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Belinda Castles on Reading like an Australian Writer

Finding community in a solitary craft.

If reading forewords has taught me anything, it is that writers love to talk about stories whispered around campfires. It’s in the copy of The Arabian Nights my mother read to me when I was little, it’s in an introduction to The Sandman that rests on my friend’s bookshelf, and it’s in Reading like an Australian Writer, which was edited by University of Sydney academic Belinda Castles. I have found that writing is a solitary process which often leaves people confined within the parameters of the worlds they’ve constructed, for months at a time. Though companionless, we trudge on to find a story that is universal, one that speaks to everyone who reads it and makes them think of home.

I spoke with Belinda on a sunny morning in June. Sunlight filtered in through the blinds on my bedroom window and danced across the various coloured sticky notes that peeked out of my book.

“I had the idea that I wanted to do something along the lines of Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, but using Australian fiction instead,” said Belinda. She wanted a collection that spoke to the experiences of local writers, because one of the most common habits one acquires while reading is picking out things that can be used. “It’s kind of like expanding one’s repertoire,” she expanded, “like reading a book and thinking — ‘Oh! I didn’t know that was possible.’”

It was important for Belinda that Australian writers knew Australian fiction is more than what is forced on us at school. “We come from a very rich soil,” she said, “it is energetic, diverse, exciting.” Often, novels are contained to the streets of New York City and Central London. “There are things we can’t get from fiction overseas. There’s a certain charm to writers talking about suburbs and places you’re familiar with — I immediately think of Christos Tsiolkas saying Helen Garner talking about the streets of Fitzroy being a real place of art was a formidable moment. It’s the familiarity that is extremely encouraging.”

When I was a first-year, I took an elective called ‘Introduction to Creative Writing,’ for which Belinda is a lecturer. One of the topics we spoke of extensively was the presence of influence. This was back when I clung to impractical goals of true originality free from themes and knowledge to which I was predisposed. “Because I teach young people,” Belinda told me, “I know how their reading patterns manifest in their writing. People act as though it’s not okay to wear one’s influences in their work, but we write through influence. We absorb our surroundings into ourselves and their rhythms are reflected in our work.” 

I used to worry about accidentally mimicking someone’s writing style, or re-using a popular line that particularly resonated with me unknowingly. Before I wrote, I would clear my mind — no books for the days prior, no studying a text too closely. But I have grown to trust the process — and myself — more. When we read, akin to when we write, we ask our own questions and fashion answers out of what suits us best. It is not possible to come out the other side of a book without knowledge, be it about what works well or what really doesn’t.

“One of the most wonderful aspects of editing this collection came from the sense of community it created,” reflected Belinda. As someone who used to be a freelance editor for fiction and non-fiction, talking to people about their writing came naturally to her. “It was a pleasure and a privilege to always be communicating with people throughout the process. Writing a novel, which is usually my forte, is lonely. I’m alone with it and the decisions I make about it. But this was friendlier, and much more relaxed. We could all figure it out together.”

“This book was about drawing on a much larger collective knowledge than my own,” said Belinda, before she gushed about the brilliant writers included. “I wish I could have included everyone I loved,” she sighed, “but I am beyond happy with the end product. I didn’t know what I was going to get going in, but the book covers a wider range of topics than I originally thought possible. It’s much bigger, much more diverse.” 

Reading Like an Australian Writer was a pleasure to read as someone who attempts to discover the intention behind every writing choice. It affords the reader the delight of expertise, much like Cate Kennedy talking about the closeup magic of a Tim Winton story in her chapter. The book held my hand and showed me the wonders of the craft, highlighting every unique aspect in a way I understood.