australian writers, and to have helped launch some of their careers.
As I write this piece, I am finishing up an edit of Jon Doust’s forthcoming autobiographical novel, Return Ticket. It is the final in the trilogy of books with which I began my career at Fremantle Press. And on my desk sits an advance copy of True West by David Whish-Wilson, my old short-story competition nemesis, and now a much-valued author of mine. He has moved on from short stories to novels, and I have ceased to become a writer. All is as it should be.
Publisher, Fremantle Press