Q&A with Nick Earls



My first Nick Earls read was ’48 Shades of Brown’ when it was shortlisted for the Children’s Book of the Year awards in 2000. I hadn’t laughed so much reading a novel for a long time and I was instantly hooked. I soon learned that Nick Earls had published some novels for adults and was on a mission.  Oh my……talk about laughter being the best medicine!  I have just reviewed Nick’s new novel for adults ‘Analogue Men: a novel’ and without doubt, the humour just gets crisper and never, ever disappoints.

I have had the great good fortune to hear Nick speak and converse with him on several occasions and trust me, his lively wit is not confined to his written words.


Nick Earls is the author of novels including The FixZigzag StreetBachelor Kisses, The True Story of Butterfish and Perfect Skin and the collection of short storiesWelcome To Normal. His work has been published internationally in English and in translation. Zigzag Street won a Betty Trask Award in the UK in 1998, and Perfect Skin was the only novel nominated for an Australian Comedy Award in 2003. 48 Shades of Brown was awarded Book of the Year (older readers) by the Children’s Book Council of Australia in 2000, and in the US it was a Kirkus Reviews selection in its books of the year for 2004. 48 Shades of Brown and Perfect Skin have been adapted into feature films, with Solo un Padre, the film adapted from the Italian edition of Perfect Skin, a top-ten box office hit in Italy in 2008. After January48 Shades of BrownZigzag Street and Perfect Skin have all been successfully adapted for theatre, and the Zigzag Street play toured nationally in 2005. The True Story Of Butterfish was also performed as a play. He recently published a collection of stories Welcome To Normal.

Courtesy Random House Australia

Earls, Nick - credit Sarah Garvey

Credit: Sarah Garvey

It gives me the greatest pleasure to have this blog interview with Nick Earls and I do hope you enjoy it as well.

Nick Earls, welcome to Just So Stories!


1.    Nick, I know you were born in Ireland and came to Australia aged around 9 – and I certainly wouldn’t hold that against you. In fact, it’s possibly why you have a gift for telling a good story. Perhaps you might tell us a little about your early life?

It was a strange mixture – an idyllic rural upbringing in a place affected by sectarian violence. We had pigs and were surrounded by fields of barley and potatoes, but if we went into the bigger towns we were stopped and searched at military road blocks. My first thought about Brisbane was that it wasn’t safe, since it didn’t have the army on its streets.

2.    I think most people know that you trained and practised as a GP (although I still struggle at times to imagine you as the family doctor!). How did the metamorphism from jovial GP to hilarious author come about?

Slowly. Writing looked like a precarious career choice, so I had close to ten years of part-time medicine and part-time writing. In 1998, I had book tours to do in two countries and the writing took over.

3.    When did you first think you might be more successful as an author than you were as a doctor (trick question, be careful how you answer!) ;-)?

They’re apples and oranges. The difference was I liked medicine and I love writing. It’s something I want to do forever. So, even if success in the two somehow could be compared, that wasn’t really the question I was asking. Does that sound appropriately evasive?

4.    Your novels revolve around Brisbane – obviously something which resonates with those of us who also live here. Why do you choose to focus on Brisbane and what is it about Brisbane life that you most enjoy?

I resisted it at first, since very few people seemed to be writing novels about contemporary Brisbane. In the end, stories have to happen somewhere, and my kinds of stories have to happen somewhere real. So, having failed at faking my way into writing about other places, I let Brisbane in. It turned out that that allowed me to draw on its details, and at the same time direct my creative work to characters and story. It turns out that, if you write about people, people anywhere can read it, even if you’ve set your stories in a specific place.

5.    You first came to my attention when as a teacher-librarian, I picked up ’48 Shades of Brown’ the year it was short-listed as CBC Book of the Year – Older Readers. Can you tell us about the book’s genesis?

I’d written After January, and thought I might write something set at the start of year 12. I decided I wanted to write about a character pushed out of his comfort zone. Sending Dan’s parents out of the country and him to Jacq’s place seemed like a good start. I was working in medical editing at the time and edited an article on OCD. I decided to give Dan some obsessionality, but not make too much of it. Then I started thinking, ‘Who’s the third housemate, and what can I get out of them?’ The rest came from there.

6.    After I read ’48 Shades of Brown’ I happened to next a) pick up a copy of ‘Bachelor Kisses’ b) have the extreme good fortune to hear your guest talk at a Boys & Reading gig in Brisbane. We had some discussion about the more risqué moments in that novel, throughout which I had laughed uproariously. Then last year we had another conversation about the Word Hunters series. Clearly your gift for writing transfers across adult, young adult and children’s fiction. Is one or the other more appealing to you? What inspires you to write any given story?

If I’m excited about the story, I’m happy to write it, and along the way work out who the readership might be. With Word Hunters, I loved the research and planning most. When it comes to the writing, the thing I probably enjoy most right now is writing shorter fiction for adults. The commerciality of that choice is debatable though. I loved writing Welcome to Normal in 2010-2011.

7.    How do your characters develop – because they are all quite distinctive? Are they all purely fictional or do you slyly pick up aspects from real life?

I want them to feel real so, if the real world offers me something, I don’t ignore it. I don’t just drop it into the story though. I try to work out what it is I’ve responded to and come up with something fictional that’ll have the same effect. If it’s happened to me, it can go straight in. I think one of the keys is taking time to let characters develop, working out who they are and how they speak, and what they’re going to bring to the story. For me, that happens before the writing.

8.    As far as the process of writing, what is your favoured approach? What does your work day and work space look like?

I’m a big planner. By the time I sit down to write a novel, it’s a 20,000 word outline. Then I sit there writing the novel into the outline. From the first idea to day one of writing is usually a few years. The first draft takes place over a few months and, when I’m doing that, it’s just about all the work I do.

9.    Which authors, genres or characters have resonance with you personally?

Spalding Gray’s Monster in a Box showed me an internal voice that felt compellingly real, and like eavesdropping on someone’s thoughts. Richard Ford showed me how to meticulously weigh up details to work out which deliver the story in the most powerful and invisible way.

10.  What advice would you give would-be writers?

Read. Think. Even when you don’t have writing time, you’ll often have thinking time. Make notes when you’re thinking. And don’t get too frustrated. The thinking is writing, as much as the typing part is.

11.  Of which of your books or achievements are you proudest and why?

It’s not something my books tend to make me feel. If there’s one thing, it’s taking on a major role in anthologies that raised $3million for War Child. It doesn’t occur to me to feel pride about the books, since writing them is at heart a self-indulgent act. I’m very lucky to do a job that works that way.

12.  What are you currently reading?

I’m a few pages into The Promise by Tony Birch.

13.  What is next for Nick Earls?

Some novellas, I hope. And perhaps a TV series. And I’m working on a children’s book for next year.

14.  What is the worst thing about being a successful author?

The possibility of becoming an unsuccessful author all too easily.

15.  What would you like your epitaph to be?

I’ve got over a million words in print. It’s my great relief that that’s one line I can leave to other people.


Nick Earls, it has been such a pleasure and I thank you for your time!


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