Joanita Wibowo


5 minutes with author Marcella Polain

5 minutes with author Marcella Polain

In 5 minutes with author, Over 60 asks book writers about their literary habits and preferences. Next in this series is Marcella Polain, novelist, poet and short fiction writer. Apart from her critically acclaimed poetry collections – Dumbstruck (1996), Each Clear Night (2000) and Therapy Like Fish (2008) – she also has a number of published essays and short stories under her belt. Her latest novel, Driving into the Sun is out now. Over 60 spoke with Polain to discuss the best time to write, the book she reads for research purposes, and the unexpected reason people should read the Bible.   

Over 60: What is your best writing tip?

Marcella Polain: Find your best writing time – mine’s first thing in the morning before speaking to anyone – and prioritise, protect and use it. If you don’t, no one else will. And, equally important, read good writing. Reading and writing are the two sides of that coin we hear about.

What book(s) are you reading right now?

Because I’m in Oxford at the moment, researching for another book, I’m reading the English translation of All Souls by Javier Marías, which is set there.

What is your favourite word in the English language?

Who can choose only one? Discombobulate, rapscallion, susurrus – I like the sound of many words. But the effect of a word also depends on its context. The word “oh”, for example, is quite common – we use it often in speech – and it can carry many meanings depending on its tone. Imparting a particular tone on paper demands work.

What book do you think more people should read?

This is going to make me sound like someone I’m not, but my answer is the Bible. Not for religious purposes but for the stories – the Fall, the Flood, Cain and Abel, etc - which are the foundation myths of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the tradition into which most English language literature belongs. I’ve noticed that, in the last 25 years, there has been a big change and students now come into my writing classes not knowing these stories – so when they read English language literature, they miss important cultural meanings. Whether we want to embrace or resist these myths in our writing, we need to be able to recognise them in the first place.

Paperback, e-book or audiobook?

Hardback! But any material, codex book will do. It’s a brilliant technology that fits in the human hand, is pliable, portable, reliable, self-contained. No power required and it smells good. Also, the paper, the typeface, the cover design – all these are artefacts of a moment in the history of publishing. Computers are great but when we spend so much time on them who wants to read for pleasure on them? I love being read to, so am also a fan of the audiobook.

What is your writing routine like?

Ad hoc. I rarely follow my own advice but am trying to get better at that. It’s a lifetime’s project. I’m very busy with my day job at Edith Cowan University, which I also love, so I have to fit in bits of writing where I can.

What is your least favourite trope?

I’m a poet and a writer of literary fiction, so anything that’s formulaic. I’m especially sensitive to lazy endings. Many a story is ruined for me by an ending that feels contrived, unconvincing or derivative.

How many projects do you do at a time?

Usually I work on one project at a time because I need to focus all my imaginative energy and skill on it to make it the best it can be. Good writing is difficult. To do my best work I have to work really hard. While writing Driving into the Sun, which took a long time, I did write some poems, however. They’re waiting for redrafting in my journal.