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Working with Words: Jean Tong

Read Sunday, 4 Mar 2018

Jean Tong is a writer and director. She spoke with us about being devastated by Animorphs, hiding old fanfic and talking politics with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Jean Tong

At the tender age of 11, I was devastated by the ending of [K. A. Applegate’s] Animorphs series. It was about these teenagers (children, really) gaining the power to morph into animals thanks to alien technology, and then leading the charge on an inter-galactic war to save their planet. It was spectacularly dramatic, and when Rachel died age 16, I wept for that character like I’d lost a limb.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I grew up with the internet, so I wrote a lot of queer fanfiction and also kept a blog of terrible poetry. At one point in my teens I was writing between 8000–10,000 words a week. Even though 99% of that was mind-numbingly terrible, I credit it as invaluable training in stringing sentences together in a narrative that people want to keep reading.

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

See lots and lots of plays and figure out what kind of writing gets you fired up.

Something even more niche and utterly incomprehensible than writing plays: artisanal cocktail ice-carving.

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

Best advice, especially when I was just starting to think about writing for theatre, was to go see lots and lots of plays and figure out what kind of writing gets you fired up.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I kept a very irregular diary/journal thing but only wrote in it when I was doing fun stuff like travelling or going through a break-up. Everything else I think is too mundane/embarrassing to be recorded.

Which classic book/play/film do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I love Anna Barnes’s Revelation or Bust. Her writing is generally excellent, but the way she navigates between tragedy, humour and an all-pervading sense of anxiety is crushing. I think it might be obscure only because it was performed once in 2009 and wasn’t published, but I sneakily got my hands on a copy anyway.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

When I get impatient, because my hand isn’t keeping up with my brain, I have to do a quick jog around the living room.

I usually write at home on paper, and when I get impatient because my hand isn’t keeping up with my brain, I have to do a quick jog around the living room. And then I type everything up while hunched over in the most uncomfortable possible position for my spine at my desk.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

As long as no one I know ever finds my terrible fanfic or deleted blog(s), then it can all stay up somewhere on the internet, reminding me of where I came from.

Which artist, writer or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?

H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and it might be nice to discuss how people do/don’t communicate across the political spectrum.

Jean’s upcoming works include Hungry Ghosts for Melbourne Theatre Company, and a return season of the critically acclaimed lesbian musical Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit (The Coopers Malthouse).

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