Working with Words: Jane Rawson

Jane Rawson has been a travel editor and writer, mostly for Lonely Planet. These days she lives in Melbourne’s west and edits the environment and energy section of The Conversation. Her first novel, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists was published this month by Transit Lounge. She will be one of our guests at Debut Mondays on Monday 17 June.

We spoke to her about faxing Sting’s publicist, why writers and editors should cultivate a lack of interest in material possessions and discovering Infinite Jest.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I think it was a poem I wrote in Year 11 for the school magazine, about the pain of being overlooked by the boy I had a crush on. But that’s probably true for everyone. After that I endlessly commissioned myself to write travel literature for Lonely Planet’s website. The first fiction would be a thing I wrote called ‘Instructions for an Installation’, which was a slightly gruesome story that the kind people at Cardigan Press published in a book called Normal Service Will Resume, in 2003.

What’s the worst part of your job?

That I have to keep telling people climate change is something they should actually do something about.

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

It might have been the fax I wrote to Sting’s publicist in 1990 that convinced her I was the founder of a legitimate conservation organisation, and got me an invitation to a private talk he was giving. But second would be seeing my novel in Readings Carlton.

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

That would be my mate Chris Baty’s advice to just sit down and do the damn thing and stop talking about it. It was good advice, in case that’s not clear.

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

Every time someone says something kind I’m surprised. Really, I just can’t get enough praise, but every time it happens it’s a surprise-filled delight.

If you weren’t a writer and editor, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’d like to work two days a week at Footscray Savers and two at Footscray Library. The rest I’d spend knitting, baking and playing clarinet in a small ‘stride’ jazz combo that busked in warm places at reasonable hours.

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

Oh I’m sure it can be. Haven’t most published writers done some kind of creative writing course? I never have, and I think it shows in my writing, which lacks a certain precision and polish and craft. Perhaps I should take a day off a week from Footscray Savers and learn to write.

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

Don’t be too interested in material possessions; all your friends will earn more than you.

If you want to write you just have to write, quite a lot, and find out if you actually like it (or are any good at it). Don’t use work or other obligations as an excuse not to write: cram writing into any spaces in your life you can find, don’t wait til you have time to ‘be a writer’. (I am terribly bad at following this advice.)

For editors, read a lot of good writing: learn what it is you’re striving for and pay attention to the tricks that will get you there. And learn what passive voice is and why you want to avoid it.

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

When I buy physical books I go to the bookshop, but often as not I’ll read something on my Kindle or borrow a book from the library.

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

Not dinner, but a cocktail party with Phillip Marlowe would be my idea of heaven. We’d slink out the back and exchange gimlet recipes and tailoring tips and dish the dirt on the other partygoers.

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

Infinite Jest: I didn’t know it was okay to write like that, and that people would read it and love it.

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