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Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings Debut Spotlight feature. For August, that debut is A Real Piece of Work by Erin Riley (Penguin Random House), an exhilarating, thought-provoking and joyful debut that asks how we create our identities and how we can transcend them. We spoke to Erin about their publishing journey and writing process.

Stay tuned later this month for a review of the book from Debut Spotlight critic Rosie Ofori Ward, and a video reading from the author on our Instagram.

Can you give a brief summary of A Real Piece of Work for those who haven’t read it yet?

A Real Piece of Work is a memoir made up of twenty loosely connected essays that explore the complexities of gender and identity, reflects on the messiness of love and families, questions unjust structures and systems that contribute to the stories that we hold, individually and collectively about ourselves, society and those around us.

It’s unusual in that the essays are really different from one another though have themes which thread through them all—some are long meandering essays that try to tackle and unpick larger ideas and attempt to make sense of someone or something, some are fractured and tiny, while others are simply observational case studies of the mundane or the recovering of a memory.

I’m a social worker and so the book also reflects on my experience of working alongside marginalised people and some of the pieces centre the stories of those often relegated to the margins; those who don’t fit into mainstream imaginings of what it means to live a successful life. In some ways, social work is all about narrative and story, how we come to the story of who we are and how our ideas are influenced by larger social and cultural ones about human worthiness. Some of the pieces bring together these bigger ideas from social work and therapy thinking to interrogate and reflect on my own experiences, particularly my growing understanding of being trans and non-binary.

In some ways, social work is all about narrative and story, how we come to the story of who we are.

As a recipient of the Penguin Random House Australia’s 2021 Write It fellowship program (congrats!), can you tell us about this experience and your book’s journey to publication?

Thank you! Receiving the fellowship was an incredible lucky break for me. I’d never written much before. I started writing short stories during 2020 after attending a writing workshop run by the poet Mark Tredinnick. My partner Merryn (I know lol, Erin and Merryn) gifted this workshop to me for my birthday the year before. I’d been reading a lot and some books at the time just profoundly moved me and I had this urge to write.

During the first weeks of lockdown, I had a few stories I’d been working on. I wanted to do something because I felt helpless. I offered them to friends online in exchange for a donation toward a sex work fundraiser for those out of work. It’s really nice to think that this book about outsiders started its journey there.

By the time I had a loose collection of stories, I just started submitting them to places. I stumbled, almost by accident, on Penguin’s Write It Fellowship close to closing date. I submitted everything I had ever written! Which at the time was only 7000 words.

Being one of four writers to be awarded the fellowship was validating of my writing and gave my internal drive to write more some structure and motivation. I was thrilled just to be shortlisted. I spent the year with mentoring support from Penguin Editor Clive Hebbard. Clive and I would meet every few months via zoom (Clive’s in Melbourne) to workshop and talk about the pieces I’d sent. In between, we’d send edits back and forth, keep polishing them together. It was really great to work with Clive, especially as someone so new to the craft of writing; his really fine smart eye, like someone who spots a whale in the ocean and all you see is flat ocean, always missing it—still beautiful but missing something special. His approach to the process was so open and unassuming, never invasive and suggesting changes in ways that were always curious and never wanting to shift my voice. I wrote most of the book during the fellowship.

At the end of the fellowship (July 2022)—Clive took the manuscript to a publishing meeting—the idea being to obtain some feedback from a range of other people at Penguin and to understand how the submissions process worked. I was hopeful that feedback would be useful to me in continuing to work on the book afterwards. Instead, Clive called to say that it was being taken to Penguin’s acquisitions meeting—where they wanted to publish it. I was half way through a bowl of noodles in the middle of my work day at home when I took that call in the sunshine. Clive asked if I had another 10,000 words in me and I wrote one more story, which was the final story in the book. Since then, it’s been editing those pieces a little more, writing an extra piece for the audio book and then recording the audio book.

A version of ‘Wrestling with Feelings’, one of the stories in the book, was originally published in KYD! It’s beautiful to see this larger project grow from shorter pieces. As an essayist, what drove you to collate these stories into one publication and what did this process look like?

It was! I agree. It was such an exciting moment, to be published in KYD. It was one of the first stories I ever wrote and was paid for. It was based on this very lo-fi comic I made about ten years ago.

I have been writing these stories, in my head, for years. I’ve been a social worker for twelve years now, and I have long wanted to write about the politics of my work, often under-resourced, creative justice-doing work alongside people on the margins completely caged by oppression and structures that continue to annihilate them. But I’m not an academic social worker, and my familiar place is with people in the messy throes of life, and I wasn’t ever sure how to talk to some of the anger or the experiences of this—in ways that would be accessible to more people. I was also, outside of work, getting to really understand my own story as someone who was trans, how certain experiences had actually really impacted my life too. I think this book emerged out of this kernel of an idea—that I could illuminate these systems I was encountering in my work by demonstrating how they showed up in this more tangible way via sharing some of my own story or at least examining it in a more narrative form.

In some ways, it was the fellowship that drove me to collate these stories into one publication. I pitched it as a book of essays initially, because all I had were a few stories with a few loose themes and, under the guidance of Clive I just wrote about concepts and ideas that interested me, things I was curious about.

By the end of the fellowship, I had nineteen essays. Because there was no pressure (the fellowship doesn’t guarantee publication)—I saw the fellowship as this exciting year to write whatever I liked. I wasn’t too fixated on the idea that I was writing towards a destination (i.e. a book) and maybe this was helpful, as I wasn’t writing each story trying to ensure that they fit neatly into something larger, or worrying about how different they all were. I just allowed stories and ideas to emerge. I think it gave me the freedom to just play around a bit. I wasn’t sure they fitted into a collection, or whether there was enough of a through-line, but there was.

I wasn’t too fixated on the idea that I was writing towards a destination…I just allowed stories and ideas to emerge.


Do you have any particular strategies or philosophies that help you find inspiration for writing, or self-care strategies when the subject matter becomes difficult or personal?

I think one of the main strategies I have for finding inspiration for writing has come from my work life, which is just being deeply curious. Working in community settings can be really stark places, you see a lot of disadvantage and people without access to their basic needs, trauma on many levels—so from day dot, you’re questioning, interrogating the way things are.

I think being queer also helped instil curiosity in me too. Feeling out of place and confused a lot of the time as a younger person I think tends to lend itself to asking ‘why’ questions.

I think one of the main strategies I have for finding inspiration for writing has come from my work life, which is just being deeply curious.

I write most stories by hand in a notebook, usually a small moleskin. All of my stories start that way—once they feel like they have some momentum, I’ll type them out onto the computer and continue it there.

Reading is also great inspiration, podcasts or TV too or small experiences of connection in life that make me feel something. Usually, I’ll read or hear something and it’ll spark a thought somewhat related and I’ll then just start weaving one or two ideas together that wind up in some kind of conversation in a story. You’ll see this in the chapter Maggie and Olivia—which was inspired by watching Youtube videos of the writers Maggie Nelson and Olivia Laing interviewing each other about their respective novels.

When it comes to self-care I have a hard time sitting down for long periods, and weave writing around full time work so it often happens in chunks when I can stay at the desk long enough, which is a great thing when it comes to writing the harder things, because I’m never stuck with distress for too long. Self-care for me looks like swimming in the ocean, making time for reading, walking my dog Remy and social time with my partner and friends. Also, I’m lucky enough to have a therapist in my life who I see regularly.

What’s one thing you know now about the writing and publishing journey that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

I’ve had a really lucky path to publication with the fellowship—in that this was my starting out, I became a writer, in many ways, because I scored this fellowship.

I had the great fortune to have a year-long insight into how publishing a book works at a big publisher, to ask questions, to get to know people and find out a bit from people in various parts of Penguin Random House—publicity and marketing teams, sales and rights people—there’s so many incredible moving parts of making a book happen. It’s still early days and there’s a lot I have to learn.

That said, when it comes to the writing journey something I know now about the journey to writing and publication that I didn’t know before—is that the Australian writing community, at least those who I’ve been fortunate enough to meet, connect with online and listen to are a such a supportive, encouraging and beautiful community. The support and connections with people I haven’t even met in real life has been truly astonishing!

What other writers or books influenced your writing (either this book specifically or your writing more broadly)?

When I was doing all my lockdown reading in 2020—I remember reading Alexander Chee’s how to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. I was inspired to pick up a pen—but specifically by these writers. I was just so moved, in this bodily way, by these writers. I was motivated to read more, but something happened at that point about wanting to be able to do this incredible thing, write in a way that captured a person that way.

It’s hard to think about writers as having ‘influenced my writing’, because I never thought of myself as a writer until very recently—I just liked reading. I have great admiration for Helen Garner, whose voice is just so distinct, Deborah Levy’s work, especially her trilogy series. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Annie Proulx. Ta Nehesi Coates’ Between the world and Me. In terms of queer and trans writing, Jeanette Winterson when I was younger was a lifeboat, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door was gifted to me by a friend—and it’s superb. Kaya Wilson’s memoir, as Beautiful as Any Other reads so beautifully. Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For and everything that came after. I love a hot gay novel too—writers like Alan Hollinghurst, Bruce Benderson, Garth Greenwell, Ocean Vuong.

I want to invest time in reading more widely—I’m slow and steady with it—recently I was on holiday, and met a bunch of Irish women on a swim tour who have gifted me a long list of Irish writers to read and I picked up some French writers in translation when I was in Paris—so I have lots to read!

In the book’s Acknowledgments, you say ‘I wanted to write the book I needed when I was younger’—can you tell us what impact you hope this work will have on young readers today?

I hope that young readers can see a reflection of themselves, or parts of themselves, in the book. I think that the structures we’re all forced to live within can do so much damage within families and inside of individuals—and so much of it isn’t because people are intrinsically bad, but because the system is toxic and broken. If that message of the book around the structures that impact on how people come to experience shame resonates, and can give a young reader a wider lens on their own life, encourage them to be curious about their own stories or make space for themselves and hold themselves with more compassionate, I think the book’s done its job.

I hope that young readers can see a reflection of themselves, or parts of themselves, in the book.

For queer and trans young readers who might be struggling, who are living in a time where there is a lot of targeted transphobia that questions their authenticity, how they understand themselves, and wants to disable access to gender affirming care—I hope that the book might demonstrate hopeful possibility. That queer and trans non binary people are so legit and amazing. That they can have these rich, exciting, multi-layered, beautiful and fulfilling lives—be loved. That they might, like me, find rich and loving chosen family and community when their own families are not quite showing up.

I suppose also—for those, young and old, who might be needing a humanising antidote to narratives all over the media about trans people that this book might help to remind people of our weird similarities as people in a strange place—and that solidarity, not separation might be the key to a better world.

A Real Piece of Work by Erin Riley is now available now at your local independent bookseller.