Interview by David McDonald.
Jane Rawson is the author of the novel, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013 Transit Lounge), which won the Small Press Network’s 2014 ‘Most Underrated Book’ Award, and co-author of The Handbook: surviving and living with climate change (2015 Transit Lounge), a practical, personal guide to life in a climate-changed Australia. Her novella, Formaldehyde (2015 Seizure), won the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize. Her short fiction has been published by Sleepers, Overland, Tincture, Seizure, Review of Australian Fiction and SlinkChunkPress.
You’re someone who seems comfortable moving between the worlds of literary and genre fiction, with stories that combine a number of styles, and awards and other recognition across different fields. Did you start trying to write certain types of stories and find different elements creeping in, or has this blend always been there?
I have always just wanted to write the stories that are in my head, and those stories take place in a world that’s a lot like our world, but where the things that live in my imagination take some kind of physical shape. My memories and future worries and imaginings are very real to me, so I just write as though they are real to everyone. I didn’t think much about genre until my first book was about to go to the printer, when my publisher asked me if I had any thoughts on what genre it should be marketed as. I didn’t really. So he called it literature.
I’m not a trained creative writer (I did study journalism) so I haven’t really learned the conventions of writing any particular genre. I read a lot and widely, but my favourite books tend to be those that have something unexpected and unpredictable about them. I don’t enjoy starting a book and knowing what kind of a story this is going to be. Lots of people find that satisfying but I get bored. Also, I began seriously writing at a time when I was obsessed with David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ and Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, so I guess anything I write will be a bit postmodern and a bit absurd and a bit humorous. It’s a pretty ‘90s way of writing.
You’re the former environmental editor of “The Conversation”, and one of the writers behind “The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change”. How do environmental issues, especially climate change, inform your other writing? What can fiction do to make a difference?
Environmental issues are the main reason I write, I think. Not because I think I can fix any of them by writing (which is I guess the answer to the second part of your question), but because they are my main preoccupation. Our relationship with other species is a big theme in the shipwreck novel I’ve been working on the last few years, and obviously climate change features in ‘A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists’. The next novel I want to write is still very vague, but I think it will be somehow about extinction. My other major obsession is bureaucracy (see: ‘Formaldehyde’), so I might try to do something that blends them both.
I wish fiction made a difference but I really doubt it does, other than to make it easier for people to imagine how the future might be different to now, how things they do now might change the way things are then. Whether they choose to act on that is something entirely different.
For seven years I’ve been trying to work out a way to tell the story of my great-great-grandfather, who survived a horrific shipwreck that killed almost everyone else on board. For most of those years I slogged away at a realist, historical fiction novel but eventually I had to accept that I just don’t know how to write that kind of book. Now it’s the story of my shipwrecked great-great-grandfather’s (and great-great-uncle’s) very strange relationship with a shape-shifting refugee from another dimension. I’m hoping to finish the final draft in the next few weeks.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
In recent releases, Sean Rabin’s ‘Wood Green’ threatens to be that most boring of tales, a novel of a writer who is struggling to write, and turns out to be a brilliant, strange study of art and small-town life, with a surrealist twist. Evelyn Blackwell’s ‘Crossed’ is a sharp-eyed and multi-faceted look at environmental collapse and eco-fundamentalism. Nike Sulway’s ‘Dying in the first person’ is bloody gorgeous and profound, like everything she writes, and Julie Koh’s ‘Portable curiosities’ is a collection of strange, funny, absurdist and satirical short stories about life here and now. I didn’t eat or sleep for three days until I finished CS Pacat’s ‘Captive Prince’ trilogy, and I finally found out why people think Patrick White is so phenomenal when I read the mind-blowing ‘Riders in the Chariot’ (now I want to write the exact same book).
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
My first choice would be Rose Mulready, author of the forthcoming novella from Seizure, ‘The Bonobo’s Dream’. It’s an astonishingly imaginative piece of speculative fiction and you absolutely must read it. But I’d most love to sit next to her because she’s one of my closest friends and we’d have heaps to talk about.
But if I’m not allowed to choose Rose, I choose George Saunders. His short fiction does so much that I would like to do – it’s sharp and satirical but also so tender and compassionate. And he has such top-notch ideas, such bleak dreams of things that are probably going on today in places we have never been. But mostly he seems like such a generous, thoughtful, kind and funny man that I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I woke him up to get to the toilet on a very long flight. And I bet he wouldn’t look askance when I ordered my fifth gin and tonic.