Working with Words: Jennifer Down

Jennifer Down is a writer, editor and translator whose work has been published in the AgeOverlandSaturday Paper and Australian Book Review. In 2014, she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow; that same year, her debut novel Our Magic Hour was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. It was released last month by Text Publishing.

She spoke to us about chancing upon details, the mythologising of writers, and the exhilaration of discovering her stories' characters.

Photo of Jennifer Down

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a short story called ‘A Ticket to Switzerland’. It won third prize in the Age Short Story competition and was published in the weekend paper. I was working in a café and my boss showed it to all the customers. I was mortified.

What’s the best part of your job?

It sounds trite, but doing what I love is an incredible privilege. Other than that – I also like chancing upon some detail and thinking, ‘I can use that later’. I like finding exactly the right word.

Very occasionally, when I’m starting to think about a new story, it seems like I’m learning about the characters very quickly. It’s almost as if they’re announcing themselves; it doesn’t feel conscious. I know that sounds nuts, but it’s exhilarating. It’s like flying. 

What’s the worst part of your job?

Not being able to switch off. Self-doubt. Stagnation.

The worst advice is anything to do with word counts goals – ‘write 500 words a day,’ and so on. What bunk.

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

One of the writers I most admire gave me a beautiful compliment about a piece I’d written. I was so thunderstruck that she’d read my story, I could hardly take it in. It was one of those things you salt away to remember privately later.

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

The best advice was from a TAFE teacher who told us to write ‘as cleanly, forcefully and gracefully as possible’. I don’t remember if she was quoting someone else, but I think about it a lot. The worst advice is anything to do with word counts goals – ‘write 500 words a day,’ and so on. What bunk. I’m lucky if I write 500 in a month. 

Book cover: Our Magic Hour

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

My dad once read a short story I’d written featuring a middle-aged man, and was convinced it was based on him. It wasn’t at all, of course. I think people often look for themselves in your writing, but you can’t control for that.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

When I was in high school I really wanted to be a doctor. In the end, I was going to have to move interstate to study medicine, which wasn’t financially viable for me at 18, but I still think about it sometimes. I feel like I would have enjoyed it.

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

I think you can learn a lot about the technical aspect of craft, and to be a better reader. Other things – imagination, voice and being emotionally attuned to others, say – seem more innate to me. But I also think it’s boring to mythologise the artist. Most of it’s just ugly, bloody hard work. Keeping your bum on the seat, putting in the hours.

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

Read broadly and often. Practice all the time. Don’t be discouraged by knock-backs.

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

In a physical bookshop unless I’m really short on time. I like browsing, snooping on what other people are buying, and flicking through books. 

It’s boring to mythologise the artist. Most of it’s just ugly, bloody hard work. Keeping your bum on the seat, putting in the hours.

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

I’m going to cheat and pick a writer – Sherman Alexie. Last year, Jen Mills recommended his podcast with Jess Walters, A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment, to me. I’ve loved his work for ages. On this podcast they read and discuss their own works-in-progress, their petty failures and successes, and other artists’ work. There’s a real warmth to the way Alexie speaks that makes me feel as if I understand his writing, and the way he finds weirdness and melancholy and humour in the pedestrian, a little better. So I’d take him out to dinner. Hopefully he’d do most of the talking. 

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

I read Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach when I was 16. I fell in love with her control over language – it felt like every word it had been dropped onto the page with a pipette. She has such tenderness for her characters, but there’s nothing sentimental or mawkish about her writing. I still feel like every paragraph in that book is a tiny masterpiece. 

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