On Tuesday night we spoke to Jane Rawson as part of our monthly Bright Young Things book club.
She was really generous and I had a lot of fun. Halfway through our chat, Jane's internet connection droppped out so we continued our chat via email.
So Jane, I just saw on your blog that you made a YouTube playlist for your book. Are there exactly 20 chapters? How is music involved in the telling/writing of the story?
Weirdly, there are 20 chapters. Weird, because this version of Formaldehyde is significantly rewritten from the version I wrote to match that playlist, and also weird because I couldn’t find all the songs on the original playlist on YouTube, so the list on my blog is a cut-down version.
When I wrote Formaldehyde it was the first long-form thing I’d written, my first attempt to ‘write a novel’. I had no idea if I could do it and I was terrified I’d run out of things to write about. I didn’t plot it out, I only had the vaguest idea what the story was and I only had two characters. So to keep me going I decided I had to write a chapter for every song on my favourite mix tape of the time. In the original manuscript, each chapter had a reference – sometimes fleeting, sometimes taking up most of the chapter – to the relevant song. Most have survived. Amy talks about her best boots, which appear in The Kinks’ ‘Lincoln County’, a song I never get sick of. Paul is mobbed by street cats, who snuck in from The Bedridden’s ‘Street Cats’. Amy hangs out in a hot tub stolen from Regurgitator’s ‘Freshmint’ and at some point, surely, someone - like the subject of the Velvet Underground’s song – has their life saved by rock and roll. My life in the year 2000 was full of odd gigs, like Dave Davies of The Kinks playing solo in a little club, and brilliant jukeboxes. Bars in San Francisco had the best jukeboxes at the turn of the century. Someone should write a book about it.
They are beautiful objects, these Seizure Viva La Novella books. Are you a fan of design? Did you help with that?
Aren’t they gorgeous? One of the main reasons I entered the competition was because I really really wanted to have a book that looked as pretty as the 2014 Viva la Novellas. David Henley, who designed the cover for mine, showed me his first attempt and I pretty much said, ‘That is exactly how I always imagined the cover of Formaldehyde would look’, which it was.
Book club question: Are you a fan of novellas?
I do seem to love either really long or really short books. And lately I’ve read a bunch of really short books that I’ve been very impressed by: Jenny Offil’s Dept of Speculation is like a novella squared – not just short but infinitely distilled. Every word is like some kind of condensed cordial. Chi Vu’s Anguli Ma, one of the little novels Giramondo puts out, is like no other Australian book I’ve read, a gothic horror set among Vietnamese refugees in 1980s Footscray. And I’m not sure if it’s a novella, because it’s not exactly fiction, but Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is the best book I’ve read this year or maybe ever. She packs an incredible amount of mind-blowing into such a little book.
You said somewhere that in the 15 years since you wrote it that perhaps you were less romantic. What did you mean by that?
It’s tricky to answer that without giving away parts of the plot of Formaldehyde, but let’s just say that in the original version characters were much more forgiving of the transgressions of people they’d been in love with, and there was a lot more longing to resume relationships that had broken down. In the modern version, characters are considerably happier to cut their losses and get on with finding something better to do with their lives. I think I used to believe more strongly that a great love shapes your life, that even when it ends it should still be a major part of your character. I was willing to overlook a lot of mess for the sake of romance, and yearning was one of my favourite emotions. I’m not so into that anymore.
The book jumps between four different characters and two time periods, how did you manage to get the story straight in your own head?
I’m not sure I have yet. Even in the final version of the manuscript, just before it went to the printer, the editor and I were picking up a few inconsistencies. There were lots of mistakes in the first, quickly written version. But rewriting I drew a kind of timeline of what happened when to make sure everyone could be where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. And on later rewrites characters’ motivations have changed, and the solution to the puzzle of how everyone is connected has changed (there used to be five major characters, for example), and each time I just go back and read over and over and over and make sure it all still makes sense. Getting other people to read it helps too. They’re very good at saying, ‘but wait, you have Paul appearing in a scene before he was even born’ and useful things like that.
What was it like to work with an emerging editor?
Really good. Marisa hadn’t worked on speculative-type fiction before, so it was fun to work through with her what things might work in this story that wouldn’t work in a realist story, and to have her apply her sharp realist eye to my messy surrealist story. She’d say to me ‘this couldn’t happen’ and my first response would be, ‘of course it could, this is surrealism, anything can happen’. But in a lot of cases she was right – once I challenged myself to look harder at the situations I’d made up, it often turned out that even within my surrealist setting they were a bit too unrealistic. Marisa really helped me tighten things up. She also helped me flesh out the characters, forcing me to go back and add more detail, think again about things I’d written years ago and test whether they still made emotional sense. She was also an excellent proof-reader, noticing all the times I messed up tenses, which happens a lot in a book that jumps from past to present to future sometimes in the one sentence. And behind her there was the behemoth of Seizure (well, two other people) who were quality testing everything we did: it was a nice safety net.
Because we're a book club, can you think of anyone that you’d recommend for people to read?
I just finished John Steinbeck’s East of Eden: that guy can write, and his head is full of great ideas. He also appeared briefly in an earlier version of Formaldehyde. There are so many books I love: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, George Saunders’ 10th of December. But really everyone should read the other two Viva la Novella winners for this year. Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward is ferocious and funny and bleak and warm and has heaps of fake swear words. The end of seeing by Christy Collins is both beautiful and thrilling, and will make you think even more than you already do about what it might be like to flee your country.
Things mentioned in our chat:
Seizure - Viva La Novella Competition (Series 4 applications now open)
Formaldehyde is out now through Seizure:
We will have an extract as part of Bloc Features and you can also pre-order the book here:
Jane Rawson grew up in Canberra before dawdling on the streets of San Francisco, Prague and Phnom Penh. These days she lives in Melbourne’s west. Formerly editor of the environment and energy section of The Conversation, she now writes for an organisation promoting technology for social justice. She likes cats, quiet, minimal capitalisation, and finding out that everything is going to be OK.
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