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The impression I have after long conversations with Rebecca Starford is of a preternaturally wise woman who’s worked in the world of words and writing her whole life. Still in her 30s, she already knows every stage of a book’s life, from first draft to author tour. She is friends with every curve of the ampersand, editing and shaping the lines of her own and others. She can trace the twists and turns of stories with her fingertips, regardless of whether they’re fiction or non-fiction.
Starting out with a creative writing undergraduate degree, Starford learned the ropes of magazines and reviewing at Australian Book Review before working for two different publishing houses. As one of the founders and now Publishing Director and CEO of the online literary magazine and writing community Kill Your Darlings, she provides the scaffolding and support for those still climbing the publishing ranks. Her own literary debut was a memoir, Bad Behaviour, published in 2015, and her second book, the novel The Imitator, has just been released.
We catch up on either side of her submitting her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland, where she’s also a keen teacher. All I can think is: what lucky, lucky students.
‘When I was at school I knew I wanted to work in a field related to literature,’ Starford tells me. ‘Both my parents are teachers, so I sort of grew up in a house where I really valued learning and felt that an education was just so important. When I was coming towards the end of my degree I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I just knew that I loved books. I just loved literature more than anything else, ever.’
This was in Melbourne, where she was living in the first years of her 20s. She went on to do Honours and ‘started writing little pieces here and there’, including some ‘really bad poems’. Volunteering for a small independent poetry press on campus, she learned ‘basically, how books get made’.
While she didn’t know anything about ‘the publishing industry’, she started ‘to build a sense of it’ at Australian Book Review, where she landed an internship in 2002. ‘It was really at ABR that I began to develop an interest in being an editor. Not necessarily of magazine content, but of book editing. That was where I really thought I’d like to go.’ The position turned into an ongoing role as Assistant Editor.
Her time at ABR was also where she forged what would turn into a fated friendship with the writer Hannah Kent. ‘When I met Hannah and we became friends, we decided to sort of begin something together. That was really, you know, that was a life changing moment as well.’
That ‘something’ they started recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. The first edition of the quarterly literary journal Kill Your Darlings was published in 2010, and the years since then have seen it grow into a multi-faceted, nationwide hub for writers. The magazine runs mentoring programs, competitions, commissions all manner of online content and publishes an annual short fiction collection.
The pivot from print to digital came in 2015 when the editors realised that all of their growth had been online and saw they had an advantage in the Australian market where few other publications had managed to establish digital audiences. Now they offer manuscript assessments, workshops and professional opportunities — basically a one-stop-shop for writers on the up. ‘A training ground,’ Starford calls it, and a ‘community’. Kent’s success with Burial Rites and her other writing work meant she left the staff of KYD a few years ago, but she still runs workshops and stays involved. As CEO, Starford now employs a small team of publishers and editors, and gives regular, properly paid work to an assortment of freelancers and interns.
ABR was where her enduring love of the review form blossomed, too. ‘I don’t get a lot of time to do that at the moment, but I do love it. It’s sad to think of how, even though we talk a lot about books in Australia, the review form is kind of under siege.’ We’re discussing the unique challenges of independent literary magazines in Australia and the shrinking puddles of funding for literature. Starford doesn’t just lament this situation for herself. She speaks passionately about ‘stepping stones’ that many new and emerging writers take in their careers. ‘The community around literary magazines does play a really important role in a writer’s development,’ she explains. ‘You can chart a kind of pathway that some writers take where they start publishing and writing for particular magazines, and they’re moving towards being noticed by editors, and getting book deals.’
She’s seen previously unpublished emerging writers cut their teeth at KYD and go on to secure publishing deals. ‘It’s like that clarity, the sharpening of your focus that comes through working through that process, writing a piece, having deadlines, being edited, starting to kind of get a sense of the professionalising of your own craft.’
Small organisations like Kill Your Darlings are absolutely critical to Australia’s writing industry ecology. And Starford knows, having been on both sides, that ‘editors do look. They’re looking around for new talent. That’s the thing that will always remain the same — that people are always hunting for new books and new writers. Sometimes it feels like we’ve sort of seen everything and read everything, but there is always new stuff to be found around the edges.’
Starford started writing her memoir, Bad Behaviour, when she was working as associate publisher at Affirm Press, where she spent about five years building up their lists. ‘By that stage, I was sort of thinking, okay, maybe I’d like to start a writing project. I didn’t really make a conscious decision to write fiction or non-fiction. I wanted to explore these events, sort of personally, and understand how they shaped me. So it became important that it was non-fiction and was me there on the page, rather than a fictionalised self.’
From Affirm she moved to Text Publishing in 2013, where she worked as an editor, and it was while she was there that Bad Behaviour was published, providing yet another learning curve in the world of writing. The memoir follows Starford’s experiences for a year at a boarding school, and is searingly honest in its portrayal of how cruel young people can be. She had begun researching and writing about bullying in a more critical, academic sense, but she put that approach to one side and committed entirely to memoir. ‘The funny thing is, I never really imagined myself writing something so deeply personal, because there’s so much in there that’s really difficult to talk about. You know, particularly about my family as well, but it was kind of a compulsion, I think, to sort of get it out of my system.’
When the book came out things didn’t get easier for her. ‘It wasn’t really a cathartic feeling,’ she says. ‘It was actually an emotional roller coaster ride, where you do have a lot of pride, but you’re also horrified, terrified, and paranoid.’ To have published very personal content, and for other people to read it and create their own picture of you, can be unnerving. In its exploration of bullying, the book shows Starford both on the giving and receiving end. One of her friends said to her, ‘You were such a fucking little bitch, weren’t you?’ She says, ‘That’s still hurtful to me’ and talks about the ‘weird’ relationship a writer has to ‘the story and to your own self and the text’.
While at Text, with her first book coming out and Kill Your Darlings growing, the struggle to find time for her own writing got tricky. ‘Being so involved in the writing world, juggling so many things at once was kind of impossible for me. I think you can do it up to a certain age.’ When I ask her what age, she laughs. ‘I would say maybe about 30? Writing Bad Behaviour required me to kind of get up at five o’clock in the morning, every day, and work every weekend for a year and a half. And, you know, that’s okay to do for a period of time. But it’s not really sustainable and it does make you unhappy. Something ’s got to give. So come 2016 that’s when I left Text.’ That was when Starford and her partner went travelling for a while before resettling in Brisbane.
When Starford explains it, the jump from boarding school and bullying to Second World War espionage for her new novel is not so much of a leap. ‘When I came to the end of Bad Behaviour, and to the end of that publishing experience, I was interested a lot in what betrayal meant. A lot of the conversations I was having with people were about how I’d betrayed these girls by writing about them, or betrayed my family. And I guess, to an extent, you feel like maybe you’ve betrayed yourself by revealing secrets about yourself.’
All this sat simmering, and she grew more fascinated with what betrayal is, and what betrayal might mean. ‘I have always been interested in World War Two. And the segue was my wondering, what are the psychological conditions that make the betrayal, or the ability to adapt and pretend, more of an asset?’ A lot of what happened to Starford at school was born of a kind of uneasiness around class and feeling like an outsider, and she thinks these concerns will go on interesting her. ‘Bad Behaviour is a book about friendship and betrayal, and that’s essentially what The Imitator is about as well; a young woman trying to find belonging in the wrong places.’
The protagonist in The Imitator, Evelyn, is ‘loosely based’ on a real woman recruited by MI5 during the Second World War, and Starford’s commitment to researching the London of that era shines through without overwhelming the characters or the plot. ‘I got the kernel of the idea about the story from when I read a piece in a newspaper once about this woman who was in her very late 80s when she died, and it was only after her death that her family found out that she’d been a spy during the war.’ Women’s participation in espionage has been erased, Starford says, ‘not only from the history, but from our cultural imaginations’ as well. ‘And it made me think, well, how many other women kind of were out there doing this sort of thing?’
Although the move from non-fiction to fiction was not a particularly seismic shift, she does say fiction was a little more challenging for her. ‘I don’t really care for those distinctions. If I think about form too much, I find it really inhibiting ... You sort of begin one project and you start another, but the threads of it kind of still work their way through.’
Years helping other writers get their books into the best possible shape have obviously sharpened Starford’s own skills. She’s too modest to suggest this, instead speaking about lessons she’s learned about editing, patience and commitment. ‘I think it teaches you that your work will always be improved. And that all writing is rewriting. Right? You just have to have faith in the process.’ It seems almost silly to ask her if she considered any other careers or callings. ‘If I wasn’t working with words, I don’t know what I would want to do.’ Sometimes, it seems, people are doing precisely what they should be. She clearly still loves literature more than anything else, ever.
Bri Lee is the author of the award-winning Eggshell Skull and the essay Beauty. She hosts the monthly B List book club at the State Library of NSW.
This story appears in Openbook autumn 2021.