22 October 2015
Spotlight On Scribe: Patrick Mullins
This week, we’re bringing you daily Q&A’s from our Scribe Nonfiction Prize Long-listed writers. Read on for more information on their work, writing journeys, and all their tips, tricks and advice for budding young non-fic creators.
Patrick Mullins is a sessional tutor and lecturer at the University of Canberra, from where he obtained his PhD in 2014. He is the inaugural Donald Horne Creative and Cultural Fellow at the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, and a research fellow at the Australian Prime Ministers Centre at the Museum of Australian Democracy. He has edited Curio (2010-2011), Block (2009-2011), and Burley (2012-2013), and his short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in Page Seventeen, lip and Vibewire.
How old are you?
What state or territory do you live in?
I live in the ACT.
How did you begin writing?
I began writing in earnest toward the end of high school. I hated—and still do hate—writing in itself, but I’ve always found myself doing it, coming back to it over and over again.
Why do you write nonfiction?
I write non-fiction because it’s powerful form. Facts that are lifeless and dull in isolation become electric and interesting when strung together in a non-fictive work.
Tell us a bit about your longlisted Scribe submission.
‘A Liberal View’ is a biographical essay about Sir William McMahon, who is widely regarded as Australia’s most incompetent prime minister. After his retirement, McMahon wrote but failed to publish an autobiography entitled ‘A Liberal View’. My essay uses the story of that autobiography to explore McMahon’s life and his reputation. I argue that McMahon has more depth and complexity than his reputation today would allow, and that his failure to publish his autobiography has something to do with that.
Why did you choose to write on this topic as a young writer?
I didn’t choose it ‘as a young writer’, per se, and I don’t know that I chose it, either. I got interested in it. It was instinctive more than it was deliberate, as I think these things generally are: you get interested in a topic, and you go from there. I knew a bit about McMahon, courtesy of my PhD, and once I’d got that three-year-terror out of my life I came back to McMahon because I was interested by what I’d noticed: the lack of any biography, the all-too-brief mentions of an unpublished autobiography.
How long have you been working on your submission, or where in development was your piece prior to entering the Scribe prize?
I’ve been working on McMahon for a year. I’ve fellowships with my university and with the Prime Ministers Centre at Old Parliament House to write a full-length study of McMahon, and this essay was originally something of a précis for that—an outline of my initial ideas and thoughts, a way of building the case for that full-length study. Because it was only meant for personal use, the essay was disorganised and ragged, and more than a little dull. I hit upon the structuring device—the story of the autobiography—shortly before the deadline for the prize, and as a way of refreshing my ideas I rewrote the essay around that story.
How important is Australia to you and your writing?
As the country I know best, it’s important. There are eclectic voices and perspectives, here; there are ideas that are new and old; there is a great, constant jostling of perspectives.
What the best and worst piece of advice that you’ve received about writing?
William Giraldi’s reminder that ‘Every book lives and dies by its language’ is the best argument I know for the importance of a writer’s currency. The worst piece of advice I’ve ever received is not to use ‘I’ in an essay.
What is your favourite or most influential work of nonfiction that you’ve read? How has it affected your writing?
David Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd is one of my favourite works of non-fiction and the most influential on this essay. I studied it as part of my PhD, and I come back to it frequently. The understanding of his subject is acute. The structure is dazzling. Judgements are shrewd and forthright. The prose is sharp. Everything I’ve written since has been a poor imitation.