Working with Words: Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe’s second collection of short stories, Tarcutta’s Wake (UQP), was published last year – and was one of Michael Williams' best books of 2012. Her non-fiction, short stories and poems have been published in Australia and the US, including in Meanjin, Best Australian Poems, Best Australian Stories, and forthcoming in Harvard Review.

Josephine will be one the writers performing in our 2013 Gala, Where the Wild Things Are, on Saturday 9 February. She spoke to us about never escaping her first published poem, her fear of public speaking, and why she’s surprised to hear that she ‘writes like a man’.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I had a poem called ‘In the Boot of Someone’s Car’ accepted by Overland in 2004, when I was 19. Actually my brother-in-law sent it in on the sly, as he rightly assumed I wouldn’t have the nerve to do so myself. It came out in Black Inc.’s Best Australian Poems the following year, and was recorded for the ABC in 2008. Every now and then someone puts it to music, or gets in touch to ask about making it into a short film. I’d like to think I’ve written better poems, but that’s the one that gets the most attention. It resurfaced a couple of years ago in Australian Poetry Since 1788. It won’t leave me alone. It will still be haunting me when I’m 80.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Public speaking, definitely. Not public reading, I truly love that. But giving speeches or lectures I find a bit terrifying – which is problematic, because it’s sort of expected that writers will be wonderful, confident speakers. I’m just a better communicator on the page. I’m not so big on radio interviews either. I lisp! I don’t usually, just sometimes when I’m excruciatingly aware of the microphone, which you always are on radio. A friend heard me being interviewed on Triple R last year, and he said afterwards, ‘You don’t have a lisp! Were you putting that on?’ As though lisps were the new lensless glasses.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

I don’t think I would have even used the word ‘career’ in relation to my writing until 2011, when I was invited to the International Writing Program in Iowa. A lot of practical, developmental good came out of that; I squirreled away in my hotel room and made a lot of progress on my last book, and I worked with a theatre company in Maine on staged versions of some of my stories, which made me think differently about dialogue. But the most significant, lasting aspect was getting to know the other writers and IWP staff. Three months of hotel-living and travelling together tends to break down boundaries, and some great friendships came out of that. A lot of us still keep in touch, and it’s lovely when one of their books turns up in the new releases at work.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The worst advice? I get it all the time: ‘Forget short stories.’ ‘No-one will take you seriously until you’ve written a novel.’ ‘Publishing poison, etc., etc.’ ‘Perhaps if you just string all the characters together you can market it as a novel?’ I hear this from publishers (not my own, thank god). I hear this from agents, reviewers, fellow writers, friends and complete strangers. After nine years and a couple of books, it gets a bit tedious. If you’re not working in the form you love, what’s the point?

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself, or your work?

I’ve heard a few times that I write ‘like a man’. Not that I ‘write men well’, which I could happily take as a compliment, but that I write as a man would write, which just leaves me feeling a bit perplexed. How the hell does a man write? What exactly are the writerly traits of women that I’m so effectively subverting? The pigeonholing of ‘men’s writing’ and ‘women’s writing’ is ridiculous and infuriating. Krissy Kneen said it best: ‘When a woman writes sex, it’s erotica. When a man writes sex, it’s literature.’

If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

A couple of years ago I would have said photography, because I had this idiotic idea that one has to ‘pool creative resources’ or some rubbish like that. I just accumulated photographic concepts and tucked them away because I didn’t have any means of realising them. Thankfully I got over the idea that twenty-something was too old to be tramping out new creative territory, although I’m probably not likely to scratch out a living with it, as I’m only interested in film which is both pricey and risky.

I started learning Auslan a couple of years ago, and it’s something I would have liked to have continued in a more intensive capacity, perhaps with a view to becoming an interpreter. It’s such an interesting language, sometimes very nuanced and other times quite theatrical—like the sign for divorce is a mime of throwing a wedding ring away. I think that’s wonderful! Now of course drastic TAFE cuts mean that the only fulltime Auslan Diploma in Victoria no longer exists, which aside from putting the kibosh on my own plans seems like outright madness to me. We’re talking about axing a course that provides access to information for thousands of people. There shouldn’t have even been a debate about it; it should have been funded to the eyeteeth if that’s what it needed.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Well, I’m constantly learning from others, and I occasionally teach, so I’m inclined to say yes … but it depends on what is meant by the word ‘taught’. So much about writing is tacit knowledge; not necessarily inarticulable and unteachable, but certainly not the sort of thing that can be hammered into someone. Propping students in front of Freytag’s Pyramid and getting them to dissect ‘The Swimmer’ to see how all the bits work isn’t going magically make them into writers, just as teaching someone about triadic harmony and playing them Bohuslav Martinu isn’t going to transform them into a composer.

I believe in the capacity of a good writing course to encourage and challenge, but those who will get the most out of it will be those who already possess that crucial intuition, curiosity and drive. Anyone who goes into a writing course or a workshop thinking ‘this will make me a writer’ is going to be sorely disappointed.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

For someone wanting to be a writer, my best advice is to be a writer. The only way to the noun is through the verb, and beyond that everyone has to chart their own course. Be prepared for a long haul. Forget about networking and ‘author platforms’ and whatever else people are telling you that you’ll need to seek out before you start. Those opportunities and meaningful connections will come in their own time.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I work in a physical bookshop, at The Sun in Yarraville, so I buy most of my books there. Collected Works is my go-to for poetry – there’s nowhere else like it in Melbourne. It’s our City Lights. I also love browsing secondhand bookstores, coming across out-of-print gems.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Maybe McDunn from Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Fog Horn’, because he’s such a great storyteller. I wouldn’t say much, I’d be happy just listening to his beautiful sad tales of sea monsters and lighthouse keeping. Dinner would probably be fish and chips with a bottle of home-brewed porter.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

So many, but if I have to pick one, it’s Leonard Cohen’s Poems 1956-1968 (the one with the ear on the cover). I recently found a very old, very creased page torn from a school exercise book, into which I’d copied ‘Lovers’, ‘Suzanne Takes You Down’, ‘Gift’ and ‘A Kite Is a Victim’ in careful, terrible handwriting. I must have been about 14. I’d borrowed the collection from the local library and was so reluctant to give it back, because it was as though those poems had cracked a window on a world I might actually fit into, one that was far removed from the acute suburban loneliness I felt at the time.

I remember hearing Nick Cave speak of Cohen in the same way, about first listening to Songs of Love and Hate in Wangaratta—that in some way the discovery of that album separated him from everybody and everything that he hated about Wangaratta. Swap ‘Wangaratta’ for ‘Ferntree Gully’, and those were my feelings exactly. I suppose Cohen has been that for a lot of people.

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