Jennifer Mills is the former Literary Editor of Overland, and is a writer herself. She is known for her short stories, fiction and poetry.
Jennifer’s published works include Dyschronia (2018), the short story collection The Rest is Weight (2012), Gone (2011) and The Diamond Anchor (2009). Her work has also appeared in Meanjin, Island Magazine, Heat, Griffith Review, The Lifted Brow, Best Australian Stories and New Australian Stories.
Jennfier has received multiple awards, including the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowships and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. In 2012, she was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists.
NOTE: Since releasing this interview Jennifer was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Prize for Dyschronia. You can listen to her interview about being shortlisted here.
Astrid Edwards: Jennifer Mills is a South Australian novelist, short story writer and poet. She's also the Fiction Editor for the literary journal Overland. Jennifer has received multiple awards and fellowships including the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and she was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald's Best Young Australian Novelists.
In this interview, Jennifer discusses her writing process, reflects on her different approaches to fiction and non-fiction, and offers advice to emerging writers who are pitching to literary journals.
Welcome to The Garret, Jennifer.
Jennifer Mills: Hello, nice to be here.
Astrid: You were named a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist and then you received the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship from the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. What did that acknowledgement mean to you as a young writer? And did it change how you wrote?
Jennifer: It changes nothing about how you write, but I think the acknowledgement is really good that your work is reaching people and that people are understanding it. I think the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Writers was for my second novel, so I had already felt like I'd put in quite a bit of work and received some other recognition. The attention for that was really good, but there's not any money attached to that award so it actually makes very little material difference to your life. [Laughter]
Astrid: Does it open doors?
Jennifer: It does. I actually came back and judged that award a couple of years later, and it felt really good to be in that position of being able to open those doors for other people, because it can be a shift in how people perceive you as a writer, I think.
Astrid: And what about the Fellowship?
Jennifer: The Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship was really special for me, because as an adopted South Australian, I think it was really important to be recognised by South Australia as a South Australian writer. But also I have a great deal of respect for Barbara, who started at UQP just as I did and who was an artist printmaker as well as a writer, as am I, a hobbyist printmaker visual artist. I think we have a bit in common and I felt a really strong affinity with her work, so that was a really special connection for me.
Astrid: I ask because so many emerging writers are obviously looking for these types of public acknowledgement, and I often wonder what they mean. Once you've received that acknowledgement, does it change your practise or not? And what is it contributing to the literary community in Australia?
Can you tell me about your writing process? Fellowship or no, how do you sit down and write? And is it different if you're writing a short story or non-fiction or a novel?
Jennifer: Well, a day in the life is a little bit ordinary for me. I get up in the morning and I go to work in an office, which is in my house, my commute is about three and half metres. I have a desk and all of my books around me and I just get to work in the whatever on whatever I'm working on. I usually work from about 8:00am in the morning till 4:00pm in the afternoon. And usually, about four hours of that is creative work. My first four hours is my best creative brain, and then my afternoons are for freelance work, administration, applying for grants, e-mails, all the other stuff that gets in the way of work, but is also the job.
Astrid: It is the job. Can you talk about that a little bit? I know a lot of emerging writers are hesitant about applying for grants, with good reason. Sometimes they feel like a lot of paperwork for no reward. How do you put that in your creative life?
Jennifer: Well, I…
Astrid: Or justify it, talking about getting money for a creative expression.
Jennifer: I've always felt kind of justified and I think public funding for the arts is really important in this country, particularly where we have such a small market and it's very difficult to sustain a career just on sales. I think hardly any writers actually make money from their books, myself included. You make money from the other stuff that you do, whether it be teaching, workshops, writing articles, freelance work.
At the moment I'm writing a catalogue essay for the art exhibition, for example. So little jobs that you pick up, that might be something that you love and are interested in but also pay the bills a little bit better than fiction. I have never felt hesitant about asking the government for money. [Laughter]
Astrid: The Garret is supported by the Arts Council of Australia and we would like to thank them very much. [Laughter]
Jennifer: And I think it's really important that writers are supported in the culture, that storytellers are valued and cultural practice is seen as useful work.
And I guess my advice in applying for grants would be to ask for help from people who have been successful and ask for help from... I know the Australian Council is very good at giving people advice.
Astrid: They are.
Jennifer: And they love it when you ring up a few weeks before the deadline and say, ‘Hey, can I have a little bit of help with this? What do you think about this approach?’ And they will go out of their way to improve what you've done.
Astrid: That is true. Someone always answers the e-mail or always answer the phone.
Jennifer: Yeah, and the staff there are generally super so don't be shy.
Astrid: Don't be shy. When you talk about your creative practice in the morning, those first four hours from 8:00am or thereabouts, do you feel in a different mindset when you're writing fiction compared to one of your essays?
Jennifer: Yeah, definitely. Essays are a lot more consciously put together for me. What I tend to do with an essay is a hell of a lot of research, reading, talking to people, and then writing happens quite quickly, and it's a matter of working out in the process of writing what it is that I want to say.
There's exceptions to that. There's a recent essay of mine in Meanjin called ‘Seeing Landscape’, which is about 9,000 words long, and that took quite a long time to write because the ideas they are difficult to pin down. And I think the essay is sort of about complexity and wilderness and the very difficulty in separating ideas out, and so I ended up coming to terms with the tangle in it, so the structure really reflects that.
But for the most part, I think non-fiction is a more logical process for me. Whereas writing fiction, which is my true love, is a lot more subconscious, a lot of it happens in more of a fugue state. That showing up to work every morning and having a daily practice is really important for me in getting back into the zone, even if I don't feel inspired in the morning, even if I don't have no idea where I'm going to start or what a sentence looks like, if I show up and I read back over what I did the day before or stare out the window for a couple minutes, at least I can be in my space and I know that I've got somewhere to go.
It's important for me in that space not to be too demanding on myself as well. If I'm writing a draft of something, I will have goals like, I'm going to try and write a thousand a day or I'm going to try and finish this chapter by the end of the week, depending on where I'm at. But I try to be very generous with myself. If I get through this page, this one page today, I’ll be okay.
And usually, if I set an achievable goal like that, then before I know it, I'll look up and I'll have gone through 10 or 20 pages of a draft. My need is to find a way into the work rather than to accomplish something specific.
Astrid: Oh, that makes sense. I know that fiction is your first love, but how do you decide if you will write non-fiction or fiction? And I'm thinking particularly here of Dyschronia and your essay which is non-fiction, ‘Swimming with Aliens’, which was very different but still about cuttlefish and the environment and, I can't say the word, and climate change. Why the separation or the further exploration, should I say?
Jennifer: It was a further exploration more than anything. And I think the essay, ‘Swimming with Aliens’ is something of a punctuation mark to Dyschronia. There's another essay that I wrote in the process of Dyschronia called ‘Detroit: I do mind’, which was also published in Overland a couple of years ago. And that was about travelling to Detroit and how and why we look at empty buildings, ruined buildings and what that means in this day, in this cultural moment of a sense of collapse and catastrophe. And so, I went there in part because I was interested in this idea of ruin porn and ruin theory while I was writing Dyschronia, and then the essay came out of that. So it was a matter of ideas that didn't necessarily fit into the novel or that the novel glanced at but didn't engage with deeply, but that I still wanted to nut out for myself or to think through, I suppose.
Astrid: Dyschronia – which I loved by the way – does not have a linear timeline. It also has multiple points of view, the main character Sam, but also what I found incredibly unusual the first person plural narration, the ‘we’. Was it difficult to write and why did you choose that point of view?
Jennifer: I'm not sure why I chose it. It's one of those things. I can't remember why I started doing that but I know the justification that I have for it, which is that I was... In Dyschronia, the main character Sam is able to see visions of the future through these torturously painful migraines. What I was looking at was to sort of deconstruct the linear narrative to think through how and why we consider time the way that we do. In looking at that, I realised very quickly that the modern novel wasn't of much use to me because we tend to write novels in this quite linear, beginning, middle, end, this three-act structure that we've grown up reading. And so, I knew that that logic didn't fit. That that was what I wanted to tear apart.
So what I did was I went back to older stories and myths to times when the sense of time was perhaps more circular than it is now. I read some ancient Greek plays, and I was interested in this idea of the chorus as a way of to talk about group think as well, and as a way to talk about complicity. The effect of the first person plural is to make the reader feel, I hope, complicit in the decisions of the town, in a way. You feel included in that we a lot of the time, I hope.
Astrid: Oh you do. As a former Latin teacher, I loved the way you opened with a Greek quote. And I did love the idea of using that Greek chorus throughout.
It actually gave me the feeling that I experienced when reading The Handmaid's Tale – which is not plural, that is a first person, I, telling. But did you name all of the twelve of the chorus? Because in The Handmaid's Tale there is a list of women and then you have to see what their names are and that's how everyone decides that the main character is actually called June, because she's the only one that doesn't have another role. And I was wondering if the twelve were named.
Jennifer: Yeah. It's interesting that I hadn't remembered that about The Handmaid's Tale, but you're right. She's very clever with this idea of group identity and individual will in the way that she's structured that point of view. I do have really strong characterisations of the individuals in that group and it feels somehow symbolically important that there's twelve of them, depending on whether or not you include Ivy. [Laughter]
I guess it wasn't so much about erasing the individual within that group, because individuals do pop up and they do have little personalities and you see them.
Astrid: They do.
Jennifer: But it was more about the way that when people live very closely together they can develop a single mindedness as a town or as a group.
It's always very fragile, but there's this sort of sense of the group reassuring itself throughout the book of... There's quite a bit of self-talk throughout. Like, ‘We were okay, we did what we could, things will be fine’. And so, I wanted it to be rather than a Greek chorus, that often warns or haunts a story, I wanted it to be a sense of this kind of interior collective, which is quite difficult to do…
Astrid: It is. I want to tease that a little bit more because in some ways Dyschronia is very much a dystopian novel. It is a dystopian view of future Australia dramatically impacted by climate change and our own decisions. So carbon sequestration and what can happen if that goes wrong. But unlike a lot of dystopian novels, it kind of does feel a little bit passive, a little bit what will be will be, a little bit let the environment do what it'll do, let the sea go away, we don't need it. There's no rah-rah resistance. They're no rallying point, which is incredibly powerful to read but also very depressing, emphasised then by the plural narrative. Can you tell me about that? [Laughter]
Jennifer: There is not a sense of futility in this novel, I don't think. I think the catharsis of the ending, which you can't have the neat linear ending, but there is a catharsis of possibility, let me say, of the end of the novel. At least for Sam and I think for the town as well. Within collapse, the things that collapse are not only the physical environment but the sense of meaning and identity that belong to that physical environment, and there is a sense throughout the novel of what's being lost and of mourning. But I think for me it was about moving through that place of grief and mourning and out the other side into some reconciliation with what is being lost and the flowering of possibilities in what happens next.
I didn't want to make it a heroic story of people resisting climate change and succeeding because I don't think that that's the story that I see around me. The story that I see around me is one of acceptance and passivity and feelings of futility and depression and...
Astrid: And adaptation.
Jennifer: Yeah. Human beings are incredibly adaptable. I'm sure that life will continue in some form, regardless of the three degrees of warming that we'll likely have in the next fifty years. But the frustration and anger that I feel about the future that we might have had, had we acted by this point.
And we are acting. Many people are acting. It's kind of ironic that I wrote this novel set in the Upper Spencer Gulf region of South Australia, which during the process of me writing this novel, has completely transformed into a renewable success story. We've got massive batteries and solar panels and wind farms, and it's just been a fantastic transformation. And the reality around me gives me a lot of hope, but it's too little and it's too slow.
Astrid: So you're also the fiction editor at Overland. And I imagine that you see a lot of trends in the fiction that crosses your desk. And I was wondering, do you think climate fiction, or cli-fi as I've seen the referred to, will become a recognised genre?
Jennifer: No. I don't like the idea of cli-fi as a genre. And I understand why people are using that as a way to talk about it, but I think that the shifting of our relationship with the planet is so much deeper and more existential than that. That in fact, all fiction is anthropocene in fiction now. There is no separate genre. You can't just put it in a box and say, ‘Oh, there's this subset of novels that are talking about our relationship with the planet’.
I just read Richard Powers' new novel, The Overstory, which is fantastic. And really, the structure of that book is phenomenal. It's structured as a tree, and so you start with the root system and you work your way up to the leaves. And the sense of time in that book of this sort of deep time that happens, that humans we're just like a little blink, our reality, i's like we see 10 minutes behind us and 10 minutes in front of us and that's about all. And I really related to that notion I think.
But I don't actually see a lot of the fiction that we get at Overland addressing these questions, and I find that very interesting because most of the submissions that we get at Overland are from young writers, a lot of them are studying, and I'm really intrigued by why people aren't engaged with these ideas. A lot of the fiction that we get is realest fiction about human relationships, and of course, there is so much time and space for that conversation but I'm keen to see more people look outside of that.
Astrid: Do you see any other trends apart from the human interaction? Or is that literally the majority of what gets pitched to Overland?
Jennifer: I see a trend of increasing diversity in terms of who is submitting, which is really great. I've been in the role for almost six years now and it's definitely shifted, whose voices are coming through has shifted, and that's partly because of work that we've been doing as an editorial team to try and open submissions and make ourselves appear more accessible to a broader range of people.
Without going into detail, I think it's very important to Jacinta Woodhead, our current editor, that Overland plays that role as well.
In terms of the content of the fiction, I do see more experimentation with form that I really like, so a bit more play with the shape of what a short story could be and with voice as well. And it's nice people are experimenting with stuff like that.
Astrid: Definitely. So from your point of view, what makes a good submission?
Jennifer: Well, you know it when you see it.
Astrid: Yes. [laughter]
Jennifer: But I don't know what it is until I've seen it, I think.
Astrid: Okay. Well let me ask, I guess, the inverse of that. What common mistakes do you see that rule something out?
Jennifer: When something's not been fully thought through, I think.
Okay, one thing that is really important in a short story is that form and content are in relation with one another. So, the shape of the story and the voice of the story needs to relate in some way to the themes of the story and the characters of the story. In a sense, you're telling the story twice. You're telling the story through the events and the dialogue, but you're also telling the story through the music of your language and the voice, and these things need to be pointing in the same direction. Or if they're pointing in opposite directions, you need to have thought about why. A common mistake that I see is people who they've perhaps written something very beautiful, but the writing doesn't play the role that it's supposed to play of leading the reader through the story.
You're singing someone a song, you're taking their hand and saying come with me, let's walk through this maze and you take them out the other side. So you need to be with them at all times and give them directions about where they're going, and you need to pay attention to not just the events that are happening in the story but the visual mood that you're creating and the music of the words that you're using.
Astrid: That was a beautiful way you put it, taking someone's hand and taking them through the maze that is the story. I like that.
Jennifer: And you have to get them out again safely. [Laughter]
Astrid: Feeling satisfied.
Jennifer: You can't just open a trap door in the middle of the maze and be like, ‘There you go’.
Astrid: When you're considering submissions, does having an author platform matter? Is someone more likely to be chosen if they have a previous publication or a large social media following?
Astrid: That is good to know. [Laughter]
In your opinion, what should emerging writers of any genre, but I guess particularly fiction, be doing to maximise their career prospects? And by career prospects, I mean getting paid in the industry.
Jennifer: Well, I don't know. I've been doing this for a long time and I still have trouble with my career prospects. I think pay less attention to your status and more attention to your work, is the only advice that I think matters.
Astrid: What do you mean status?
Jennifer: The only thing that you have control over is the work that comes out on the page. The most important relationship that you have is with the work itself. Whether or not you're published, whether you get the opportunity or win the fellowship, or win the prize, or get picked up overseas, none of those things are really in your control, and you can actually drive yourself a little bit up the wall being preoccupied with your status in the industry or comparing yourself to other people. Like, ‘Oh by the age of 23, Keats had written his great work and had died of tuberculosis’.
You just have to see your own life as its own miracle. The fact of being able to make the work is the most exciting thing. And just that thing of keep going and show up every day and persistence matters a hell of a lot more than talent or connection, and talent and connection matter a lot, but persistence is the most important thing.
And so, in terms of that, I think it's more important to look at having a healthy relationship and a longterm relationship with your work that works for you.
Astrid: Who inspires you?
Jennifer: I'm inspired by a lot of my colleagues.
Astrid: That's a lovely thing to be able to say. Well done. [Laughter]
Jennifer: But I'm fortunate. I think I have friends and colleagues that care about the work that they're doing, and I'm able to have those conversations when things aren't going too well. I have someone to rant out or listen to when they're having a struggle. Because it's not an easy path, any kind of creative job, and you're always up against these forces and yourself that are tearing apart what you're trying to make at the same time. I think sometimes you have to go through the tearing apart in order to get to the making it. Unfortunately, that's the way I work. I was having that conversation with a painter friend last week, like why do we have to do this or we have to go right down to the bottom before we can get out again?
Astrid: And build it back up.
Astrid: Do you share your work with that community, with your colleagues?
Jennifer: No. I'm really precious about my work. Dyschronia was an exception, I sent that to a friend because it was so difficult and strange while I was writing it, I was fairly convinced that it was unpublishable. I'm really glad that I was wrong about that. [Laughter]
But I really needed someone else's take. I just needed someone else to say, ‘Yeah, keep going’. Which fortunately they did. And I don't think that I'll do that again. I think that was useful for this book, but I think I'm much better just working things out on my own in my own head. I'm quite private with my work in progress. I don't really like to discuss what I'm working on until it's ready.
Astrid: And when it's ready in your mind is that when you send it to a publisher?
Jennifer: Yeah, generally. Although I like to stew over things for some months after I think they're ready, because usually they need to be finished a couple more times. I'm a huge fan of putting something to bed for a while. Like when you're cooking the rice and you wrap it up in a towel after it's cooked and leave it for half an hour and then it's perfect.
Astrid: Come back until then.
Jennifer: That's my writing process. Except it's a lot longer. So even with a short story, I'll finish a short story, I'll feel really good about it. I'll just put it away for three months. And then if I go to submit it or send it someone or put it in a collection, then I'll read through it again and go, ‘Oh yeah, not this little bit over here’.
Or sometimes you'll see something that is completely flawed and it would just fall apart and you'll go, ‘Oh, shit. I just need to start this again from scratch or let go of it’.
Astrid: So how long did Dyschronia take you?
Jennifer: It was seven years from starting it until publication.
Astrid: And you were obviously working on other discrete things in the meantime.
Astrid: And other novels?
Jennifer: No. There was an overlap with the first draft and other novel. But Dyschronia, I quote unquote ‘finished it’ after about five years and then there was three years of reworking it and trying to find a publisher who would take it. Which was not really about me sending it to everybody, it was about me trying to use the relationships that I had. And because I'd moved to Beijing, I think that made it a little harder, because I wasn't able to meet people face-to-face or...
Astrid: So tell me about that, that relationship with a publisher. Obviously it's important but how does one build it?
Jennifer: It's difficult. I think it's difficult for me 10 years after my first book to give advice about how that works for someone who's looking to publish their first book, because the industry changes so quickly. When I started out, Twitter didn't exist and I was living in Alice Springs.
But the general process I think is still the same. You focus on the work, you do the best that you can, and you act very professionally in all of your undertakings. I did many years of just submitting short stories and I used to write poetry to literary journals, and eventually had some success there, and so when I met Madonna Duffy from UQP in Darwin, I was able to say ‘I have a track record, I'm in this for the long haul, I haven't just come out of nowhere’.
And so that... But that meeting that I had with Madonna was orchestrated by the Northern Territory Writers Centre who brought publishers out to the Northern Territory to meet and tee up with writers. And so, being involved with the NT Writers Centre was really important for me as a regional writer. And I think it's just as important if you're in Sydney or Melbourne to be involved with your local literary organisations, to go to events, to reply, to comment on blog post. Just not to be a pain in the butt, but to be involved in your community, because they're the people that are going to have your back.
Astrid: And buy your book, most likely.
Jennifer: Yeah. [Laughter]
Astrid: As a final question, when you consider the Australian literary landscape and the community, what are the strengths that you think an emerging writer can tap into?
Jennifer: I think one of the strengths might look like a weakness, which is that it's quite a small community. You do meet everyone after a while. That means that in any conversation that you have, your conduct and professionalism is really important, whether or not you think that you're talking to someone who might matter to your career or not.
I think, I was saying yesterday, there is a bit of a tendency for young ambitious people to think of literature as a really vertical structure that they can climb, and I don't think that that's what it actually looks like. I think it's more like a web or a root system or a network that everything feeds on everything else. Think of it as an ecosystem, and because we're quite a small country in terms of our literary industry, your relationships are really important, with each other, with your fellow emerging writers but also with anyone who gives you a hand. So I think valuing your relationships is really important.
Astrid: That is a wonderful note and a positive note to end on. Thank you very much for coming on The Garret, Jen.
Jennifer: Thanks so much for having me.