Jane Rawson is the author of ‘A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists’, short-listed for the 2013 Aurealis Award for science fiction. Her short fiction has been published in Sleepers Almanac and some other lesser-known spots. For money, she writes about IT. She lives in Melbourne’s western suburbs with her husband and two fairly nice cats.
Jane blogs athttp://janebryonyrawson.wordpress.com
1. Your novel, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award and is a striking and original blend of SF, portal fantasy and surrealism with a distinctively Australian feel. In it you present a disturbing yet convincing picture of a stifling, dystopian Melbourne that may lie in our future; what inspired you to imagine the city in this way?
When I was writing Unmade Lists – quite a few years ago – I was working in transport policy, and as part of my job I had to read a lot of projections of how climate change would affect Melbourne and Australia. My favourite was talking with a consultant about how rising sea levels would overwhelm our antique sewerage infrastructure and push raw sewage into the showers and baths of houses in the bayside suburbs. That didn’t make it into the book, unfortunately.
A lot of the projections for our future sounded like Phnom Penh now: I’d spent three months hanging around there in 2003 with an empty wallet and a broken heart. So the Melbourne in Unmade Lists is both my memories of incessantly drinking cheap booze in Phnom Penh bars and never having enough money, and my efforts to imagine how actual, scientific predictions of climate science might turn out for Melbournians.
I feel like a lot of dystopian novels spend much of their time on what caused the dystopia, but I reckon if you lived in a dystopian future you’d barely ever think about why the world was the way it was. Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about, for example, how WW2 or the meeting of Alan Greenspan and Ayn Rand made our world how it is today. So I wanted to write something about a dystopian future, but where that’s just the background and where regular people just get on with dealing with the minutiae of their regular lives.
I live most of my life in my imagination and, because I’m a worrier, that’s a pretty dystopian place. I didn’t want all that worrying to go to waste, so I thought I’d share it with the world.
2. This is your first published novel, although you have had experience in many different forms of writing, including travel writing. How did your past writing and reading experiences feed into this book?
Various bits of Unmade Lists came from my work with Lonely Planet, if not directly from travel writing itself. Part of the story follows two teenagers who’ve been sent by their parents on a quest to see ALL of America (not just the interesting parts – they have a map which splits the country into 25ft squares, and they have to stand in each of them). There used to be a lot of talk at Lonely Planet about travel versus tourism; travellers, of course, were far superior creatures. And while everyone agrees part of being a traveller is having really seen a place, you can then spend many hours (either at the pub or online) debating what seeing a place entails. This section of Unmade Lists takes that idea to its logical extreme. And a lot of what I write is about taking a basically stupid idea to its logical extreme. I love the idea of trying to create hard data about a nonsensical concept (for example, can you prove that ‘life is so much faster now than it used to be’ or ‘there are more smells in the world now than there were in the Jurassic period’).
As for reading, my favourite books for the most part are either terrifically slow, meditative pieces of beautifully written art (anything by WG Sebald, Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’), or strange, fever-dreamish wanderings through ideas and across genres, where oddness is taken for granted (David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’, ‘Gormenghast’). Jokes and office settings are a bonus (David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Pale King’, anything by George Saunders). I’ll never be good enough to write like Sebald or Robinson, so I’ve taken the manic route instead. Unmade Lists is no ‘Cloud Atlas’, but it is a bit ‘Number 9 Dream’, and the bureaucracy in it reminds me pleasingly of Saunders’ hilarious short story ‘Pastoralia’.
3. You are currently working on a non-fiction book about surviving climate change – a theme that is certainly a familiar one in much contemporary science fiction. Do you see links between this project and the themes you worked through in the novel? What role do you think speculative writing has to play in both fictional and non-fictional approaches to climate change?
There are definitely links, I guess because a lot of my paid work the past few years has been in climate change policy so this is the kind of thing that’s in my head. The non-fiction book is a bit more pragmatic and a little less despairing than the novel, but there are times it’s hard to write because the subject matter isn’t at all cheering.
I didn’t write Unmade Lists to change anyone’s mind, I just wrote it because that’s what I was thinking about and worrying about. This non-fiction book is much more directed at changing people’s attitudes and behaviours. I guess speculative writing’s contribution to all this is it can help us imagine how our own lives might be affected by climate change; it can make it more immediate, less catastrophic and more annoying and inconvenient. Annoying, inconvenient things are much less sexy than catastrophic things, and we also feel more motivated to change them, so I hope that by presenting the dull, grinding reality of adapting to climate change I might inspire a few people to stop being either morbidly excited or overwhelmed by it, and more like it’s something you just have to knuckle down and deal with, like defrosting the fridge or doing your tax return. Just get on with it.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Two stories which I’ve gone back and read over and over are Jennifer Mills’ ‘Worms’ and AS Patric’s ‘The Dead Sun’, both published in Australian Review of Fiction. I would love to be able to write spec fic like ‘Worms’ – a world built with a bare minimum of words and explanation, a situation that feels so humanly real though it’s absolutely nothing like my own life. Both ‘Worms’ and ‘The Dead Sun’ are completely enigmatic without being at all confusing, and both are heart-breakingly bleak. Read them!
I’ve been doing the Australian Women Writers challenge this year, which requires me to read and review ten books written by Australian women. So far I’ve read 25. Of those, my favourites are Margo Lanagan’s two brilliant novels, ‘Sea Hearts’ and ‘Tender Morsels’, both of which left me shattered, Sofia Laguna’s creepily beautiful ‘One step wrong’, Chi Vu’s gothic horror novel ‘Anguli Ma’, set in the Vietnamese community in Footscray, and Anna Dusk’s relentlessly disturbing Tasmanian teenage werewolf story, ‘In_Human’.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
The life of a published author has been a bit of a shock to me. I knew I wasn’t going to be rich and famous from my first novel (OK, maybe I hoped), but I hadn’t realized just how few copies I should expect to sell and how little financial difference it would make to my life (ie none and none). This probably isn’t a result of recent changes in the publishing industry though; I guess it’s been decades since non-mainstream fiction was a product people actually wanted to spend money on (if indeed they ever did). Along with the realities of lack of demand for novels, though, is that there are so many amazing little publishers in Australia publishing cool stuff, which is great news for readers and writers (have you read Canary Press? You should).
As to how that’s affected the way I work, I guess before I lived in the real world of fiction publishing I thought I’d spend two or three years working quietly in isolation on a novel, have it published, start the next one etc. Instead I find I’m writing heaps more short stories and articles, and spending lots more time talking to other authors on social media, than I ever imagined I would. Both are partly in an effort to ‘maintain my profile’, but partly because they’re fun. While I romantically love the idea of working in isolation, unwatched, operating among a community of writers isn’t the worst thing.
Online and small publishing also seems to be creating a space for some pretty cool collaborative writing experiments, such as if:book’s ‘Lost in Track Changes’, where authors rewrite one another’s short stories over and over, and Seizure’s ‘The Drovers Wives’, where Ryan O’Neill is adapting Henry Lawson’s classic story into seemingly hundreds of different forms. So I’m hoping I’ll get to join in on some of these conceptual japes as a writer as well as a reader. But I also expect in five years I’ll still be trying to figure out how to make this damn novel about a shipwreck work….