Erin Riley on justice, social work and queer memoir

Erin Riley on justice, social work and queer memoir

Erin Riley is a social worker, and has spent most of the last decade working alongside marginalised populations in community aged care. Erin is also a writer, and their A Real Piece of Work is their debut memoir and collection of essays.

Erin brings a queer lived experience to their professional work and to their writing. They were a Penguin Random House Australia Write It fellow in 2021, and have been published in Kill Your DarlingsBent Street and various corners of the internet.

Erin Riley


ASTRID: Erin, this is a captivating collection. Everybody who listens to The Garret knows I read a lot. I really enjoyed a real piece of work. But also, I found myself going back and thinking about it. There is one essay that I can't forget, and I will be asking you questions. It is... I don't know. I'm going to carry it with me. So, welcome and hello.

ERIN: Hi. Hi, Astrid. That's really generous. I'm so happy to hear that you like it, it means a lot. When readers like it, I think that's what matters, that people who like to read have an experience that's enjoyable. So that's one part of what I hoped for this book, that it was something that would touch people's nervous systems a bit, like a pleasurable experience, just this idea of taking people out of their life. The other one is the stories, and the more complexities of the systems.

ASTRID: This is, of course, your story. This is your personal story. But also, you bring in your professional experience as well. You are a social worker. I don't know much about social work, Erin, but I am going to start this interview by saying, I would like a lot more literature in Australia to interrogate social work, and what it means, and why we really should give it more money and fund it better.

ERIN: I think if we funded it more, we could probably have people stay in the work a bit more, because it's really taxing hard work that really happens on the margins. But I've been in this work for such a long time, and I really like it. I think my queerness and my outsider nature of being curious as to why I felt so out of place, really aligned me with thinking more about justice, and more about the structures that annihilate people. I went into social work with a real interest in doing justice for a job, so the idea of my whole life being one of activism felt really appealing to me.

Work as a thing, I hate. I feel like work full stop, it's a horrendous thing to imagine. I was like, ‘What can I do that feels most aligned with my values every day?’ So, I went into social work. But I feel like there's a lot of threads that weave together my personal experience and the reasons why I went into social work, because it's about how systems decimate people and populations. Social work sees value in everyone, and it's very curious as a profession. So, I think that's what took me there.

It really taught me a lot about some of the things I hadn't interrogated in my own life, more on a micro level, the damage that those big ideas do on the level of the family. I think it brought me a lot of compassion for people, and then for myself. So, they informed each other. Also, part of me had a part that wanted to be good, and that came from a bit of wounding. So being good meant going into a helping profession. I think a lot of people probably recognise a rescuer part of themselves in this work too. So that's something worth noticing as well, that I've had to understand to be able to have a bit more separation from that as an identity.

ASTRID: Can you interrogate that a little bit more? I felt I found little bits of myself throughout the work. I am a cis-het woman and I don't know much about social work. But yet, I still found myself in the pages.

ERIN: Look, oftentimes I think about my understanding of social work, because I think social work's got a big history, and it started in spaces like religious benevolence. In some ways it was about mainstreaming people that didn't fit in, so that they could work and be functional people. I think there is an element of social work that we have to be critical of as a discipline.

But I think in of these more radical parts of social work, it's about challenging racism. It's about challenging structures. It's more about a queer sensibility. I feel like it's the same thing, you live that politic. Maybe that's not as obvious in the book, but I think it's really this idea of taking a big step back and going, ‘How is the world constructed and maintained?’ Social work's job is really to try and undo some of those structures, instead of just helping people adjust to oppression, which is actually what it feels like in the work, which is what I talk about in the book.

On the ground, I often feel like it's real drudgery, just dignifying people on a personal level, which is so valuable. That's where safety happens. That's where people feel love, and connection, and respect. If a system is really hard on them and they have this interaction, which is one of kindness and compassion and not judgement, it means a lot to them. It's hard to stay in the work because you're like, this is hard yakka.

A lot of the ideas behind social work is structural change, so I like to think of this book as a bit of a structural effort on my part to try and make people think a bit more structurally, because in my day-to-day work, I'm just on the ground, just with people in the mess. I can't do that. I can't, and that's okay, I don't want to do that structural managerial staff. But it's a difficult place to sit when you have no resources, and you can't do a lot more than just sit with people in a hard time.

ASTRID: That's one of the hardest things and most important things to do, I think.

ERIN: Yeah, and it's about not fixing. This idea of, you're not there to jump in and fix something, that's also an interesting thing, sitting with people in the mess and then working out how your power can support other people. I've got a lot of power in some ways. I talk about myself as a marginalised person, and I am in certain ways. Others, I can utilise a lot of my skills to support people and to pedestal them, which I feel lucky to do that.

ASTRID: I think we're all lucky to have people like you, Erin, doing that. Also, putting it into print, I really do believe in the power of words. If they're well-written, and if they hit that a piece of luck, if they hit the zeitgeist, they do matter, and they stay in people's souls. I'd like to talk about your parts of publication. Publication is not easy, and I don't want to suggest that you had an easy time, because I don't think that you did.

But also, on paper, it looks like a dream sequence of events that happened to bring this to life. In 2021, you were part of the Penguin Random House, right at fellowship. So maybe, let's start with how you got into that. What was the status of the manuscript at that point, because that's only two years ago, and this thing is out in the world and gorgeous.

ERIN: Yeah, it's so nice to hear that. It's beautiful, and I'm grateful. I was speaking to Fiona Wright, and I was like, ‘It's a great luck, and it's a marriage of great luck, and opportunity, and time’. And Fiona Wright said, ‘Yeah, and you're all right. You did a good job too, and you can write’.

I have been writing all my life, and never really thought of it like that, privileging people's stories in my work, writing case notes, writing stories, it was always that underneath it. But essentially, I got into a hobby. I read heaps of books in lockdown, and I was mesmerised. I'm a reader, but I never really considered writing before. I just had this experience of, ‘I want to do that for other people’. I'd long wanted to write about my work, but I could never write academic stuff because I wanted it to be narrative. I couldn't write about my clients, because you're not allowed to do that. So anyway, I was just writing for fun.

A friend of mine said, ‘Look at this thing. You should put your stuff in the Penguin Write It Fellowship’. I put a few things in next chapter stuff. Anyway, I literally gave them about every single word I'd ever written, 7,000 words. It was three short stories, which are all in the book, about a couple of hours before the deadline, something quick. Didn't think of it again. Then got on the long list, totally thrilled, happy to just move on. Next one, got on the shortlist, and then I was one of four people chosen.

Then I just wrote for a year with my mentor Clive, who ended up being the publishing editor of the book. We went through the whole thing together. I just wrote without any real destination. I pitched them a short story collection because that's all I had. I had short stories. I was like, ‘Well, I better keep writing short stories’. There was no promise of publication, so I was just writing what came to me. All of these stories, minus the very last story, were written in that year.

Then Clive said, ‘Hey, I've taken it to the acquisitions meeting. We want to buy it. Can you write another story?’ It just so happened that I had just got married. If you read the book, you'll read about that story. I was like, ‘I've got the perfect story, actually, Clive’. I wrote that story, and that's the path, which was unbelievably smooth, really, really lucky.

ASTRID: Lucky but, again, I am going to reiterate, there are some strong words here. You mentioned a few moments ago, the ethics of it. You can't write about your clients. They do appear in composite, in order, to explain your experience as a social worker, and what some of their experiences are like. Can you talk me through that writing process, and how you wrote this through a justice lens? You are being incredibly respectful, but yet you are representing others on the page.

ERIN: This is the thing, so much of social work is this idea of, whose story is it to tell? It's not your story to tell. I wanted to tell the story of what injustice and also what social work looks like, because no one gets to really see those interactions. Sometimes it's that thing of, you understand or can empathise with a problem or a situation if you can connect it to a person. I had so many moments in the community, I've worked in the community for 10 years, so I had so many versions of those clients that I'd seen. So, it was just really picking the essence of the kinds of people I would see, to be a believable enough scenario so that I could really think about the biggest themes to point out, like the injustice of an older isolated person coming in and out of a hospital system or touching the edges of multiple systems. Only at some point, usually many, many years down the track, connects with an under-resourced community service that can hold them, and do justice to them. What does it mean when you've got no resources, no connection, no money in this system as an older person? What does that look like? It really was about creating the essence.

The writing process of that was just making sure that nobody was real. I'm taking essences from real people and really trying to drill down to something that felt at least visible in someone's eye, in someone's head, when they were reading it. But obviously, with things that I'm writing about, like Julian for example, who's my uncle, I could do that with a bit more reality because he's related to me. I can tell his story as long as it's with compassion. So, there were different ways of writing those stories.

ASTRID: I know you said that you were writing without promise of a contract, so you were just writing what came and what worked for you. But at some point, and tell me if I'm wrong, Erin, but I imagine you started thinking about your audience. Who do you conceive of as your audience, beyond the obvious, lots of people should buy this book?

ERIN: Look, it's so interesting. I guess I did, and I guess I've always thought about it as a book about justice. I think I had this thing in mind, which is, I wanted it to be more than a trans memoir, and more than about queerness. I had this very certain idea that I didn't want it to be something that couldn't be picked up, or there was something universal in the book that could connect with many people. But I think I'm writing for a bunch of people. I think I'm writing for younger people to see themselves reflected back. I think I'm writing for a very small younger part of me that needed a bit of a reminder that I was okay.

I spent a lot of my life internalising a story that was built on other people's unprocessed shame, and that does a lot of damage. I see a lot of young queer people in my work now, and a lot of the work is around recognising that we exile these aspects of ourselves because we think we're not okay to stay safe and connected in relationships. But it's almost like we believe that that's true until we can recognise that our vulnerability has been exploited by somebody else. Somebody else has found a problem and has a feeling about something idiosyncratic about us.

I'm a social worker, and social work's taught me so much. But I'm almost 40 and, probably in the last five years, have recognised how cool I am. So interesting that I've written a book that, in some ways, could be the thing that makes me feel cool, makes me feel good about myself and bulks me up. What's been nice, and maybe this is tangential, but what's beautiful about this week post-launch is that I've recognised that I don't need this thing to... This product is outside of me. I'm proud of it, but I don't need people to love it to feel okay.

It's so interesting because my whole life I've wanted to be known, and seen, and valued, and validated. It's really validating to have people love it. But, at the same time I'm like, ‘Hey, I'm so solidly okay’. It's so funny because it doesn't need to function in that way, which I think 10 years ago maybe it would have. But the audience is also... I'd really like to think that people could recognise maybe their own patterns in this book and be kinder to themselves. That can be anyone. If someone can have a better boundary with someone because they read my book, that would be awesome. Then, at the very least, can you have a nice seven hours to yourself that's fun, and nice, and pleasurable, full stop? Even if the big ideas aren't coming through for someone, that's fine too.

ASTRID: I've spoken to a lot of writers, Erin, and there are very few who are able to do what you just outlined, be okay if the book's not going okay, I don't think you have that problem. I think that this work is going to do well. But, well done. That is mastery of yourself.

ERIN: Maybe this is why I can put this book in the world. There's such a lot of vulnerability in there. I've listened to a lot of people be like, ‘Oh, you've got to have a thick skin when your book comes out, because it's really hard’. It's interesting, but I'm not finding that to be my experience. Maybe it is because being well-received, maybe that is part of it. I'm just proud of myself, actually to do... It's work I've had to do, and this book has helped me do it. I feel like the book is part of the reason why I am grateful for its utility to me.

ASTRID: I suspect it's utility to others, in addition to the joy it may bring others. I know it hasn't been out for very long, but are you getting, or have you noticed a different way of engaging with the work from different types of people? I really love the work but, again, cis-het woman who got really into the social work aspect of it. But the queer community or the social work community, are there different responses?

ERIN: It's so interesting you say that, because I feel like the people who have connected so much to it have been almost across the board identity-wise. I even had, and I hope that this person is okay for me to say it, but the person who was the engineer on the audiobook got in touch, and it's someone who occupies many of the spaces of this book, and really sees themselves in this book, and obviously does amazing things every day. So many books come across their desk, and they were like, ‘This was so meaningful to me to work on’, and that just blew me away.

There's people whose partners of men who are crying and they're like, ‘My partner's crying reading this book’. If someone has a feeling when they read the book, it just meant so much. I've had a lot of different people. A lot of people who have reviewed it, I don't know everybody's experience of themselves, but seems to be women love this book. I think that I was socialised as a woman. I feel like really connected to a group of people who... I feel like this is a book for women too.

This is a book about outsiders. It's a book that's about systems of parent-child relating, which I think a lot of women will really recognise, the ways in which women are limited by systems, particularly patriarchy in all their roles, and how that then impacts on their parenting of kids. But also, mostly girls, which has impacted on my understanding of my place in the world, in my family in particular, but, lots of people. I'm very grateful.

ASTRID: You put a lot of yourself in here as well. Also, some of your family, Julian, your uncle, but also your parents. I think that you've said in public what you want by writing this book. But more for other people who are writing memoir or choosing to share a personal part of themselves in public, how has that been for you? Do you have any, insights into the act of sharing in public that may have changed the person?

ERIN: It's interesting because I think the book is so important in many ways. The ideas, and the insights, and the vulnerability, because think that stuff is a gift. In my work, when people are vulnerable with me, it really shows that they feel safe enough to share. I think, ‘Well, if I feel safe enough to be myself authentically, at this point in my life, I can put it in a book’. Writing about your family, I could air my dirty laundry in my family unit, with my chosen family. There's many ways I can explore that in my therapy space without writing it and put it in the world totally.

I did this process of writing about my family, nutting it out, understanding myself more through the process, and then it became this thing which is like, ‘Hey, we want to publish this thing’. I had to reckon with that much later. Some of this book required a lot of me to make sure it wasn't judgmental. I had to really make sure that, if I was going to write about other people, I had to be honest about what was going on, my interpretation of it, and to have a wide as lens as I could on people's behaviour. I think social work and having this big wide systemic lens allows you to be curious about behaviour.

Maybe what's fun about the book is, on this marginal character, you get to know. But when you're on the margins, and my partner Mary was talking about this earlier, that's when you truly see stuff. You have such a perspective, you can see everything. Not that it's always right, but there's more space for compassion. So I felt okay about talking about what happened to me with an understanding of some of the systemic things that created what I feel was painful from my family, and be able to place it outside of them, so I could love them and be compassionate about them, but also let go of, ‘You need to love me perfectly’, which I think I'm continually doing.

I've had to create significant boundaries with my family to look after myself. They're beautiful people, but messy people, as you'll see in the book. They're delightful, and I feel like they have instilled in me the ethics of social justice. My dad's a teacher, my mom's a nurse. They're doing justice every day, yet some of their vulnerabilities and pain meant that they couldn't do justice to me in the way I needed. But yeah, it's interesting you were asked that question because my mom read the book the day before the launch, and I wanted to prepare them for pain.

I said, ‘Look, you know what? You might not want to hear about my sex life, and my weird things’. I can help you decide which ones to read, if you'd like. I got this beautiful message the day of the launch, which was like, ‘I'm proud of you. It's a beautiful book, good luck’. I think I really needed that. It was nice to have that. I thought, ‘I'm going to do this book, and it's important to the world, but it might be hard for my family’. But also, my role in my family is no longer to manage people. They can deal with that, and we can repair because I'm big now. We can do it all. It's an interesting question. I hope that answers it. I think it's more important in some ways. It's got a job to do, and I can cope with some of the fallout too. I've done as kind of job as I can, I think.

ASTRID: I'm not quite sure what to say now, Erin, I might even take this out. But that was a really nuanced and wonderful reply.

ERIN: Thank you.

ASTRID: Again, I ask this question relatively often for an individual, and sometimes the responses aren't as well thought through. Thank you.

ERIN: Thank you. It's fun. I'm enjoying this. It's nice. I think there's lots of space when you have curiosity that's all about the work. If you're curious and open, there's so much space to just sit in yourself and be like, ‘What's going to come out?’

My whole book is about authenticity. I'm not a craft person. I'm entering this from the side door, and I'm like, ‘Hi, I'm over here. I've just done this cool thing’. Recognising that I feel a bit like an outsider, or maybe I don't deserve to be there, or that other people will feel annoyed, which is so reasonable. But I'm also just being like, ‘Yeah, you do. You can be there, and you can be there and not be knowing everything about everything that's been written, and that's fine. You don't have to pretend that you know all the classics’.

ASTRID: I'm going to challenge you on what you just said. You just said, ‘I'm not a craft person’. I teach writing. As I was reading your book, I'm like, ‘Oh, this would go really well in the classroom. There is so much craft in here that students could unpick’. You can be a craft person without having gone and done a degree in it. I just wanted to share that with you.

ERIN: That means a lot. That really does mean a lot. Maybe it is that thing of, someone's just naturally athletic. I feel like, in some ways, maybe the craft has been this part of me that has just been there, and has had an opportunity to flourish. It's kind of you to say that, and I do notice it. But I feel like I'm one of those athletic odd friends of mine, but in the writing world.

ASTRID: I love it. You do mention Fiona Wright in text, and you've already mentioned Fiona in this interview. Fiona wrote The World Was Whole. Are there any other memoirs or texts in Australia that influenced you? Because you did say you were reading all the way through the Pandemic.

ERIN: Yeah, I was. In terms of Australia, I forget what I was reading at the time. But Fiona was one of the ones that really stood out for me. I think I got into being a bit more open to... Not open, but prioritising Australian authors more recently, particularly now that I'm in these debut author groups and things. But even Kyle Wilson's memoir from a few years ago was just so beautifully written, the prose were so nice. I was reading a lot more essays, like Australian essays, and criticism, and poetry, strangely, on Overland. I think it was DropBear that I really loved, as well.

All these beautiful different things were informing me. But also, I was reading other things that were not Australian, things like Alexander Chee, who wrote a lot of beautiful essays about queerness a few years ago. Then I read this cool book by CJ Hauser called The Crane Wife. It was a beautiful... It's where I got... I stole her, A Memoir in Essays, from that book. It's an American short story collection, which also reads as memoir. She also talks a lot about gender as well. But she had this great essay in The Times, or somewhere big, and then it went viral, so she wrote this entire book based on it.

I was reading comics and all kinds of things. But I feel like I'm just always inspired by various things, and then I want to write about it, like the YouTube videos or Olivia Laing, all the old books that I hadn't read before, like The Argonauts, which I revisited about a few times in the last couple of years.

ASTRID: I'm embarrassed, I still haven't read The Argonauts, so I really need to rectify that. Final question for you, Erin. Would you do it again? Do you see another long form work or collection in your future?

ERIN: I would love to, yeah. I was just thinking, ‘Oh, what should I do in this half an hour before talking to Astrid?’ I was just working on this piece that I've been asked to write about pleasure, and I'm absolutely loving it. I would love to, if anyone wants to pay me to do it. I did my own audiobook, and I listened to it for the first time yesterday, and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I can have a career as an audiobook narrator. Maybe someone will get me to read all the gay books’. I don't know. But absolutely, I would love to. As much as I love my job and helping people, I would love to get out of helping, at some point. I would like to move into being someone that can write.

I'm so aware that that's very unlikely in this climate, and that I'm very grateful that I can pay for my life so I can write. But, oh, a hundred percent, yeah. I would even try different kinds of writing. But it seems to be the thing that comes to me, they just form themselves. They're my great gift, but sometimes I stand back and go, ‘How did you do it?’ Then another one will happen when it's right, as well. I wrote an extra piece, for the book, which is in the audiobook only, which is my favourite story. I really want to see it in print, so maybe that could be the beginning of the next book. Maybe we could do something with that one.

ASTRID: That sounds like a plan, Erin. Thank you for speaking with me, and congratulations again.

ERIN: Thank you. Thank you. It's been such a pleasure, Astrid. I absolutely love The Garret. It's so existential to think I'd even be on the podcast. But I was listening to people talking about writing way before I even wrote it. I was just fascinated by process. So really, thanks for having me.