At home with Jennifer Down

Jennifer Down is a highly awarded writer, named a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year consecutively in 2017 and 2018. Her third long form work is 2021's Bodies of Light.

Our Magic Hour, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. Her second book, Pulse Points, was the winner of the 2018 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction and the 2018 Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection in the Queensland Literary Awards, and was shortlisted for a 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award.

At home with Jennifer Down


ASTRID: Jennifer down, welcome to The Garret.

JENNIFER: Thank you for having me.

ASTRID: Congratulations on your latest work Bodies of Light. Before we dive into your novel, I actually want to take a step back and look at your career. You are a highly awarded writer. If I can embarrass you by pointing that out to the listeners. For Our Magic Hour, you were shortlisted for the new South Wales Premier's Literary Award and for Pulse Points, you received the Readings Prize for new Australian Fiction and the Steele Rudd Prize in the Queensland Literary Awards. Now, I don't normally list those kind of awards for specific books, but I have a question which is, as you released your third long form work into a pandemic, which makes things difficult. How do you think that the awards and the prizes that do attach to your name have changed your career and your experience of the publishing, but also the book selling industry?

JENNIFER: I think the biggest thing that a prize can give. I shouldn't speak for writers at all stages of their career. I can only sort of speak to emerging in early career stuff, but the biggest thing for me has been the prizes like that. Even if you are just shortlisted, not just shortlisted, you know what I mean, short listings and long listings as well as. You know actual wins really help your work to reach a wider audience, because there are a lot of people for whom, for whatever reason, they don't like browsing a bookshop or that get overwhelmed by choice. I'm certainly guilty of that. And then when they're selecting a book to read or to buy for someone else, those prize shortlists, which often, will be publicized in bookshops or in newsletters, or sometimes in newspapers that kind of coverage can help to push your book to perhaps a wider audience.

And I think something like the Readings Prize, such a gift for first or second authors of their first or second book. It kind of pushes these debut or lesser known names and puts them in the spotlight a little bit, which is really helpful when you live in a literary ecosystem. Where I don't say this is a bad thing at all, but like if I see a new Helen Garner book come or a new Alexis Wright book come out. I'm just going to go and buy those. There's a kind of automatic purchase, right? Because I know those authors, I know I love their work. It's kind of a no brainer. I think it takes us all, no matter how much we read a little bit more investment to just sort of get excited about an unknown quantity. And so, something like the Readings Prize, it makes the names of the shortlistees, a little bit more familiar to readers or prospective readers.

ASTRID: I draw the Readings Prize and I was lucky enough to recently speak to Lou Ryan, who is the manager of Readings Carlton, and they sell books. And that is good for all of us. Thank you for that insight into what it's like for you to experience winning the prizes and what that means for your books and your sales. Let's turn to your latest work. Obviously, it's new in September 2021 Bodies of Light. Now this is the big book. It's about 440 pages if I remember correctly. So a bit longer than many novels published in Australia, but the themes and the story is big. Can you introduce it to us because I actually don't think I can do it justice.

JENNIFER: I can give it a red hot go. I was saying to someone else recently, it's a little bit tricky to talk about it in the kind of spoiler free manner. The kind of short answer, I suppose, is that it's about a woman who decides to reinvent herself and to become a new person in a very practical sense. She takes on a new identity, but I guess the slightly longer version of that is that it's a story of a woman who having grown up in a series of foster homes in resi and out of home care and having endured a lot of, not just upheaval and dislocation, but a lot of traumas throughout her early childhood and young adulthood. It's the story of her reinventing herself following this series of traumatic circumstances.

And I think I wanted, I was really interested in this idea of, I don't personally like to think that trauma defines us as people, but I think it's also hard to reconcile or for me, at least it can be hard to reconcile that with the idea that we can't just leave memory behind. We can't sort of excise that from our past experience. And so, what is this process of reinvention? If you are pushing with all your might to survive and to move forward and to kind of keep that forward motion going. While being unable to divest yourself, I guess, of these things that have had a really a huge and often quite terrible impact on your psyche.

ASTRID: The main character is Maggie, and she takes on a new identity and she becomes Joe. That's not too much of a spoiler without going into the actual plot. I do kind of want to list some of the themes that you go into in Bodies of Light. And this is not all of them. I started to write them down and it was a bit overwhelming. So I wrote grief and loss. I wrote life and the idea of continuing in the face of trauma, that kind of idea of resilience. I wrote down institutional abuse and child sexual abuse and postnatal depression, and alleged infanticide. At which point I stopped my list. I guess my question to you is why this story? I can think of books that take on one or two of those themes, but I honestly failed to come up with a book that took on all of them. And I say that with a great deal of respect and awe, and I just kind of want to know why this story? Where did it come from?

JENNIFER: Well, I've always been kind of equal parts, baffled, enraged and saddened that children in state care, they're among the sort of least visible and often the most silent slivers of our population. And there's really very little time or energy devoted to these young people in media, in fiction. Often in fiction the way that childhood trauma is push trade is a very, not to say it's unrealistic, but it can be quite a narrow interpretation of what it means to grow up in difficult circumstances. Australia in particular is really dreadful and fascinating. And the way that we just seem to turn a blind eye to young people. And I've said a couple of times to different people, how I remember when that Four Corners report on Don Dale's detention centre aired I want to say back in like 2017 or 2016, and of course it was distressing.

And I remember watching it with my housemates at the time and all of us just feeling this dreadful sense of impotence and shell shock and deep shame. I remember the discourse in the media in the sort of week after that. And I mean, frankly, I think we're lucky we had a week discourse because often things like institutional abuse kind of get a very short moment in the spotlight. I remember being quite shocked at the time that people were so surprised by it. I don't say that as like a world-weary person who has firsthand experience of that, but it just really drove home to me, how little we as a society pay attention to young people and what they have to say.

So, then I started thinking about how I might tell that story in a way that obviously it's not my story, so it's not memoir, but I wanted to write something that did justice to the experience without over blowing or overselling trauma, but also didn't feel like it was veering to voyeurism.

That was really a important to me as well. It's not up to me to say whether or not I pulled that off effectively. I think one of my great irritations with kind of trauma rushing in general, especially in fiction is how it turns loss or trauma into a kind of commodifies experience and something to be digested. Which is not to say I think that trauma narrative shouldn't exist. You know, I've written several, but I think that for me, there's a fine balance and it's a difficult thing, but an important thing to make sure we are witnessing the trauma rather than I don't know, consuming it.

ASTRID: My experience reading Bodies of Light was that you didn't let me as a reader get comfortable into whatever narrative arc I thought I saw coming. For example, Maggie, the main character who becomes Joe does have several relatively success for relationships at different points of her life that provide her comfort and security and safety. And sometimes in trauma porn or in certain types of narrative the relationship heals everything and the person is kind of, okay. You refuse to write that story. Maggie always has agency. Sometimes she makes terrible decisions, but she always has her own agency. It gave me comfort as a reader involved in this story, but it also meant that it was not like a narrative that I was expecting, which is always, always a wonderful thing from a reader's point of view. I wanted to ask you, how did you find that voice of Maggie? You know, how did you create her as a character?

JENNIFER: I think I tend to write in a fairly, I think say boring it in a fairly linear manner. I usually have some sense of a story, whether I'm writing short fiction or kind of a longer form. I have some sense of where the story is going to end and I don't plan anything out. But with that, I think I take a long time to sit with stories and to mull them over. I don't plan, but the architecture feels quite secure, I suppose, in my head before I start writing. With this story, research was a big part of it. I read a lot of first person and care leaders. I said, care leaders and inverted comments, I suppose and a lot of survivor testimony. And I didn't want to borrow any voices, but I certainly looked for thematic links or experiences where there was universality or a common thread between care leaders at a certain generation.

And then I think I've never written anything this long in the first, well, I've never written anything this long period. I should say. I like, I'm still kind of appalled by the size of this book, but I also, I don't see how it could have been much shorter. It was definitely like an exercise in getting more comfortable with that first person, because to go back to that idea of honouring an experience instead of sensationalising it, it felt really important to me. I guess to have that sense of intimacy and closeness with the character and that was why the first person felt like a natural choice.

I think it also took a long time to write this book. And by necessity, if you sit with a piece of work and its characters for several years, you do develop a certain intimacy and an understanding of a best psychology. And I don't know, by the end of it, there probably sounds like a really, I don't know, wishy-washy or, or like artistic wonk answer, but by the end of it, I, I felt like I could put Maggie in almost any situation. And I would know how she would respond because if you sit with someone long enough who is a friend or a family member or a new acquaintance, you just get to know them better over time.

ASTRID: You mentioned in that answer research, and I want to come act that Jennifer, but before we kind of dive into my questions about how you found the story. I guess I wanted to stick with the reader for a moment and ask you, what did you want to leave the reader with? Or what did you want to make the reader feel?

JENNIFER: I think that idea of survivorship is important. I never set out to write a sort of redemptive story, but certainly when I got to the end of the first draft, I realised there was no redemptive arc there. And I don't know if that was quite pleasing to me because I often find those stories a little bit unsatisfying though. Do opposite of course. Yeah. I don't know what it is about. It somehow feels like a cop out or something when they're not executed perfectly. Anyway, I realised that it wasn't a redemptive story, but I also, as you mentioned, it's a really heavy book and it traverses some really heavy themes. It's not that I personally think that those things make a belief because there's a lot of comorbidities and involve in many of the things that Maggie experiences certainly. But that, I also felt like it was important to show moments of hope or of beauty because no one's life, no matter how tragic is totally devoid of these small moments of joy.

To be totally honest, I don't think about a reader per se, a lot when I'm in the middle of writing, but it's kind of been interesting having published the book and seeing how people have responded to it. I think perhaps the nicest thread that has kind of come out from, lovely messages I've received or really lovely tweets, have just been people saying that idea that we can make meaning and live a dignified life despite unimaginable horrors. That feels important to me. And I hope that is suggested in a quiet way, other than a sort of overcoming adversities way. I don't, as I said, think there's any, it's not a redemptive novel. It's not, it's also not a story of great triumph either. It's really just a life story, I guess.

ASTRID: Yeah. I don't know what the word is, Jennifer it's not redemptive. It's how you keep going. I think maybe.


ASTRID: This is an intense book to read, and I can only imagine it was an intense book for you to research and to write. I don't normally kind of ask this question, Jennifer, but I found an article that you published in Lit Hub in 2018. And the article was called ‘When writing is your job researching trauma can be a workplace hazard’. So, because you put that out there, I want to ask, how on earth did you feel? And I imagine it changed over time and it may have changed between in 2018 and now, but how did you deal with it and continue to go back?

JENNIFER: It was really hard, actually. I also should say, or I feel the need to say, I didn't title that article. I feel like that's a quick baity title. It kind of makes me cringe. That's my disclaimer. I didn't come up with it, but I mean, there's a lot of truth to it as well. I think I didn't have a great understanding of how this kind of intensive research would impact not just my mental health, but the way that I see the world. And before I started writing, I was very much aware of the various trauma as a concept. And I believed in it. I didn't think it was like some woo-woo idea, but I didn't particularly think it applied to my work as a writer. Writing can be hard, but it's also something I chose to do.

Nobody has a gun to my head. And most of my friends and family are working much more difficult jobs. Whether assisting people with seeker applications as asylum seekers or they're working to support unwell people in a clinical setting. They're helping people, they're helping young kids to find a safe place to live. And so, when I talk to, for instance, my sister, who is a, a nurse in a psych unit in a large public hospital, or I talk to my friend who works for a community legal centre. It was hard to consider what I do as precarious trauma, because at the end of the day I sit tapping on my stupid little laptop and writing stories about imaginary people. And I don't have to do that. It's not really benefiting anybody to do it other than, I guess for some aesthetic purpose.

And I remember talking about this in therapy one day with my beautiful psychologist. And she was like, but it's not all or nothing proposition. She would say, this idea that you either experience vicarious trauma or you don't based on your occupation is really foolish and kind of black and white and kind of immature. I mean, I still don't believe that I will ever have it as hard as somebody who works in as a social worker, for instance, let alone people who experience these traumas firsthand. But it was kind of a good shift in gears to realise that I'm not kind of impervious to those feelings are just there and of exhaustion after sitting with really distressing material for years and years at a time.

ASTRID: A few minutes ago, you kind of dismissed the value of fiction. You kind of implied that maybe it only has aesthetic purpose. It does have an aesthetic purpose, but nerdy reader that I am. I am going to jump in and say your work and all works of fiction have so many different purposes. Fiction is so valuable. It helps change the world. I really, really believe that. So I'm just going to put that out there for you.

JENNIFER: Sorry. I was being a bit glib. I do agree with you. And certainly, I wouldn't dismiss my favourite writer of work offhand like that, but it is. I just mean that the day-to-day kind of bread and butter of it. When I'm doing what it feels in part an academic job, although it fits technically outside of the academy it's very easy to kind of dismiss any difficulty I have or for me, it's very hard to.

ASTRID: Can you tell us, particularly for the writers who are listening who do research to inform their fiction. How did you tackle the research process?

JENNIFER: The way I approach research generally is that I don't feel comfortable starting to write anything until I've done a lot of kind of background reading and maybe that's kind of a form of procrastination. I'm not sure. I can't feel ready to write about a certain topic or time or setting, unless I feel really confident in my knowledge of it. I started off, before I start writing, I kind of had this flimsy outline or a flimsy sense of architecture of a piece, a story. And so using that would do this impressionistic research. So the book opens in the present day, but pretty soon we go back to out of Southeast suburbs of Melbourne. So Dandenong in the 1970s. And I know that suburb those streets really well from my own childhood, but I obviously wasn't there in 70's so that was like getting a sense of the place and what it was like, it's changed heat over the last 40 or 50 years.

And so, getting a sense of what it was like at the time was, was crucial. There's an amazing Facebook page called Old Dandenong where boomers just post photos from their high school years or like the old Denny's, or like this chicken shop was great. And then 10 more boomers will be like they had the best fried pineapple or whatever. And so I just kind of obsessively would scroll through that stuff a lot. I often don't know what is going to be useful to me before I lay hands on it. For instance, when I was researching residential care facility in the seventies, I went to the state library and looked up a whole lot of things like annual reports from these institutions.

Which obviously provide a very particular and quite narrow view, but they also have photographs and it was really useful. Really heartbreaking to see these little faces and the caption there in black and white. And so I spent a lot of time, I don't know, kind of like a Bower Bird or a Magpie picking apart things that I thought might be useful. Research is a funny, it's a very intuitive thing. And then, so that's kind of my background. Then I start writing. And then I write to a place where I realise I need to do more research and that's when I go back and I might look for something specific.

ASTRID: I know that some writers use sensitivity readers that works to a certain point and has a role in the industry. I'm interested given that you were so attentive to your research capturing the time and capturing the place. Do you use sensitivity readers? But also who do you first share this with to kind of see how it lands?

JENNIFER: Yes. I didn't use a sensitivity reader for this book. I'm open to the idea. I think my concern with this particular work was that it has the potential to be really retraumatising. And I think it's a book that demands a lot from the average reader, much less somebody who has lived experiences of some of the things that it describes. I don't know, I'm not saying that was the right approach. I certainly thought about it. And then on balance I thought it's not something I want to pursue for this particular book. I also didn't show it to anybody before my editor. Before I submitted it to my editor. I think I'm like a very weirdly private, I don't know if it's weird, actually, maybe other writers do this, do I'm a very private writer. And I also feel very susceptible or like open to other people's sports.

And so it's kind of a self-preservation thing where if I show something to too many people, while it's still in its kind of embryonic stages, I will just second guess myself into like the ninth circle of hell. I kind of had this moment where I felt really, uncertain about this book. It wasn't like I was halfway through the first draft going like wacko. This is the best week I've ever written, but it was also important for me to just write the story through to the end and then handball it to my editor and kind of be like your problem now. Not really, but just like I trust her implicitly and take it from there. I did ask my mum to read, I think the first page proof, she was a welfare worker for many, many years and worked with young people. Additionally, has added weird expertise of having grown up in Dandenong during a similar era. So she was a teenager in the seventies in Dandenong. She was able to read for kind of accuracy of tiny things. Like, I think in an early draft, I'd referred to a welfare worker as a welfare officer. And of course we didn't start using the term social worker until a little bit later. And mum was like, no, no, no, no, no. We all just called them the welfare back then. And so it becomes the welfare tiny things like that. That might not matter for 90 per cent of readers. I have a thing for detail and she was actually kind of, I guess the first reader outside of, outside of my publisher and was, she was great.

ASTRID: I love that your mum for actual reasons, other than the fact that she is, your mum was one of the first readers that is lovely. So you've just published Bodies of Light and it's out there in the world. You are getting readers and part of the marketing is you talk about it on podcasts like you're doing now, but when that kind of process is finished, do you know what work you're going to turn your attention to next?

JENNIFER: Yeah, to be honest. We're both in Melbourne obviously, and have both benefited/been punished by too many days of lockdown. Without being kind of morbid or anything, I feel like it has locked down in the last couple of years have really impacted my ability to concentrate even on other people's work. I really have difficulty reading at the moment just by the wealth of amazing books coming out. I guess the short answer is I haven't been working on a great deal, but before lockdown, I was working on short fiction, which is kind of my first great love. And I think I naturally gravitated towards it after submitting this manuscript because I needed like a palette cleanser.

I was really daunted by writing something. I mean, this is a big novel as we both keep saying, but even just the size of it, the average novel, I don't know, 70,000, 80,000 words is quite daunting to me as somebody who feels quite more comfortable within the confines of short fiction. So I think I'd already begun to consider that kind of elastic snapping back towards a shorter medium where I feel a little bit more in control. So that will be the next thing that I'm working towards. I have ideas for another one maybe two longer works, but it takes me so long to, I have to sit with an idea and metabolise it for years before I start producing anything so.

ASTRID: That is fair enough. And I am sorry that I implied that you need to have been creative or that you should have a manuscript ready to go. I have also not enjoyed the last 18 months in Melbourne and I am certainly not in a creative space and apologies if I made you feel at any point.

JENNIFER: No. Not at all. Not at all. I just I feel a little bit bad because a few people have asked me similar questions. It does make, I don't know if you feel the same. It sometimes makes me feel like a bit of a fraud that I used to be much more disciplined in my writing. And additionally, this is the first time since I was, I didn't know, a teenager that I haven't worked or had some like nine to five thing going on. I started freelancing earlier this year. So technically I should have more agency over my time than ever in my professional life. But I feel like that part of my brain will come back, but it's shrunken a little bit for the time being. So I need to exercise it.

ASTRID: We're getting out of lockdown very soon. And remember you all have a couple of months of sunshine and return to what counts as normal these days, and may, your creativity and ability to enjoy all the beautiful works of fiction that are being published. Come back very soon, Jennifer. Congratulations. I really recommend everybody pick it up when they are ready. Thank you, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Thank you for having me.