Welcome to How to Become a Writer, a series on the many and varied steps (and missteps) people take on the way to writing and publishing a book.
My guest today is the marvellous Jane Rawson, who I have had the pleasure of getting to know through Twitter and whose new novel From the Wreck is the most exciting thing I have read in a long time. The prose is scrumptious and the premise is wild. It is simultaneously historical and speculative, which I find to be a rare and wonderful combination.
Jane is the author of two novels – A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013), which won the Small Press Network’s 2014 ‘Most Underrated Book’ Award, and From the wreck (2017) – as well as a novella, Formaldehyde (2015), which won the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize. She is the co-author of The handbook: surviving and living with climate change (2015), a practical, personal guide to life in a climate-changed Australia written with James Whitmore. Her short fiction has been published by Sleepers, Overland, Tincture, Seizure and Review of Australian Fiction. She works for the government and lives in Melbourne’s west.
How to become a writer:
A house full of books
My parents are readers – my mum, in particular. Mum would tell me and my brother that when she was reading she couldn’t hear us, so we might as well go bother someone else. Books were status symbols, a mark of your worth; reading was the best way to spend your time. In another home I might have learned to value cars, or kicking goals, or throwing a brilliant party, or grooming. In my home it was books and ideas, particularly odd ideas. I’m not sure these are necessarily the best things to value – it might have been nice to know how to invest money, for example, or apply eyeliner, or to have some passing respect for exercise – but it’s what I got. So writing books has been a way to value myself, and probably some kind of attempt to impress my parents.
A world full of problems
In my mid-teens I found out about injustice. I watched and re-watched David Bradbury’s films about Chile and Nicaragua. I was horrified by what Australia was doing to indigenous people. I learned about US neo-colonialism all over the world, and was particularly cross about Pine Gap. I discovered Communism and wondered why we didn’t have it. I heard about what was happening to the Amazon rainforest.
The only skills I had were reading, writing and arguing (I was on the debating team, of course). I decided to become a journalist – if I could tell everyone else about the injustice, they’d fix it, right? So I went to university and I studied journalism. I didn’t become a journalist. The injustice didn’t get fixed. But I learned how to write to deadline, how to be succinct, what active voice is, how sentences are structured, and I got a job as a professional writer. By the time it came to write fiction, decades later, I had a pretty good set of skills. And there were still a lot of things I wanted to fix.
Good friends, daring publishers
When I was 30, my friend Chris started a thing called National Novel Writing Month and convinced me it would be fun to write a ‘novel’ in 30 days. Around the same time, my friend Robert convinced me art was a thing you just did – have an idea, make the thing, share the thing, do it again – it was the way he lived, always in a frenzy of creation. I’d kind of assumed books were written by people who knew they were writers, but these two convinced me anyone could have a go.
When I was 35, I moved to Melbourne and met my friends Rose and Jane. They’d published books of short stories – theirs and other people’s – and their stories had been published in other people’s books. We wrote together, and I got the idea that once you’d written something, you could try to get it published. I’d really had very little idea that it was possible to get stories published. So I had a go, and one of my stories was published in Sleepers Almanac. It was a revelation.
And then, eventually, there was Barry Scott at Transit Lounge. Barry likes books that aren’t like all the other books. Without Barry, I doubt I would ever have been published. If I hadn’t been published would I still write? You know what: probably.
An excellent bloke
My husband makes music and he doesn’t care if no one ever hears it. It’s utterly strange stuff and doesn’t include anything you’d call a tune, and he is committed to making it and to making it well. He completely understands why I have to write, that I won’t make any money from it, that sometimes it’s really painful but I still want to do it, that I can’t watch a TV series because it would take too much time away from writing. He’s the same.
Whenever I think I don’t want to do it any more, some book comes along with sentences or ideas in it that make me think, ‘God, that must have been intense/fun/hilarious/heartbreaking to write’ and all I want to do is get in front of a screen and start writing. Nothing feels as good as when it’s going right.
From the Wreck tells the remarkable story of George Hills, who survived the sinking of the steamship Admella off the South Australian coast in 1859. Haunted by his memories and the disappearance of a fellow survivor, George’s fractured life is intertwined with that of a woman from another dimension, seeking refuge on Earth. This is a novel imbued with beauty and feeling, filled both with existential loneliness and a deep awareness that all life is interdependent.