We spoke to critic, essayist and MWF guest Declan Fry about beginnings, endings and the indelible impact of music on his creative process.
Tell me one of your first memories connected to writing.
There are many, but I remember sitting in Kalgoorlie with a pencil, writing a story about something sinister. I was about nine and reading a lot of Edgar Allan Poe. He was the first author who made me feel that writing provided a second life—an experience that was immersive and, in its own covert way, unsettling.
Can you speak a little about your creative process? How does your day begin and end?
I like the romantic image Martin Amis painted of Updike’s working day: a libretto in the morning, bit of work on the new novel in the afternoon, a poem or two at night. That would be ideal.
A good day sees me up around five, spending an hour to an hour-and-a-half on the most important work for that day. If things go well, every few hours I’ll work on something else: a review, a poem, my own essays or fiction. I like to write a certain number of words a day—1000 feels comforting—but there’s no magic in this, and nothing wrong with coming up empty. I’ll usually end the day listening to music and reading.
What are the most important literary and non-literary forces that shape your writing?
Literary, it’s encountering great work. It creates a sense of community. It gives you hope. And a healthy sense of competition.
Non-literary, I learn a lot from music. I often dream of writing something as moving and profound as Liszt’s ‘Piano Sonata in B Minor’ or Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Carrie and Lowell’ or the middle section of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court and Spark’. I also enjoy jazz. It’s one thing I can claim to share in common with Don DeLillo. I’ve heard him speak approvingly of Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. For me, it would be Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Maybe also Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock.
Which artists or writers most intrigue you at the moment and why?
I watched Ingmar Bergman’s Persona for the first time and don’t think I’ll forget it. The way Jay Som sings ‘Tenderness’ or ‘Superbike’ or ‘The Bus Song’, like nothing else could ever be as beautiful. The Weather Station record Ignorance, for its lyrics and unusual musical detours. Earl Sweatshirt, for the same. I’ve been turning novels like Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins and Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness over in my head for a while now—there’s a quality that sticks with you about their writing; something intense and graceful. Cui Jian’s songwriting, especially ‘Tolerance’ (宽容). He has a real depth of passion—an almost violent yearning.
How do you know when a piece you’re working on is finished?
You don’t. The compulsion to write is a kind of Samuel Beckett-type deal where you can’t go on but you do anyway. I like the way Madeleine Gray put it in a review she wrote last year: ‘I could go on, and I will.’ Or Philip Hammial, in the concluding line of ‘Wisdom’: ‘A man gives up and lives.’
If there is something you never want to see the end of, what would it be?
And conversely, what is one thing that could end today and you wouldn’t even notice?
Avocados. So cancel me.
Born on Wongatha country in Kalgoorlie, Declan Fry has written for The Guardian, Saturday Paper, Overland, Australian Book Review, Liminal, Sydney Review of Books, Cordite, Kill Your Darlings and Westerly. His Meanjin essay ‘Justice for Elijah or a Spiritual Dialogue with Ziggy Ramo, Dancing’ received the 2021 Peter Blazey Fellowship.