Q&A with Thuy On

28 January 2013 Thuy On

Q&A with Thuy On

The Big Issue’s new books editor, Thuy On, talks Famous Five, Patrick White, hatchet jobs, potted meats, pitching to editors, freelancing, snozzcumbers and her most anticipated books for 2013.

What were your favourite books growing up?

I was obsessed with Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton when I first started to read. I remember devouring the adventures of the Famous Five and wishing I knew someone who had a lighthouse and wondering what potted meats and ginger beer tasted like. Dahl will forever be my favourite children’s author. He introduced such amazing things of wonder to a child: lickable wallpaper, snozzcumbers and cows that give chocolate milk.

How did you get into book reviewing? 

I did a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) majoring in English Literature and then a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. I did work experience at The Age as a copygirl (basically an errand-runner, a position that’s now totally obsolete) and I pestered the books editor until he relented one day and gave me something to review. That, I suppose, was my ‘formal’ paid introduction to book reviewing, but I have written many reviews for free – not just books but film, theatre and comedy as well. For a long, long time when I was starting out, I wrote reviews for Inpress, a Melbourne street magazine. It didn’t pay, but it did do wonders for my social life. Plus it helped me learn to write short, succinct copy to deadline – a skill that I still use today. Other writing/editorial positions I’ve done include being an assistant literary agent, a manuscript assessor, a copywriter and a proofreader. For a while I wrote for Voiceworks – a magazine produced and written by people under 25.

Which publications do you write for apart from The Big Issue?

For more than 15 years, I have written book reviews for a number of publications including: The Age, The Australian, Australian Book Review, Bookseller and Publisher, Meanjin and Overland. I was also the Melbourne theatre reviewer for The Australian for five years. Every now and then I also write other (non-review) pieces of work.

You've done a lot of freelance work over the years. What are the upsides and downsides of freelancing?

The upside is that you can pitch your ideas and reviews to as many publications as possible and, if lucky, be published in many of them. It’s also good for your writing portfolio; you get to tailor your work to different house styles and readerships. The downsides are mostly to do with lack of sufficient money: having to chase invoices (sometimes months after something you’ve written has been published), no income security and, frankly, badly paid assignments where you get very little monetary compensation for a lot of work.

What’s the best advice you’ve read or received on writing?

If you want to write, just do it; don’t think about it. Don’t dream about it. Just find some time and commit to spending it in front of a blank screen – or a blank piece of paper. You can always go back and edit later.

Do you have any advice for young writers looking to pitch reviews and features to editors?

The best thing to do before you pitch anything to anyone is read the publication you’re thinking of writing for. You really have to make sure your ideas complement their usual stories. A short email will be the best approach. What you shouldn’t do is take up the editor’s time with too much unnecessary information about yourself. You just have to pitch, short and sharp.

Which books are you most looking forward to coming out in 2013?

I love Lionel Shriver, Margaret Atwood and Julian Barnes so I’m thrilled all three have new books out this year.

Which classic do you think is most overrated and why?

I will probably get into trouble for saying this, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds Patrick White hard going.

How do you personally approach reviewing? Are you a fan of hatchet jobs?

I approach reviewing as a job and, as with any other job, it has its rewards and its pitfalls. The rewards are free access to the latest books and access to publications that actually pay you to voice your opinion. The pitfalls are having to read very fast, having to take notes constantly and having to look out for anything important in the narrative that you can use in your review: a symbol, a meaningful quote and so on. Also, for every great book you have to read, there’s usually five that are mediocre or just plain terrible.

When I’m writing a review, there are a couple of things I’m mindful of: 1) I have to be fair to the book regardless of my distaste for a particular genre (eg I don’t particularly like chick-lit or magic realism but, if I’m asked to review either type of book, I have to rein in my dislike and judge it on its own terms). 2) I have to make sure the review itself is entertaining reading regardless of whether the book itself is worth the read. 3) I have to be true to my own opinion regardless of whatever hype the book has already garnered. Just because every other critic in the land loves the book and has showered it in accolades, doesn’t necessarily mean that I would feel the same. Diversity of voices in the media culture is a good thing.

Personally, I like reading hatchet jobs (and the nominees in the Hatchet Job of the Year award) because they are poisonously cruel jibes cleverly done, but I don’t work like that. At times I can be cutting and annoyed with a book, but I don’t write vindictive reviews for pleasure.


Thuy On writes The Big Issue's books column each edition and also writes and commissions book reviews and features for the magazine.