Oh, so much research. It was strange, but it somehow didn’t register that I was writing historical fiction. My first two novels had been contemporary so I just wrote it in the same way, and submitted it to my publisher as normal. Instead of phoning to schedule an editing meeting, though, he rang and just said: another draft, please, but make it historically accurate. Then I had to go back and look at early maps of Richmond, look up first recorded use of slang, visit the boys’ school that features heavily (St Kevin’s). Oh, the first draft was dreadful. I had schools and bridges and roads in the wrong place, I had people using the wrong language. Everything. Now, I’m very glad I was such an ignoramus and think this was the best way to do it. Because I had the story and the characters first, I could just go back and research very narrowly, because I knew what I needed to know.
Toni Jordan’s debut novel, Addition, was shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award and longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009, and has been published in seventeen countries. Her second novel, Fall Girl, was published in Australia, the UK, France, Germany and Taiwan and has been optioned for film. Her latest novel, Nine Days, was awarded Best Fiction at the 2012 Indie Awards. Toni teaches creative writing at RMIT University.
Did you grow up in a bookish house? What was your early relationship with books?
My parents weren’t great readers: Dad, not at all; Mum, sweeping historical sagas with ladies in bonnets on the jacket, of which she had about six that she re-read over and over. They were always great enablers of my habit, though, and from when I turned two until high school, once a fortnight they drove my sister and me to the Carina library where they’d wait in the car and listen to the races on the car radio while we painstakingly chose our stash. I have no idea why I became such an obsessive reader.
When did you begin writing in a serious way, and what motivated that?
I enrolled in RMIT’s Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing, with the intention of opening my own business in technical and scientific writing (I am a protein chemist by trade, and had spent years writing drug dossiers and new chemical entity literature reviews, etc.). While picking out my subjects, my husband Robbie, said: ‘You’re obsessed with reading novels, so why don’t you pick one of the creative subjects just for the fun of it?’ So I did, I chose ‘novel writing’.
How did your debut novel Addition come to be written and published?
Addition began as an assignment for that class. After the course ended, I kept working at it while working days, writing for pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. It took two years from beginning to end. Then I put a lot of effort into choosing my dream publisher. I sent it to Text, and they were generous enough to take it.
What research did you have to do for Nine Days and how did you go about it?
Have you had any surprising or unusual reader responses to your books?
I love hearing from readers, it’s one of the best parts of the job. I’ve had the most touching emails from people with OCD, that’s the best part. The worst is the (few) abusive letters from American mental health professionals, saying I was ‘unconscionable’ and was jeopardising people’s mental health. They don’t approve of the ending.
What are your writing habits?
I’m not one of these people who can write every day. My unconscious needs a day off to replenish in between writing days. So I write on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I teach, write other little things, do emails and admin, etc.) I sit in the chair at 9.30am. My assistant, Myron the WonderWhippet (photo attached, in new onesie) sits next to me. We break for a morning coffee and for lunch, but we sit there until we get 1250 words. They must be keepers, obviously. Sometimes I knock off at 3pm. Other times, I’m there at 1am.
What do you do when you feel creatively stuck?
I tell myself to be patient. It sometimes takes a long time for my thoughts to bubble to the surface and the worst thing I can do is force things. Part of my challenge is to get my bossy front brain out of the way of my intuitive, imaginative brain. Walk the dog. Take a shower. Go to yoga. Read something amazing. Hold your nerve. Chillax, baby.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just submitted a new manuscript! Huzzah! I’m in that gorgeous breathing space when I haven’t heard back yet. I like this one the least, however, out of all my novels so far. There’s an enormous gap between my ambition for this book and the words on the page. Either I’m getting shittier at this, or I’m getting fussier. I pray it’s the latter.
What’s your favourite book by an Australian female author?
With honourable mentions to anything by Michelle de Kretser and Ceridwen Dovey’s utterly staggering new collection, Only the Animals, the one I re-read each year is Thea Astley’s The Acolyte. The way she has with language, God. It fills me with this visceral intellectual envy.
Read a Review:
Fall Girl, reviewed by Elizabeth Lhuede and by Lisa Walker; Addition, reviewed on The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader and by Shanna Beale, and Nine Days, reviewed on Whispering Gums and by Natasha Lester.
Your turn: What’s your favourite Toni Jordan book? Or which one most appeals to you?
This interview is part of a series with authors of popular books in the AWW challenge. You might enjoy reading these other interviews:
Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. She has had short fiction and commentary published in Westerly and Southerly and holds a PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University.
I love that Jordan loves Thea Astley! As for my favourites, I’ve read all three and enjoyed each. If I were forced I would almost say Addition for its wonderful voice, followed by Nine days for its historical (!) setting, followed by Fall girl which was quite a hoot.
I’m embarrased to have never read anything by Thea Astley – even though she has been recommendd too me by countless people. I loved Nine Days and am looking forward to reading Addition. Thanks for reading.
Oh do read her Amanda … A good gentle introduction could be Coda. It’s not long either!
What a great interview. Real talk from a tops writer. So is she still working as at technical writer or doing creative writing full-time now?
Good question. Toni? Can you shed some light on this?
Great interview, Annabel! I love that she gives her brain days off. Have just ordered Addition & Thea Astley to the library.
Thanks Jess. Sometimes my brain takes days off even when I haven’t given them!
Hi Annabel! Thanks for such interesting questions, and thanks everyone for your comments. WG, it’s so kind of you to have read all 3–thank you so much. Jane, I kept up with the technical writing for a few years after Addition came out, for something-to-fall-back-on, but I don’t do it any more. I’m just too obsessed with fiction. Now I teach on the side instead. Annabel & Jess, you will LOVE Astley. xx
I have read Addition and based on my love for that one, Nine Days which I also really liked. Hard to say the favourite but it would probably be Addition because that was the first one, and I realised I needed to read Toni Jordan and would hunt out her other books. Great interview Annabel.
Thanks Jenny – glad you enjoyed it. I’m going to read Addition next.
I hope you like it, I really really did. It’s not often a book will make me laugh and get teary and surprise me. Wonderful. Am doing a class with Toni in a coupla months. Lucky me.
For me, to laugh AND cry at the same book is pretty much the ultimate. I’m sure the class will be great – lucky you.