At the time of this interview ( October 1999) Elizabeth Jolley had just released her fourteenth novel: ‘An Accommodating Spouse’, and released only one more book in 2001: ‘An Innocent Gentleman’ . Sadly, she passed in February 2007. This interview was conducted for Mystic Ink Magazine.
When reading Elizabeth Jolley’s work with her strong characters you can be forgiven for imagining a woman with a domineering presence. Her presence is powerful, but you will also find yourself drawn in by her quietly endearing sense of humour, her modesty, and her generosity that come through with such warmth when she speaks. This humbleness and humour, you will find, is also present in her work. In her book, Central Mischief: Elizabeth Jolley on writing her past and herself, Jolley says, “I want, in my writing, to be optimistic and fond”. I think this sums up her personality as well as her writing.
Her words are full of meaning, and will entice you to read her work again and again, and her work can bear many readings, leaving you enjoying and seeing more of her depth of understanding of people and her exploration into the human mind while enjoying her fascinating characters.
Jolley’s work has often been referred to and studied by feminist groups for her strong, independent, and sexually confident female characters, but Jolley has denied having developed feminist issues in her work. Simply saying she enjoys writing real and interesting female characters.
J.P. Elizabeth your writing is very often the private details and internal
thoughts of your characters’ minds about their lives and relationships,
topics many of us avoid discussing in our own lives. Do you feel it takes
courage to be true to your thoughts when you write?
E.J. Much fiction writing examines the private details in human life,
especially thoughts and wishes. Any writing needs courage because some
people might dislike your work.
J.P. Helen Garner recently referred to writing as a ‘sickness’that must
be attended to’. How do you feel about your writing life?
E.J. I don’t see writing as being a sickness. It is an art, which has to
be kept alive, and worked at with an excitement and the hope for something
special to occur.
J.P. Do you believe anyone can write or is a talent required?
E.J. A talent or an interest in writing is help but great discipline is
needed to carry on the wish to write. A feeling for language and
compassion for human individuals are needed, also constant observation, the making of
a quick note, and mixing with people.
J.P. Do you have a set writing routine?
E.J. No, I work whenever I have the chance and get up very early to make
J.P. When you write a novel do you write prolifically and then go back to choose what to
leave in or out or do you go ahead and write the novel chapter by
E.J. No, I never write prolifically, I write small unmatched fragments
and weld them into a story or novel in what I feel to be the best way (for
me) I re-write, and always rearrange order of events to structure the work.
J.P. Elizabeth I have read that you were writing for twenty years before
publishing, do you feel there are constraints or processes involved in
E.J. I was not accepted by publishers and their readers because, I think,
at the time I was offering “different” material here in Australia.
Everything has been published now, except the novel I am not finished
with. It is hard to get in the Eastern seaboard publishers if you live in
Western Australia, and I feel that this was the case.
J.P. You have the ability to convey immense feeling and meaning in your
work. Would you attribute this to your abilities as a wordsmith, or
perhaps your understanding of human nature?
E.J. I try to understand human nature sexual and otherwise, if there was
no mystery about life and death etc. I suppose there would be no writing? I
suppose that is the case. I love language and people and places
J.P. There is often sexual tension in your work, in your opinion how much
sex, if any, is good for a story?
E.J. There is a “lot of sexual tension about.” – sorry for the cliché.
Sexual matters create tension of all sorts between people; most mistakes
in life are sexual in origin. I would not place too much in a story or novel
and by suggestion is more powerful than straight boring telling. ‘Crude’ is
not a good thing either, it becomes boring. I try to be interesting!
J.P. At a reading from your most recent book, The Accommodating Spouse,
you read a childhood story of your own, and spoke of the importance of
recollecting and writing our own childhood. Why, in your opinion, is it
important to write our childhood?
E.J. If people want to write their child hood it may be soothing to them,
also experiences which belong to one person might not be known about by
other peoples and can become interesting material in a book – but not
overdone in length or in incident. However, writing about your own
childhood can be a bore to other people, as our dreams may be boring to
J.P. In your work there is a strong sense of place coming through, I am
referring to the Australianness and Britishness of the landscapes and
characters. Do you feel your work can be enjoyed cross-culturally?
E.J. Yes I think people like to read familiar backgrounds and they like
to be offered a wide variety of backgrounds. British, Australian and
European backgrounds are very important to me to show things about characters. I
hope I am being enjoyed a bit in different places – rather awful to see
one of your own books being sold for 5 cents on a charity stall!
J.P. Elizabeth you have a website on the Internet, do you find this
helpful in bringing you additional exposure, and have you ever considered writing
and publishing e-books through the Internet?
E.J. I know nothing about web sites. I do not have anything to do with
computers except to supply grandsons with “the necessary” and the money
for the computers’ needs. I can’t even type and I can’t ‘compute’, – that’s
how I am; I do not fret over this.
© Julie Proudfoot Melbourne 1999.