When Jane Rawson’s book A Wrong Turn At The Office of Unmade Lists showed up in my mail box, I was both thrilled and dismayed.
I was thrilled because the cover caught my eye and it had maps on it and I adore anything to do with maps and geography. I was dismayed because the book title was long.
And on checking the blurb I wasn’t entirely convinced. A Wrong Turn At The Office Of Unmade Lists is a) a cool plot idea which made me think I would be trembling with envy throughout reading it but b) is set in a dystopian universe which made me think I would be wanting to stab my eyes with pencils before too long.
I was wrong, and there was no need for a trip to the emergency room – Jane Rawson’s debut novel won me over quite quickly. I loved the plot idea so much that it wasn’t very long into the book before I loved its execution.
So in an insane burst of flurried activity I emailed Ms Rawson and asked her if I could interview her to which she graciously responded with much glee. This was mostly because she usually interviews other people while writing for Lonely Planet and she felt it was nice to be on the other side for once. It was a very hard thing to keep the envy in check but I managed.
I called the plot a madcap one and she seemed to agree. It came in bits and pieces and is actually three stories mashed up into one delicious smoothie of a whole.
“The story about Simon and Sarah was written first, from a conversation I had with a friend when we both worked at Lonely Planet,” she explained.
“We were trying to outdo one another – ironically, of course: it was 1999 – as to who had ‘seen’ the most countries. And he started talking about the idea of dividing a country up into squares to make sure you’d seen it all, and how it would be cool to make a mockumentary about someone who had done that.”
Jane Rawson’s shortlist of Australian female authors:
Ruth Park: Harp in the South,
Eleanor Dark: The Timeless Land,
Alexis Wright: The Swan Book,
Madeleine St John: The Women in Black,
Anna Krien: Into the Woods,
GL Osborne: Come Inside,
Josephine Rowe: Tarcutta Wake.
In the book, maps have power and the folds and creases over time mean something and connect you to places in time-space. This sends Ray and Caddy from dystopian Melbourne tumbling straight into Simon and Sarah in San Francisco in the 1990s.
“The maps: that’s from me and my good friend in Canberra always talking about how it would be great to fold the map so we could get between the two cities in seconds,” Rawson said.
“The setting for Caddy’s story is partly from a tour I did of some oil holding tanks near my old house in Melbourne, where one of the engineers described the results if the tanks should explode, and also from a three-month stint I did in Phnom Penh, as well as my imagination of a future climate-changed Melbourne.”
To write dystopia so well, one must surely love it? Or love reading it? But Rawson doesn’t count it as a genre.
“Dystopia is more a way of life for me than a genre. I thinking my reading genre is ‘literary, but not too hard, OK?’. I enjoy things that are mostly true (Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days, for example, which I just finished for the second time), things that are entirely weird (Tao Lin’s ‘Eeeee eee eeee’ was super; so was his ‘Taipei’ which falls much more in the ‘mostly true’ category) and things which – bear with me here – appear to be entirely true but are completely made up (‘Rings of Saturn’ by WG Sebald is shattering genius as far as I’m concerned),” she explained.
“But the most important thing to me is whatever the setting, however weird, I really need to care about the characters: I want to feel what they feel. I love George Saunders for this, and also Elizabeth Jane Howard, who is entirely unweird and was just brilliant at making ordinary people who matter.”
Which brings me to the question of other reading choices. What did she read growing up? And who was the first Australian female author that she read?
“I know I was into AA Milne and Enid Blyton, as well as a brief flirtation with the Nancy Drew series, none of which helps. I’m going to cheat and say ‘Seven Little Australians’ by Ethel Turner, because I was absolutely obsessed with the 1973 ABC TV series and apparently it’s very faithful to the book.”
Reading aside, she’s been writing ever since she can remember. Save for that one moment when she wanted to play test cricket.
“I have always loved reading, honestly much more than anything else, and always wanted to make imaginary things. I did want to be a test fast bowler for a while, but gave up on that around 6th grade,” she said.
“Pretty much since then my mind has been set on writing in one form or another. And all my paid work has had something to do with writing.”
And of course there are the usual questions: now that’s she is published, are there more books to come? When is the next one? But those are all unknowns for Rawson.
“I always assumed I’d write a novel. I also assumed I’d be the anchor on Four Corners and that I’d have a three bedroom art-deco apartment with floor-to-ceiling built in bookshelves in New York City. I suppose the other things are coming. I first started actually trying to write a novel in 1997, I think,” she explained.
“Something changed inside my head once I had a book published; I felt justified in calling myself a “writer” and that has really got me enthusiastic again.”
And there are promises she cannot make:
“There are a lot more novels in me; or, at least, there are a lot of ridiculous ideas in me that are pretending they can be novels and will probably keep doing so right until I sit down to write them, at which point they’ll vanish”, she said.
“I’m working on some non-fiction at the moment in my “spare time” which is keeping me busy, but if anyone wants to give me a large grant so I can write instead of work I’ll get onto doing a novel as well. Otherwise I hope to devote 2015’s spare time to novel writing. Whether anyone should look forward to it is another matter altogether.”
The Writing Routine
My routine is get up, go to work, come home, cook dinner/go to yoga/practice clarinet/waste time on the internet/drink wine/eat dinner, realise it’s 10pm, panic, read a book, go to bed, get up next day realising I haven’t written anything, go to work…
Once a year I try to make up for it by churning out 50,000 words over the course of a month, then devoting a few chunks of time during the year – say, taking a week off work and doing nothing but writing – to making it into something a bit more bearable. If you have to work full-time – and who doesn’t? – a writing routine seems to be a matter of desperately grabbing at whatever time you can get.
The Writing Advice
Just write. Don’t worry about it: just write. Your first draft is going to suck, but until you write it you can’t write the good version, so just sit down and shut up and go through the pain of realising how awful you are and get on with it.
Books read for the #AWW2014 Challenge:
Tracy Farr: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt
Annie Hauxwell: In Her Blood
Elizabeth Harrower: The Watch Tower
I asked her about motivation to finish off the interview. She was refreshingly honest about it.
“I don’t think being published actually legitimises a writer at all. It’s just that I’m the kind of person who really needs a pat on the head and a “well done!” to push on, and publishing has provided that. A few nice reviews have certainly helped too.”
A couple of weeks after the interview, Jane Rawson tweets at me. A Wrong Turn At The Office Of Unmade Lists was shortlisted in the science fiction section for the Aurealis Awards. It’s exciting news and come April 5, we will find out if she nabs the top spot.
In the meantime, Jane Rawson is also participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2014 and apparently has finished off three titles and plans to read seven more. Add her book to your list and beat her goal of ten Australian female authors.