Jessie Cole's second book Deeper Water is a gentle, tender exploration of a young woman, Mema, exploring the relationships she has with her family, her town and most significantly, her landscape.
Mema is named Artemesia after the goddess for young women, the earth and hunting. A strong name for a strong girl, although just as she prefers to downplay her strength, so she prefers to use her nickname Mema. Even so, the name flags this young women as a protector, and deeply connected to the earth. I should know, I gave my daughter the middle name Artemis for the very same reasons!
Mema has a club foot, has been home-schooled, and is the youngest of six children and the only child still living at home off the grid with her mother in a rundown homestead on a small farm on the edge of a small town. Mema seems content with this life. She doesn't see herself as marginal, rather she just goes about her business feeding the animals, doing the farmwork, supporting both her mother and her recently separated sister and two toddlers along with her unhinged and slightly magical friend Anja who regularly flees a violent home across the creek. Though she is the youngest, and most physically damaged, she is the protector of this small posse of women.
Mema has a quiet, sensual relationship with her landscape. This is heightened when she rescues the handsome stranger Hamish from certain death as his car is washed away in a flooding creek. Hamish is forced to stay in Mema's home, and what unfolds is an examination of her burgeoning sexuality, her relationship with her landscape and tentative steps into the township and perhaps the world beyond.
I've seen Jessie Cole speak at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and I just adored her debut Darkness on the Edge of Town in 2012. I loved Deeper Water even more.
Reading groups and book club people will love the Q&A posted at the end of the book, along with some set questions. Love!
I emailed the delightful Jessie to chat about Deeper Water and we got chatting and swapping notes about living in small country towns. The authenticity of her small-town characters resonated with me. The woman who works at the post office and has known you since you can walk, the footy club yobbo who can't help spread gossip, even if he hasn't quite got a grip on the facts. The people who don't quite know you, but quietly look out for you because they've seen you about since you were a kids and know you live on the edge of town doing it tough with your Mum. There's a push-pull effect between everyone knowing everything about you and having a very loud opinion, and the genuine comfort of having a community looking out for you. I do think growing up in the country gives you an awareness of how you fit with the landscape. How it changes seasonally, and how this affects you. If you have grown up with the soil under your nails, you'll understand what I mean.
Please enjoy this little Q&A on writing with Jessie Cole. When you've finished, scoot out and get the book pronto! Go, go go!
What would you like to see more of published in Australia?
This is a tricky question for me because—in many ways—I’ve been quite out of the loop of the world of new releases. There are many reasons for this, but mostly it comes down to geographical isolation. It is only really since Darkness on the Edge of Town was published that I’ve properly caught up with the work of my contemporaries. But once I caught up, I was quite struck by the richness of our literary culture. I would like to read more multicultural stories, and hear from more Indigenous writers, but this year seems a bumper crop with fresh voices like Christine Piper, Omar Musa and Maxine Beneba Clarke.
What do you like reading?
I’m a quite eclectic reader. I probably read as much non-fiction as fiction. When I’m interested in a topic I like to buy a book or two or three, and really study them. I don’t rely only on internet surfing as I find that way of learning quite fractured and frustrating, and will often just use the internet to research the books I want to buy. In terms of fiction, I’m quite fussy. I really like novels with a high degree of intimacy in the narrative voice, which is a little tricky to define, but is important to me.
Describe your typical writing day.
I don’t write all the time, but when I’m having a writing day, I tend to spend quite a bit of time daydreaming before I actually start. When I begin I usually write in spurts. I do a lot of getting up and wandering off, as though I’ve just remembered I have something really important to attend to, but then I’m left stranded between rooms forgetting what my purpose was. I suspect if I was being watched I’d look very odd—wandering about in utter distraction and then racing back to my laptop when finally revelation strikes. Movement is really important to my process. I need to be able to walk around. And when I write a spurt, it’ll come tumbling out, then I’ll probably daydream a bit more, write another spurt, and then be off again—roaming about. Describing my technique makes it sound improbable that I ever get anything done, but when I am writing I usually write quite a bit in a small space of time.
Describe your workspace (or office)
I live in the house I grew up in, and I used to write in my family’s study. It’s a higgledy-piggledy kind of room with whole walls of book shelves. A little chaotic, but lovely—all filled with my parent’s books. But, since having the internet connected, I find I can’t write anywhere near the PC. We don’t have wireless so it’s only this one PC in the study that’s online. To write post-internet I’ve had to abandon that room entirely. I’ve taken to writing in my bedroom, just sitting in bed. My bedroom is very tiny—it was tacked on top of the roof at a later stage to the rest of the building, so it’s the only room upstairs. Because I live in a forest, and my room is up high, it’s like sitting in the canopy. Mostly I love it, but sometimes I feel claustrophobic because I don’t have a workable desk, and the room is a little cramped. Also, I’m messy, so that doesn’t help!
Without giving away any of your own secrets, what are you researching at the moment?
I’m not really researching anything in any formal manner. I often have a break between writing novels. I’m not someone who has a backlog of ideas—I have to do a lot of pottering, live a little, and wait for them to come along!
Favourite bookshop/s. Why?
There is an independent bookshop in Mullumbimby that I love. It’s been there as long as I remember, and the woman who runs it is an elegant, thoughtful soul. The store itself is quite small, but it has an incredible selection of things, many of them quite obscure. Denise does a great job of matching stock to the town’s needs, and she’s totally passionate about books. I think many of the townsfolk would see Denise’s store as something of a cultural centre, a place of sustenance. I certainly do.
iPad or book?
Definitely book. I don’t even own an iPad.
Book/s that changed your life?
Whenever I think about this, I come up with a different set of texts, so I guess the answer is something that changes depending on mood. When I was in high school I had an amazing English teacher. She was quite passionate and fearsome and I adored her. I did extension English with a bunch of very engaged girls. We studied three books in depth. Thea Astley’s An Item From the Late News, Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry, and Maxine Hong-Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Studying these texts with such intensity, surrounded by enthusiastic, bright-eyed peers, led by an incredible teacher, was life changing. And of course—they are all amazing books!
What are you reading now?
At the moment I’m reading a novel by Felicity Volk called Lightning. It’s about a woman who gives birth to a stillborn baby daughter and then takes her in a suitcase on a grief-fuelled road trip into the desert. In many ways it’s an odd companion read to my first novel Darkness on the Edge of Town, which traverses a lot of similar terrain. It sounds a bit macabre, but it’s actually quite meditative and soothing.
What do you plan to read next?
I haven’t decided yet!
What do you recommend for a cheeky holiday read?
The might not be my forte! The last book I read on holiday was Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. It’s not cheeky but it is really wonderful. I wish I’d had access to it when I first had babies!
My background is as a book publisher and I think some aspiring writers just don't realise how much work goes into creating that final, finished manuscript. It is rare, I find, for writers to feel their MS is complete at the first draft. Can you tell us about how you hone that final draft, and what lessons you learnt from the first novel? How has your writing process developed, what have you learned?
Being an emerging writer, I feel a tad hesitant talking about my process as something that is in any way set in stone. So far, I tend to write quite consecutively. Though I edit a little as I go, I do basically write from beginning to end. Almost like I’m listening to the story. I don’t interfere all that much with what I’m hearing, and I certainly don’t write multiple versions of anything. Peter Bishop, (the former creative director of Varuna, the Writers’ House), once told me that I write my first draft like a second draft. I don’t know why that is, but I wonder if I might do a lot of the *first-draft-messing-about* in my head. Maybe that’s what all the daydreaming is about?
So, with Deeper Water, I basically wrote my first draft without much tampering. I then sat on it for a while, probably about 6 months. I don’t really share my work until the whole first draft is done. I prefer the book to stay quite a private space. But I belong to a lovely writers’ group and once I felt ready, I submitted the whole MS to them, and a few weeks later we met to discuss it. I took notes while they spoke, and was especially attuned to things they all agreed on. I then went away and focused on fixing some of the issues they’d highlighted, which were generally narrative problems. (What happened to the bikes? That kind of thing.)
After I’d finished that, I submitted it to HarperCollins, and began the process of working with my editor. This was quite intensive. After the initial structural edit, I must have done at least 3, maybe 4, edits. Of the whole book. There were only a couple of scenes that got reworked or partially rewritten, but—line by line—there was a lot of tinkering. I’m very glad of this because the book did, essentially, feel like a first draft to me, and there is something incredibly exposing about having your first draft go public.
In terms of what I’ve learned, my process for both books was quite similar, but with Deeper Water I was much more conscious of the fact that you have to live in the world of your novel for a very long time, so I wanted it to be a more joyful space to inhabit than Darkness on the Edge of Town was. I also had to be a bit more disciplined with Deeper Water, especially when I first started writing it. I had to make myself sit down and complete a certain amount of words. I hadn’t done that with Darkness on the Edge of Town at all.
I am conscious of the fact that my way of working might be considered atypical—in that in the early stages I don’t do a lot of redrafting—but I’m also aware that writers often say that with each book they write it’s like they are starting from scratch. Maybe the next one I write will be different!
I was sent a review copy of Deeper Water by HarperCollins, but all opinions are my own.