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Jennifer Mills: The Short Form Interview

The magical is sometimes the only way of looking at things that are hard to articulate.

Novelist, poet, and author of story collection, The Rest is Weight. 2012 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist.

The Interview

You’ve worked with ex-prisoners, been homeless, and travelled a bunch. Is writing is an outcome of living for you? 

I am driven by curiosity. Going out into the world is a way of keeping myself awake. I try to learn new things and be exposed to difference, not just for the writing, but because it’s fun to have adventures. Writing and travelling come from the same kind of constitutional restlessness, I suppose; writing’s as much a process of discovery as it is creation.

The time I spent living in my car was mostly an economic necessity – I decided to write full time because trying to be a social worker simultaneously was driving me insane – and the only way I could do that was to reduce my expenses to almost nil. So I rolled up the swag and overstayed my welcome at the library. But if I hadn’t done that, I doubt I would have been able to write my novel Gone, the protagonist of which is an itinerant ex-prisoner. I guess you can never tell what’s going to end up in a book, so you have to do everything, just in case.

I don’t think withdrawing to write is sustainable – you have to be active and social, at least some of the time, in order to understand people. But then you need the retreats too. There’s a pendulum between rambling and hiding in your mother’s house, and I tend to swing between the two (though fortunately for my mother, I have my own office).

I sometimes get asked why I don’t write about more of my personal experiences, but I’m just not that interested in myself. I like using my imagination too much, and I don’t have a lot of loyalty to the facts, so I struggle with memoir. But maybe fiction’s just a comfortable disguise.

You can never tell what’s going to end up in a book, so you have to do everything, just in case.

In “Roadhouse,” you write, “Get a job so you can see a bit of country, end up looking at highways and the backs of cars and motor homes slipping into nothing in your mirror. Anyway, thinks Harry, it beats sitting still.” Plenty of driving happens in this collection, and maybe Harry is speaking for you, too. Plus there's Australia’s vast landscape, which seems oppressive in that it makes motion less apparent. 

There are a lot of highways, aren’t there! I have two excuses for this. Firstly, I was mostly living in Central Australia when I put this collection together. Alice Springs is so far away from anywhere else that you develop respect for the road the way that swimmers have respect for the ocean. I think the highway is a strange way to experience landscape, and my characters’ estrangement is reflected in the way they drive through the country, rather than belonging to a particular place. In Australia we still don’t understand the desert – we’re afraid of it. You’ll probably be familiar with the ‘sinister outback’ trope in film, and it’s long been there in fiction. Wake in Fright, Wolf Creek, etc. Some of my work responds to that fearfulness.

Secondly, I only learned to drive in 2007, after buying my beloved 1964 EH Holden. I proceeded to go on quite a few road trips around the country, the longest of which was a 7,000km drive through six states and territories. The world of driving became interesting to me, it was a new experience. Before that I hitched everywhere. Car culture and trucking culture are fascinating, and the intimacy inside a vehicle can be like a tiny stage. The vastness of the landscape is intensely humbling at times, and it brings out the best and worst in people.

In Central America you were told that magical realism isn’t preceived as a genre there but as an accurate representation of everyday life. Where do you place magical realism in the scale of reality vs. genre? In some of your stories, like “The jungle will swallow anything,” “Look down with me,” and “Demolition,” the magical elements stand-in for a much more menancing reality, and in others, like “Reason,” the division is less clear.

I don’t claim to be a magical realist. I think when it’s talked of as a genre it can be problematic - it can defuse metaphorical power or diverse cultural realities into a cute experience of ethnic otherness. But I also love the tradition, and I think it has a lot of parallels in the “post-colonial” experience in Australia, the meeting points between Indigenous and immigrant cultures, the superstition and sublimated fear that comes to inhabit the landscape, and the way we cope with that by pushing at the boundaries of our imaginations. I’m a fence-sitter when it comes to genre; I think it’s limiting, so I tend to pretend it isn’t there. I read everything. I love science fiction, for example, but I don’t write within that tradition and the stories I write which have SF elements (like “Extra Time” and “An innocent man”) still sit within a literary mode (whatever that means now). Sometimes the magical elements are more deliberate; Moth, for example, was a conscious reworking of a changeling story, but goes on to explore xenophobia.

I have a lot of respect for great realist storytellers – Cate Kennedy, the Australian short story writer, has all but perfected the form – but I don’t seem to have that purity in me. I’m not sure how to describe the stories of mine that use non-realist elements. I tend to call them my ‘weird stories.’ I think I lean a little more towards the surreal, in the way that these non-rational elements disrupt, rather than comfort; but it’s hard for me to box my own work, and I shouldn’t pretend I do everything deliberately when it’s quite a subconscious process. I do think there’s a lot more interplay between the real and the imaginary than we think. Money, for example, is a mass hallucination, but we’d find it hard to function without it. History’s often a combination of fictions. ‘Reason’ goes after that spooky space between cultural fictions, in a way. The magical is sometimes the only way of looking at things like that, things that are hard to articulate.

The image leads, and the meaning follows.

Do you think that as a format short stories tend to be more welcoming of elements of magical realism — does it more easily allow the writer to cross over and back without abandoning an accurate reality?

Oh, definitely. Novels are so much more demanding, in terms of having to construct a consistent world, whereas in a short story you can do a lot with a minimal gesture. A short story has the advantage in terms of being able to surprise, confuse, or enchant a reader. The game can change fast. This lightness is probably my favourite thing about the form.

The stories I love – and this is reflected in the recommendations I’ve made – tend to be ones that make leaps into weird places. I think it comes down to letting the images run away with you before you’ve had time to pin them to the ground. Maybe it’s a habit poetry’s taught me, but I tend to think of short fiction as a form which can be led by a single image or metaphor. The symbolic world of a story can be rendered very powerfully with a few brushstrokes, the context acknowledged with a glance. It can be a very graceful form.

With imagery, you can indicate a lot about the emotional life of a character – a dead goldfish in the room, or a moth on the window, or all the glass in a building breaking, can tell a big part of the story for you. The image leads, and the meaning follows. That’s what I mean by saying writing is a process of discovery.

The three stories based in China were written during an Asialink residency in Beijing, and in all three of them the primary perspective is that of a foreigner, in contrast to a story like “The jungle will swallow anything” which we can assume is somewhere in South or Central America. I was curious if the outside perspective was a natural choice for you, or if it came out of trial and error, or if there’s something about China itself that seemed a little hard to write about from the inside.

This comes down to language, I think. I speak a passable Spanish so it was possible to have a more genuine exchange with people in Central America. I felt able to imagine people’s interior worlds more fully – the taxi driver in the gay bar, the kid at the roadhouse. In China I was much more of a foreigner. But I also found the politics of Western expats in China fascinating, the estrangement from accountability in some ways, and I wanted to write about that. I am very much interested in whiteness and how white people behave when we’re outside our zone of privilege. However, there’s a stereotype of Chinese inscrutability which I don’t mean to perpetuate by dodging that story. I’m hoping to go back, so perhaps I’ll address this next time.

There are three stories early in the book that are from the perspective of a child. What are some of the things you enjoy about writing from this perspective?

When I wrote Look Down With Me, I had been travelling in North-West Western Australia and reading about Jandamarra, the Aboriginal resistance hero, as well as other frontier histories – Henry Reynolds’ work in particular – and I felt pretty overwhelmed by the genocide that took place, that is still taking place, in this country. There are ongoing cycles of trauma and violence that are intensely confronting to be around. Writing from the perspective of a mute child in that story was a way of expressing the helplessness I felt in that context, though I didn’t realise it at the time.

At other times, child narrators are a way of exploring the area between the real and the imaginary. Kids are great at finding their own explanations for the often fucked-up logic of the adult world. Sometimes a child narrator will allow me to play with a mystical or bizarre logic that I wouldn’t be as comfortable with otherwise. It can be hard to pull off an authentic child narrator without dumbing down the prose, and in that sense it’s also an interesting challenge.

Tell us a little about your story recommendations.

Tom Cho's “AIYO!!! An evil group of ninjas is entering and destroying a call centre!!!” — Going Down Swinging publishes an annual journal, often covering more experimental fiction, poetry and spoken word. This is a hilarious and intensely performative piece from the brilliant Tom Cho.

Rebecca Giggs' “Blow In”  — I’m the fiction editor at Overland, so obviously it’s the best of the Australian journals! This story was published before my tenure. Overland has a radical bent and is a champion of emerging writers. I love the way Giggs explores the uncomfortable intersection of femininity, food and violence.

Margo Lanagan's “Titty Anne and the Very, Very Hairy Man” — Meanjin is a well-established quarterly based in Melbourne, and a reliably good read. Lanagan is Australia’s Angela Carter, a fantastic storyteller who loves to fuck with fairytales. Very dark and very funny.

Marie Munkara's “Shambala” — The Review of Australian Fiction is the new kid on the block, publishing short stories in ebook format at the rate of two stories every two weeks. Established authors rub shoulders with new talents. Marie Munkara is a sharp-witted social satirist from Darwin, whose stories can bring laughter, then tears, then tears of laughter.

Kim Westwood's “Cassandra’s Hands” — Spineless Wonders is another newish publisher of fiction, microfiction and more experimental work. They put out single author collections and run an excellent live story reading event in Adelaide. Westwood’s a writer who makes the leap between literary and genre fiction look easy. This story is very, very weird.

Recommended by Jennifer Mills

AIYO!!! An Evil Group of Ninjas is Entering and Destroying a Call Centre!!!
Excerpt

Blood everywhere!!! Die-lah! So much weapons, killing here, killing there! The call centre operators are getting cut up by ninja swords, left, right, and centre! The ninjas are throwing so many throwing stars into the team leaders’ eyes-lah... they must be professional killers-man!

Aiyo! Hear the dying fellas screaming! Call centre targets, sure cannot reach-one today!

The ninjas now got big tanks and big weapons to destroy everything! Alamak! Look out, young lady — get away from your workstation! Aiyah, a missile langgar her!!! Wasted! She so pretty-lah!

We read it in Look Who's Morphing.

Originally published in Going Down Swinging #22.

A performance of the full story is available here.

Blow In
Excerpt

But the CD was scratched and I turned it off it after a few tracks. Then I heard a terrible sound. At first I thought it was the engine but I stopped the car next to a paddock and the noise continued, coming from outside. I opened up the door. A sound of ripping, like sheet metal being torn. The air was glowing and through the haze I made out the shapes of cattle. The cows were coming fast over a ridge, running under yellow curtains of smoke. I couldn’t tell at first, standing there by the side of the road, but then I saw it. The legs of the cows were on fire. Their legs were on fire and they were making that noise, it came from their throats, that metal tearing. You wouldn’t know that cows could make that sound. But they can, they did. The cows came running to me and I could do nothing but watch.

The day before. A day more like a night, like a dark that won’t lift. Alice walked in from the gloom. Shaking, staggering, horrified. Holding out her hands like someone who wants to show they are unarmed. Here, my daughter’s hands said, I am without weapons. And I held her there, because I knew she was lying. I knew what she’d done.

We read it in Overland: Issue 201.

Titty Anne and the Very, Very Hairy Man
Excerpt

“Bring me that spun wool.” The old beast nodded at a spindle on the table with a distaff of flax-fluff next to it. Titty brought it. “Tie this around your ankle.” The grandmother offered the thread-end off the spindle. “Let me see how you tie it. Yes, a nice tight knot. Now, off you go. I will hold to the spindle and unwind you, just to outside the door, and then when you’re done I will reel you in again.”

Out the door Titty went, and there she had the great good fortune to find a broken plant-pot, a shard of which she used to saw at the flax-thread, so that soon enough she was free. She tied the thread then around a thistle-stalk there that was bending and bowing in the breeze, so that it would give lifelike movement to the thread and not arouse the suspicions of that creature in the bed. And then she fled into the forest unclothed, as fast as she could.

We read it in Meanjin Vol. 71 No. 4.

Shambhala
Excerpt

A wayward and much indulged child, Chunti-khor had an uncanny resemblance to his Urdu namesake, the aardvark, with a long tapering beak of a nose and a flickering tongue that would dart in and out rapidly when he was vexed. Why Lakshmi had settled on that name was beyond anyone’s comprehension, except Lakshmi, of course, who had always had a particular fondness for the odd creatures, and was known by all who knew her as a bit strange. It was unfortunate that his aged and ailing father had died and gone to where all good Hindus go when Chunti-khor was a three-month-old foetus in Lakshmi’s womb, as his choice of name for his only child would, without a doubt, have been a more dignified one.

Cassandra’s Hands
Excerpt

Behind the opaque glass door of Walenski’s Clocks & Watches, Andrei is waiting for the sky to go dark. He doesn’t like to remember the Saturday morning he’d woken to complete silence, every timepiece in his workshop stilled. He knew something bad was going to happen. Despite — or perhaps because of — his premonition, his wife Lena went out to get groceries.

When the terrible cracking and graunching had stopped, Andrei couldn’t open his eyes. A fine grey cement powder had settled on everything, including his eyelids. As he crouched among the tipped-over tallboys and smashed display cabinets, he heard the clocks begin to tick again. Tears welled up and out, tracking through the dust on his face and unsticking his eyelids.

We read it in Escape.

Originally published in Eidolon I.