At home with Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills is the author of the novels The AirwaysDyschronia, Gone and The Diamond Anchor, as well as a collection of short stories, The Rest Is Weight. In 2019 Dyschronia was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia’s most prestigious prize for literary fiction, the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, and the Aurealis Awards for science fiction.

She has previously appeared on The Garret, once to discuss her literary career and once after she was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

At home with Jennifer Mills


ASTRID: Jennifer Mills, welcome back to The Garret.

JENNIFER: It's lovely to be back Astrid.

ASTRID: Now, we have only met face-to-face once. I had the great pleasure of interviewing you in real life back in 2019, the day after you were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Now, we're now in 2021, and you have released a new book, The Airways, and you are in Italy, and we are recording via Zoom from literally the other side of the world. I don't normally ask writers how they're going, but I read a piece written by you in The Guardian today about the state of the world and how Australians can't get back. So I think I'd like to start there. How are you going and how do you keep up your writing career in Australian newspapers? Because well done.

JENNIFER: Well, I'm okay. I think the injustice and the ridiculousness of being stranded is more frustrating than the actual stranding. I know you hear a lot of stories, you read a lot of stories about people that are separated from loved ones, missing funerals, and we're all in a bit of a pickle not being able to get home. So my personal circumstances are not so bad. I've got housing and I can still do my job online, so I'm very lucky, but a lot of people are in much worse circumstances. I think that to me, it's frustrating but it's also kind of unsurprising politically after this really long era that we're in a border control kind of paranoia, especially from the liberal government, but from both sides of politics, let's be honest. To then be on the other side of that is very interesting. I was saying to a friend the other day that the dystopia turns on you fast these days and it does feel like what you've been doing to refugees for 20 years you're now starting to do to your own citizens in a way.

ASTRID: It really does and you make that point. So the article that I just referred to is called Australia Squandered its COVID Advantage and Wealth is Deciding Who Makes It Home. I really recommend anybody listening, look up that article by Jen. It's beautiful writing and you always write so beautifully, but I guess because writers listen to this podcast, I want to ask you a basic kind of on the tools question. You are in Italy, you are still writing for major outlets in Australia. I'm really interested in that dynamic. How do you keep up with the editors? How do you pitch stories? Is it exactly the same because your career was already all online? Is there a different dynamic?

JENNIFER: It's not so different from being in regional Australia, to be honest. Most of my work was online anyway. I think the difficulty is the time difference, but there's actually an advantage to that as well because I know that no one in Australia is going to answer their emails in the afternoon. So it gives me time off. I can stop checking.

ASTRID: Oh, I love the small silver linings we're all finding in this most-

JENNIFER: We've got to find them, right?

ASTRID: We really do need to find them. Now, of course, what is exciting is The Airways. Now, this is your new novel coming out in August this year and, well, you're in Italy, which means that you won't be releasing this in the Australian market in person. How does that feel?

JENNIFER: It's really strange. It's actually the release date today. So Pan Macmillan Picador have just been posting on social media, like ‘Welcome to the world these new books’, and I haven't seen the physical final copy yet. It's on my way to me in Italy and I've been making everyone that's interviewing me hold it up to the camera so that I can see what the cover is like.

ASTRID: I am absolutely holding it up to the camera right now.

JENNIFER: It's beautiful.

ASTRID: It is a beautiful book, but more importantly than what it looks like on the outside, it's a beautiful book to read and I'd really like to explore how you use language in this book, because I don't really know how to describe it. But before we get into that, because it is so new and no one listening to this will have read The Airways yet, can you introduce us to this world you created?

JENNIFER: The Airways is ... I describe it as a ghost story. Part of it is set in Sydney in the early mid 2000s in a share house with young people, and part of it is set in Beijing a few years later where one of the characters has moved in an attempt to kind of try and reinvent himself or reinvent his life, and he finds that he's pursued by a ghost disembodied sort of figure who is able to shift between other bodies. Technically, it was very difficult to write and I still find it difficult to sort of give you the synopsis because it's a very kind of experiential novel. I wanted it to be incredibly immersive and even a bit discombobulating to read. So I was more interested in the effect that the words would have then, let's say, the story particularly.

ASTRID: I think itself is still very strong, but I'm interested, you just said it was technically difficult to write. So can we explore that a little bit? I noticed when I was reading it that some of your sentences were very, very short and yet felt a lot. They were full of descriptions of bodies and what happens inside bodies and things that, I confess, I never think about. But after reading this book, I am forced to contemplate and to sit with, but you had the skill to put that on the page. So can you describe the effect that you were after and how you set out at the sentence level to achieve it?

JENNIFER: Yeah, well, I think that part of what I was trying to address with this book is this idea of embodiment and power and the way that boundaries can be crossed between people. Boundaries of consent, violence and embodiment. So by having this ghost that was able to inhabit various bodies, I was able to really unsettle the reader's sense of embodiment, I guess, I've had reports of people feeling nauseous or dizzy from reading this book, which I think is very flattering.

ASTRID: That is really high praise to give your reader a physical sensation. That's amazing.

JENNIFER: Yeah, and I think I was very much trying to do that with the language. It has a sort of poetic effect. I was very interested in the melody and the rhythm kept reminding myself of Virginia Woolf's line that the rhythm is everything. Once you get the rhythm right, then you have that. So I had that in my head a lot. I always read my work aloud and this book, especially, I read aloud to myself. Yeah, I think in terms of getting the language right, the voice was there. It was fragmented in my head and it was just a matter of really, I think, whittling it down, taking parts away and refining it until it was not simplified, but very gestural, I think. The language, very physical, gestural language.

ASTRID: So this is by no means your first novel. Your previous novel, Dyschronia, came out in 2018 and was listed for the Miles Franklin and the Aurealis Award in 2019. That was also genre, but I'm interested in the timetable here. So I know that you spent some time in Beijing, I think back in 2014, 2015. So when did you start writing this novel? And, I don't know, did you shelve it to write Dyschronia?

JENNIFER: Yeah, well, I was working on Dyschronia when I had the idea for this book and I put the idea for this book away for a little while, partly because I was busy, but partly because I was very intrigued and excited by the idea, but I was also quite daunted by the technical challenge of it. So I decided to not start it and I kept putting it off. Then in 2015, I was a writer in residence at Yaddo in upstate New York, which is just an absolutely magical place, and that's where I started this book. In the mornings, long hand, just toying with the idea, and then I'd go and work on the thing that I was supposed to be working on in the afternoons. I had to sort of start it a little bit sneakily. I didn't have a plan and I was very ... I was just sort of playing with the ideas at that stage. Then I put the draft away. That draught was actually lost for a few days in my luggage when I went back to Beijing. So I was like, ‘Well, if the book's gone, then it's gone. I'll just start it again’.

ASTRID: Well, that is stressful.

JENNIFER: Yeah. But the whole writing process has been quite haunted by poltergeists with this book. There's been a lot of little glitches like that. It's very interesting.

ASTRID: So when did you pick it back up again and I guess that's kind of a leading way of asking did COVID influence this in any way? Where you doing the final edits in 2020?

JENNIFER: Yeah. So I worked on it more seriously when I moved back to Australia in 2016, after a couple of years in Beijing and being away from Beijing, it became easier to write about it as well. I was able to sort of have the city of my imagination alongside the real city, memories of the real city. So I didn't want to sort of recreate all of Beijing. I wanted to recreate my Beijing and this book's version of Beijing. The same thing with Sydney. I think setting is really important psychologically, but yeah. I was living in country, South Australia, Ngadjuri Country when I was writing this book and I had pretty much finished it before I moved to Italy. But the long sort of edit production process has meant that I was doing some of the edits during our first lockdown here. So while I wasn't aware of COVID before, while I was writing it, I wasn't thinking about that, but that there is definitely a strain of sort of viral infectious thinking in this book, sort of microbial feeling of being inhabited by other bodies.

I read Ed Yong's book, I Contain Multitudes before I'd written this, and that was an influence as well on my thinking of like, ‘Oh, wow, am I actually any individual person or am I a collection of ecosystems here?’ That was very interesting, but having COVID around me with the editing process, actually it made me take some of that stuff out because I could assume more awareness of that in the reader. So I didn't have to draw attention to things like face masks and caution around crowded spaces. That was already kind of a thing in Beijing, I think, because they had SARS there. People are already very aware of those sort of public health protocols. Also with the air pollution, made face masks ubiquitous. But yeah, I was able to sort of whittle some of that stuff down, I think, because of COVID.

ASTRID: Yeah. We all know a lot more about aerosols these days than we ever did before, I think. I'd like to talk to you about genre. Now, your works are always very literary, but that should not in any way to find your works. Dyschronia was a near future dystopia with kind of elements of perhaps fantasy or dream and was listed for the Aurealis Awards. So you always are very close to or in a genre, as well as writing in a very high kind of literary form, if I can describe it like that. Previously in this interview, you did say that you described The Airways or think of The Airways as a ghost story. I'd like to explore that a little bit. I track my reading on Goodreads and I don't have a ghost story tag, but I do have a horror tag and I actually found myself thinking, ‘It's not quite horror. How do I define this?’ So in your words, what do you understand a ghost story to be, and the elements that make it a ghost story?

JENNIFER: Well, there's certainly an element of haunting here. The characters are haunted by their own pasts. Adam's very much haunted by his own behaviour. There's a element of denial of the past, I think, and attempts to sort of escape his past, so the haunting is ... I think maybe in a metaphorical sense, it's a ghost story in that way, but also just this character who doesn't have their own body. I can only describe them as a ghost because I don't have another kind of language for that. I like horror, I like ghost stories, I like scary movies. I've always been into genre fiction and literary fiction at the same time. The books that I find most exciting are books that walk both those paths, so I think that's why I'm that kind of writer.

But I don't really think too much about genre while I'm writing. I just let the book be the kind of book it wants to be, and then other people can figure that stuff out after publication, as far as I'm concerned. I don't have to shelve it in a bookstore, so ...

ASTRID: That's exactly true. You are not the one who shelves it or tries to explain it or puts it on a shelf where people may go and pick it up to read. It is always a question, though, I find booksellers want to know and it's also a question that I enjoy asking writers, Jen, because mostly writers don't care, but readers often do. More readers will come to your work. I really appreciate your thoughts on writing both genre and literary fiction at the same time. As a reader, I enjoy all of them and when they are mixed and when they are separate, but so often they are not put forward that way in public and that's why ... I still think of Dyschronia and it occupies its own little space in my head because it is so clearly literary fiction in terms of how you write and tell the story, but it does veer straight into genre and what might happen in terms of the climate. I wish more literary fiction would do that, if I'm allowed to say that without getting myself into trouble.

JENNIFER: Well, no, I agree with you. I think of writers like Ursula Le Guin, who's probably my favourite novelist, who is an incredibly literary and a public intellectual figure who wrote science fiction and really was very open about what roles genre can play. I think of writers like John Harrison, who also writes weird fiction, science fiction, but it's incredibly literary. I think there's more writers interested in working this way then there is shelf space for us and the industry tends to silo things to target certain markets because that's how the book industry works. But I think for writers, the curiosity about the world and the creative possibilities of working between genres are really interesting and exciting. We live in the Anthropocene. We're in a climate crisis. The world really feels like a science fiction novel half the time anyways, and a horror story. Let's face it.

ASTRID: We are living the worst of genre right now, all of us. Absolutely, Jen. I'd like to explore some of the themes that you have already touched on in this interview. So you've said embodiment, power, consent, and violence. When I was thinking about the themes that you address and explore in The Airways, I also came up with identity and bodies and bodies both inside and out, but also, and I have a question mark next to this, spirituality, which is kind of a weird one and I do not mean that in any kind of religious sense or traditional sense, but I mean that kind of what is there out there? What else could there be? What else exists? I guess I wanted your reactions to the themes that I came up with, including spirituality.

JENNIFER: I've had experiences in my life that I haven't been able to explain, that I could describe as ghostly encounters or I could describe them as episodes of non neuro-typical thinking. I could medicalize those experiences or I could spiritualize them. For me, I prefer to sort of dwell in this area of the inexplicable. It's an interesting place for me. I think I have a brain that likes speculation. I'm curious about things and I'm not really that interested in being decisive about is there an afterlife or what happens to us when we die? But I'm really interested in following these threads and thinking about them in a literary sense. Like, ‘What are the possibilities?’ It's not solely metaphorical, this kind of haunting. Because we do sort of take things into our bodies. Trauma inhabits the body, intergenerational trauma inhabits the body, and you inherit things from your culture that you can't necessarily explain. So yeah, there is definitely an interplay between mind and body, but also, I guess, soul and body, culture and body.

ASTRID: That was such a lovely response. How has COVID effected your creativity?

JENNIFER: It's been up and down, to be honest. We're 18 months into the pandemic. I've had times where I've been incredibly focused and working really hard, and other times where I've just been really incapable of creative work. I think the pressure to keep doing freelance work and selling pieces helps in a way because I have always have work to do, even if I'm not capable of writing, but the waves have sort of come creatively as well as virally here. So it's been up and down. I think you expect a lot from yourself at the beginning of the whole thing where you think, ‘Oh, I'm going to be in lockdown’. You imagine like, ‘Oh, if I was in prison and I would spend my time reading Proust’. Nobody's reading Proust. It's too stressful. Just relax.

ASTRID: Everyone's sleeping and binge-watching Netflix.

Jennifer Mills:

Yeah. So long as people are still reading.

ASTRID: That is correct. As long as people are still reading and writers are still selling books, there is beauty in the world. We did speak at a state library event that was live-streamed last year and Jen, I am too scared to go back and see what we said because I was very much in a down part of my COVID experience, and I suspect you were too. But the one thing that I do remember and that I let myself remember are the words that you spoke even back then when Italy was in a very, very difficult place, about art and about what writers and other creatives do when crises happen. I guess that has given me hope and I spent a lot of time thinking about that over the last probably year. I wanted to ask now while you were still in Italy and we are still talking via Zoom, about your thoughts about art and creativity in times of crisis, particularly in relation to writing.

JENNIFER: It's funny to think about this in the context of The Airways, because for me, this book is really a survival narrative, a book about trauma and survival and particularly about queer survival. Writing it, I had a lot of emotional energy to put into that because of my own life experiences. The marriage equality plebiscite was happening in the background and it was incredibly infuriating to have your human rights debated in a so-called public forum and it just felt like a very dark time. I drew on a lot of that emotionally and I wanted to write a story that would maybe help in some way. I think queer readers and straight readers will read it quite differently.

But the important thing for me was that I was able to tap into that fury and hurt and make something out of it. I think when it works, writing has this almost alchemical kind of power, where you can transform this kind of energy from the world around you, making it into a story. It somehow brings patent into the universe and that really helps me. If I didn't have it. I don't what I would do, to be honest, but I hope that it helps other people.

ASTRID: I have no doubt it will, Jen. My final question to you, are you working on anything now or can you imagine a time when you will work on another large project like a novel?

JENNIFER: I have started another novel because there's no stopping me. At the moment, I'm not sure when I'm going to get back to it because I've got this book coming out and busy with that, but also just being stranded, we don't have a clear idea of the future and so it's quite difficult to relax that part of my brain. I need routine in order to get into that ability to work on something long form. So I've been actually working on a lot of short stories during lockdown and now finishing things that I started and couldn't finish last year. So hopefully there'll be another collection in the works before too long.

ASTRID: Another collection is always good, particularly as far as I can understand, collections are doing very well in the Australian market right now.

JENNIFER: Oh, tell that to the publishes.

ASTRID: I will indeed. Hopefully they will listen to this. Jen, I really value your time and talking to me from Italy. I really hope that you get back to Australia and I would love to interview you in person again one day soon.

JENNIFER: Let's hope that happens.