Kate Liston-Mills is a fiction writer from Pambula, NSW. I was lucky enough to meet her at North Gong pub with the Wollongong Writers Festival team and knew I wanted to know more about her writing and her process. Luckily she agreed to an interview and the wondrous results are below.
- Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?
I am a binger. When I use metaphors I use a lot of them. When I talk, I talk a lot. When I write, I go hard, white-knuckles at the keyboard kind of thing. I never let myself become one of those hard-working, focused types who writes 1000 words every day. The routine of it makes me feel a bit sick, claustrophobic. I love everything when I do it and if I lose the sparkle out of something I stop and wait until it comes back. I guess that is why my writing jobs never truly worked out like I expected. When someone says you have to do something it loses a lot of the sheen. I want to be more spontaneous. Right now I am trying to finish my masters, work on my own writing projects and sustain two jobs. So the spontaneity is lacking but I love everything I am doing. Basically, I want my writing to be honest. I want to get better at it all the time and I used to think that meant torturing myself in front of my computer and criticising myself until no words could come out. And I suppose in a way it does mean that but I find the more I read, the wider I read and the more I grow up the clearer I see a piece of paper. It’s a bit like a mirror in a way. The clearer I see myself the clearer I can be on a page. I hope my writing improves the older I get as I become a better communicator. The key is not losing the freshness and rawness you had as a child. I don’t really think you can be a truly great writer until you’re dead. Until your writing has had time to rest in heads, to sit on shelves, to trickle into new generations and new contexts and prove itself.
- You’ve recently had a short story collection published, The Waterfowl Are Drunk! What was the writing process like for that?
It was manic. I was studying and working two completely different jobs at the time and creative writing was my reprieve. I need deadlines. Some writers can motivate themselves to produce a finished work but I need a deadline. I never miss a deadline but I always need to have one. WFAD all started with Dick’s Dead. That piece was for one of my final prose assessments at uni and it was creative non-fiction. I received some okay marks and feedback for it so I submitted it into a competition with Spineless Wonders many years ago. About a year afterwards I received a private inbox from Bridget Lutherborrow from SW asking if I’d be interested in penning a few more stories like Dick’s Dead and form a collection for Slinkies under 30. I wasn’t even sure that I could but I said yes, absolutely I did! I’ll forever be grateful to Bridget, Bronwyn Mehan and Linda Godfrey from SW. They gave me such an awesome opportunity. That’s the hardest part I think. Before that opportunity presents itself I guess you never truly know if you can really be a writer… if it’s all just a ridiculous pipedream or that, in fact, you are capable of writing something that people might just read.
- How much do you think place and where you live impacts your writing?
I often find my writing of place and my ability to ‘place’ a reader depends on where I am writing from; I can’t write about a place when I am in it, only when I am away from it. I need to feel somewhat displaced. I wrote WFAD from Wollongong and almost the entire collection is set around Pambula. When I moved back here (to Pambula) I decided there was no way I could have written it from here. I would be too close. Nostalgia bleeds into most of my writing. I don’t want it to but it does. WFAD was almost like a pastoral. Now I think of it, perhaps it is my first pastoral. And now I live here perhaps I will never be able to write of it again? I think you have to feel truly connected to a place before you can get your readers to connect with your settings. When I’m in the city it seems transient, like if I blink it will change or disappear. And the immediacy of it is magic. I do love a good trip to the city. The pace is so thrilling when you’ve become used to down here. But if I go down to my river now I can imagine my Nana catching fish from the banks and my Pop standing near the oysters before he took his last breath. I blink and breathe and wait for as long as I want and the scene doesn’t change. Just the tides. And there’s something very grounding about it. I get something from both. But I think if you’ve grown up on the far south coast you can’t get it out of you. And I think it’s a wonderful thing.
- Do you have a standard writing practice or is it different every time?
I am a very visual person. I always have images in my head, real memories of weather, setting, faces, scenes. My stories often start with an image and depending on my mood, the computer or notepad I’m using or the place I’m writing from, it bleeds out like ink on blotting paper. I can’t really control it, I sort of just let it go and then pull it back in during editing. I think if you are too in your head when writing it becomes stilted and you often don’t get much down on the paper. I am guilty of sometimes letting this happen. Was it Plato who described the moment of poetic madness or Socrates? I can’t remember but I do believe in it. I believe a good writing process is a fair bit mad. I think if it isn’t a bit mad and uncontrolled then it isn’t organic and won’t endure. But I guess that sort of contradicts what I said in the beginning about the mirror and truly knowing yourself. I guess, I don’t have a standard writing practice; but I am a bit mad and I have a writing degree, which I think works well? I think if I hadn’t studied writing I would just be mad.
- Some people stay in their PJs others get dressed up as if going to the office. What do you wear when writing?
I used to like to dress up at night time like I was going out and drink whiskey or wine by my computer and put on some Billie Holiday to write. I put on whatever clothes I need to get into character. I guess it’s like what I imagine an actor does to get into character. To be honest I used to do this a bit in Wollongong but now that I’m home I can’t really get away with it because I get a lot of drop-ins. Visitors would ask too many questions. I need to get better at not answering the door. What works here is picking up the Great Gatsby and reading a bit with Daisy in it. She’s so fabulous she’d put anyone in the mood. Or some Joseph Conrad. He makes me feel broody and a bit agitated but in a good way. Or just going through some artworks and looking at old paintings, from Vermeer, Ruisdael, Klimt and the likes. I usually have something to say after that.
- Do you find your journalistic and teaching work feeds in to your creative work and vise versa?
I found my time as a journalist has really enhanced my ability to edit. I think it made me very uncomfortable for a while as it is a form of expression I can’t do easily. I am a very emotional person and writer and am very connected to my subject matter so journalism was very hard for me. I couldn’t detach myself and I felt heavy after everything I did. But it has helped me clean up my writing. I can be more brutal with my edits now. I can quite happily ‘kill my darlings’ as they say.
Teaching, however, is something I am yet to fully use in my writing. I have mentored some writers and I continue to run workshops and so on but the role it plays in my writing hasn’t come to fruition yet. I will write a mean story about teaching one day. I just haven’t worked it out yet.
- When things are getting you down what do you do to cheer yourself up?
Watch a movie, write some poetry or walk my dog. Or eat some chocolate. Of course…