Working with Words: Mireille Juchau
Mireille Juchau is a novelist, essayist and teacher of literature. Her third novel, The World Without Us, won the 2016 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Fiction. Mireille spoke with us about bad advice, literary heroes and her years in smoky newsrooms
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
After finishing school, I did a journalism cadetship, so for two years I was published daily in an afternoon paper. That was phenomenal training – to see my writing in print so quickly, to be edited so ruthlessly and to cover such a broad range of material. I have indelible memories of that open-plan newsroom with its pall of cigarette smoke, the typewriters and carbon copies, the curtained photographers’ cubicles. My first piece of short fiction was published in Meanjin in 1995. After many rejections, that was a thrill.
What’s the best part of your job?
I hope one day to call writing my job! But I’m fortunate that I can spend time on burning creative preoccupations instead of shelving the desire for years. One unexpected benefit of being published is when an attuned reader or critic finds something in your work that you aren’t conscious of. That generosity can return at a vulnerable moment to dampen down the doubt.
What’s the worst part of your job?
'Write everyday': I’ve never had the luxury to write every day and this cliché has gained the punitive aura of a threatening chain letter.
Self-doubt and finding the psychological space. I write from home, and as the kids’ paraphernalia colonises my tiny study, it has become harder to clear the mental and physical room for creativity. I’m currently lobbying my local council for artist spaces – every artist I know with limited funds struggles with this issue.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
Winning the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction – even though awards are as much about luck and timing as talent, the recognition and the funds have been immensely freeing.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
I can’t choose between these terrible chestnuts, so I’ll include them both:
1. Write what you know
I write to discover what I think or feel about something, I write from a place of unknowing into a deeper darkness. So I’ve always disliked this advice, which seems to ignore the transformative power of the imagination. I feel I could be anyone when I write; the great joy of it is to escape myself, to feel my way blindly into other consciousnesses.
2. Write every day
I’ve never had the luxury to write every day and this cliché has gained the punitive aura of a threatening chain letter. Anyone who works, has caring responsibilities, lives under impossible political, financial or social conditions or has been seriously ill knows how ludicrous this idea is. There are enough examples of extraordinary writers who could not work for long periods, to bury this advice forever.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
A critic once noted, years back, that I hadn’t yet published another book and consolidated my career. This was painful to hear. In that time I’d given birth to two children, I was working and caring for an elderly relative. I’d prefer to be writing almost all of the time and most especially when life prevents it. I’m consoled by Annie Dillard on heroic writing feats:
'Out of a human population on earth, of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year … Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.'
I want the writer’s imperfect, perfect creation to hang about me like dream.
If you weren't writing, what do you think you'd be doing instead?
I probably would have continued with journalism, or academia after my PhD. But in my fantasy life, I’m a photographer. Photography seems in every way opposed to the writing life – it appears to demand less psychological tyranny, and more sensory skill. It requires us to venture beyond our usual orbits, which is also what I loved about journalism.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
You can certainly refine your technical skills and extend your literary techniques. But some writers possess that almost otherworldly creative spirit which emerges in their distinctive voice and style. It is to do with burning desire, with answering an internal drive or need – something beyond technical skill. Think of Penelope Fitzgerald, Marguerite Duras, Flannery O’Connor. You can still be a writer without this, and succeed, because the market doesn’t necessarily search out that spirit, or reward it. Sadly that also means that innate brilliance can be overlooked.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Persist, read widely, find a trusted first reader and, if possible, a mentor. On content, I like the advice of Joy Williams: 'What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes'. You wouldn’t know from Williams’ advice how funny her own work is, yet it never fails to apprehend those 'old catastrophes'.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
From local independents who have supported my career. But I’ll order online if a book is hard to find, or I need it desperately. I’ve been ordering copies of Josiane Behmoiras’ Dora B, which is shamefully out of print. I buy less than I’d like to, I have a lot of library cards. My mother was a librarian, so libraries remain intensely familiar and homely places. But if I borrow a book and fall in love, I have to possess it.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
This is hard to answer because any great novel or story leaves me in a state of enchantment. I feel I’ve had just enough and I don’t want to know more about any characters. I want the writer’s imperfect, perfect creation to hang about me like dream. But if pushed, I’d spend an hour in the parallel reality, or 'mountain fastness' as Janet Malcolm calls it, of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family apartment. And I wouldn’t mind some time in the St Petersburg of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
This changes as my style evolves. But I’m constantly drawn to the fragmentary, like Anne Carson’s Nox, or Marguerite Duras, or Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street. Right now, it’s the work of Russian historian Svetlana Alexievich. Her oral histories are composed with a poet’s flair for juxtaposition and distinguished by their focus on emotions, dreams and desires. This documenting of the inner life without a scrap of sentiment is something I’m always reaching for, however ineptly, when I write.