There are so many different types of authors in this world – but the ones that really excite me are those who seem to operate on a different plane to the rest of us. The ones who notice things that we (or I) seem to miss – and then convey these things using extraordinary, inventive language. The ones who reveal to us something new about the world and ourselves.
Jennifer Down is that kind of writer.
I’ll say it now. This young lady is going places and I’m not the only one to think so. Her work has appeared in the Age, the Saturday Paper, the Australian Book Review, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Best Australian Stories, Sleepers Almanac and New Mexico’s Blue Mesa Review.
Her debut novel, Our Magic Hour was shortlisted for the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript and was published in 2016 by Text Publishing.
The book is achingly beautiful in its writing and the sheer depth of compassion Down displays for her characters. Quite frankly, it left me feeling both excited and highly intimidated – read more about my response here.
Fortunately, I got over my own sense of inadequacy for long enough to get in touch with Jennifer and ask her some questions. I hope you enjoy the result.
What was your vision for ‘Our Magic Hour’?
This is going to sound hopelessly vague, but I didn’t really have a vision. I was writing for myself, without any intention of publication. I spent about six years writing it, so it was a lot of time sitting with the characters and learning about them, but from the outset I knew where it was going to start and end.
The book covers some incredibly difficult ground – suicide, mental illness, addiction and abuse – yet it’s a surprisingly uplifting work to read. From a writing perspective, how did you achieve this? And was it difficult to marinate in these subjects for the period of time required to write a novel?
I try to find the warmth where I can – silly conversations and dances and dark humour, the small stuff of the everyday. A rule I have for writing sad material is to give it space. Often the smaller, quieter moments and gestures can be just as devastating as a big teary scene. I’m always wary of melodrama and sentimentality. It’s nice to hear it’s not a depressing book. I’m interested in how much awfulness we can bear, but it also has to be bearable for the reader.
The subjects and themes of the novel are things I think about – and write about – a lot, so it’s not so much a matter or marinating in them, or switching them off and on.
Your writing includes exquisite, finely drawn imagery and metaphors. What’s your secret?
I keep a lot of notebooks, but they’re not very organised – they’re a mix of things I see or hear from friends and strangers, things I imagine, notes I take from art and music and podcasts and so on. I like observational detail. I like looking at how people hold emotion in their bodies and how it leaks out. I always want to find the right words to describe things cleanly, but I’m slow. The notes I take are usually just images or ideas that I have to rework into a better form.
I’m a bit of a latecomer to poetry. Like a lot of people, I was put off by what we had to study in high school, which tended to be traditional and quite repetitive – Wilfred Owen every bloody year – and so for ages, I was put off by poetry as a form because I felt like it wasn’t mine to access. But in the last couple of years I’ve been trying to read more. I’m always re-reading Richard Siken’s work; it’s cinematic. I also like Claudia Rankine, Louise Gluck, Kimiko Hahn, Warsan Shire and the Australian poet Omar Sakr’s work.
I’m interested in the title – ‘Our Magic Hour’ – which refers to a factory sign that Audrey, the main character, passes on a semi-frequent basis. But to me, it resonates far beyond this concrete meaning. What are your thoughts?
Titles are hard, and I settled on OUR MAGIC HOUR relatively late in the piece. I love the artwork above the factory, which I used to drive past myself several times a week, but I also think it’s a beautiful phrase. Sometimes it sounds nostalgic to me; other times it seems like a sort of wake-up call: ‘this is it! This is the time!’ And in photography, the magic hour is that brief time when the sun is lower in the sky – either early morning or just before sundown – and the light is softer; really perfect.
I’ve also read some of your shorter pieces. How do you know if a story is going to work best as a ‘short’ as opposed to a full-length work?
It’s an intuitive thing – I don’t usually start working on a piece unless I have a clear idea of where it will end, so that generally prescribes the length a bit. I worry a lot about structure; I only really feel comfortable with the architecture of the short story. Recently, though, I did start writing a short piece before I realised it was fast outgrowing its own skeleton. I’m trying to work out how I can best shape it into something longer.
Which writers do you love?
Too many to mention, but my enduring favourites are Helen Garner, Junot Diaz, Richard Ford, Joan Didion, Ellen Van Neerven, Denis Johnson and Sherman Alexie. Two favourite books this year have been Fiona Wright’s SMALL ACTS OF DISAPPEARANCE and Erica Dawson’s poetry collection THE SMALL BLADES HURT.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?
‘Write until your sentences surprise you’ – Carrie Tiffany, in a Tuesday-night TAFE class.
I’ve done it for so long that I don’t really know. It’s something that’s occupied a very big part of my time and energy since I was a kid. Before I could write I used to dictate stories to my mum; when I was in high school I wrote two or three terrible novellas. I did it for a long time before anyone else read my work, and I’d still be doing it if I’d never submitted anything for publication. It’s a way of giving order to things, I think, of pinning down my anxieties to examine them.
Can you tell us something about what you’re working on now – or what your next full-length work will be about?
At the moment I’m working on a collection of short fiction, CONVALESCENCE, which is coming out next year. I’m really excited about it – I love the short story form, and I wish there were more of it published in Australia.
Beyond that, I’m not sure. I have the very beginnings of an idea for a new novel, but it’s going to take a lot of research. The scale of a novel-length work is daunting, too. I’m also a bit resigned to the fact that as long as I’m working in a nine-to-five job, like I am at the moment, I don’t have the mental energy for much writing work. So that novel’s a good few years away, I think.