Many years ago, Jane Messer rented a cubby-hole at the NSW Writers Centre to write in. She’s been a fan of the Centre ever since. She is also a lecturer in creative writing at Macquarie University, Department of English, and is a former Directer of the Australian Society of Authors. Her books include Hopscotch, Provenance and Night by Night, and she has published short stories and essays in a variety of national and international journals. Her script ‘Dear Dr Chekhov’ is currently in production for broadcast on Soundproof, ABC Radio National, August 21 and 23. For more information on Jane you can visit her website, like her on Facebook or follow her on twitter.
You have immersed yourself in writing – you are a lecturer in creative writing at Macquarie University, an author, a contributor to various publications and you’ve also been involved in events and PR. What about writing led you to become so involved in it?
I find that of all the things that interest me, and which I can also earn a living from, always have to do with writing and contributing to the industry either through teaching or other efforts. Before teaching full time I worked for a couple of small presses: Redfern Legal Centre Publishing and Federation Press. In the mid 1990s I worked for the Australian Society of Authors as a publicist, and later I was on the ASA Board. Even further back, I’d worked in community video at Metro Screen. All great experiences. Writing is a wonderfully alone thing to do, but it can also get a bit isolating, so being active in the writing and publishing communities means I could be amongst like minded people and earn a living.
Congratulations on the recent publication of Hopscotch (Picador Pan Macmillan, April 2015). Can you tell us a little bit about it?
It’s set in Sydney in the very recent past, in 2008, in the months before the GFC and immediately after. It’s a novel about the times we live in now, in urban Australia. All the big themes are there, about why happiness is elusive, money, sex, love. Five characters from the same family each have something very challenging happen over a period of a few months. It’s a seriously funny book.
How much time did you spend researching the various issues you explore in Hopscotch? Did you intertwine the writing and research processes or keep the two separate?
The book feels like there’s no research in it, but actually there’s quite a lot. Some of the research came from just being observant of the kinds of things that are happening to people. My most structured research involved spending time with IT executives in North Sydney and tailing one of them for a while, and interviewing others. That research was done before I started writing so I had time to digest and filter it and think about its significance. And then there was the GFC: I had been writing Hopscotch for a couple of years before that ‘event’, and realised somewhere during that fraught year that I should set the novel in the year of the GFC. During the writing I’d begin on a plot line or a character development that required research, and go off and do the research then return to the writing. For instance, I researched the property investment market in Dubai, and the effects of Rohypnol, the drug used in spiked drinks, and nanny-cam use in Britain and the US, and so on. I went back to the suburbs of Bondi and Lane Cove and walked around looking at them more formally than I ever did when I was just passing through.
Setting is such an integral part of any novel. Hopscotch is set in Sydney, where you now live. Do you believe authors should set their novels in places they know well to give their stories authenticity?
There’s so many ways of knowing, and to know a place imaginatively is as legitimate as knowing a place through habitation. I have a major chapter set in Dubai, and I’ve never been there. Readers I’ve spoken to who know Dubai are stunned that I haven’t stepped foot in the place. I researched it thoroughly, and inhabited it imaginatively. Authenticity is an aesthetic (it seems or feels authentic) and a process, and sometimes it’s a combination of the two. I wouldn’t for instance, attempt to write about life in a remote Indigenous community without actually living there first. That would be unethical and inauthentic. What’s important is to know the limits of your imaginative and empathetic capacities and to respect the community or place you’re writing about.
In your experiences both as an author and teacher of creative writing, what are some of the common mistakes you see creative writers making and how should they avoid them?
Probably the worst thing I see is emerging writers hurrying their writing. Good writing always takes longer than you expect or want it to. It requires tenacity and discipline. It’s an art and a craft and requires practice to hone technique and to refine the underlying concept or idea underpinning the work. Small achievements and improvement are to be treasured and then bettered. All writing is rewriting, I tell my myself and my students. At a more granular level, I’d say that old chestnut, ‘show’ don’t ‘tell’ is still true, what Aristotle called ‘mimesis’. I would like to see more good dramatisation in narrative. And lastly, my ‘pet’ hates include scenes which start with the character waking up groggily, then realising something, then getting up. I would happily never read such a scene again ever in my life! I see a massive over-use of hackneyed gestures including shaking or nodding of the head, and sighs. Lastly, the use of ‘sometimes’, ‘always’, and ‘never’. For instance, “Sometimes she would go sit at the bar alone.” Well, let’s not hear about it happening sometimes, let’s see a key scene dramatised when she does that, and experience what happens.
As a member of the NSWWC and as a lecturer at university, what do you see is the benefit in being involved in writing communities?
There’s huge benefit to being part of the conversations that take place about writing, reading and the industry. I like to think that we’re sharing our expertise and excitement about language, discourse, writing, the imagination, and reading and by fostering vibrant writing and reading communities we’ll have a wider impact through society.
I couldn’t name only one author. So many have inspired me over the years, Dostoyevsky, Dorris Lessing, Marguerite Duras, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Christina Stead, Amanda Lohrey, Frank Moorhouse, Arthur Rimbaud, Anton Chekov again and again, and more recently Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Ian McEwan and Anne Enright.
This week I’m loving a collection by Beth Spencer, titled Vagabondage. It’s an Australian small press series of poems that form a narrative or memoir of sorts, and deserves lots of attention.
Time of day?
Wine time. Walking or riding time. I love daylight.
Martha Wainwright live in Berlin.
On a horse called Ash at a riding school just near where I work.