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Working with Words: Portland Jones

Read Sunday, 16 Oct 2016

Portland Jones has never been able to decide if she is a writer or a horse trainer – so she is both. We caught up with Portland to discuss Hamlet, horses and her debut novel, Seeing the Elephant.

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Photograph of author and horse trainer Portland Jones with a horse.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I had a piece about horse training published by a local equestrian magazine (circulation about 100) when I was 18. That was a huge thrill! I thought my future as a famous writer was assured.

What’s the best part of your job?

I’m a horse trainer by trade and humans have been riding horses for more than 6000 years, so it’s a pretty old profession. Horses don’t care for politics, religion or fashion. They don’t care if you are successful or struggling. They just care that you have carrots. That’s what I love about my job – there’s very little pretence. Just carrots.

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

Definitely having my novel Seeing the Elephant published by Margaret River Press. They have been wonderful. Caroline Wood has laid a path of bread crumbs for me and as I have followed it, I have learned so much.

Most of the time when you sit down at your computer you will suck. There will be occasional moments of insight … the rest is editing.

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

Apparently all sentences should contain a verb. I’m a conscientious compulsory verb objector.

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

This year I’ve done two performances with my friend, William Yeoman – I read passages from my novel accompanied by Will on the guitar. It amazed me to look into the audience and see people crying. To know that you have touched people that you don’t know is a really humbling and surprising experience.

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

My children are too old to listen to me now, so I’d probably be telling stories to my dog. In the past I’ve found him to be quite receptive.

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

This might sound strange from someone with a PhD in Comparative Literature but I’m not sure that you can teach writing. However, you can encourage creativity, you can expose people to a wide variety of great writing and you can teach them editing skills – and I think that maybe those things are the foundation of the writing process. So, maybe my answer should be yes, you can teach writing …

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

I don’t know many other writers, most of us horse trainers struggle to read, let alone write … so I can only really speak about my own experience. My advice would be about expectations. Most of the time when you sit down at your computer you will suck. There will be occasional moments of insight… the rest is editing.

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

Both. I binge read topics according to my current obsession. Also for birthdays and Christmas I almost always receive books as gifts. Last Christmas my youngest son decided that I had obviously reached the age where I don’t get presents anymore, I just get ‘books and candles and stuff’.

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

It would have to be Harry Potter. I don’t think we’d need to converse, he’d just spend the whole night doing magic tricks like doing my quarterly BAS statement and painting fences.

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

Definitely Voss by Patrick White. I remember reading the passage (spoiler alert) where Voss dies over and over because it was so powerful. I just love White’s work – I bet even his shopping lists were lucid, articulate and life changing. I’d also have to add Hamlet by William Shakespeare. I read it for the first time when I was 16 and cried, not only because it was so beautiful but because I realised that the standard by which I would now judge everything that I ever wrote was set impossibly high.

Apart from her novel, Seeing the Elephant, Portland has co-written a non-fiction book called Horses Hate Surprise Parties: Equitation Science for Young Riders which will be published in December 2016.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.