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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Varuna Second Book Fellowship

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Jessie has been awarded a Varuna Second Book Fellowship for the new novel she is working on. Two weeks in the Blue Mountains at Varuna, The Writers’ House, commencing in 2012.

For information on Varuna, check out their website:

http://varuna.com.au/

Harvesting camphor – a green solution?

Clear felling of camphor laurel to create ‘renewable energy’ in the local sugar mills leaves Jessie Cole pondering the realities of wood-burning as green power.

Burringbar is my hometown. Turning off the Tweed Valley Way into the main street always does something to my heart. Lifts it in some way. I know I’m lucky to have such a connection to place, to walk a winding road through the greenest hills and think – this is home. It is a luxury of grand proportions. But lately walking through my valley has become something completely different.

Huge double barrelled trucks zoom past at high-speed leaving the overpowering scent of camphor dust in their wake. Giant machines move up the hillsides clamping the camphors at their bases and felling them left, right, and centre. The trees are wood-chipped in the paddocks where they once stood and then carted off to burn. The sound of heavy machinery echoes through the hills, punctuated with the slow cracking of falling trees. The picturesque hillsides have become a site of carnage. I’ve been here thirty years, almost all my life, and never have I seen such devastation.

The harvesting of camphors to burn in the nearby Broadwater and Condong sugar mills is a ‘green initiative’ partly funded by the NSW and Federal governments. The proposal was simply to turn cane waste from the sugar industry into energy, clearly a win-win scenario, eliminating the polluting cane field fires, and topping-up the electricity grid with renewable energy. ‘The reality is,’ says local educator and environmentalist Alison Polistchuck ‘there was never enough cane waste to burn, and camphors are now being clear-felled to fill the gap.’

Foreseeing the reliance on woodchips the NSW Greens Leader, Ian Cohen, rejected the initial proposal in 2003 claiming it was ‘not a green plan at all.’ Though green groups raised questions about the energy required to cut, chop, and transport the wood, the loss of mature trees as a carbon sink, the erosion and silting up of the local creeks, the possible threat to endangered plants and animals, and the basic pollution of wood-burning, these problems were disregarded, and the plan was sold to the public as renewable energy.

On a global level this kind of ‘green power’ is called ‘biomass burning’ – chipping up trees and burning them in power plants to create electricity. This practice was deemed carbon neutral at Kyoto back in 1997, even though burning trees for energy emits 150% of the CO2 that burning coal does, and it takes 30-90 years of new growth to re-capture the CO2 that is released instantly from burning trees for energy. The word loophole springs to mind.

Camphor laurels have always been a vexed issue on the North Coast. A declared noxious weed, they are the cane toad of the flora world, colonising spaces where the Big Scrub used to be. The ecological benefit of regenerating camphor trees to native forest is largely unchallenged, but there are bigger questions at hand here. Are camphor laurel trees better than bare pasture in green terms? What is the value of a tree, any tree? And perhaps most pertinently – is burning woodchips ever a green power solution?

In an interesting turn of events, the co-generation plants were placed into receivership early this month. The Executive of NSW Sugar Chris Connors has blamed the financial crisis on the fall in value of Renewable Energy Certificates due to a flooding of the market. But a closer look at NSW Government audit documents reveals a complex mix of factors leading up to the economic problems. Lower than forecast amounts of cane waste and limited availability of alternative fuel sources were both cited. No questions have been raised about the basic unsustainability of harvesting trees to burn for fuel, and it is unclear whether this recent financial crisis will mean an end to the clearing, or an increase as the sugar mill scrambles to stay afloat.

Camphor laurels are a noxious weed and there is a legal objective to control the species. But the irony is – unlike natives these trees thrive in open country so clear-felling them does little to stop their spread. For the practise to be ecologically viable there would need to be staged removal of trees and replanting with native species to protect habitat, prevent erosion and weed infestation, as well as to minimise the loss in carbon stores. Even if wood-burning for electricity was a green power solution, no effort has been made to manage the camphors in a sustainable manner. Walking down the road in my hometown I am left wondering what strolling through my valley will be like when all the bulldozers are finally gone.

This article was first published in The Echo in March 2011

           

Darkness on the Edge of Town

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Jessie Cole’s first novel Darkness on the Edge of Town was published by 4th Estate in July 2012.

‘My dad, he collects broken things … Where other people see junk he sees potential … My dad collects broken people too.’

Vincent is nearly forty years old, with little to show for his life except his precious sixteen-year-old daughter, Gemma: sensitive, insightful and wise beyond her years.

When a stranger crashes her car outside Vincent and Gemma’s bush home, their lives take a drastic turn. In an effort  to help the stranded woman, father and daughter are drawn into a world of unexpected and life-changing consequences.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is a haunting tale that beguiles the reader with its deceptively simple prose, its gripping and unrelenting tensions, and its disturbing yet tender observations.

To read a short extract from Jessie Cole’s debut novel Darkness on the Edge of Town click here.

To hear Jessie read, click here.

To purchase Darkness on the Edge of Town go to Readings.

To buy in ebook format: Amazon, Kobo, itunes, Google Play

Darkness on the Edge of Town is also published by Actes Sud in France under the title Borderline

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Actes Sud French Edition: Borderline

Reviews:

“One of the stand-out debuts of 2012.”

Katharine England, The Adelaide Advertiser

“Jessie Cole’s spellbinding first novel is the kind of book that you can describe with words such as ‘beautiful’, ‘touching’ and ‘tender’ as easily as you can with words like ‘uncomfortable’, ‘painful’ and ‘disturbing’ … I read it in nearly one sitting, and I found that hitting the last page was like popping out of a dream; I wondered what might happen to the characters beyond the bounds of the story. I can’t wait to see where this talented new voice takes us next.” 4 and 1/2 stars.

Meredith Lewin, Good Reading Magazine

“Jessie Cole’s debut novel Darkness on the Edge of Town is on another level of storytelling altogether … It’s exquisite writing. Graceful, revealing, pitch perfect. Cole is an author who pays sharp attention to the world around her. And she deserves to have the world pay her some attention in return.” To read this review click here.

Ed Wright, The Australian

“A sad and tender tale of the extraordinary events which make up the everyday lives of ordinary people, Darkness on the Edge of Town elegantly expresses the simplicity of emotions that we often find so hard to handle. Unflinching in her capacity to scrape at the raw nerves of our desperation for love, Jessie Cole has written a distinctly Australian story about hope, desire, sexuality, violence and our failure to communicate.”

Rob Minshull, ABC Radio Brisbane

“Jessie Cole writes with the most deceptively simple language. She pulls you into the story and along its threads until bam! She hits you right between the eyes. This is great storytelling. It’s tense, mean, compassionate and very real … The characters are so real it’s as if Cole sat in the pub and copied down everything everyone said. Every minute of reading this book was a joy.”

Meredith Jaffe, The Hoopla

“Cole is one of a number of younger female writers drawing our attention to lives lived on the margins … She focuses the writer’s eye on an Australia both familiar and hidden, creating stories that make some readers feel uncomfortable. But these are stories essential to our understanding of the Australian landscape and those who inhabit it, where tenderness and violence accompany each other in an eerie pact of necessity. While there is a necessary debate occurring in Australia around the value of literary prizes and who they go to, Jessie Cole has rewarded us instead with a novel that leaves us with much to think about.” To view this review click here.

Tony Birch, Overland Blog

“Cole’s writing is evocative in its simplicity, the characters’ dialogue – sometimes grimy – as honest and real as Australia can be … A gripping and heartbreaking read.”

Fiona Hardy, Readings

“An engaging and thoughtful novel.”

Eloise Keating, Bookseller & Publisher

“A gripping debut novel by NSW writer Cole about the reverberating effects of domestic violence, love, loss and the kindness of strangers, Darkness on the Edge of Town proves difficult to put down as it hurtles towards it confronting conclusion.” 4 stars.

Who Weekly

Back Inn Time

In the 1970s my parents were serious about backpacking, so serious that despite having four kids under ten, they were still ready to take on South East Asia. I was two, my brother six months old. This was before easy access to disposable nappies. Think about it. In the photos my mother stares calmly at the camera, long hippie hair, a cranky baby on each hip, the slums of Malaysia at her back, but she is smiling.

Tokyo

At six and eight my brother and I were considered big enough to carry our own backpacks. Japan was the next destination. My father had taken the two older girls the year before, and now it was our turn. Mum’s campaign against passive smoking had finally won out, and Dad spent half the plane trip puffing unhappily on his cigarette down the back of the plane. The plan on arrival was to get straight out of Tokyo, and into the mountains. My parents were on the hunt for traditional Japanese Inns. My father’s first priority was to wake up in Arashyama, a sleepy scenic town with a multitude of temples on the outskirts of Kyoto. Spurred on by his romantic sensibilities, we began the six-hour train and bus trip across country.

Theoretically my brother and I could carry our packs, but once we entered the crowded subway the weight on our backs made us topple down the steep stairs at an alarming speed. “Grab them, they’re going to go over,” my mother screeched, frantically grasping for the loops on our packs. We were out of control, bouncing down the stairs in leaps and bounds. At the bottom our knees gave way, and my brother and I crumpled down together on the concrete. We sat wide-eyed and waiting for rescue, our oversized bags pinning us to the ground. From then on negotiating the subway became a team effort. Like puppies on leashes, my parents grabbed our bags at the top of the stairs. “Got them? Holding tight?” They’d double check, and then we’d all bounce down together.

When we finally reached the Inn in Arashyama, exhausted and hungry, we were ushered through the immaculate Japanese garden by an elderly couple not much bigger than eight year old me. In the doorway began a bewildering array of bows. My brother and I did our best to keep up. Kids were clearly rare on the traditional inn circuit; the couple were excited to see us. They had soft creased faces and big smiles, but no English. Our room was simple. Tatami matting on the floor, rice paper doors, futons in the cupboards rolled out later for sleeping. The old woman signalled that we should kneel on the floor, and her husband brought in a small table, and a gas cooker. We watched as the woman carefully prepared our dinner, talking softly to us in Japanese. My brother, big-eyed and still slightly babyish, was the main attraction. While she cooked the old woman reached out a hand to softly pinch his cheek and touch his shiny blonde hair. He stayed still and quiet, as though hoping to camouflage himself against the tatami. When dinner was ready the woman broke an egg over the meat and stirred it about with her chopsticks. Sukiyaki. Motioning to my brother to open his mouth, she popped a slimy morsel between his lips like he was a baby bird.

Eikando temple - Kyoto

For the next hour, my brother did not refuse to open his mouth once. My parents and I were given our own small bowls, but the old woman continued to feed my brother with her chopsticks, patting his head and shyly laughing behind her hand. When all the food was gone she and her husband packed up the gas cooker and table, and backed out of the rice paper doors, bowing as they went. We all turned to look at my brother, my parents visibly proud of his magnificent effort to do as the Romans do. It was a moment to savour. He was a six-year-old traveller partaking of the exotic flavours of the big wide world, saying yes to every new experience that came his way. A true adventurer. I saw the admiration in my parent’s faces, and just for that second I wished it was me. I wished I’d been the baby bird. My brother looked back at us one by one, solemn-faced and wise-seeming, and then without warning he vomited all over the tatami.

First published in get lost magazine, September 2009

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