jessie cole

novelist/writer

Tag: on writing

On Writing Deeper Water

COV_deeperwater

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

 

flickr_nanabagyei_zps3b2200a7

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

god of small things 2

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.

%d bloggers like this: