Interview – Jen Craig – Australia

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Do you recall your first publication ever? Can you talk about that experience?

My first publication ever was a short story called “My Bird” that was written not long after the well-known local writer, David Malouf, had been invited to speak to my class of Australian literature undergraduate students at Sydney university. I don’t remember a great deal about what else Malouf said to us that day, but one thing sticks: when he was asked whether there was a difference between the work of male and female writers, he’d said that female writers weren’t able to use personas, which is to say that they were not able to write from anything other than their own, specifically aged and gendered point of view! Now, this was several decades ago and, despite there being not many of us there (many more people in Australia, then as now, study English rather than Australian literature), nobody, as I recall — not even me — took him up directly on this statement, which is extraordinary, when I think about it. All the same, I remember being outraged by what I had just heard, although clearly also somewhat intimidated, or at least unable at the time to speak. But I also remember how this outrage — running like a piping hot wire through an otherwise expansive enchantment with the work of other antipodean writers, such as Janet Frame, Christina Stead, Patrick White and Beverly Farmer — led to the beginnings of my fiction writing as an adult. “My Bird” is a very short story. It is written in something like a stream of consciousness, as narrated by a late middle aged man that I conceived of as a kind of bloated, Francis Bacon-like figure — or that, at any rate, is how the drawing I did of it, which ended up accompanying the piece, depicts him. Not only was this story the first short story that I wrote as an adult, but it was also the very first one published, and the fact that it happened to be accepted for publication by the revived Sydney University literary magazine, Hermes, and also praised by a few people that I met in the writing world then, was hugely encouraging and played a crucial role in prompting me to decide to concentrate on writing rather than on drawing and painting, as I had mostly been doing until then. In fact, I remember being so surprised at what I perceived as the story’s undeservedly positive reception — because back then I did not have a great handle on what it was about it that grabbed people (or, only a little later, about other pieces that did not grab them at all) — that I soon became obsessed with trying to understand what was going on in what I was doing with words. I should also add: this very first piece — and this piece only — was written under the pseudonym Frances Craig, because for the previous couple of years I had been beset by the frustrating coincidence that a multinational dieting company had set itself up in Australia, using my name as its trade logo. For a year or more, then, I had been introducing myself to new people as Frances, rather than as “Jenny” — my “real” name — as a way of trying to avoid the inevitable run of jokes at my expense (and also, as I realise now, because I liked the relative gender anonymity of a name like Frances, since it cannot be distinguished from “Francis” when you hear it). I soon gave up on this double life and instead — in a kind of belligerent, somewhat perverse spirit (not unlike the one that fuelled my earliest short story writings), decided to lop off the last syllable from my first name and use it anyway. I explore something of this very personal conundrum with my identity and name in my most recently published book, Panthers and the Museum of Fire.

What are some of the stories behind your work? What subject matters interest you?

I think I am mostly interested in the telling of a story — in other words, the phenomenon of this mode of passing on of context, images, explanations, humorous twists and shocking facts, both to ourselves and to others — rather than the specific details of the stories or events themselves. For instance, in my first book, Since the Accident, it was not so much the specifics of a car accident that attracted me to write about an accident like that, but all the attempts by the various characters in the story to make sense of its occurrence as something meaningful. Having said this, I should also state that it is the more troubling shapes and details of my own lived experience as well as those around me that is the main stuff of my writing, be it the once-in-a-lifetime or just everyday kinds of fears, disappointments, losses or embarrassing realisations. I often feel as if, in writing what I write, I am only and always feeling my way towards an understanding of these experiences because the closer I get to them, the more slippery and dispersed — like fog in a streetscape — they seem to be. It is funny, too, because while I can sometimes have a conscious sense that I am principally drawn to exploring large and serious themes, like trauma and the way that it can resound through whole populations, individual families and countries, I will always find that I end up becoming most fascinated — and perhaps this is a weakness — by its smallest, most trivial and ordinary manifestations in our day-to-day lives.

Does the idea of an audience ever come into play when you write? On a first draft or in editing?

It does, in a very general sense, because increasingly I have a sense of writing being a kind of performance. By this I mean that I see writing as less of a direct expression of my self, whatever that is, or even of a specific idea and more as something that I make occur or that I make out of something else. And yet I also find that it is important to make the notion of audience as general and as distant as possible while I am working on the early drafts of my pieces, because the way I write is very messy and needs to be like this for it to take shape. I spread the words out all over the place as I work — continually stretching out and then containing the material, like someone making a pot on a wheel. The whole work of writing for me is really this process of finding a clear rhythmic form for something that starts as little more than a couple of images that then change as they interact with the real time(s) and place(s) I am working in.

What motivates you to blog? Is it curiosity, the search of something…?

My absurd enticements blog (https://absurdenticements.blogspot.com) started off as a challenge to myself to write as many micro-pieces as I could in a year. They’ve all come out of experiences — not necessarily my own experiences — that seem to be craving some tiny corner of the cyberworld for themselves. I remember one of my writing friends, who is actually incredibly active on Facebook, expressing his horror at what I was doing. He told me that he liked to save up the very sorts of experiences that I was working with for something much bigger or more important. I think that, from this perspective, I am a bit of a spendthrift. Except when I don’t write any blog pieces at all, because I am writing something else. I recently added a piece to the site after several years of nothing and I like the fact that it’s totally up to me whether to put anything up there or not. My other blog is a much more reflective and discursive space (https://beinginlieu.blogspot.com). It was born out of a desire to explore, and thus to give shape to, my thoughts about the way that writing affects me, and to do so in a context that is much much freer than the usual outlets for such things — that is, in a context that is not inhibited by choice of material or length or the need to meet deadlines or even the need to cover all aspects of a piece that I might be writing about (in the way that a proper literary review might, for example). I have found it difficult to maintain this freedom though. Early on I was approached to write reviews for books people wanted to send me and I didn’t find it so simple to be always saying no. I guess both curiosity and the desire to search for something, or at least to search for what it is I feel or experience in relation to something — whether a text or artwork or the most fleeting of experiences — have been key to my work on both of these blogs.

How do you feel working with students? You also collaborate with other artists, can you tell us more about that?

I enjoy working with students, although I can often feel overwhelmed by my responsibility to them and can find it difficult to moderate how much time I spend reading and responding to their work. With my creative writing students, I have become most concerned to listen, as it were, to the voice — to the feel of the pieces that they write — and then somehow to convey my impressions of all this back to them with a minimum of judgemental language. It took me a little while to develop this approach. It’s strange to be saying this about a creative field but, in my experience, there can be an awful lot of rule giving and rule following in fiction writing courses. The subject I most recently taught in this area — novel writing — tended to be one that came late in the piece for my students, and I found that they would often come to me with questions related to pieces of advice or rules they had been given by other teachers. For example, I remember once a student asking me why, as he had been told in a previous subject, he shouldn’t begin a piece of fiction in the past perfect tense (i.e. “She had seen”, rather than “She saw”). By this time, rather than attempting to argue against the idea of having such a rule, I decided to get all the students to help me construct a piece of writing that had lots of past perfect verbs in them, and the same sort of text without them, and then to encourage everyone to see if they could notice any differences between the two texts and say what they were. And of course the students could definitely feel the differences. This was my answer then: do you want your story to start with this feeling you’ve just described or are you not so wedded to it? Something like this became my approach generally. I would try to describe how the text affected me and then ask the student whether what I had just described accorded with what they were hoping to convey or would like to embrace anyway. I soon realised that this was the most important aspect of my role as a teacher of writing: I was there, not as so much as an expert (whatever that is) but as a facilitator with a little experience who was willing to be as attentive as I could be in the service of another’s understanding of their own work. As I write this now, I realise that I would have really loved to have had this sort of interaction when I was starting out writing. In those early days I feared responses from others because, in an imagined binary world of good and bad writing, I always feared I would be told that my writing was bad.

And about collaboration: I have been doing this more and more. Early on, I didn’t find it so easy, unless I was given full rein to do my thing first — as I did with the libretto for (Swiss composer) Michael Schneider’s chamber opera, A Dictionary of Maladies — and then to give it over to the other person to do their thing to it, separately from me. Recently, though, I have been increasingly enjoying seeing and hearing what happens to “my” pieces when I collaborate in real time — to see/hear them become, essentially, something else even as they also stay connected to me somehow. In the last several years I have done numerous sound performances with my partner, the composer/ performer Stephen Adams, that have involved some of my microlit pieces (e.g. “Jamming”, which we did for the Newcastle Writers festival last year) and extracts from longer pieces, such as Panthers and the Museum of Fire. And something completely new: since the beginning of 2019 I have been involved in a “conversation” with the Australian-Estonian visual artist, Ulvi Haagensen, on a project about dirt and cleaning. Each week we send each other a small piece of what we call “dirt”, in the form of a piece of writing, or something visual — whatever we choose — that we do in response to a piece that the other has sent the previous week, and it’s now coming up to a year of doing this together. We haven’t yet worked out what we want to do with the project as a whole or even how long we intend to keep it up. This is perhaps the best thing about collaborating with another artist, as I’ve been discovering: the something new that gets created has its own life.

What are your impressions of Belgrade? Do you find it inspiring? Your next stop? 

In Belgrade I’ve felt as if I’ve been living in both the past and the future — the past of local, daily produce markets and uninhibited smoking in all sorts of venues and at all occasions — and a future in which young creative people make their own little paradise of colour, experiment and environmental activism in defiance of whatever chaos or uncaring they might find around them. As a city, Belgrade is also very beautifully situated. Where the Sava meets the Danube, there is a mysterious island across the water which, in the hazy chill of winter, is very enticing to someone from the southern hemisphere like me. From Dorćol, though, the waterside is difficult to access because of the industrial rim of buildings and rail lines, so getting there becomes the adventure. Getting around the whole city itself, too, is an adventure, since it is a bit of a mystery how the trolley buses work. I have found that it is always best, then, just to walk — which has been great, because it has been through walking around that I’ve come up closest to the fascinating, puzzling, beautiful, messy details and ambience of the place, with its particular mixture of slavic, Austrian and Ottoman histories, which was the whole point of coming here. I love the not overly defined aspect of this city — how even the two alphabets are used interchangeably in many contexts (sometimes in the sequence of the same animated billboard). All this is very energising for the writing I’ve been doing here. Next is a few days in Vienna, to hear a lot of music, and after seeing family and friends in Lyon and then Edinburgh, my partner Stephen and I will be flying back to Australia (over Iranian airspace, unfortunately — it seems that Qatar, which we’d booked on, cannot do otherwise).

Are there any projects readers should be on the lookout for?

I have a short story, called “The Beautiful Sister”, coming out in this year’s Passages North (a U.S. publication) which will be in print (and online) any day now. I also have a piece of flash fiction, “Kitten”, coming out in this year’s Spineless Wonders collection, Scars, which is tied into the 2019 joanne burns Microlit Award. Apart from that, I have a couple of projects that should be coming out in the nearish future, including a new novel as well as a hybrid non-fictional work which emerged from my recently completed doctorate on disordered eating experience and how trauma is not only linked to this experience but can also profoundly affect the way we write about it. I am also working, concurrently, on two new long pieces. I thought it would be impossible to work like this, but I am discovering that, right now, working on one has enabled me to stir things up in a way that helps me to work on the other.

Your message to artists who wish to come to Belgrade…

Come along ready to immerse yourself in the place when you want and as often or as little as you want to. Read some Serbian writers — there are several that have been translated into English (I’ve just finished the novel, Leeches, by David Albahari). If you have a chance to meet any local artists here, go for it. Although I haven’t ended up meeting any local writers (I tend to be very reticent about this, even in Australia), I have met — since I’ve been working here with my partner, Stephen Adams, who is a composer and performer — several people in the contemporary improvising music scene in Belgrade. This has given me a strong sense of a liveliness, intelligence and humour that must run through a lot of the art being made in this city.