A review of The Writers Room by Charlotte Wood

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Writers Room
By Charlotte Wood
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781760293345, Aug 2016, 448 pages, paperback

I listen to a lot of interviews and have conducted a fair few of them myself, and am always interested in seeing what the form can do.  Charlotte Wood’s long-form, extended interviews with other highly experienced writers about as good as interviewing gets.  The conversations laid in The Writer’s Room are rich, detailed, honest, and relaxed, providing an easily referenced compendium of what Wood calls her “three-year masterclass”.  All of the writers involved, including Wood, are extensively experienced, and though the genres differ, there’s a definite literary quality to the work of all the writers.  These are certainly authors at the peak of their game: Tegan Bennett Daylight, James Bradley, Lloyd Jones, Malcolm Knox, Margo Lanagan, Amanda Lohrey, Joan London, Wayne Macauley, Emily Perkins, Kim Scott, Craig Sherborne, and Christos Tsiolkas.  The conversations draw on a deep well of mutual respect, and the information provided is so rich, and there is so much honesty and intimacy here, that it feels almost wrong – like an unfair advantage – to read them.  It’s as if you were overhearing a very  intense and somewhat private conversation between the two cherished friends about the very heart of how and why they do their work.

Wood creates an environment of trust that allows the conversations to go very deep, well beyond the mechanics of craft, though there are plenty of tips on craft. The discussions explore all sorts of aspects of the writing process, including anxieties and aesthetic vision, as well as work methods, the building of worlds, structure, habits, characterisation, on writing darkness, on writing humour, on writers block, and almost everything else you can think of. Wood allows each writer full space to explore her questions, which are so well-thought out, that they’re instructive even before the answer is read.  Each of the interviews begins with Wood’s own introduction to the author, which goes well beyond a bio.  These introductions covers Wood’s own experience of their books, as well as information about the person themselves – how they present (even what they were wearing in some cases, during the interview), their manner, the scene and circumstance of the discussion. As a reader, you really get to join the scene, and experience the conversation with all senses engaged.

The book is so full of insights that my copy is now full of dog-ears and post-it notes (sorry book purists) for points I want to return to or draw on. The topics that Wood covers are far-reaching. For anyone who has read (and loved- as I certainly did) The Natural Way of Things, an added bonus is seeing the bones of what she was grappling with through that book, such as the writing of darkness, what it means to immerse yourself in a dystopian world, or the link between risk, humiliation, and the writers’ connection with humanity. At one point Wood asks Christos Tsiolkas about entering the kind of dark places that you have to go when writing about misogyny or racism (something that both Wood and Tsiolkas have done with great skill in their work), and how that might implicate the writer.  Wood seems to be very good at coaxing out the richest, most honest thoughts from the writers she talks to, even when the question is a simple one, such as whether a journal is kept:

Because the writer part of you is always on, isn’t it? There’s this awful ruthless, churning machine and it doesn’t matter where you are, you’re thinking, ‘What’s here that I can use?’ (Amanda Lohrey, 201)

Most of the writers interviewed came across as incredibly generous, surprisingly humble, and warm and accessible.  Wood allowed the writers to approve their interviews before they went to print, and the resulting transcripts are beautifully readable, smooth and lucid, without losing any of the candid nature of the conversations, or the intimacy.  I felt, above all, that the information provided in these interviews was a tremendous act of generosity – not just in terms of authors sharing their best tricks, their struggles and their visions, but also because of the way these discussions draw the reader almost directly into the writing process. The Writer’s Room isn’t just a book for writers, though it is an invaluable, almost encyclopaedic source of information for fiction writers in particular. The Writer’s Room is also a book for readers, a point echoed many times throughout the book, because the reader is integral to the book’s meaning as the writer is:

In literature you want the intimacy of the collaboration between reader and writer—and this is why I like complex stories. Not to make them difficult, but just so there’s a greater collaboration in that very intimate relationship. You can build things out of that, out of the little ambivalences and unknowns. You expand your sense of the world then, rather than just being reassured, or things being simplified. (355-56, Kim Scott)