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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Interivew with Paddy O'Reilly, author of 'The Fine Color of Rust'


So, I recently read and loved Paddy O'Reilly's novel 'The Fine Color of Rust'. I loved it so much (snorted my way through it, in fact) that the first person I hand-balled it to was my grandma, who always trusts my reading recommendations. 

Now, my grandma is in her 80's and been having some problems with her eyes - so had to go in for surgery. I checked up on her the other week, and she's doing fine but her eyes are recovering and between the surgery and eye-drops she can't read as much as she normally does (which is, all the time). She's finding this particularly frustrating because she has been reading O'Reilly's 'The Fine Color of Rust' and enjoying the heck out of it! ... That should give you some idea of how wonderful this book was, that my grandma is effectively saying; "Cataracts be damned! I want to read more about Loretta and Gunapan!"

Of course I couldn't pass up the opportunity to interview the author, especially since I've been a big fan of her short stories for a while now. 

Without further adieu, I give you - P.A. (Paddy) O'Reilly!

Q: You have found such great success as a short-story writer. You won the coveted ‘The Age’ short story competition in 2002, and your 2007 short story collection received critical acclaim. But did people always expect you to ‘progress’ to novels? As though short stories were just something to cut your teeth on?

You obviously know about this. So many people talk that way, even novelists who should know better. But anyone who loves the short story, as a writer or a reader or both, knows that the form is entirely different. No one asks poets if they are practising to write short stories. Some poets do write short stories. Some write novels. Some novelists write stories. But each form is unique. Each form makes different demands on the writer and the reader. Each deserves respect for what it is and what it can do. Sorry about the rave but you've touched a tender spot. I still write short stories and I still love the form. I wish more people read them. They are jewels!

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The Fine Colour of Rust’, from first idea to final manuscript?

Do you mean in word-writing hours or looking out the window hours or living hours? Counting living and looking out the window, toilet cleaning, breaks for short story writing and other writing, and the times where I thought, what the hell am I doing, this isn't the kind of stuff I write, and abandoned it for a while, probably about three years. Every time I start a new writing project I think, this time I'm going to work straight through and do it in one go, but I never can.
Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?

As you can probably tell from the answer above, plotting only makes me anxious. I can barely plot out what I have to do in a day. That said, once my story has evolved naturally, it's a complete shambles. So plotting for me comes in the editing stage, once I'm confident I know what the book or story is about or at least where I think it's headed. The editing process involves taking a clear-eyed look at what I have and sometimes smashing it up in order to arrive at a functioning plot.

Q: And on the topic of plotting and pantsing – does your writing rhythm/routine change a great deal between short stories and novels? What writing quirks are swapped and changed depending on the length of your story?

I don't think it does. The process is anarchic whatever I'm writing. There are times when I look at what's on the screen and think, who on earth wrote that? Somehow things get written. I have a superstition that if I examine it all too closely, it will become a chore. Not that writing is always fun. It's often an arduous challenge, but never a chore.
Q: I’ve read that ‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ was born out of a short story you wrote. What made you want to spend more time with Loretta and Gunapan, and do you have other short stories you’d like to expand?

I couldn't get Loretta's voice out of my head. Still can't. That is the only time I've ever had a story evolve into a larger work. When I was writing the novel, I kept going back to the story and finding things in there that told me more about Loretta and Norm. The story contained the essence of the novel. I think my other stories are much more quintessentially short stories, that they briefly open a door on a life – from which the reader can extrapolate a world.

Q: I loved the town of Gunapan, and especially its residents. You write such pin-point-accurate characterisation, and I saw a lot of people from my life reflected in the characters. Sometimes it was little things, like the grade-three teacher who always says “At the end of the day.” Where do you find your characters? Were some of the Gunapan natives people you’ve met in your life and you were just hording them for this story? Have family or friends told you they see themselves in your stories?

Nothing comes from nowhere. I never deliberately base a character on a person, yet when I look at my work of course I can see quirks and idiosyncrasies, patterns of speech and even lines of dialogue that have seeped into the stories from my interactions with and observations of people in real life. It's astounding when you're writing how things float up and emerge in the writing, things you didn't know you knew. There's a certain level of observation you need to have as a writer, and whether it's conscious or not, you absorb the flavours of people.
Q: I loved the note about ‘sabi’, a Japanese word “which connotes the simple beauty of worn and imperfect and impermanent things.” When did you first hear about sabi?

A long time ago I lived in Japan and worked as a copywriter and translator. The aesthetics of Japan have such wonderful contrasts: there is wabi and sabi, which we all recognise as the aesthetic of the pottery, the zen gardens, the wooden implements, the use of space and so on. Then there's Hello Kitty!

Q: I was pretty much laughing out loud for the entire 280-odd pages of this novel. I wonder if you write to make yourself laugh, or do you have readers along the way who act as your laugh-o-meter gauge?

I didn't start out to write a funny book. It was Loretta, the character, who had the funny lines. She made me laugh, and all I was doing as I wrote was trying to keep the Loretta voice true. I love people who can raise a laugh in the face of adversity – it's such a strong Australian trait. And it's probably terrible to admit it but after all this time, when I do readings of the book, I still find the lines funny.
Q: I have noticed that the ‘chook lit’ genre has exploded in Australia, a spin on the traditional ‘chick lit’ that focuses on romances in the rural Australian outback. Those novels are fun and can be enjoyable, but I felt like ‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ was far more truthful about the ‘glamorous’ outback lifestyle – writing it, warts and all. How do you feel about the emerging ‘chook lit’ phenomenon? What do you think Loretta would have to say about it (y’know, if she wasn’t a fictional character)?

One reviewer described The Fine Colour of Rust as a 'tongue--in-cheek anti-romance' which made me laugh. As a reader, I like to be surprised and challenged, and they say you should write what you want to read. So I guess I was always going to write against expectations. I think the romance genre and its various branches, of which rural romance seems to be the latest, provide a reassuring reading experience for their audience. But although I was writing a novel with commercial appeal, I did want to play around, subvert the conventions, and it wasn't too difficult since Loretta is hardly your average romantic heroine. I honestly cannot imagine Loretta trying to ride a horse or rope a steer. (Mind you, it does suggest some great comic images. Hmm.)

Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?

I cannot answer this or the next question because all time isn't done yet and there is so much to read. I hope I have many hundreds of favourites ahead of me.

Q: Favourite book(s)?

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?

Read, write, read, write and have a life as well. Reading will help both your life and your writing.


  1. I loved The Fine Colour of Rust, thanks for sharing this interview Danielle

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd out

  2. Your plotter/pantser question cracks me up every time! I love the pics of the Outback. And I'm definitely interested in how 'sabi' is worked into the story. Can't wait to read this! Great interview.

    1. Ha! That's definitely my favourite question too :)
      Glad you liked it.


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