Finding Stories with Toni Jordan

Verity La The Melbourne Review Interviews

Alec Patric: The road ahead is harder and longer than any of us can know. That’s what they say on the first day of a creative writing course, and then go on repeating that hard fact until the last farewells.
You are the exception that proves the rule, having a novel accepted for publication before you even completed your studies, and within a year or two coming back to teach writing. And now there’s another novel, but I’m interested in the life that brought you to your writing course with a novel just bursting to come through, because you also seem to refute that idea that writing can be taught. When did Addition really begin? What went into it and how much did the course have to do with what we see when we open that novel?
Toni Jordan: Addition began on a plane, half way between Malaysia and Australia, in September 2004. I’d been enrolled all year in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing diploma because I wanted to start my own business as a technical/scientific writer. But I was having a bit of a break from work as well (I’d worked full-time since I was 18, almost 20 years), so as well as all the corporate subjects, I took the novel writing class for a bit of fun. For the first 9 months I just wrote a pile of rubbish, and then the idea came to me for Addition. The course was essential because it never would have occurred to me to write fiction otherwise. Carrie Tiffany was enrolled in the same course, just a couple of years ahead of me, when she wrote her Miles Franklin-shortlisted debut Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living–so I knew it was possible. And in my class were many wonderful writers, including Chris Womersley (The Low Road, Bereft). I just didn’t know enough to realise how hard it was, to have your first novel published. The course also taught me how to read like a writer, instead of like a reader–how to, not just love a book, but admire it, and then analyse how the writer did it.
Alec Patric: I’ve read prose by writers with almost a decade of university education that makes them sound barely literate. We both know it’s not easy but I’m coming around to the belief that for some people it’s all about ‘expressing themselves.’ Which is not what writing is about actually. In fact, I think what we’re doing is engaging with a larger dialogue and the better we’re listening, the more value what we have to say is, in response to that conversation. Is this something you’d agree with, and if you do, who are the writers you’re engaged with? What is it about what they’re saying that has aroused your literary responses, especially if as you say, twenty years of working life went by before you felt like you wanted to say something in return?
Toni Jordan: I’m not a believer in writing as self expression. I’ve never kept a journal or written anything that hasn’t been intended for publication. Maybe it’s because I was a reader for 30-plus years longer than I’ve been a writer, but for me, the reader is the whole point. That’s the exciting part: the conversation between two people, the writer and the reader, who will probably never meet. Fiction isn’t like film, where someone’s entire vision is projected for the audience to passively absorb. Fiction is active reading, where the reader brings their imagination and world view and ideas, and meets the writer half way. Because effect = wordsonpage + reader’s paradigm, there’s so much fun to be had by not explaining everything. The writer should give the reader space to walk around inside the book.
Alec Patric: Writers might be writing for writers in the kind of dialogue I was suggesting but we often talk about writing for the reader. There’s a lovely sentiment in that attitude though I do wonder who we mean specifically when we say that. Working in a bookstore, I know there’s no such thing as The Reader. There’s just a variety of people who on occasion read a book. We do maintain a notion of an ideal reader but isn’t this just another way of saying we write for ourselves? I’m also still wondering why you were silent for such a long time, literarily speaking. Why the sudden explosion of words, because now there’s a second novel from you, hard on the heels of the first?
Toni Jordan: I can’t explain it–I don’t know who she is. I don’t think she’s actually the same as me. I think that she’s smarter and busier and better read. She’s also tougher and more impatient. I don’t mind a slow beginning, or a book that’s carried only by language, or a fair bit of description. But I don’t think she’d be happy with that. One of the reasons I don’t review novels is that something always knocks me out. I’m always in awe of something. But she’s harder to impress. And I always, always finish. Films I can walk out of, but never novels. I have to keep the idea that, no matter how bad it seems, the author might still save it in the end. If something hasn’t gripped her after 50 pages–forget it.
And it’s not just a lack of writing in the first half of my life, but a lack of any kind of arts at all. Growing up, we were very working class with no music or art or travel or anything. Until high school, where it became apparent that I was somewhat academic, I thought I’d be a barmaid at the Colmslie Hotel. I left home and worked full time from 18 and studied for my science degree at night. I married the first boy who asked me out, when I was 20 (not my current husband, I should add) and had my first mortgage at 23. I took my first overseas holiday at 32. I didn’t even understand what an arts degree was. I thought it was about painting.
Alec Patric: Some of us are born into stories we don’t want to read for the rest of our lives. So in your case, the Barmaid of the Colmslie Hotel became a fiction you could leave behind by following a new narrative, one which took place on the grand stage of Science. I’m wondering why writing called you away from that second narrative. Why this desire to conjure characters and spin yarns over the practical applications of Science?
Toni Jordan: Writing is a rare kind of job, in that it lets (insists) you focus on both the big picture and the fine detail. And the better you get at writing, the better you get at both whole characters, entire plots and generations of psychology and where the commas go, the exact rhythm of a phrase and the choice of a particular word. The more I learnt about science, the more reductionist it became. In my last research job I focused, not just on one species of bacteria, but one enzyme it produced. One little protein. Possibly for years. I completely lost track of the glorious big picture stuff that made me love science so much in the first place. Also, I’m not much of an employee, and it’s not kind of job that you can be self-employed. I didn’t expect to like writing fiction as much as I do. I feel like I haven’t worked a day since I began.
Alec Patric: If you fell into your first book, your second book must have been a far more deliberate experience. Can you tell me a little about The Fall Girl. What was it like writing your second novel?
Toni Jordan: For a long time I couldn’t write anything decent at all. I felt tight and wound-up, I just couldn’t relax and write with the joy and sense fun that I had before. The first draft of Fall Girl was completely different from the finished product–my publisher told me I was entirely on the wrong track and I needed to start completely from scratch. He was right, of course, and I changed everything: the characters, voice, POV. The original plot became a part of this new plot. In my mind, though, it’s the same book. It was just a long and painful way to find the story.