When I’m working on something, I like to read from any of my favourite books to put my brain in the right frame of mind. You know, slow it down a bit and find a rhythm. I pick up a book and open to any page and read. Today’s read was from Steven Carroll’s The Time We Have Taken pg 132 (Fourth Estate paperback 2007)
You can see the influence from one of Steven Carroll’s favourite authors, Proust, in the long sentences, the rhythm, and the use of the senses.
The smell of previous-night’s-beer is unmistakable. And with the whiff of old beer she is simultaneously seeing Vic falling through the front door, stumbling through the house, and that old familiar feeling of wretchedness is upon her once again, and the memory of that wretched madness that swelled her heart to the point of exploding all those years ago is now more than a memory. It’s a smell. And smells make things happen all over again. And she knows she doesn’t want these memories again, but knows they won’t go till the smell does. Then she sees further signs of disruption, even as she’s dwelling on this business of smell and weight and love and why it had to be like that. For she has entered Michael’s old bedroom, which has changed little since he left, and noticed immediately that the bed has been disturbed. Slept in. And with the observation comes an involuntary shiver. A half-hearted attempt has been made to make it, a quilt thrown over the bed almost contemptuously. Brazenly. And as this strangers perfume– which she knows to be a common, cheap scent that young girls these days go for — as this strangers perfume mingles with the sight of the shabbily remade bed, the word ‘tart’ comes to her again. And she is convinced that Michael has not only sneaked back into the house when she was not there like some creature with guilt written all over his face, he has dragged a tart back into their house, her house, with him. And she knows straight away that this is not the act of her Michael, upon whom she rested the weight of the love she was left with (when Vic couldn’t carry it any more), her Michael who had always told her that her dresses were just right when the street sneered. No, it wasn’t him, but some other Michael with a tart in his ear.
Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall by Jane Jervis-Read
Jessica is a divorced and single health worker whose children have moved on with their lives, leaving her to negotiate her relationships from a distance and to grapple with a ‘hollow and sore heart’. When she becomes increasingly entangled in the life of her client her own needs allow her to go where logic might tell her she shouldn’t.
From the beginning we know we are in the hands of an author who cares about words and what lies between them. Jane Jervis-Read creates a haunting and wanting aura with her sensitive writing:
But she will already be walking out the back, screen door sighing closed behind her, slippers scuffing the concrete, spanning the distance between the kitchen and the shed. The corrugated roof casts a shadow over the entrance… But inside the shed a world awaits. From the window I watch the shadow drink her in. p2
When Jessica takes on the job as carer to Eloise we follow her tender path along a road that both she and we know she shouldn’t go down. It echoes the decisions we fail or neglect to make, or choose to ignore, that allow us to follow the heart in search of something we need. It puts the question to us that we may not like to explore, should we go to places we know we shouldn’t for the sake of cotton-balling the heart?
It meant something when Eloise pulled me in. It meant I am sad and the world is falling like leaves around me. It meant you are a warm heart next to me and your heart loves and listens where mine is hollow and sore and calling out like a wild, hungry mouth. It meant I need you…Something is starting and something is ending. I need relief from my sorrow and you are it, your hand is it, your warm heart beating beside me is it. p66
As we would in reality, Jessica questions her actions and explains them away with care:
She was crying with growing intensity. You don’t leave someone alone in that state. You don’t say, Sorry but my shift is over.’ You can’t clock off. This may be that sort of job to some people but not to me. p53
And Jervis-Read does not shy from bringing truth to the story by allowing Jessica go into this blindly. Jessica knows she goes where she should not; she knows she has blurred ethical lines:
Her thigh slid between mine. I waited. What was I thinking in this moment? I can’t remember. Only the feeling of heat, from her bath-thickened flesh…Maybe I told myself, ‘You have come this far without knowing why – what reason is there to step out now?’…How wild and misguided a life can become, but the body maintains this simple truth: the elegant curve from the waist to the hip. p 83
And nor are the characters allowed to waft away in romantic views; the story is not without the tendrils of uncertainty you might find in a relationship wrought with baggage, illness and dependency:
Eloise smirked. She leant towards me and her robe fell open at the top. ‘I’ll follow you,’ she said. ‘If you go.’ p 63
The characters are beautifully painted on the page. We feel for Jessica as she navigates the emotions left in the wake of her divorce from her husband, and the feelings of estrangement from her children that seem to open her up as they go on with their lives:
Was I a good mother to my children? I think I was. Why then did they move away? p67
And out of this we accept and forgive Jessica. Had we only had access to the facts of the story – lonely carer takes advantage of a patient overcome with sadness for the loss of her life due to mental illness, and engages in physical intimacy – we might judge and condemn Jessica. Enormous credit goes to Jane Jervis-Read for enveloping the facts in a beautiful story that leads us to understand and forgive the characters.
When Eloise sobbed that guttural sob I recognised my own voice in her throat. I recognised the sobs of my children, of my mother too. I remembered my mother weeping when my father died and how I had held her. Eloise clutched at me and pulled me in through the blankets. She cried in my arm. p53
Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall is a beautifully written, honest and elegant tale of longing and loneliness; it turns the light on what a person will allow themselves to do to abate and caress those feelings and it tackles the questions around crossing ethical lines. Set in the university area around Carlton, Melbourne. I highly recommend you take on this novella and see how you fare.
Jane Jervis-Read and Alice Grundy from Seizure talk about her novel and novellas in general in a great audio interview here
You can purchase Jane’s book here.
When the opportunity arose to chat with Castlemaine author Kirsten Krauth about her unique debut book just_a_girl, I jumped at the chance. The novel is bursting with themes of loneliness, sexuality and relationships in a modern world, and we had a lot of fun exploring and unpicking those themes and it was great to get some insight into the evolution of the book. I hope you enjoy it too.
1 Just-a-girl is an intriguing novel written in a non-traditional format, with a mix of diary, and third person. Is the final book as you had initially planned, or did these formats evolve over many drafts?
The mix is pretty much the same as when I started writing, but the draft I sent to the publishers was different in some ways to the final book. Layla is pretty much the same, with her choppy and cut-off sentences. But Margot’s sections were originally written in the form of a prayer, each one starting ‘Dear Lord’. If you look at those entries there is a rhythm to them that intones, as if she is speaking to someone. It still works, but more as a stream of consciousness. Tadashi was always in third person and past tense, because I thought you needed a character who offered a chance for pause, a bit of respite after the two very strong and direct female voices. He is also quite removed and I thought that style suited him.
2 The characters in just_a_girl are believable and well-drawn; you’ve been able to get into each of these character’s heads to portray them in a realistic way, but all three characters are very different to each other. How, as a writer, did you prepare yourself to get inside your characters heads?
The strong voice of each character emerges first and if I like that voice, I run with it. Using certain stylistic phrases helped me get into the psychology pretty early-on and quickly. For instance, Layla’s character has virtually no commas or run-on sentences; whereas Margot’s character has a comma whenever she pauses, and her sentences can go on for pages! Simply saying one of Layla’s made-up words (‘fuckadoodle’) would make me laugh and I’d find the mood of the piece. Placing characters in a particular location, with a particular emotion, helps dramatically. I find it easy to empathise with a character, and I get to an emotional place where the language stems from where they are (whether it’s on the train or on a rollercoaster).
3 As you mentioned earlier, the sentences in Layla’s diary are often cut up, short and stuttery and ignore normal punctuation rules in a way that might do an editor’s head in. Can you talk a bit about conversations with editors and readers you have had while working on just-a-girl about writing it in this style?
That’s a beauty of a question! I didn’t really see it as a diary but as an insight into how Layla’s mind works. As an editor, I was aware of the difficulties of this kind of writing. It runs the risk of turning readers off very quickly. But as a writer, I wanted the style to completely reflect where Layla’s head was at. At the beginning of the book she describes her thoughts as being like a ‘grasshopper’s spring’ and it was more crucial for the writing to reflect that, than to be grammatically correct. With texts, messaging, and other forms of writing these days, the rules of grammar are being relaxed, and I don’t see this as necessarily a bad thing. My editor did query the style and encouraged me to run on some of the sentences. But I stayed pretty firm on it as I wanted the character to be distinguished by her strange use of language. I’m lucky that nearly all of my readers have had the resilience to push through and run with it. I love books like Trainspotting and A Clockwork Orange that play with language and style.
And what lead you to the decision to have Margot’s character italicized?
I see Margot as a character who is unravelling. Her anti-depressants have been keeping her together (but numb) and now, having gone off them, she’s starting to spiral. It’s like she’s trying to convince herself (not convincingly) that everything is okay. The long sentences in italics give a hint that she is not coping, but also that she is immensely lonely. Her long rants (to herself) are a way of venting when she doesn’t have someone else to connect with. And this juxtaposition of styles points to the lack of communication between Margot and Layla, too. I’m very sensitive to the way looks on the page, how text is arranged. We experimented in final drafts with doing Margot’s chapters in roman text, but I couldn’t do it, because the italics had become an integral part of her characterisation.
4 Margot and Layla are mother and daughter, but your third character, Tadashi, comes out of left field, and although he connects with Layla in the story, he has a very separate story line. In her review of just_a_girl, Angela Meyer draws a connection between the three characters and says of Tadashi,
…there’s a disturbing metaphor of objectification in his story, which echoes some of the actions of male characters in the story threads of Layla and Margot. He has literally replaced a flesh-and-blood woman with a doll who keeps quiet and is available whenever he needs her. She is pretty and poses the way he wants her to. There are parallels with the sex video that Layla makes for Mr C, an older man, and in her relations with her 18-year-old boyfriend, and also in the harassment she suffers—and never reports—from her boss.
What do you see as the connection between the three characters, or what drew you to connect Tadashi to Margot and Layla within the novel?
I see all characters as not-quite connecting, either with each other or the world around them. I liked the idea of Tadashi being a commuter on the same train as Layla, appearing and disappearing, almost as if Layla summons him when she needs him, but with a fragility that never quite extends to friendship. All the characters project their fantasies of what ‘real life’ and an ‘ideal relationship’ should look like onto others. In Margot and Layla, it’s their shared Mr C. Tadashi imagines love and nurturing in the only space he feels comfortable – and takes this ideal to an extreme. In general, I like leaving the threads of narrative untangled so the reader can weave them together how they like. It’s one of the reasons that I love Murakami’s novels (who is a big influence on this book) because he’s not interested in tying all those threads together. All the characters are also exploring sex and power, the way they are cast (aside) sexually, who they can trust, how others’ look at and respond to their bodies, to what extent all of this can be controlled. Angela’s interpretation is terrific as I think it’s about posing: how they present to the world versus how they really feel, and what happens when they are truly exposed.
5 Leading on from this idea of sexual identity and objectification, in her review of just-a-girl, titled, Are Teenage Girls Just Like That? , Elizabeth Lhuede delves into the portrayal of sexually precocious young teenage girls in literature, and the written compared to actual motivations of girls’ behaviour, whether it‘s born out of early sexual abuse, suffering that shaped the parents who raise them, the invasiveness of the internet, or perhaps simply ‘teenage girls are just like that’. Is this something you explored and constructed in just-a-girl? Or did you write the book as it came to without delving into those themes?
The idea of sexually precocious (or physically precocious) teens came out of my direct experience. I was an early developer, like Layla. I found this intensely challenging, as my body was garnering unwanted attention in public (from older men rather than boys), before I had any emotional or intellectual capacity to deal with it. I wanted to explore this divide. My experience did not come out of sexual abuse, so that’s a realm I didn’t research, but was very moved by Elizabeth’s analysis. I thought it was an area that hadn’t been explored much in fiction. As with Layla, though, by the time I was fifteen all the other girls had caught up, so it was a very particular timeframe. If you read closely, though, Layla is actually quite naive and inexperienced when it comes to her sexuality, but she masks it by talking about sex a lot, and putting herself in dangerous situations where she has to confront things head on.
6 Lastly, I hit my elbow in the shower the other day, and instead of my usual expletive I blurted out that word of Layla’s that you mentioned earlier, Fuckadoodle! I’m thinking you’ve started a new catch, what do you think!?
LOL, we are in sync! As I mentioned earlier, I just had to say that word to myself, and I was off in Layla-land. My dad has developed a whole string of profanities that go along after it in a poetic way; quite hilarious. It does make reading in public hard though, if there are any kids around! Feel free to move it along. I love Kath n Kim and J’amie and all those characters who make up their own words. That latest one, ‘quiche’, just absolutely cracks me up.
You can read my mini review of just_a_girl here. Kirsten can be found at her blog, Wild Colonial Girl , and on twitter @WldColonialGirl . There is also a great interview over on ANZ Lit Lovers called Meet the Author, with Lisa Hill and Kirsten.
Just_a_girl is published by UWA Publishing, 2013. I read the E-book.
Book: Point Omega, Don DeLillo. Picador 2010.
Why: It’s intimate, kind, sad and quiet. The set up of this little piece is that these two men, who don’t really know each other that well, are waiting for something. Can’t say what in case you’d like to read it yourself. Suffice to say there is tension around them and this intimate moment is shrouded in sadness and kindness.
I stood behind him with a pair of scissors and a comb and told him it was time for a haircut.
He turned his head slightly, in inquiry, but I repositioned it and began to trim his sideburns. I talked as I worked. I talked in a kind of audiostream, combing and cutting through the tangled strands on one side of his head. I told him this was different from shaving. The day would come when he’d want to shave and he’d have to do it himself but the hair on his head was a question of morale, his and mine. I said many empty things that morning, matter-of-factly, half believing. I removed the wormy rubberband from the weave of braided hair at the back of his neck and tried to comb and trim. I kept skipping to other parts of the head. He spoke about Jessie’s mother, her face and her eyes, his admiration, voice trailing off, low and hoarse. I felt compelled to trim the hair in his ears, long white fibers curling out of the dark. I tried to unsnarl every inch of matted vegetation before I cut. He spoke about his sons. You don’t know this, he said. I have two sons from the first marriage. Their mother was a paleontologist. Then he said it again. Their mother was a paleontologist. He was remembering her, seeing her in the word. She loved this place and so did the boys. I did not, he said. But this changed over the years. He began to look forward to his time here, he said, and then the marriage broke up and the boys were young men and that was all he was able to say.
Book: The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982 Harper Collins 2007
Why: It’s just a little reminder in a world of texting, Twitter, Facebook and all the rest to stop and breathe. Keeping busy does block out the ills of the world but you can feel it – when you forget to just be still, running with the pack day after day – the loss of self.
Creative impulse doesn’t only apply to Artists and Writers, it apples to living your life in the moment with family friends and your self.
January 19, 1973. Days of teaching; meeting with students; talking with colleagues. The irresistible pull of the external world. One could very easily lose oneself within it…”keeping busy” is the remedy for all ills in America. It’s also the means by which the creative impulse is destroyed.