It’s truly a thrill to welcome author, Jane Messer, to Book Birdy.
Apart from being an inspiring creative writing teacher (to which I can attest from first hand experience) she is also an extremely talented writer.
Jane has recently published her third, full-length novel, titled ‘Hopscotch’, which you can read more about here. But read-on for some excellent words of writing advice, and some insight into the role that Breaking Bad played in the crafting of Hopscotch!
Q: I have my own thoughts on the significance of the title – ‘Hopscotch’ – but how do you think it relates to the themes and events of the novel?
Thanks for your generous review and yes, you got the symbolism of the title perfectly. It’s not that life is ‘just a game’, because that would be too glib, but that we we’re in a sometimes pleasurable sometimes difficult struggle that involves achievement and hilarity but also falls and bruises. I loved your image of drawing the game on the footpath and it being washed away then drawing it again. So like life; there’s no absolute conclusion, but the honourable effort to keep on keeping on.
Q: What made you want to tell the story of the Rosens?
I had an idea about the characters in terms of wanting them to be certain ages and working in particular industries and Liza and Mark in particular having their work, love and sex challenges, and it made structural sense to turn them into a family rather than random people. I like narratives in which the characters closely interlock, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s daughters and mother in The Poisonwood Bible or the family and spouses in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.
Q: With which of the characters do you identify?
All of them to a degree. My characters are all autobiographical even when they’re completely different to each other. But to be honest, Liza is closest to me in temperament; she can be a little too impulsive and tenacious for her own good. I want for her what she wants. As a writer, it was hard to not let her have it too easily. I struggled with many tender moments toward her. I’d write nice things coming into her life, then edit them out.
Q: The Sydney setting is paramount in this book. What impact does the city itself have on the characters in ‘Hopscotch’?
Sydney is a complex city. It’s beautiful and ugly, expensive, suburban and also highly urban, there’s vast tracts of bushland and water that make it so incredibly unique, and equally vast tracts of asphalt and housing. That complexity is the backdrop for the range of private histories that the characters live through. For instance, Rhonda’s dalliance in the bushland, and Mark’s uncomfortable evening supervising his work guests at a brothel, or Liza’s humiliating night banging on her ex’s door, or Jemma’s self conscious awareness that she’s nervous of Aboriginal people yet she lives in Redfern. Anything you want to do with a character is possible in Sydney.
Q: What are you literary influences? How do they impact your work?
Influences are hard to determine sometimes. I tend to become a huge fan of a writer for a while, for years maybe, yet it’s not that I want to write like them. I’ll read a book and it will mean so much to me that it’s almost unbearable to go back to it again in case it all collapses. Actually, really wonderful writing doesn’t do that. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dorris Lessing, Jonathan Franzen, Margurite Duras, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith, Lorrie Moore, Flaubert and Austen, all the ‘big guns’.
But, also local writers such as Amanda Lohrey, Malcolm Knox, Margo Lanagan or Elliot Perlman. Mostly though with contemporary literature, it is individual books which will fascinate me. I loved Pip Newling’s Knockabout Girl and Raimand Gaita’s Romulus My Father, to grab two books at random. But they’re not influences. And then there’s the earlier Australian writers who I’m hugely admiring of, such as Elizabeth Harrower, Charmian Clift, Christina Stead, and Jessica Anderson. As a developing writer I was always looking for other women writers who I could relate to as a writer.
I love black humour and serious comedic writing, such as you find in Howard Jacobsen and Marian Keys. In terms of this particular book, I’d nominate Franzen’s The Corrections and Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Structurally mine is similar with the ensemble cast, the social critique and humour.
Q; I sense a real love of ‘the sentence’ in your work. Is this something of which you’re also conscious? To you, what makes a great sentence?
A great sentence? What a wonderful question. It’s simple: the sentence should have rhythm, be vivid and precise, it should work for the context it is in, and must be meaningful. Bad sentences are clumsy to read, or they are trying too hard to be beautiful, or they’re just ‘filler’ and don’t actually say much at all.
Q: Can you tell me about your writing process?
Because I work full time and have children, I’d describe my process as a form of guerrilla warfare. I will write wherever and whenever I can. I have written in a living room next to the television (with great difficulty), in airports, on trains, cafes, watching my son play soccer, in my bedroom at a desk the size of a printer, and at the kitchen table. I have a study at the moment and hope to hold on to it. I tend to write maybe 30,000 words trying to get the tone right, and at the same time I’ll be mapping forward the story line, and doing character sketches in note form, then maybe another 30,000 words. I will dump chapters, parts and sentences if I need to. Bam, in the proverbial bin.
As the novel develops though, the process changes. Some days are good revising days, while other days I might challenge myself to write 2,000 new words. My best writing takes place, not surprisingly, when I have a week or weeks at a time, more or less uninterrupted. I dearly wish I could go to Varuna Writers House for a week every five weeks. I was in Berlin for four months last year and that was a truly wonderful period of writing. I worked incredibly long hours, and would reward myself with breaks to watch Breaking Bad, the whole five series, every episode. It’s so well plotted and the character development is excellent, and it’s gripping. It set my teeth on edge in just the right way.
Q: You teach creative writing at Macquarie University. What pieces of advice do you find yourself repeating over and over to students?
That all writing is rewriting.
That writing can be practiced, and should be practiced and that really good writing can’t be hurried.
Pay attention to words, the world around you, to language. Be an artisan with words.
There is no single, best ‘way to write’ process, but only a range of approaches that will suit the writer and the project at particular times.
Rejection is a professionalising experience, and not to be taken personally. It’s not you who was rejected, just that particular manuscript.
Have more than one project underway; at different stages of development or in different genres. Don’t get over-attached to a single manuscript, because if something goes wrong (rejection, writer’s block) you’re stuffed.
Read widely, and across genres and nationalities. Read and buy Australian writers works locally, they’re your colleagues and peers. Support the industry you want to be a part of. Think about what you are reading, paying attention to craft and technique (don’t just gulp it down).
Q: What are you working on now?
I have ideas for a new novel that would possibly take some of the characters in Hopscotch forward a few years. I’m sketching a few notes down about that. I’m definitely wanting to stay in the blackly comedic slash serious, urban ‘about today’ novel. I have a radio drama called ‘Dear Dr Chekhov’ going into production in July for broadcast on Radio National in August. Right now though, I’m keen to talk about Hopscotch, so it’s been lovely to be invited to speak with you here.