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walking and falling

jennifer mills

the dungeon behind door number four

This week I’ve been tidying up the new book before I send it off to my publisher with its best outfit on. I sound a bit like Mary Poppins describing it like that but the work itself is more grueling than twee – rising early and beginning in the dark seems to help. Of course there is more dungeon time ahead, rereading, editing, packaging and (hopefully) discussing the thing, but I’m pleased I’ll have a little time back as of this weekend. I wish to spend the next month reading books that I am not reading for work – I’ve been sneak-reading Edna O’Brien all week, and it’s both satisfying and daunting to read such masterful short stories at the end of the day. Although my partner scoffs when I say this, I really just want to write short fiction forever and not bother with those messy, unwieldy things called novels ever again.

Yeah, that’s her laughing from the other room.

Meanwhile, other work has been trundling along. Overland’s 60th anniversary year has involved a little project I’m calling “fancy cuts” – four short story commissions, in the service of intertextual fun with the archives – subscribe and see what four brilliant writers come up with for this year. Being an editor is deeply rewarding, in many ways more rewarding than writing. But see above re: lying about giving that up.

Myself and Overland ed Jeff Sparrow shared a stage with erudite Adelaidean Kerryn Goldsworthy at Writers Week, where we chatted about book reviews and reviewing culture. The conversation was recorded and you can listen to the podcast here. I say mean things about The Australian in it.

Or you can do what I might be doing next week, which is give up your day job and listen to all the Adelaide Writers Week podcasts here.

And before I forget, I have a couple of workshops coming up at the SA Writers’ Centre, including a half day talking about literary journals, and a whole day writing about animals at the Adelaide Zoo - book early for that one!


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Becoming South Australian

It’s been a busy week here in Adelaide, where my partner and I have moved for six months – a dose of transitional urbanisation before we head to Beijing (for her work) at the end of July. All of the festivals descend on the city at once in February/March, and it’s wonderful to see the bewilderment as racing car enthusiasts, Fringe performers, Writers Week audiences, and the Skywhale cross paths. Most of my week has been swallowed by the wonderful Adelaide Writers’ Week. It’s been a great festival so far, meticulously planned and with lots of interesting discussions. Plus a comics stream for the first time! I managed to meet one of my heroes, Alison Bechdel, who spoke very generously about her process and has made me want to pursue comics seriously again, which is something I’ve been thinking about for a while (but have been coy about admitting).

In fact I have a drawing or two in this book Fluid Prejudice which Sam Wallman has put together, a great range of voices writing on the very contested spaces of Australian history. I’m thrilled to bits to be in it, as it’s my first ‘proper’ comics publication, and contains many excellent artists.

The Festival Awards were presented on Saturday, and I was very pleased to be the recipient of the 2014 Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship for South Australian writers. I am officially South Australian! (Does this mean it’s time to become a Beijinger?) It’s been nice to be in company with Barbara, as we share a publisher, and almost a neighbourhood, though many years apart. Her presence is still felt here in Adelaide. There is also an additional affinity, in that I’ve recently taken up woodcut printmaking:

pomegranate print

/pomegranate print/

Mostly I’ve been doing it in my own style, using this DIY press I made from my bottle capper:

bottletop press

/bottletop press/

… and a lot of trial and error. But I’ve found the excellent folks at Tooth and Nail, and I’ll be going to a wood engraving workshop with visiting artist David Frazer on Saturday. In this strange lull between finishing a book and getting it out into the world it feels very good to be cheating on literature by fooling around with the visual arts. Lower stakes, happier process. I’ll try and remember that for the books.

Postscript, 6 March 2014:
I forgot to mention that my essay On Quitting Poetry, published in Meanjin, is now online. It’s been generating some interesting responses!


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Reading Ursula Le Guin

Cleaning up my office today, now that it’s cool enough to move again. Found this piece I wrote about Ursula Le Guin’s influence on my writing (perhaps ‘my thinking’ is more accurate), for the NSW Writers Centre magazine’s ‘Writer on Writer’ column. A couple of people asked for it, so I thought I’d share it here. [pdf]

It’s rare to have the opportunity to write about reading and books in a non-review context, as a fan of books and as a human being (as opposed to a “critic”). So it was a real treat to be able to write about someone whose work has been so important to me, who has made the horizon of the impossible shiver and dissolve. A fantastic excuse to reread The Dispossessed, too. In my post-book intellectual flailing – think of a spider loosing the beginnings of a web to the wind – I am almost tempted to begin a series of essays…


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Three thousand hours

I am about to embark on the process of listening to myself read the finished draft of my book while I scrape and scrub and plaster my way through repairing the house ahead of our move to Adelaide. Six days into the year and already great changes are afoot! I have a good feeling about this one.

I have equivocal feelings about the book. At this point there is a set of calculations at work – how much more can I do to it before I stumble over the invisible line of too much work (in terms of the prose, and the mental taxation). It’s very strange to start to mark out the work from the outside, to attempt to approach it as a stranger would. I am doing things deliberately differently this time around, trying to experiment with my own process before it sets into inflexible patterns. I’ve always read my work aloud at the late stages, but this is the first time I’ve tried it with the additional cringe factor of recording my own voice.

(Yeah, I took a year off making podcasts for this blog, but I’m planning to go back to it when I go back to the happy place of being focused on short fiction – any minute now!)

I have ten hours and thirteen minutes of audio. I can never resist the temptation to measure, so I did the maths: this book has taken me three years’ worth of half days, about three thousand hours of work. And I write relatively quickly. It’s a little absurd, really. You really have to love the process to feel that this is a worthwhile enterprise.

But then the more I think of it, the more it seems to me that this is how long things are supposed to take. The handmade nature of a piece of fiction gives it its beauty, as opposed to the quick No More Gaps of content generation. The evidence of work (and of a mind at work) is what makes books worth reading. It’s the expectations of instant gratification that are absurd.

This old house has taught me to be patient. As I patch the render and soak the floorboards in tung oil, I keep thinking about timber being cut and stone quarried and the things that are built in the old way, to last. And I do love the process; it’s the process that gives the most pleasure and meaning in the end, and not the outcome. I guess that’s what is meant by writing as a craft: the way it teaches you to trust your materials and take your time.

It’s about time I wrote about time, I think.


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