BREAKING THE STASIS:
an interview with Jessica Au
The bright, youthful voices of Jessica Au’s characters flew across the pages in Cargo, (a novel released by Picador in August last year) and Jessica herself is a breath of fresh air, especially when discussing her own attitude towards process and creation. This is how she came to be soaring at age 25.
I’ve read your novel Cargo grew from previously published work. A practice in novel writing, that, in my opinion, is not utilised enough. The ‘this is what I have, this is what I can make it into’ approach casts light on how writers are finding practical ways to speed up and launch their careers. Do you think new and emerging writers need to think more about moulding the work they have, rather than starting something new? (If only to save themselves time.)
I think at the end of the day the impetus for a novel simply boils down to that idea – the unnamed variable, the X – that keeps to drawing you back. That makes you go, definitively, I’ve got more to say. (Didn’t The God of Small Things grow out of an image Arundhati Roy had of a sky blue Plymouth surrounded by a sea of protestors?)
Quite often though this X – a mood, a tone, a reoccurring storyline – will have manifested itself in your writing anyway. You can see it, for example in the short stories Beverley Farmer wrote prior to her novel, The House in the Light. She regularly explores the theme of life in Greece for an expat, and for women and wives and mothers in particular. I’m not saying that this is in any way recycling or being lazy, but rather that there are certain narrative impulses that, for whatever reason, you’ll keep returning to.
With Cargo, it was mainly about trying to articulate a certain kind of unease that comes with growing up, particular for teenage girls, and the silent pressures and projections they encounter. I’d touched on this several times in short stories prior to writing the novel, but again still felt I had more to say. So it seemed natural, as well as practical, to draw from them.
Looking back however, I’m not sure if this is always the best route. It was definitely a good thing in many ways – some of the groundwork was already done, the characters were roughly shaded, I had voices, dialogue, backstories. A sketch. On the other hand though, a novel is a very different creature to a short story, and trying to lengthen and stretch one into the other can be a pretty hefty task. There are no shortcuts, as I found out. Cargo took me about two and a half years to finish, and it’s practically a novella. If you are going to go down that road, you really have to be prepared to dismantle everything and start afresh, and I think also be wary of pace and movement. A short story can get away with being a single scene, a few stills. With a novel, it’s more like constructing the whole movie.
So all in all that’s a very long-winded way of saying that first and foremost I think it rides the idea – whether that’s from stories you’ve written before, or something that strikes you out of the blue. And in any case, I think you know it when you see it.
I think a lot of the time, with writers, there’s a psychological block – not writer’s block per se, as a lot of writers regularly produce work, but a block where the idea of devoting everything to a larger project is just too much. How and when did you decide you were going to commit to a novel? And did you find yourself, during the day to day production of Cargo, having to push in order to keep this commitment?
Yes writing is definitely an exercise in psychological peaks and troughs. Beginning that ‘albatross’ novel comes with all the usual fears – fear that you won’t be able to pull it off, fear that you won’t finish it. With smaller projects, you can get your returns (completion, publication, payment) incrementally. With longer works, it could, and often does, take years.
But another reason for that hesitation I think also has a lot to do with circumstance. In the barest sense, novels take time, and they take headspace. I would be happy to write manuscript after manuscript (even if a lot of these turned out to be duds), if only I had the luxury of endless days in which to do so. The difficulty is that this is rarely the case. More often than not, we have to fight for the space to write, and of course it’s hard to embark on such a big gamble when other ‘real life’ things keep on nudging their way in. This to me is probably the biggest barrier.
In her memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith talks about how she used to watch other people performing and, despite being blown away by it, a sly thought would always creep into her head as if to say, I can do that. Wanting to write can sometimes be like this – you can be awe of books, and amazed by them, but at the same time you hunger to be the writer behind the words, not just the reader of them.
In that sense I always knew I wanted to write a longer work. But on the other hand, after having a range of short stories rejected across the board, I also realised I was nowhere near where I had to be to begin one! So the how and when was more a matter of waiting and honing until I felt more certain. I can’t really recall any moment when I thought I’ve got a novel here. But I do remember thinking that if I were to start one, it would be easier to conceptualise as a series of little vignettes. I also wanted to try and keep it simple, and within territory that I knew. That led me to go back to those short stories mentioned above – and once I’d decided that, it just a matter of addressing the practicalities: deferring uni for a year, getting some part-time work, working out a set routine etc.
During the actual writing process, I definitely had all those fears and worries all over again. Usually the process was cyclical – good days morphing into writer’s block, which would then break and bring you back to the good days again… But at the same time, despite these gripes, even a bad day writing is better than a good day doing anything else. So in that sense, it was a damn fine time.
I’m very interested in creative process in all art, especially in new artists who’ve perhaps not figured out or refined their own processes yet, despite having an amount of success. It would be easy for me to suggest you’re quiet a natural writer, but I’m guessing it’s not as simple as that. I do believe, at the novel level, all writers remaining are naturals to a point, though word counts, genre selection, editing/redrafting, and general industry savvy, start involving other life skills. It’s obvious to me that story and creating are big drivers for you, but outside this, are there any other influences or personality traits that make up Jessica the writer?
Well there’s definitely no sense of ease or seamlessness to me a writer. I’m a re-drafter, a hacker. I’m not the type who can just pump out a good few chapters everyday – in fact I’m lucky if I get a good few paragraphs, and even then it’s a constant job of chiseling and subtracting and rewiring. Don’t get me wrong – I love the robotics of it, but no, it’s definitely not a simple process.
On the question of influences, there are plenty – I always keep a pile of books by my desk that I can return to when I’m stuck. For me the process of writing involves a strange kind of hypnotism. You have to lull yourself in a state where you’re able to drift, yet can still think. The novels that I often revisited while writing Cargo were those by Julia Leigh, Michael Ondaatje, Kazuo Ishiguro, Christos Tsiolkas; short stories by Cate Kennedy, Beverley Farmer, Tim Winton, Nam Le, Laura van den Berg … and many others.
The question of personality traits is a bit harder for me to answer – but maybe stubbornness, or something like it? Because I need to redraft a lot, I tend to be the type who needs to sit at the desk for whole days until it feels vaguely right. I think I’m also very much a creature of routine and habit when it comes to writing, which again maybe has a bit to do with that hypnotism mentioned above. Lastly, I’m not sure if this is a ‘trait’ as such, but I’ve found that working a bit in editing and publishing has helped me immensely in developing a more critical outlook, and becoming aware of real technicalities and mechanics that come with constructing a longer work.
One of the biggest draw cards when it comes to your writing is your ability to inject powerful imagery into your gorgeous prose. When you’re producing work, are you conscious of this overall aesthetic? Or do you write the narrative first and keep redrafting until everything becomes more lyrical?
Mood and tone and definitely huge drivers for me – and, as my editors very rightly pointed out, this isn’t always for the best, as I can sometimes overdo it. But a sense or a feeling is definitely where the scene starts for me. I then try and make sure I include enough dialogue and narrative backbone to prop it up.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that conceptualising a novel in terms of aesthetics is very similar to the ways in which a director needs to conceptualise an entire film. As a writer you’re not only ‘acting’ the character your voicing, but you also need to be aware of (and in control of) props and objects, clothing, setting, visuals and so on. Both in terms of how you describe them and how they work together to contribute to that ‘overall aesthetic’ that you mention.
Joan Didion was fantastic at this. She knew, for example, how important it was not just to describe ‘curtains’ but the ‘fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk’ that ‘would blow out the windows the get tangled and drenched in afternoon thunderstorms’, not just ‘a tattoo’ but ‘the plumeria blossom tattooed just below her shoulder’, not just the ‘house’ but ‘the house in Brentwood Park’. Julia Leigh’s cinematographic writing is another brilliant example. In Disquiet, for example:
“The woman was dressed in a tweed pencil skirt, a grey silk blouse and her dark hair was pulled back into a loose chignon, the way her mother once used to wear it. Her right arm was broken and she’d rested it in a silk-scarf sling, which co-ordinated unobtrusively with her blouse. By her feet, suitcase.”
Just from that paragraph and it’s imagery we get so much – a sense of the woman and the formality of the situation, as well as the mystery: who is this mother that she is now copying, and why is her arm broken? The suitcase – where is she going, where is she from? Not to mention the perfect composition of a cast being held up by, of all things, a matching silk scarf. I love details like this and how they, and these aesthetics, can speak volumes.
In your answer to question two, you talk about about keeping things simple and within territory you knew. I’ve always liked the idea of starting small. I think Cargo is the novel before your ‘Albatross’ novel, though it probably doesn’t seem this way to you. I see it as a sneak peak of what we can expect from Jessica in the future – a pilot episode to a greater work, which will mature with its readers. I think a lot of writers bite off more than they can chew, and get so far beyond the initial idea that with it comes fear they might produce a ‘bad’ novel. It’s for this reason, I believe, great amounts of work just get shelved. Sometimes the writer will push through and the risk pays off, but mostly you hear of writers returning to these more complicated projects after their process and skill level has developed. With Cargo it’s interesting, as you’ve both taken a risk and kept the project in reach. Mind you, the linking of the chapters must’ve proved challenging. At anytime while writing Cargo did you feel like pulling back, beginning again, or starting something new? Or do you think the structure, length, and novel’s marketability may have helped make the end product more achievable, despite the fact those particular things, are, in fact, obstacles in themselves?
No I agree – Cargo was a big step for me, and I’m incredibly relieved to have finished it, but you’re always learning as a writer, and each novel is a stepping-stone, the first one especially. The further you go, the more you’re able to grapple with more complex themes and structures, but I feel like I’m still shedding training-wheels so-to-speak.
Despite the fears and worries mentioned above, I don’t think I ever felt like giving up on Cargo, or starting something else entirely. When I was younger, I did in fact stop-start several horrible novels on ‘big’ themes that naturally fell apart in my hands, so I realised from there I’d better pace myself. And while pulling apart those short stories was hard enough, it somehow seemed more achievable I think because I was conscious of what wasn’t, and of my own limits. Aiming for a more modest word length and having three voices to bounce off certainly helped, but so did realising how to critique my own work in a worthwhile way. That point was something of a watershed moment, because, conversely, it can give you the confidence to go ahead. As in instead of sitting there helplessly wondering why no one appreciates what you’ve done, you find you’ve got it in you to break the stasis.
When, writing anything, and the final product comes about, finally, I suspect we all hope to leave it having learned something about our craft and ultimately about how we function as writers. Do you feel more equipped for the next project now Cargo is well and truly birthed? And can we know a little bit about your writing right now?
Yes I think so. I hope by now I understand a bit more about the temperament of novels – the importance of trying to approach them holistically, with that director’s eye (although of course many things will change from redraft to redraft), and also the idea of really interrogating what you want to say with a work. Being conscious of the whys behind a story or a scene mean it’s less likely to be padding, or to appear directionless. I realised a lot of this only during the editing process of Cargo, so I’m curious about what it would be like to try and write something being conscious about that from the outset. Of course, I still have a way to go!
Terribly, the ‘albatross’ second novel is barely formed in my head, let alone the page, so unfortunately there’s not much to tell. But I am interested in the idea of subverting narrative expectation, especially when it comes to genre. I love books that lure me into certain states of familiarity only to jolt me out of it again, playing around not only with themes, but with conventions. Open endings, scenes in which nothing happens yet everything happens, stock characters turned on their heads and inverted. Something along those lines…