Working with Words: Jessie Cole
Jessie Cole has just published her second novel, Deeper Water. She was awarded a HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development in 2009, and her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, the Big Issue and here on the Wheeler Centre’s Dailies.
We spoke to her about immersing herself in another world when she writes, being encouraged by Kate Grenville just before her first ever speaking gig, and being told by a reader that an event in her first novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town, couldn’t have happened (with no evidence other than her personal experience to support the claim).
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
The very first piece I had published was in my local writers’ centre magazine. Funnily enough, it was an odd little snippet about teenage sexual awakening. So, with Deeper Water, everything comes full circle.
What’s the best part of your job?
For me, it’s the immersion in another world. To have an alternative way of being outside your actual life. I think it’s really powerful to be able to create other narratives, to use aspects of your experience but to rewrite the story. I really love that quote from Jeanette Winterson —
Tonight we can go deeper than disguise …
What’s the worst part of your job?
I think it’s all the insecurity. It seems to me that a writing-life is particularly rife with uncertainties. There are so many variables over which the writer has no control. I find that part of things a bit unsettling.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Before my writing got picked up I had lived in a very isolated way. I think I was probably a touch agoraphobic. The first speaking-gig I did for Darkness on the Edge of Town was in Maleny in QLD, several hours drive from my home, where they asked me to do a 10-minute reading before a Kate Grenville in-conversation. This seemed so far out of my comfort zone I was beyond terrified. It was held in a big high school auditorium, and there were hundreds of people there. I felt so completely out of place, so ill-equipped to proceed. Utterly vulnerable and afraid. And just before I got on stage Kate and I were standing off to the side and she whispered something along the lines of —‘This is your time. You are the star.’ Which — in the circumstances — was sort of ludicrous, but so generous of her to say. The force of her kindness seemed to propel me up the stairs, and when I sat down on the stage and looked around at the crowd all I saw was open faces. Patient people, waiting to see what I might say. And I read, probably quite haltingly, and there was such quiet. When I finished, I looked up and no one looked away from my face. There was a moment before they clapped where they just seemed to gaze at me — and for the first time in forever I felt truly seen and heard.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Before I was published I had quite a bit to do with Peter Bishop, the former creative director of Varuna, the Writers’ House. Peter has an unusual way of working with writers. He likes to have conversations around the work in progress — he tends not to tackle things head on — and I feel like this softly-softly approach has been really important for me. I don’t like to talk about my work while I’m writing it, and I don’t like to share it early. For me, much of the joy and magic of the writing process dissipates if the work is shared in those first draft stages, but — as Peter Bishop showed me — it’s helpful to be able to have conversations around the issues or areas you might be grappling with while writing.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
I once met a woman who seemed acutely disgusted by the fact that Vincent, the protagonist in Darkness on the Edge of Town, gets an erection whilst helping the injured Rachel in the bath. She kept saying — ‘I just don’t know anyone who would do that,’ as though erections are always appropriate and entirely controllable. She had been so disturbed by the book that at that point she’d stopped reading and gone to ask her husband, who confirmed — ‘That would never happen.’ She presented his words to me as definitive proof. It was a surreal moment.
If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
This is something I think about a lot. A couple of years back I realised that there were so many things I was never going to be able to do, things you need decades of training for. I remember bemoaning (rather dramatically) to my brother — ‘I’m never going to play in an orchestra or be a heart surgeon.’ To which he dryly replied — ‘Well, I think you’d have more chance of becoming a heart surgeon than playing in an orchestra. That’s out.’ Sometimes I think I’d like to be a midwife. That helping to birth babies might satisfy some urge I have to be at the beginning of things.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Well, I think that writing is always taught. In that, if we weren’t taught to write we wouldn’t spontaneously do it. It’s not like the spoken word which most of us just imbibe as infants. For me, there’s no question that writing is a skill we all learn (or not learn) to varying degrees. But I think the bigger question is probably whether creativity can be taught, and I suppose I wonder if creativity needs to be nurtured during the teaching process, rather than explicitly ‘taught’. Most of us are probably born with the need to create and express. Young children draw and sing and play so rapturously. So it’s more a question of how to preserve that capacity — or urge — into adulthood. Probably lots of creative writing courses give people permission to use their time and energy to be creative/playful/expressive, at the very least.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
I know it’s hard to do, but I like to write that first draft with the promise to myself that no-one ever has to see it. Later on — much later on — I can decide whether or not to share my work. That way, while writing the first draft, the quality of the work is irrelevant. It only matters that it keeps me interested. So, in a sense, I’m writing purely for self-entertainment. I definitely write the book I’d like to read. And then, if no-one picks it up — if it remains a thing I shared only with myself — at least it was worth it, if only for the pleasure (and perhaps pain) it gave me. I guess what I’m saying is — at least initially — I think it’s best to try to really separate the creative process from the product it may (or may not) become. It’s a tricky line to walk, but I find it very helpful.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I do a bit of both. There is an amazing independent bookstore in one of the towns along from me. It’s such a peaceful and sustaining place. Just walking in the door makes my heart lift. So I buy a lot of books from there. But having access to online bookstores has completely opened my world. The array of titles that I would never have known existed, and certainly had no access to where I live, is mind boggling. I tend to buy a lot of non-fiction books online, but am more likely to buy fiction from an actual shop.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
I’m thinking Elizabeth Bennet. I love her wry wit, but she’s also warm and thoughtful. Hopefully Elizabeth would tell me stories about her crazy family, and maybe she’d listen to mine.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
This is always such a tricky question, there are obviously so many. Probably Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The story of an African-American woman Sethe who escapes slavery in the South only to be rounded up by her ‘owners’. Sethe kills her beloved baby daughter so she cannot be taken back, and the baby’s ghost eventually reappears in human form to claim her retribution. Beloved was the first book I read that showed me the power of literature. Of course, I knew about the existence of slavery – theoretically — but I didn’t know anything about what that experience might really be like. I could almost feel my mind cracking open to accommodate this new empathy and understanding. Beloved is an amazing treatise on intergenerational trauma. After reading it, I saw through different eyes. I was changed.