The Stella Interviews: Jennifer Down
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2022 Stella Prize! What does it mean to you to be included on the list?
It’s always a privilege to have your work recognised on a long – or shortlist, but to be in the company of this cohort feels especially buzzy. I feel particularly lucky to have scraped in as a novelist during the first year in which poetry has been eligible for entry – and in a year when so many outstanding books have been published across all forms. It’s a shortlist that honours the breadth of experience and skill among women and non-binary writers presently at work in so-called Australia.
Your shortlisted book, Bodies of Light, has been described by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen, as “staggering in its scope, encompassing half a century of life lived by its magnetic and mystifying central character”. What would you say are some of the central ambitions or themes of the novel, and how long did it take you to write from concept to completion?
I started writing it in mid-2017, but had been researching and thinking about it for a few years before that. It was important to me that the novel accurately and unflinchingly reflected the experiences of ‘care’ leavers, and the historic, systemic failures of the out-of-home care; but I was also conscious of writing something that felt gratuitous in its trauma. For readers who aren’t familiar with residential and out-of-home care, or who don’t have much knowledge of child protection, for example, I can understand that parts of the novel might be shocking, so it was an exercise in balance: I didn’t want to translate the grimness as ‘trauma porn’, nor did I want to sanitise it. And most of all, I didn’t want to slide into voyeurism. How can we bear witness to suffering in a way that emphasises and privileges the testimony of those who’ve survived it, rather than exploiting their pain? Ultimately, that forensic approach felt like the only way to do justice to the story, and to examine how childhood trauma is mapped into our adult lives.
What is it that draws you to fiction in particular, and in this case, the novel as a form?
I came to fiction as a reader first. I’ve loved reading, for as long as I can remember; before that, being read to. It sounds trite, but it was a way of accessing experiences beyond my own. I demolished library books, but I was also seduced by the secret world of adults: whatever books my mum was reading. My nan’s Who Weekly and Take Five magazines. The pamphlets on sexual health and safe drug use in my dad’s office (he was a school welfare worker and I spent a lot of time hanging out in the waiting room). There’s something exhilarating, I think, about lurching into another world and being held there. I suppose I only write fiction in an attempt to reproduce that feeling, like learning the mechanics of a magic trick.
When it comes to form, I feel much more comfortable writing short fiction than novels – I’m still kind of disbelieving of the length of Bodies of Light. But the form must serve the narrative, right? I wanted to write something forensic, which spanned four or five decades. It originally began as a series of linked fragments, and then as I became more comfortable with the story and its characters, I fleshed it out.
Can you tell us a bit about how you write (where, when, on what)?
I’m very boring! I take a lot of notes by hand – or in my iPhone – but I do all proper writing on a computer. Until recently, I’d always worked at a desk opposite my bed, either very early in the morning or on the weekends. But last year two things happened: I left my full-time job to freelance, which gives me greater flexibility over working hours; and I started renting a studio space to work in. It’s in an old warehouse, frigid in winter, with a very bleak shared loo, but it’s the first time in my life that I’ve had a dedicated space to work outside my bedroom, and I feel so lucky. On the other hand, I’m used to working in little snatches and grabs of time, and sneakily, and in noisy places. I’ll do it anywhere – office (sorry to past employers), aeroplane, pub, laundromat – provided my back’s to the wall and no one can see my screen. I’m still too self-conscious for that.
Is there a particular book you’ve discovered through the Stella Prize that has had an influence on your own work, or moved you in some way?
Alexis Wright’s Tracker. I went in without knowing very much about it, having only read The Swan Book of her work previously. Tracker, along with Annie Ernaux’s The Years, introduced me to the idea of collective memoir. It changed the way I thought about the nonfiction form, and the plural construction of memory and the past.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I am, at last! Between the pandemic, beginning freelance work, and a bit of a book-hangover from Bodies of Light, I haven’t written very much fiction for the last 18 months or so, but I’ve finally started to think about a new novel. To be honest, there’s not a lot of writing going on; mostly research and play. Not ‘play’ exactly‚ I don’t know how to describe it, but before I commit words to screen I have to puddle around for a long time like a kid in a rockpool, turning things over and sifting through ideas. That’s what I’ve been doing. It feels like play, anyhow, after the last few years. There’s such a terrifying sense of openness and possibility when you’re just starting out. It’s wonderful.
Find out more about Jennifer Down’s 2022 Stella Prize shortlisted book, Bodies of Light.