Josephine Rowe is an Australian writer of short fiction, poetry and essays. Her story collections include How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Iowa Review , Best Australian Poems, Best Australian Stories, and The Monthly. She is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University.
She is in Australia to launch her debut novel A Loving, Faithful Animal, and spoke to our Content Director Liam Pieper about her writing, stirring the possum, Ivy-league level writing workshops, and learning from Toby Wolff.
Josephine Rowe: Photo by Jason Montano
This book! It's so visceral, so real; the way you've got with weaving dialogue and sense of place and emotion together to make the angst and dust and heat of these lives immediate and true. I won't ask you how you do it, because who knows how these things work, but I will ask if it's something helped by distance. How has your time abroad affected your gift for capturing the beauty and terror of Australian English? Does being a world away make it easier or harder to tackle this story of buttoned-down life on Prisoner Island?
The beauty and terror of Australian English! That’s an astute take—I’ve given a fair amount of reflection to the geographical and emotional distances that aided the writing, but less so to how dialectical distance may have been helpful. Though I was very concerned with the vernacular and how to manage it during the course of writing.
The simple answer is: Yes, the distance made things easier, in both instances, and in essentially the same way. Details crystallise. You walk through Californian traffic, and somehow there is still the tick and drone of high summer in rural Victoria. Somehow sitting in a cafe surrounded by conversations in Quebecois doesn’t muffle the clarity of certain speech patterns.
I think it’s how you know you’re going the right way—it’s whatever rises to meet you. At its best it’s like remembering; things surface almost audibly, like echoic memory, a ripple of something that’s already been said.
I grew up around broad Australian accents, heavy vernacular. I could clearly hear those voices, Jack’s especially, but I was wary of caricaturing the men in the book (well, particularly the men in the book). Who knew you could get so bloody fucking sick of the little bastards? I tried to kick that out a dozen times, but it kept coming back, dogged. It was there even when not in print; I'd hear it. You have to give in, after a while.
I’ve been home once in three years, for ten days; I can see how compelling Australian English and slang is to outsiders. The other day a friend dropped an Australian phrasebook on my doorstep, as a going home present.
Before we talk about anything else, what the crikey-fuck does an Australian phrase book contain? What is an Australian phrase?
Australian phrases that could be applied:
stir the possum
pick the eyes out of it
like a cocky on a biscuit tin
The phrasebook also helpfully gives state-to-state variations on what to call “a round slice of potato covered in batter and deep fried.”
Please, tell me: what is the meaning and context of "cocky on a biscuit tin?
Well, Liam, I’m glad you asked. To paraphrase the phrasebook: it means left out, or out of place. It came into use after Arnott's biscuits opted to use a rosella for their logo instead of a cockatoo.
Back to regular programming: This idea that Australian English is compelling to outsiders is...well... compelling. It seems to me that when our nation has a cultural breakout, it's some of the more pronounced angles of post-invasion Australiana that gain traction with the wider world, these intense, hyper-real imaginings of Australia that the world has occasionally embraced: Mad Max's dystopia, Baz Luhrmann's camp, Sidney Nolan's bush, Peter Carey's magical realism.
It's almost as if there's this weird antipodean-occidentalist lens that the world applies to us, one which many of us conspire to perpetuate. At its most anarchic and fun, it's as simple as warning visitors about drop-bears. On a more intrinsic level, I think many Australian artists draw from that source, that idea that Australia is a strange place, where strange things happen. Perhaps it's a kind of reaction against cultural cringe; this idea that we are unique, and that makes up partway for our provincialism and remoteness from the rest of the West.
Anyway, my question in a roundabout way, is this: this book, subtle touches of horror and almost-surreal flourishes could be placed in a tradition of lyrical Australian gothica. Calling back to your earlier work, it feels like some of the realism of, say, Tarcutta Wake has softened some of its hard edges and moved into more ephemeral territory, somewhere between what your characters know to be and what could be.
Is this just a natural progression of your voice? Or had time away from home helped you tap into that not-quite-real sinister subtext that seems to permeate our land. And does this lead into the themes of love and horror at play in this story of family?
I don’t think you’re far from the mark, though my few years away don’t really play into this one. The ephemeral territory you’ve noticed, the sidelong gaze at both the mythological and garden-variety what-could-be, is in keeping with the more sustained attention to domestic love and horror; a vital means of negotiating a distressing present.
I could put it like this: We rely more heavily on peripheral vision in the dark.
There are stories in Tarcutta Wake that are also concerned with violence and the resulting need to mentally and emotionally disassociate. But if the ephemeral seems amplified in the novel, it’s perhaps that those short stories were generally told from greater narrative distance; there’s an observational, matter-of-factness about the violence. Whereas the novel gives closer, more expansive examination to those physical and psychological aggressions, as well as the characters’ attempts to either look beyond them or disassociate from them.
Before I left Australia for Montreal, I’d been at work on a collection of stories that all related to exactly what you’re talking about— those dark manifestations that spring from the Australian psyche; the Colonial attempt to populate Terra Incognita (because Something is ostensibly less terrifying than Nothing) and the confused translations of Indigenous lore. A Loving, Faithful Animal started as part of that collection, then devoured it. Like a strangler fig.
The what-could-be that sparked A Loving, Faithful Animal (and also a Baillieu election promise!) was the Victorian phantom panther. The idea of a panther skulking around Central Victoria always mesmerised me, and it was fused in my kid-brain with my father’s stories of the mascot they once kept at Puckapunyal Army Base. Weirdly, I read many rural panther origin stories, but never came across an account that offered that fairly feasible explanation. They could bring just about anything back over—no customs.
I've always been fascinated by what veterans brought home with them, beyond the war and its attendant demons. In my old life, I used to work with this one guy who claimed he'd brought home a fully functional AK47 by breaking it up into its component parts and disguising them as jewellery and other items of Vietnamese kitsch. I was never sure whether to believe him, but I never pushed him too far on it; a lovely man, but a terrifying one.
That wouldn’t surprise me one bit.
Did they really keep a panther at Puckapunyal? Also; your father was an army man?
My father was an army man, a conscript to Vietnam, and yes, he trained at Puckapunyal. Where, according to his stories there was indeed a panther mascot. His other war stories are few and far between, but the panther was always a crowd-pleaser. That part about the civvies being worried it would get loose and wreak havoc, and so calling for it to be re-housed at the Melbourne Zoo are purportedly also true, though my transpacific sleuthing turned up less documentation than I’d hoped. I was initially disheartened about the lack of official evidence. Then I remembered, as I sometimes do, that I’m a fiction writer, and while there are parts of this book that are beholden to fact, this panther wasn’t one of them.
I feel terribly rude for asking this, feel free to tell me to stop stirring the possum, or fuck the puppy, or some other charming Australianism, but the News Corp hack I trained as will not rest. Your father is a veteran, and he has distanced himself from that violence. Was any of that aspect of this story informed by your own experience?
Ask away. I’m not skittish of it, but I don’t want to get too mired in this aspect, would rather not get out the scalpel to dissever truth from fiction. So I’ll give the short version: a great deal of this story was informed by my own experience. Although my childhood was outer-suburban, not rural, boasting fewer panthers and zero bicycles (ironically, my mother considered them unsafe, and worried my sister and I might injure ourselves).
I agree with your imperative to leave truth and fiction unsparsed. I pry, because, I suppose, fiction seems to always be more vital when the reader can grasp the veracity behind it, or at least, to perceive a verisimilitude. At least, that's what I gather from Gooodreads.
Though I’m wary of perpetuating that myth; that in order to be a decent artist life has to have roughed you up a bit. I once had a student tell me, “You’re so lucky! All this stuff happened to you—it's given you so much to write about.”
And I thought (or possibly said), “Are you kidding”?
You are quite right, that myth that to be a decent artist you have to have been brutalised in some way, that needs to be taken out and euthanised, ASAP. I do believe that there is an element of truth to it, but only insofar that most good artists have to have had to in some way re-examine the context in which they live. For many, it's just a matter of being discombobulated in some way, through trauma, in some cases, or through circumstance; most of my favourite writers are the product of writers in broken imperial colonies, or queer writers from homophobic backgrounds.
It doesn't necessarily need to be traumatic, but you have to be in some way...different... from the status quo that you find yourself asking yourself exactly what is wrong with the world you live in, and how much of that is your fault. Of course, a much easier and healthier way to do this is to just try and think clearly and perceive the world around you with as much clarity as you can. I mean, from what I gather Borges rarely left his library, and never wrote his dissolute tell-all roman-a-clef, but still managed to cut through to the truth of so much of the age he lived in.
As someone who started in dissolute roman-a-clef, and eviscerated his own family in non-fiction, I often wonder about Gore Vidal's taxonomy of writers: that we are either those who are drawn to it because of their love of the language, always in search of the perfect sentence; the Henry Jameses and James Joyces of the world. Then there are those who have at some pivotal moment been wounded, suffered some malady and have taken refuge in the imagination in order to find solace. I probably belong more safely in the latter category, but I'm not prejudiced. If you had to pick a side, what would it be?
The latter also. I like the way Louise Bourgeois said it:
“Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it, and then, if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.”
And becoming a writer, as opposed to a sculptor, your basic materials are free and inexhaustible, so long as you have the mental and creative faculties to utilise them. To talk of process, of processing—it sometimes feels like getting away with some mythological task, spinning something wonderful or at least useful out of detritus.
I do have a foot planted firmly in the former camp—I love language, treacherous as it is. And I love the capacity of ordinary language to transcend or transform ordinary circumstance, to be made charged and rich simply through proximity or unlikelihood.
During earlier drafts of the novel, a fellow writer commented on its violence: “There are some things that language cannot make pretty.” As though the depiction of violence should not warrant a well-constructed sentence, or should only be articulated within the confines of a prescribed vocabulary.
While the word “pretty” pissed me off mightily, the general sentiment of her argument did give me pause: Is this what I’m doing here, poeticising violence? Is this what I have always been doing? Not in the way this writer friend was meaning it; not beautifying, absolutely not. But to some extent atomising it—one of the basic modes poetry takes.
I have a friend whose upbringing shares some notes with my own. And when he tells a story whose components are basically brutal or miserable or traumatic, he always finds a way to make it funny.
I can’t do that so easily, find the humour in violence or poverty, but I can perhaps wrestle a poem out of it, and the impulse is similar, I think. To disarm it in some way. Control is too simple a word and own is too simple a word, but to shift or diffuse the power of it—we’ve each become our own bomb disposal unit.
Can I ask you a question here, on the evisceration of family? Did it really feel that way while you were writing The Feel-Good hit of the Year? After? And did your people respond as you expected they might?
I honestly didn't think I was writing something very contentious. At the time I was very smitten with a certain school of fey, neurotic New Yorker new journalism: Sedaris, Rakoff, in particular who is a great hero of mine. Have you read him? He has this incredible knack for bomb disposal in a bittersweet, comedic vein. He's got an essay about dying of cancer that is one of the funniest things I've ever read. Basically I was trying to mine some of my unhappier years for the things I found funny about them. It never occurred to me that anyone else would be upset.
I had no idea I was eviscerating my family until certain critics decided to have a go. I've got an essay in Mistakes Were Made about this – about how I thought that the media unfairly maligned my family for things I had never considered objectionable. The things I was braced for, the things I expected to be attacked by conservative circles for, they never came up. Instead, they went for easy targets, those within the book without the wherewithal to defend themselves in the public eye. But this is often the nature of moral warriors; inheriting and perpetuating a set of moral values is the easiest thing in the world.
I’ve nearly always approached things through this scrim of fiction, poetry, or—at closest—the poetic-but-still-quite-elliptical essay, and it sometimes feels like slipping a brown paper bag over what is very obviously whisky so that I can drink it casually in public (watch me resist the urge to extend this metaphor!)
To answer your question and to push your whisky metaphor to breaking point; I don't really mind if people see what I drink. My tastes run towards the cheap. I have always preferred pizza to fine food, and my favourite whisky is a particularly inexpensive brand, just because it's what I drank as a child. I also take a certain macho pleasure in ordering that whisky when out with friends, with being able to profoundly enjoy things other people find rough or unpleasant.
I think an element of that has found its way into my aesthetic. This thing that you find unpleasant, or ugly, or even worse, boring, it's none of those things; I promise, it can be quite beautiful – let me show you. Is that drive not why we got into this daft writing caper in the first place?
But let's segue dangerously back to, A Loving Faithful Animal, and talk about your characters' attempts to look beyond or disassociate from violence. What is the difference between those approaches as a coping mechanism? Who is doing which?
For instance, is Evelyn, who looks for solace in memory, searching beyond or within herself? And what about for Jack? If violence is a part of him, how can he possibly escape it? Does he run away looking for a better life? Or just drop out of the reality and family he has made to save them from himself?
Okay, let’s. The book finds Ev in the very early stages of resurfacing from years of physical and psychological abuse. Up to this point she has taken refuge in the memory of her younger, braver self, and of the man her husband was when she first met him. The past is more vivid to her than the present, and the idea that the future could be different to now is barely imaginable. Recent events have forced an action—or have illuminated inaction as itself a choice, a course of action for which she’s accountable—and there’s a glimmer of awareness that there are retrievable aspects of this former braver self, of dormant agency. But she’s still very much stymied by that identification as victim.
That inertia was something I had to almost bully out of her. Look, you don’t know what happens! I know what happens! Get up! Perhaps it sounds schizophrenic to talk of characters not simply following the trajectories you have laid out for them, but it’s the case. She was meant to do more, but writing her was along the lines of:
[loudly] Do something.
[louder still] Do something!
[exhausted] Why aren’t you doing anything?
[negotiating] Okay, when might you do something?
Jack’s distancing from violence was the more difficult to gain insight to. (How much can be excused as happening in a fugue state? This is not me?) His leaving is, to his mind, the most merciful thing he can do. The tendency to bolt so as not to cause further harm is one I understood better in the course of researching the book; armloads of veterans’ accounts of post-war family life. (As I’ve said elsewhere, this reading came to feel like an extended conversation I could not have with my own father.) Another crucial take was that what looks like violence and destruction is often the redirection of worse violence and worse destruction. A fist through a wall, for instance, is not a fist to a jaw. Does that sound excusatory? I don’t mean for it to be. Only that I came to fully appreciate the renegotiation of however many degrees it is between body and object.
My own father has since distanced himself from violence in the best way possible; has worked very hard to become a different person to the man he was when I was young.
War places people in prolonged states of fight or flight, and demands they move against instinct, towards harm. The autonomic nervous system is shredded, and this is often echoed in the children of veterans. Whether that’s a matter of epigenetics or learned response in hostile environments is a larger, messier question. But one learns to develop inward coping strategies: ways of leaving without leaving. So for Ru, that’s wandering and, eventually, art—conjuring these open, yet-to-be-inhabited spaces, places that are “waiting”, just as she finds comfort in half-built homes where nothing terrible has ever happened.
In Lani’s case, escape is through velocity, or through altered states, then—her father’s daughter—through geographical distance. Ultimately, though, her “beyond” is the family she starts from scratch. Psychology is so quick to tell us How We Are Ruined, and there’s so much discussion about children coming from violent households being less-stable parents. It’s just as often the other way; that a volatile childhood serves as a model for how not to be; there’s the iron determination to be a good person and raise good people.
Speaking of which, let's talk Wolff. I understand you wrote this work as a Stegner fellow, and one of your professors is Tobias Wolff, a writer who's a master of both episodic fiction and writing the Vietnam War. What was it like to work with him? How does one work with a form and subject that your mentor is so renowned in? I get performance anxiety just thinking about it. But then, I get performance anxiety trying to flag a taxi.
Great question—to be honest, I almost didn’t show him the novel (which at that stage was a novella). All the stories you’ll hear about Toby Wolff are true (most recently and excellently from George Saunders in The New Yorker). He’s an exceptionally warm, generous conversationalist and teacher, a sharer of cracking anecdotes that often involve Ray Carver and the occasional salmon falling majestically from the sky.
While his preference is for traditional story structures, he was always gracious when handling work that fell outside those bounds. But as you’ve figured, putting A Loving, Faithful Animal up on the block was anxiety-making—did I really want to dish up my early-draft scrabbling on the Vietnam War to a man who was not only there but has written superbly about being there? To up stakes: my workshop fell on his final day as a Stegner facilitator, a position he’s held for close to two decades, and I wasn’t sure this was what he’d want to talk about on his final day of piloting a discussion.
So for weeks there was this knot in my stomach. Someone convinced me, fortunately. I do think of it as a very Australian book, and was unsure how translatable its concerns were, so the response from Toby and the other Stegner fellows was galvanising. I think I had to hold onto the table to keep from floating out of there. Afterwards we all went out for a rowdy Indian dinner, and when I got home very late and tipsy to my barely-furnished Oakland studio, a new mattress was waiting in a deceptively-small box on my doorstep. When un-boxed it unfurled theatrically, and I fell face-down and half-dressed into the happiest sleep I’d had in months.
But I digress.
Toby was of course a keen eye to have on that early manuscript, particularly in ensuring I steer Jack well clear of the traumatised veteran stereotype. He also made a strong case for it being a full-length novel, stating quite bluntly (well, blunt for him) that I was only doing the work harm by keeping things so tightly wound. He was advocating, I think, for a longer full-length novel. But even as is, when stacked against my shorter works, it feels sprawling, shifting, always something out of my immediate reach.
While my methodology didn’t change so much—except that I incorporated a manual typewriter so that I could not ‘flit’ like the frenetic animal I am—not being able to hold an entire story in my visual field is in some ways alarming, like a sand bar crumbling away, or driving into thick fog. The loss of hard edges, a relinquishing of at least some control. So maybe this will be the only novel I write; who knows! But there is something compelling about the mental territory a longer work opens up.
A Loving, Faithful Animal started as a collection, but here it arrives as a novel. At what point did the collection become irrevocably strangled, fig style, into a longer work? And was it an exciting or a dreadful proposition when it did?
I’ll get into this a little more further along, but the short answer is either: America, or: a natural progression (see: demand) of the work that coincided with my being in America. It might also be owing to the Montreal polar vortex and my need to be some place warmer, at least cerebrally.
The other stories that were part of that collection—some of which are already in print—are still kicking, will still hopefully see a roughly book-shaped existence. So perhaps my strangler-fig analogy is not ideal. What’s a better analogy for creative redirection/embezzlement? Probably there’s a good mutiny to liken it to.
The idea of a story mutinying, or having to negotiate with characters in order to make them act wouldn't make any sense at all to me, if I hadn't just experienced it in writing my new novel, which I’ll take an ingracious moment to plug here, and I found myself surprised and disturbed by the things my characters seemed to want to do. It's a phenomenon I find to be, at the very least, inconvenient, when one tries to explain to their long-suffering editor that your character's motivations boil down to "because."
It is something almost sinister at times, I find, something bordering on psychosis; I find myself staring at a thing a character wrote or did, and knowing, tangentially, that it's something that came from my mind, that lives there. I begin to worry that I contain multitudes, but not in a transcendental, poetic sense. This, actually, as I reach the end of the question turns out not to be a question at all, but feel free to respond.
On the “because”—yes it does seem sinister, these things that just are, that seem overheard. All this stuff your subconscious spits out, unprompted. What else in there? Les has been wandering around up there with his butchered index fingers for years—I truly have no idea where he came from. And I think such aspects of writing—the “because”, the autonomy of fictional characters—sound convenient or uninterrogated or just plain naive coming from early-career writers (the likes of us), but acceptable from more seasoned ones. I guess we earn the right to that sort of esoteric outsourcing.
Oh, poor Les. One wonders what other kindly, half-butchered gentlemen wander through our minds at night? Or what they want? I find myself picturing some kind of purgatorial wasteland where characters roam the endless grey wastes of our brains looking for enough threads of subtext and symbolism to weave themselves into existence and into the world through our writing. Of course, I would never say that out loud, because if I were to read someone say such a thing in an interview I would consider them an insufferable wanker even from a more-established writer. Still, it's very true, the strange autonomy of those characters – an something we should discuss when we've earned the right. Let's pick up this conversation in the Paris Review in twenty years' time.
It’s when it arrives in a more tactile sense that you begin to wonder if you’re truly bats. Midway through writing the novel I became very stuck, in the orange-picking section with Les and Jack. Part of the problem was that I’d never been to Mildura, let alone 1970s Mildura, and I was struggling to see it, to inhabit it. Where would they drink, for instance? I did a bit of internet sleuthing and came up with the longest bar in the world, which Mildura then claimed. Of course! But I could find no decent pictures of the longest bar in the world. And in any case, who wanted to read about two brothers reconnecting or failing to connect during a fruit-picking stint in mid-70s New South Wales, and also, it was Sunday and I had to get across Oakland to the farmers’ market and buy farmers’ carrots and farmers’ apples and what-have-you, and why the hell was I writing a novel?
On the way home from the markets I stopped at a secondhand store to rummage through a massive box of old postcards, and turned up a concertina souvenir booklet of Mildura from the 70s; 11 photographs showing the bridge, the main street lined with ’70s cars, an aerial view of the town marked in ballpoint and the inscription:
The third picture I have shown where my place is…
Unstamped, unaddressed. Never sent? Okay, I thought, strange. Especially since it was the only Aussie card in a box of several hundred. The Mildura booklet was 75 cents. Sold. I added it to my little stack of Lake Tahoes and Sierra Nevadas and I took it home and forgot about it. Then a few days later I took a closer look:
And it’s such a small, ludicrous thing that I feel almost embarrassed to recount it here. Since when does guidance come in the form of kitschy ephemera? In the kinds of films I would not watch, perhaps. But alright, whatever, it worked—it tipped petrol in the carburettor or something. I went back to Les and Jack in their orange grove (Who knew you could get so bloody fucking sick of the little bastards?) and took them out for knock-off drinks at the longest bar in the world, and got unstuck.
Anecdotes like this tend to discombobulate me, because, these sorts of coincidences seem to happen all the damned time, and they really make no sense. If one were to use that plot device, of a magical postcard turning up on the other side of the world right when you needed it, any editor would tell you you'd made a cockie on a biscuit tin. But stuff like that really does happen, right when you need it to.
For example, it feels like we've arrived at the end of this interview, and the narrative seems to be steering us in the direction of gently plugging your book.
If you haven't read A Loving, Faithful Animal, you can read an extract here. If you like that, you can purchase a discounted copy below.
Liam Pieper is the former Editor of Writers Bloc. His 2014 memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of The Year, was shortlisted for the National Biography Award and a Ned Kelly award. His most recent book is The Toymaker, which was long-listed for best debut fiction by the Indie Book Awards and won the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead Fiction Award. @liampieper