jessie cole

novelist/writer

Category: On Writing

Unwitting Selfies: Fiction and Self Exposure

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Nowadays, it’s a truism that we live in a culture saturated with self-exposure. The spectrum of possibilities runs from simple Facebook selfies, through blogs and feelpinions, and probably ends somewhere in the murky waters of uploading amateur porn. Never before have we had such access to ways of both communicating and controlling the parts of ourselves that others see. But what strikes me, as a fiction writer, is how much that control unravels once you begin to engage in the process of storytelling, otherwise known as ‘making things up’.

The mysterious workings of the creative mind mean that often (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) what comes to the surface when writing fiction might not be what was initially intended. Ideas or pressing issues can dissolve into nothing while the narrative picks up speed in an entirely new direction. There is something about the process that resists the interference of the rational self, and in this way what is revealed is often quite unexpected. Added to this strange phenomenon—and even more alarming—your fiction seems to say things about you that you didn’t even know, and perhaps can only faintly grasp after writing. It’s discomforting, a little like posting a selfie that unwittingly reveals all your subconscious thoughts.

Memoir—where we actively share what we know about ourselves—seems straightforward in comparison. And in a sense it is. We are picking and choosing the parts of our personal story worth relating, and we know where the story goes. There is still a sense of underbelly—a possible thread of meaning or narrative that might go undetected by the writer—but I suspect that the more aligned the writer is with the subtext, the higher the quality of the work.

I’m not so sure this is true for fiction, which seems to involve—at least in the act of writing—a surrender to the unknown. I like to begin a story with several characters of interest in a difficult or precarious situation and then just watch how things go. These characters seem fully formed, separate from me, and they do their own thing. When I write in the voice of a character I feel they are speaking through me. I am listening to their story and waiting to see where they lead. Often I have an inkling or premonition of what’s to come, but it is similar to the feeling I get when a friend tells me a story and I guess at the ending. Even my best guess could be wrong.

Stories seem to lead to particular places, and then sometimes they take a left turn. What I find most confounding about the process is how to come to terms with all of this being a representation of my inner world. Who are these characters who people my novels? Some of them might have initially been based—at least partially—on people I know, but once inside the narrative they tend to take an authority over themselves. And in any case, characters are not real people, but a collection of words on a page. Since I imagined them and then wrote down their stories, are they—in some disturbing way—all just aspects of me? And if so, what private things am I unknowingly exposing about myself?

It might seem strange that in this age of unprecedented self-exposure writing fiction could feel so risky, but it does. When I got word that my first novel Darkness on the Edge of Town was to be published I was in a car with my family driving home from Brisbane. For the first few minutes I was ecstatic, speechless and beaming, and then a sudden migraine struck and within fifteen minutes we had to pull over in the car park of a highway McDonalds for me to hunch, dry retching, over the gutter. It seemed the reality of publication was something my body wasn’t quite ready for. And, even now, those two opposing feelings seem to rock and swell in my belly. Excitement at the release of a new novel, Deeper Water, and a sickening fear of all the things I could be saying about who I am, of which I’m only half aware.

In this context it doesn’t surprise me that my girl Mema, the protagonist of Deeper Water, should be grappling so bemusedly with all the knowns and unknowns of her world—that her journey should involve an awakening to the secret things she has kept hidden, even from herself. Writing fiction involves a type of awakening, and I think sharing it is an exposure far more strange and discomforting than any other kind.
 

First published on the Wheeler Centre Dailies, 27th October, 2014.

On Writing Deeper Water

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Sometimes thinking back on how a novel is created is like looking through fog at a faraway land. The whole process seems shrouded in mystery. I imagine myself—tapping away at the keys—creating a fictional world for what must have been months and months—stretching into years—but somehow the image doesn’t stick. The whole thing seems a blur. It is—at least partly—that when you sit down to write you are simultaneously in two places at once. You are gazing into a computer screen and you are totally immersed in the world you are creating. For me, because the act of writing is so immersive, it’s hard to think about the hows and whys of the finished product. I end up shaking my head to try to clear it, and thinking—quite simply—it is what it is.

When writing, I like to keep beginnings small. Tapping out the first words is like humming a few notes. It’s possible the notes could turn into a song, but, equally, they could just disperse into the air. My brother is a musician by trade, and I have noticed the language of song-writing seems to encompass the smallness of creative beginnings. When writing new songs my brother always says—I’ve been working on a few tunes. ‘Tunes’ is a humble word. A few notes strung together—the fragile wisp of a burgeoning story. It could be nothing. It could be something. But in any case it starts out small. When I started Deeper Water, I started right at the beginning. They say every hero has to leave home, but what those first steps are like I’m yet to know. Mema’s voice was strong—clear and unhindered. Somehow unsullied. I waited to see if her story would unfold. Slowly the tune became a song. Even more gradually it became a novel.

And then there’s the tricky bit. Deciding (or decoding) what it is—in the midst of this immersion in a fictional world—you were actually trying to say. Once I’d finished writing the book I thought about this a lot, and I got it down to this:

On the surface, I think Deeper Water is a story about awakening. Mema’s awakening to the world outside, but also her sexual awakening—her belated initiation into womanhood and all that entails. But on a deeper level, the book it is an examination of modern life, of all the ways we’ve invented to disconnect us from nature. Living the way I do, encased in forest on the periphery of modern existence, raises a number of questions. Primarily—how is it that we humans have come to see ourselves as so separate from the natural world? What do we gain by this, and what is the cost?

That’s a tidy bunch of thematic preoccupations, but it doesn’t really go anywhere near explaining why Mema’s voice should come to me, why Hamish would crash into her world, and why—after all—she would fall so hard for him. My only explanation is that the subconscious is a mysterious beast, throwing up characters and stories—initially, at least—outside our comprehension or control. Some people seem to write as though they are puppeteers controlling all the strings, but this has never been the case for me. I’m a listener. I get into a place of stillness and listen to the voice who speaks. And I try not to ask my characters too many questions, to fuss around with them about who they are. I attempt—most simply—to get out of the way. And they are wily, taking all sorts of strange turns. But they seem to know where they are going, so I let them have the reins.

And then afterwards, when the book is finished and my characters are gone, I’m left standing there—all alone—trying to explain to readers what just happened, when I don’t even know myself. I went along for the ride—I long to say, I just went along for the ride. So, if you read Deeper Water—as I hope you might—try to imagine it as it started. A few hummed notes. Some scattered words.The sound of a voice on the wind. And then think of where it came to—a book, a novel, a whole fictional world. Something coherent, with a beginning, middle and end. The story Mema shared with us, in all her honest glory.

 

First Published as a guest post on Book’d Out.

On Meeting Mary

 

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I first met my editor, Mary Rennie, through the HarperCollins Varuna Manuscript Development Award in 2009. This award involved staying at Varuna, the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains, for ten days to work one-on-one with an editor from HarperCollins. I live in Northern NSW, in a tiny rural town, and though I had been to Varuna twice before, I had never met an editor.

The manuscript I submitted was an autobiographical novel entitled Blood Mandala: A Biography of a Family (yet to be published). A set of stories based on events in my family—it was a traumatic read. Before I arrived at Varuna, Mary sent me an email containing ‘notes’ on the manuscript which were—to be frank—unsettling. Points about certain ‘characters’ that didn’t quite work. Parts of the storyline that needed shoring up. A list of issues we might address during our time together. Even though I couldn’t argue with the truth of Mary’s assertions, I was disturbed by her insights. It felt to me like she was offering a critique of my family, of my life. My alarm bells were ringing.

There were five writers chosen for the award, and each of us had been selected by an assigned editor. On the evening of my arrival at Varuna we all assembled around the lounge room fireplace for the introductions. What followed was a sort of literary speed dating—we writers were shuffled from one editor to another making feeble small talk. A somewhat excruciating situation. When I got to Mary, she asked a few quick questions about the text. She was direct in a way I hadn’t quite expected and I was caught off guard. I wanted to talk to her about trauma, about how in working with me on this novel she was traversing the terrain of my difficult past. I don’t remember the words I spoke, but Mary watched me carefully. ‘Let’s not talk about the book now,’ she said abruptly. ‘We’ll save that for tomorrow. What’s a less loaded topic? The weather?’ To which I had nothing at all to say.

At this point I began to feel a little panicky. How was I going to work on this manuscript without talking about my life? It seemed to me an impossible task—separating the fact from the fiction, viewing this unwieldy novel as something apart from me, strong enough for an editor’s sharp scrutiny. After dinner I called my mother. ‘I don’t know if this is going to work,’ I said. ‘I just don’t know if I can do it.’ But I was there, and so was Mary, and there was ten days left to go.

What I didn’t know then—having had little experience with writers and no experience with editors—is that by-and-large they are a shy bunch. I am often awkward with those I don’t know, and the same could probably be said for most of those present that night. Literary speed dating was not a comfortable way to begin, but holed up in our little private room in the days that followed—chatting about the text—turned out to be a revelation.

Contrary to my initial impressions, Mary was a gentle and compassionate listener. Attuned to my dilemma around the fictionalisation of real life, she trod carefully through the process of reworking that first text. I sat at the desk and she sat on a chair in the corner, and as we went through her notes—issue by issue—I could feel my confidence grow. Ten days in a room with just one person—talking about a manuscript—is perhaps an unusual intimacy for a writer at work. In truth, it’s hard to recall a time or place where I have felt more heard. And that’s the thing about editing—there is something in the process reminiscent of therapy. Even a fiction writer exposes their strange and often unconscious leanings or desires, and the way an editor interacts with that exposure can do much to shape the final text. In the words of Karl Ove Knausgard—‘the literature is still about to become, is in a state of flux, even though its form already exists‘. It’s a precarious situation. Trust is the integral ingredient in such an intimate exchange.

I’ve been lucky in my journey to publication, but one of the biggest blessings has been meeting Mary. After spending that ten days at Varuna she went on to edit my first published novel—Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the latest one too—Deeper Water (out in August). Through this process the trust we built has evolved, and, despite the fact that we live more than 1000 kilometres apart and rarely see each other from year to year, we have developed an unusual kind of closeness. In that small room at Varuna, all those years ago, Mary waded into the heart of my trauma, looked me in the eye and listened to me speak, and in her own way she told me—there is something in this sorrow, something beautiful and deep, and there are those of us out there who truly want to hear it.

 

First published on The Writers’ Bloc, 16th of June 2014.

On The God of Small Things

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It’s hard to think about the writing of Indian author Arundhati Roy without conjuring an image of the political activist she has become. Confident, articulate, brave. Decrying injustice wherever she finds it. The hard truths she speaks seem to echo around the world making her appear large instead of small, fearsome instead of vulnerable. So sure of the validity of the causes she fights for. But what strikes me most forcefully about her 1997 Booker Prize winning debut novel, The God of Small Things, is how much Roy grappled in order to understand her world. As her haunted protagonist, Rahel, asks – ‘What had it all meant?’

The God of Small Things reveals such an intricate world of childhood trauma, of powerlessness and loss, that instead of dealing with certainties the reader is left to muddle their way through the mire of a place so complicated by ancient and modern history, political chaos, and long-standing familial discord that it is hard – at least initially – to have a clue what is going on.

At the heart of the novel lie Rahel and Estha, seven year old twins who haven’t yet learned how to control their Hope, but somehow know that this isn’t a Good Sign. The book unfolds slowly. It is non-linear and tangential. We know from early on that things will go badly, we just don’t know quite how or why. The process of reading the novel is that of piecing together a puzzle; frustrating and illuminating in turn. Revelations accumulate and by the end everything is clear. Even though I can’t possibly know, I suspect the process of writing the novel mirrored this journey. That Arundhati Roy wrote it in attempt to bring clarity to what had been, for her, a mess of confusion.

The end result is masterful, yes. But the power of the novel lies in its capacity to take a familial tragedy – three young children crossing a swollen river in a boat, one of them drowning – and show us how complex and far-reaching the consequences can be. In The God of Small Things it isn’t just the family and community who are both affected, and implicated, by the events of the novel, but everyone. Roy delves so deeply into her country’s systemic problems – the touchables and untouchables – that the whole book becomes a gigantic treatise on injustice without ever seeming preachy or didactic.

Even though I’ve read it many times, my mind still boggles.

When The God of Small Things was first released I was two years out of high school. My adolescence had been marked by two inexplicable losses within my immediate family. Nothing about the world around me made any sense. I was deep in the fog of grief and desperately in need of meaning. I read books to escape, but mostly I wanted to find new ways to understand my world; new ways to understand myself and what I’d been through. Disorientated by life, in fiction I sought a sense of the familiar. I steered clear of Indian fiction, staying within recognisable parameters.

But Arundhati Roy broke the stalemate between me and all-things-foreign in a way that I least expected. Even though the book is set in ‘Ayemenem,’ Kerala –a bamboozlingly unfamiliar place – the experience of Rahel and Estha, children lost in the drama of unravelling adult lives, echoed my experience so wholly that reading it I could hardly breathe. Despite all its lush Indian imagery, quirky similes, extravagant metaphors, and obscure socio-political detail the book captured so entirely how I felt as a child it could have been my life.

My mother gave me The God of Small Things as a present sometime in my early 20s. I probably accepted it with an internal roll of the eyes, thinking – ‘Thanks Mum, I’ll add it to the pile.’ But reading it cracked something open inside me. It made me wonder how the childhood trauma I’d been through related to the world at large. It widened my vision and opened my world … and it made me curious about writing. About whether or not I could do it. But mostly, it gave me the impetus to try.

And now when I see Arundhati Roy and the activist she has become, I think of who she once was: a young woman grappling with injustice so deep and wounding it barely made sense. But it did. Once she turned it into words and made it a story.

First published in Newswrite, Issue 208 April-May 2013, as part of their Writer on Writer series.

Words and Music

When pondering inspiration and where it is found, the cross-pollination that occurs amongst artistic genres always comes to mind. Art works that inspire writers, novels that inspire plays, plays that inspire films … the list goes on. Think of novelist Tracy Chevalier and her meditative take on Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. But one of the least talked about of these artist-muse relationships is the interaction between music and writing.

A couple of years ago I read Paul Kelly’s mongrel memoir How to Make Gravy, and what struck me most forcibly about it was the breadth and depth of Kelly’s reading life. At seventeen Kelly was reading Herman Hesse, Arthur Rimbaud, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, by nineteen it was Walt Whitman and Jean Paul Sartre, with a bit of Nietzsche on the side. He spent large chunks of his twenty-fourth year lying on his bed reading Marcel Proust.

The opening line of the memoir alludes to Homer’s Odyssey, and the references to literature just keep coming. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Henry James, Sir Walter Scott, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver,as well as more contemporary writers like Nick Hornby, Tim Winton, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Ondantje, Robert Drewe, Peter Carey, Jeffery Euguenides and Gao Xingjian. Don’t even get me started on the poets! It seemed to me that Kelly’s book was, among other things, a meditation on the place of reading in an artist’s life. In this case, a songwriter.

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Paul Kelly talks about the way songwriters continuously ‘borrow’ from one another – “Ever since Homer’s repeated use of ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, ‘ wine dark sea’, and other formulas in The Odyssey, songwriters have been drawing on the communal pool of phrases and images available to anyone with ears.” He follows this up with – “Some people continue to be surprised by this – those who have notions of the artist as some kind of self-dredger, dragging pieces of originality up from the depths of their soul.” And then the somewhat cheeky – “Self expression is overrated, though. There’s so much of it around these days …”

Reading Kelly’s memoir, it was interesting to imagine the young Paul devouring all those literary classics, and how they must have swirled about in his subconscious, coming to light – sometimes years later – in mysterious ways. He wrote the song ‘Everything’s Turning to White’ – a retelling of the Raymond Carver short story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ – five years after reading it. When he got back to checking the story, he was startled by how exactly the details of story and song matched up. Kelly explains how some of the time this borrowing is subconscious – “Writing, though it may involve a lot of thinking, is never entirely under our conscious control.”

As with ‘Everything’s Turning to White,’ sometimes these cross-genre inspirations can bear wonderful fruit. Singer songwriter Gyan’s musical interpretation of the poems of Michael Leunig – Billy the Rabbit – is another tantalising example. In this case, Gyan turned to the work of Michael Leunig as solace when she was feeling burnt out. She spent twelve months putting a host of his poems to music. Eventually a friend who had worked with Leunig encouraged her to send the songs to him. She did, and Leunig loved them. And there began an unusual mixed-media collaboration, with the two of them giving performances involving Gyan singing while Leunig drew.

But what about how songs influence other art forms? A fan of the 1999 film by Paul Thomas Anderson – Magnolia, years ago I bought the movie soundtrack, and discovered within the liner notes a rather unusual dedication. It seems the whole movie was inspired by the songs of Aimee Mann. As Anderson explains – “Like one would adapt a book for the screen, I had the concept of adapting Aimee’s songs into a screenplay.” He gives details of how the process worked – “For instance, in my original motion picture screenplay, Claudia says ‘Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?’ I must come clean. I did not write that line. Aimee Mann wrote that line as the opening of her song, ‘Deathly,’ and I wrote backwards from that line. It equals the story of Claudia. It equals the heart of Magnolia. All stories from the movie were written branching off from Claudia, so one could do the math and realise that all stories come from Aimee’s brain, not mine.” Thomas ends the CD liner notes with: “So here it is, the perfect memento to remember the movie – or you can look at the movie as the perfect memento to remember the songs that Aimee has made.”

When I first read this dedication I was a few years out of high school, crazy about music but not a musician, interested in writing but managing nothing more than a few occasional scribbles in my diary. It struck me as wondrous that someone could hear one line of a song and a whole movie might spring from the earth like a blossoming tree. I’d never heard of Aimee Mann, but I was dazzled by the potential in this kind of relationship.

Fast forward ten years or so and I was writing. The idea for my novel Darkness on the Edge of Town hit me late at night like a whack to the back of the head. It wasn’t something I pondered; all of a sudden it was just there. I was more than three quarters through writing it before I realised how distinctly (in my mind at least) it echoed the early work of Bruce Springsteen. His song ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ seemed to hold all the nuances of my main character’s voice, even though I’d never consciously thought about the song at all. At that point I began to consider the influence of songs on the work I was doing. Before I started writing Darkness on the Edge of Town I’d come out of a very bewildering love affair and was obsessively listening to the Lucinda William’s album West. It must be said that listening to the raw and heartrending Lucinda Williams after having your heart broken is not the wisest of musical choices, and in an effort to buoy myself I’d turned to Springsteen, who has the knack of imbibing his music with a kind of hard won optimism. It was as though the work of the two musicians had somehow morphed in my brain. Lucinda’s sorrow and pain with Bruce’s tentative redemption. And the result was a novel, a strange hybrid of musical influences, but somehow all my own.

I’m not the only writer who feels awed by the power of music. When asked about the musical references scattered throughout his novels, Jonathan Franzen answered – “I’m more envious of music than of any other art form – the way a song can take your head over and make you feel so intensely and so immediately. It’s like snorting powder, it goes straight to your brain.”

But I’ll leave the last words to Kelly himself. In his memoir he says – “Writing songs is a magpie business. You build your nest and fetch and carry to it the bright shiny things that catch your eye. You don’t care where they come from just so long as they fit just so … New life begins when strange things connect.”

First Published in the Northerly, July-August, 2103

Making Sense of the Darkness

Writing fiction is the most mysterious process. It is easy to believe when you read a story in a book – the finished product – that the writer has constructed everything in a kind of conscious clever way. (If the book is working!). But it has never been like that for me.

I wrote Darkness on the Edge of Town four years ago, and when I read it now I am staggered by how it seems to run so smoothly – as though it was plotted and conceived – as though I had planned all those things I wanted to say. In fact, the process was nothing like that.

I had written a manuscript before Darkness on the Edge, a piece of fictionalised autobiography reflecting on what had been a particularly traumatic adolescence. During that time I had come to use writing to digest the parts of my experience that were difficult or unmanageable. It had become a tool for me, a way I’d developed to communicate with myself. In a sense, it had become a habit. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and I didn’t think of the writing as a product. I saw it largely as some kind of outward, graspable expression of my inner self, as though I could hand over that first MS to a stranger and say – ‘This is where I’ve been. This is who I am.’

After I’d written that autobiographical story I was very peaceful. I had spoken the unspeakable and – metaphorically, at least – breached that gap between myself and the outside world. I wondered about publication, and made a few attempts to share my writing beyond my family, but deep down I felt the work was completed, even without a wider audience. It was out of me, and that was enough. I was free and light; unencumbered by the past. My story was on the page and not hanging heavily about my neck. I don’t think I believed I had another story in me.

But life isn’t like that, is it? A couple of years later I experienced a constellation of events that left me reeling. A short relationship with a man that was so dazzlingly confusing I was floored, and at the same time, a close friend’s baby slowly died. The two events combined seemed to break something open inside me, revealing a world of potential suffering I had stealthily kept out of view. While my friend nursed her dying baby with a warrior courage, I crumbled, as though the very ground I was standing on was suddenly giving way. And in that time Darkness on the Edge of Town was born.

The story came to me in one powerful strike. It hit me like a whack on the back of the head, the voices so strong and clear all I had to do was find the time to write them down. I didn’t think at all about what I was saying – about the deeper thematic meaning of the text – I was simply compelled by the characters and the situation they found themselves in. Four years on I can look at my work and see that I was grappling with the transience of life. That I was wondering about power relations and love, about kindness and abuse – and about how these things entwine. That I was trying to understand what responsibility we have for each other as fellow human beings, and perhaps especially what responsibility we have for those who are most fragile amongst us. But at the time I had very little awareness of these things, they sat somewhere in the periphery of my vision, always just out of reach.

On the shelves!!

Trying to make sense of how Darkness could come to light in such an intuitive way still leaves me a little confounded. And on top of that it is now a book! Something that others can read. Something that you might read. And I would like to be able to sit here and say – ‘yes, well, I had been thinking about things deeply and decided to construct a tale in which to share my thoughts …’ but this simply was not so. In truth, I was blindsided by a story that sprung with unexpected force from some invisible place inside me and now I’m sharing it with you.

And I hope – if you read it – you enjoy it. I hope that you will see that even though sometimes the terrain of Darkness on the Edge of Town is tough, at its heart there is a tenderness. There is love and there is kindness. There is the intimacy that is created when one person holds out their hand to another.

And sometimes, this is enough.

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