Working with Words: Toni Jordan

Toni Jordan is one of Australia’s most loved comic writers, with her sharply funny novels Addition (longlisted for the Miles Franklin) and Fall Girl.

Toni’s essay about humour in Australian fiction, ‘Dry As a Chip’, is the third in the Wheeler Centre’s Long View series of critical essays on Australian writers and writing.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A short story, ‘The Rise and Fall of Winston’, in the Romance Writers of Australia short story anthology, Little Gems (2006).

What’s the best part of your job?

Having the time and space to think and read.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Accounts, BAS, invoicing, statements, six months between paychecks. I had a normal job for 19 years and the lack of security and mountains of paperwork freaks me out.

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

The Miles Franklin longlisting of my first book, Addition, made me think differently about my work and the best way to tell the stories I wanted to tell. When the going got tough for my characters, I had a tendency to wimp out with a cheap gag. The longlisting gave me the confidence to go places that weren’t necessarily comfortable and stare them down.

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

This is hard: I feel like I need different advice of every page of every book, because there’s always something new I have to figure out. My favourite quote is Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.’ I love this because it reminds me that it’s all about the reader and not at all about me.

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

Probably my top two are that I’m not a feminist because in Fall Girl my protagonist gets spanked during sex, and that I’m an ‘unconscionable disgrace’ who encourages people to disregard the advice of mental health professionals, because of the plot of Addition. I also got a postcard from a Jehovah’s Witness lady once, who told me it wasn’t too late to avoid going to hell. Phew.

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

Before I started writing, I was national sales and marketing manager for a medium-sized company. I’d probably be still there.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what do you think?

I’m somewhat biased, because I wrote my first book while a student in a creative writing course, and I also teach creative writing one day a week. So the short answer is yes, it can. The long answer is: creative writing is both art and craft. The ‘art’ bit – ideas for characters, plots, premise, voice – can’t be taught. I don’t know where that comes from. The ‘craft’ part – how sentences work, how dialogue works, how structure works, how to convince a reader a character is real – can be taught. But to be published, you need both.

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

Read more. Much more. If you’d rather listen to your iPod on the train than read, or you’d rather play Angry Birds than read, you’re not in love with words enough. I often ask people who are struggling to have their first book published this: what was their favourite Australian debut of the last 12 months? Nine times out of ten, they haven’t read any. Not one. They’re not really interested. And that’s okay. Writing drains enormous amounts of free time and energy. If you’re just doing it because ‘publish a book’ is on your bucket list, find something you’re really crazy about instead. Life is too short.

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

Online for the hard-to-find specific books that would see me running all over town, physical bookshops for the advice, surroundings and joy of being surprised by something I didn’t know existed ten minutes ago but now just must have.

If you could have dinner or a date with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

I’m having an Australian classics year, and I’m half way through Tom Collins’s Such is Life. Wow. Brilliant and a bit incomprehensible, both at the same time. I’d love to be camping by a fire under a clear sky and listening to Tom tell me stories.

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

My first grown-up book was the Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes. I was probably 13 or 14. It must be three inches thick and it was the first time I was actually lost inside a book. Missed meals, day turned to night, the works. Once you experience that, you never stop wanting it again.

You can read Toni’s essay, ‘Dry as a Chip: A Journey Through Humour in Australian Fiction’ on our dedicated web page for The Long View.

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