16 September 2015

Spotlight On: Emily Laidlaw


Emily Laidlaw is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. Her arts criticism has appeared in The Weekend Australian, The Big Issue and Australian Book Review, among others. She’s edited for publications including Kill Your Darlings, Overland and Voiceworks. She is a current recipient of an Australia Council for the Arts’ ArtStart grant.

Emily is part of The Nebula Express; an accessible Microfiction Workshop for young people aged 18 – 25. Aspiring writers with disability are invited to take part in a two hour session with Emily this Saturday (19/09/15), where they will learn how to craft their own bite-sized fiction marvels. The Nebula Express is brought to you by Arts Access Victoria, Express Media and Writers’ Victoria’s Write-ability Program. You can find more details here.

What kind of writing do you do?

Primarily, I write book reviews and arts features for newspapers and magazines. I also conduct a lot of author interviews. I’m a real sticky-beak; I love nothing more than to sit down with artists and learn what makes them tick. Over the past couple of months I’ve been sweating over a hybrid memoir/critical essay. Memoir is one of my favourite genres to read and now being on the other side – trying to write it myself – I can appreciate just how much of a revealing, stomach-churning exercise it can be.


What drew you into a career in writing and editing?

It’s funny, I genuinely can’t remember a time in my life when I contemplated any other career path. Books and writing have always been “my thing” as well as my comfort zone and prism for understanding the world. As a teenager I used to think I was weird for liking books, and I wished I could be more of a team player like my friends who excelled in sport and music. But then I got to university and became involved with my student newspaper (Lot’s Wife) and met other literature nerds in my BA course. Rather joyously, I discovered that books and writing could be a social activity and things improved from there.


What are you currently reading?

So much – too much. Like a bowerbird I collect books around me and flit between them. This is why I love literary journals: they don’t have to be read in one sitting and they manage to encompass a dizzying array of topics and genres. I love creative nonfiction so The Lifted Brow and Kill Your Darlings are my first go-tos. In terms of writing inspiration, I’ve been devouring collections by contemporary essayists such as Eula Biss (On Immunity), Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams) and Deborah Levy (Things I Don’t Want to Know: A Response to George Orwell’s Why I Write). Fiction-wise, I’m a little behind on everyone’s favourite, the Neapolitan series, but I just picked up one of Elena Ferrante’s earlier novels The Days of Abandonment and from it’s opening, emotionally raw paragraphs I was hooked. Earlier this year I submitted a minor thesis on two novels by Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) and JM Coetzee (Foe) – two brilliant, formidable authors – and lately I’ve enjoyed exploring their back catalogue at a calmer pace.


How did you get to where you are today in your writing career?

A lot can be traced back to Express Media. In 2010, I joined Voiceworks’ editorial committee and learnt to find my feet as an editor thanks to its very supportive editorial team. This was solidified at Kill Your Darlings where I interned and later rose to become Online Editor. Literary journals are a fantastic training ground for editors and writers. I worry about the recent cuts to federal arts funding and their impact on small mags. But I also know they are staffed by some of the most inspiring and hardworking people you’ll come across. There is so much to learn personally and professionally from these outlets.


What inspires your work? Where do you find this inspiration?

I feel incredibly lucky to live in Melbourne. I feel spoilt for choice when it comes to literary events and opportunities. The community here is so strong. It absolutely deserves its UNESCO status as a City of Literature. This is largely due to The Wheeler Centre­ – which I’m also lucky to call my workplace, thanks to a casual comms gig at Writers Victoria. As much as I dream about overseas, I know I’ll always feel powerfully connected to Melbourne and the many amazing lit opportunities based here.


What’s the best part of your job?

Honestly, it’s the people. I’ve made some really good friends through books and writing and I find writers to be some of the most engaged and empathetic people you will meet. The other great part is constantly working with ideas. Tumbling down the rabbit hole of research can be a lot of fun. Recent topics I’ve pursued for freelancing work include Indonesia’s military history, marriage customs in Afghanistan and the economics of aged care. The best part of research is getting to learn a little bit more about the world around you while realising, perhaps paradoxically, just how little you’ll ever be able to know.


What’s the best and worst advice you’ve been given as a writer?

The best advice is to read far and wide but I’ve learned you need to apply the brakes at some point. I spend a fair amount of time procrasto-reading other people’s work when I should be shutting the books or browser tabs I have open, and bashing out my own words. But obviously there’s no serious harm in over reading. What’s important is that you find the courage to trust your own ideas and stop feeling overwhelmed by the intimidating volume of polished writing already out there. It’s hard but becomes easier with practice.


What kind of advice would you give to young writers?

If there’s a word I hate it’s “networking” but that would also be my advice. To clarify, I don’t mean networking in the clinical sense of term. I mean it in the “go to everything, get involved” sense: subscribe to all the mailing lists, read local publications, attend all the launch parties and writers festivals in your home town. It can seem a bit daunting walking into an event at, say, the Wheeler Centre where you don’t know anyone. It’s easy to feel all “I don’t belong here/ it will be awkward” but trust me: everyone is really friendly and eager to reach out to like minded souls. Plus, editors get a real kick out of meeting the readers of their publications. And you’ll never get stuck explaining to them “what it is you do exactly”. The Emerging Writers’ Festival is fantastic for this.

On a more practical level, try and develop ancillary skills in communications or marketing etc. as it is very hard to make a living wage out of writing alone. As much as I definitely hate this term you will probably need a “day job” at some point. But that’s ok, this doesn’t denigrate your artistic practice and often you’ll be surprised by how much it fuels it.


What piece of work or career milestone are you most proud of?

I’m a big one for firsts and like to set myself little publication goals – first byline in a newspaper, first official role as editor. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing about writing – once you achieve some level of success, the personal goalposts shift a little higher. But that can also be the exciting thing about it – that inward motivation to try harder each time. Recently, I was incredibly humbled to receive an ArtStart grant from the Australia Council for the Arts. For all the self-doubt I have about my writing, it felt like a small, important validation for what I do. Most crucially, the grant has bought me some time to think seriously about “where next”.


Finally, what excites you most about the upcoming Nebula project?

I feel a lot more comfortable teaching and editing fiction than I do writing it. So from a purely selfish standpoint I hope this workshop will be mutually beneficial! On a more serious note, I’m very excited this event is run in co-partnership with Arts Access Victoria, an organisation I greatly admire. Working at Writers Victoria, which runs its fantastic Write-ability program, has taught me a lot about the importance of fostering a diverse and inclusive writing community – something Express is also very committed to.