Writing & News
A Q&A with Belinda Probert.
Working with Words: Belinda Probert
- What was the first piece of writing you had published?
A book based on my PhD called Beyond Orange and Green: the Political Economy of the Northern Ireland Crisis, which was one of the very first books to be published by Zed Press, London, in 1978.
2. What’s the best part of your job?
Not having one. I can now write for myself rather than to meet a research performance target, and I can use active verbs instead of weasel words.
3. What’s the worst part of your job?
Not having anyone but myself to blame if I fail to write something every day.
4. What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Being asked to contribute a chapter to Peter Timms book On the Nature of Gardens in 1999. How could this have happened? Perhaps it was because I had been doing regular slots as an unlikely reviewer of gardening books for Ramona Koval’s The Bookshow on Radio National. This was outside my academic comfort zone, but I believed I could find something to say about why people garden because I had read Michael Pollan’s revelatory Second Nature: the Education of a Gardener (1991). That miraculous book made me realise that garden writing could be about big questions and also funny. Next thing, I found myself writing a gardening column in the Saturday Age (2001) despite an obvious lack of horticultural skills. This was writing as fun – with pay.
But I need a second (chronologically-speaking) most significant moment. This was the long Melbourne lockdown that began in July 2020 to protect us from Covid-19. In the absence of distractions, I was able to make myself sit down every day and write about ideas and questions that have been swirling around in my mind for a decade – questions about emigration, landscape and belonging. I sent my first few thousand words to the publisher extraordinaire, Terri-ann White, who responded almost immediately by insisting that I go on writing. She egged me on until I had written a book and then she published it just as Melbourne went into its sixth lockdown.
5. What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
I haven’t had much advice about writing, since academic referees rarely bother to comment on how something is written, all the while exercising their well-honed critical skills on the content. But I had become a pro-vice chancellor by the time Don Watson published Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language (2003) and was learning to juggle weasel words and write management-speak. I took his cry of pain to heart, and began to root out words like commitment, enhance, move forward, continuous improvement, value proposition not just from my writing, but from that of my colleagues. There is more good advice on writing in that book than anything else I know. It changed the way I write.
The best personal advice about my writing that I have received came from my publisher, Terri-ann White, over the last year. Her most common pieces of advice are ‘just keep writing’ (said with enthusiasm), and ‘let it sit for a bit’.
6. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
At an excruciating senior management retreat where some consultant was trying to get the dysfunctional team to work together better, individuals were encouraged to speak frankly about each other. Another Deputy Vice-Chancellor said he found me ‘intimidating’ and that I thought too quickly. You could have knocked me over with a feather. If only I had known much earlier that I could be intimidating…
Very recently a review of Imaginative Possession described the experience of reading my book as like ‘sitting down with a wise, warm friend’. Wise? That adjective surprised me because I couldn’t possibly be old enough to be wise.
7. If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
No thinking required. I would be gardening, messing about with my grandchildren, knitting, improving myself with non-fiction, watching non-improving TV, walking the badly trained dog, and ‘supporting’ my son’s new restaurant by eating and drinking too much (Vexdining.com, please note).
8. There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I love the idea of being taught something, enrolling in a program. My daughter persuaded me to join her in a watercolour class a few years ago, and I agreed mainly to keep her company. But as someone who would describe herself – with reason – as having no talent at all in either drawing or painting I was astonished at what I managed to produce as a result of good teaching and trying hard. But I have no idea if the same applies to creative writing.
9. What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Read a lot and think about why you like some writing much more than other writing.
Write. Write as often as you can.
10. Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
11. If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I would dine with Thomas Cromwell, at Austin Friars, when he has become the favourite of Henry VIII but before he rises to the positions of Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Privy Seal. No need to explain why I think. But I would invite Hilary Mantel as well, so that she could act as interpreter, since Thomas and I might misunderstand each other from time to time.
12. What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Over a long life there is no one book that matters most. I think I was greatly influenced by The Communist Manifesto when I was young, and then by Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977). These books helped shape my young sense of what a better world might look like.
George Seddon’s An Old Country: Australian landscapes, plants and people (2005) did more than anything else to help me understand this ancient continent and its inhabitants. And two books have provided frameworks for thinking about this continent within not just world history but the history of everything. They are Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and David Christian’s Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History.