Josephine Wilson

Josephine Wilson is a Perth-based writer, poet and teacher.

Josephine received the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015 for her manuscript of Extinctions, a work which would go on to receive the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Colin Roderick Award, and also be shortlisted for the 2017 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction.

Josephine’s first novel was Cusp (2005), and her early works include Customs and The Geography of Haunted Places with Erin Hefferon. She has taught at Murdoch, the University of Western Australia, and Curtin University.

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Astrid Edwards: Josephine Wilson was awarded the Dorothy Hewitt Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015, and her work, Extinctions, went on to receive the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2017. Josephine writes poetry and prose, she has a PhD in creative writing, and she has taught in universities around Australia. In this interview, I had the chance to talk to Josephine about the influences that made her the writer she is today.

Welcome to The Garret, Josephine.

Josephine Wilson: Thank you so much for having me.

Astrid: What is the first piece you remember writing for pleasure?

Josephine: Pleasure. I don't know that I ever wrote for pleasure, as you might go for a swim for pleasure or go for a bike ride for pleasure. I kind of think of writing as probably more like a space for thinking and working things out and problem-solving, perhaps, than actually pleasure, although I know that sounds negative.

Astrid: Not at all, not at all. I'll try another question, in terms of your writing career, what is the worst failure that you remember?

Josephine: I kind of tend to think a lot about failure, and feel quite like a failure a lot of the time actually…

Astrid: Oh my goodness.

Josephine: ... So I think insecurity and failure are probably part of my makeup. So, I suppose that…

I was very proud of a performance work that I wrote and was involved in when I was in my 30s, with another friend, a writer, a performance artist called Erin Heffron. The piece ended up touring around Australia and went to London. It was a one woman show. So, I was very proud of that. Then I was commissioned to write a piece for a small company, and again, that was an interesting thing.

But I think that the issue of trajectory for writers is really difficult. One imagines that things will lead to things, and it doesn't necessarily happen that way. I think you have to temper optimism with faith, and sometimes I found that quite a difficult thing to do, because my interests have always been cross-disciplinary. I am not somebody who thinks that writing books, for example novels, is possibly the only thing that I ever might have done.

Astrid: You used the term insecurity before, our audience is emerging writers, and I have no doubt many emerging writers feel insecure in the profession that they've chosen or the writing they've attempted to get published. Do you have any advice for them?

Josephine: Well, I just think the situation, the environment now is so much better and so conducive to emerging writers, and there's many more spaces on the Internet through journals and magazines, and also through forming groups and getting feedback, getting support from other writers. Discussion, sharing, whether perhaps you are at university…

I do think that giving up control and letting other people read your work is the first step to becoming a writer, even if there's not the response you expect. That being said, there is lots of places to put your stuff out. You then have to identify those places that are, in a sense, curated, or peer-driven, or have some kind of legitimacy, because it is a pointy ended thing. Ultimately, being published is not easy, and being published and then commercially supported is not easy. So I do think it is a pathway.

But I do also think that people need to be aware that there's many forms of writing, and there's many forms of being creative, and writing is a great practise that can be expanded into different areas as well, to support whichever it is you think is your particular bent.

Astrid: Do you mean commercial writing or..?

Josephine: Yea, I think so. I mean, I think also that having taught in a program which is interdisciplinary, where you had people who were say visual artists or writing about visual arts, or designers having to write about design, the task of writing is not always what creative people do. Sometimes they have some practice, filmmaking, where they feel much more comfortable with photography, and they don't want to write about it. But in a sense, learning to write about one's work, even one's own writing, is part of the practice of, I think, strengthening your craft as a writer.

Astrid: You've taught before, and you have a PhD, does that academic experience inform your writing and make you a better writer?

Josephine: My interest in the academic area is quite a long story. I studied comparative literature in the end as an undergraduate, and then I began an honours, which I didn't complete, and I ended up going to work in a museum in the WA Museum and then in the heritage area, and then I went overseas and when I came back, I picked up some study and I decided I was going to work in the area of museums. So I wrote an honours equivalent thesis on the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the way stories are told in space. And I then fully intended to apply for a PhD. And the reason I didn't continue that pathway is that I went to see someone at the university that I was at, that I had been to originally as a straight out of school and failed and left and went to another university. I went and I had this fantastic essay I'd written, and I got fantastic marks with all my coursework, and I went to see this professor, and he pulled up my screen from 10 years before when I was a little girl really, and said, ‘Nobody with this record is ever going to get a PhD at this university’.

Astrid: So he didn't value life experience at all?

Josephine: Not at all. And I was devastated. And I then was contacted by someone about a Masters in Writing program that was being developed in Queensland. So instead of that, my partner and I went to Queensland to study and picked up… I went the way of the creative practice. Fully intending always, hoping that I would end up with a stable position in a university that would support my writing, because I also really love teaching, and I'm very interested in ideas and concepts and communicating them.

But by the time I finished my Masters, I was also found myself having a child, and I realised I started to apply for one or two jobs and I was then told that no, one doesn't need a Masters, one needs a PhD. This was despite having a novel published, Cusp, which came out with UWA Publishing, and writing almost the equivalent of... If I had written another 5,000 words, it would have been a PhD, but I didn't know that, and I didn't know to upgrade.

Consequently, I didn't have enough, so I've always teetered on the edge of it, and this has been a source of conflict for me, that the reasons I have to those who say, ‘Well why don't you just sit down and write books?’ Well, I always felt like I needed to do my bit to earn money, and also I enjoyed teaching and the communication of ideas and so eventually, what happened was I... After my novel Cusp came out and my son was a bit older I applied for a scholarship at UWA. I actually got a scholarship to do a PhD, which included the theoretical and what became Extinctions, my novel. But I didn't write about craft. I wrote more about concepts and the things that actually link and the metaphors that you find in the book, ultimately.

Astrid: You talk about loving the communication of ideas. Have you ever work shopped any of your writing with students?

Josephine: My own writing? I have actually workshopped some. I have brought my own poetry when I was teaching poetry at Curtin one semester, they asked me would I bring my work in and I was quite happy to. And I'm very happy to share.

Long form doesn't work in workshops like that, and most of the creative writing classes I taught at Curtin, certainly, were experimental form or poetry. Yes, because I do write poetry, most of it is stuck on my computer, but I have published some, a little bit of poetry and I've won and occasional... I had some success with that, and it's something that now I'm going to pursue much more fully.

Astrid: You're smiling a lot when you talk about poetry, Josephine.

Josephine: Yeah, I'm very interested in poetry and I find poetry a really good thing, because it seems that I can kind of focus and obsess on a problem that I'm working on if I'm put upon that I'm trying to work out something it's about, it has a kind of short, sharp, focus, which is very different to the focus of a novel, which is long and arduous and takes a constant attachment to, which until this year, when I'm not working at Curtin as a sessional, now I'm able to focus hopefully on my writing this year.

Astrid: Can I ask a little bit about your process? When you are writing a work, whether it's a PhD or a novel or a play, how do you go about it?

Josephine: It depends on what you're working on, I think. I mean I see myself as terribly unproductive, and so I have enormous amounts of material that has not fully come to fruition, and it's one of the things that I really valued about the experience of Extinctions, which was having had the suggestion to put it into the Dorothy Hewitt Award as a manuscript. Had I not had that, I probably would have said, ‘No, I'm going to do another draft. I'm going to rewrite the whole book, I'm going to wait, I'm going to defer’.

And I think that's possibly a tip, is that one of the reasons it's so hard to be a writer I think when you're beginning, when you're kind of alone in the cupboard if you like, is that there are no deadlines or expectations and no boundaries. A deadline is a terrible thing, but it's also a really good thing. It puts a boundary and a frame around what you're doing, and you have to say, ‘Well, that's good enough’, or ‘That's what it is right now’.

That's why I think my poetry, it sits around for so long because I return to it and I'll copy, paste, create a new version and I'll work on it again. And it kind of sits, and I think that's a mistake. If you can let go, you should.

Astrid: So, when you are able to let go, who is your first reader?

Josephine: For poetry… Well, not many people read my poetry. I have a friend who's a poet who I send things to, and a woman that I worked with at Curtin who has looked at my work. With Extinctions, in the case of Extinctions, my reader was really my supervisor, Tanya Dalziel at UWA. She was my reader, but she was not... What I valued was that she was not a heavy editor. She didn't try and reinvent the book in her own vision. She really gave me a lot of confidence that the characters, that the way it was going... She had a lot of confidence in what I was doing, and that was really the greatest gift for me as a supervisor. I needed that, I didn't need that kind of constant kind of intervention if you like, I just needed the support. So reading it saying, ‘Right, got that bit, that's great, what's next?’ And that really was at the point to get to the end I think, just to keep going.

Astrid: What type of experience did you have with your first novel and an editor, Cusp?

Josephine: I had a fantastic editor, Amanda Curtin, who's a West Australian writer who worked with UWA Publishing to edit my first book and it was a really good experience again.

I was terrified, though. I remember, my first book has lots of brands in it. I see myself as a forward thinker in that way. But unfortunately, when it comes to copyright and when it comes to all sorts of things, I kind of felt that it was overstuffed with historical and cultural references, but the editing process was a really, really good one.

And with Extinctions, I had a great editor, Nicola Young, who again, I really appreciated because she seemed to kind of get to the spirit of the book. And the kinds of continuity issues that she picked up were fantastic. But I didn't go through a really big structural edit at all, the form and shape of the book was pretty intact by the time it went to her. That's not to say that it didn't need her input.

Astrid: Have you ever received a harsh edit? Or an edit that you really weren't on board with?

Josephine: No.

Astrid: You're a pretty lucky writer…

Josephine: Because usually if there's a reason, there's a reason, and I respect... I found that working on your own manuscript for too long is a real… You begin to not see things, like that something's happened in continuity or something's just impossible. So, I've always gone, ‘Oh my God, thank God you saw that’ or I might feel slightly put out, but no, I've never got on my high horse and said, ‘No, I can't agree with that, because no, I have it, I'm sorry’. Sorry, I've had a positive experience. I’m sorry.

Astrid: Don’t apologise! When I was researching you Josephine, you've had a number of lovely reviews. What is it like to have a major work reviewed and reviewed by so many people?

Josephine: That is the greatest thing out of anything. That to me is the greatest thing. And that is… I have no doubt, I can't prove it, but it is the momentum of the reviews that really placed my book in the national perspective. It is difficult, as you would know, cultural space in magazines and newspapers is a difficult thing to get. There's a review that looks more like a synopsis, there's a puff piece review that the publisher puts out that's all ready to go. But then there's the considered reader who writes about your book, and I did have quite a number of those. I think the Sydney Review of Books, the ABR, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and I was completely not expecting that.

I think that was a shock, quite frankly, a real shock. And that is a gift. I don't believe you get that very often, and I certain wouldn't expect it again. I was just so thrilled to have, I suppose, to have one's own ideas, which... When I wrote this, I didn't have a publisher. I had no contract, no advance, nothing. I was really just working away on my own on this idea that had this framework that I had thought and wrote a lot about before I actually wrote the creative part, I did the exegesis. I thought a lot about how the egg and the metaphor and the beginnings and endings and death, how it all might function in this book. So, I had done an enormous amount of work, but I had really no one to say, ‘Oh, Josephine, this is just going to be fantastic’. So I didn't have any of that. For some reason, I was able to feel confident in this work, and I knew what I was doing, and I can't really explain why that is.

Astrid: Can you explain what it meant to have all of that work done in preparation, so before you were actually writing Extinctions, the work you did within the PhD, exploring all of the things that you then write about so beautifully.

Josephine: That being said, there's not a single word that mentions the name of any of my characters in my exegesis, it's not about that. A lot of it is about how metaphors work and how something… How I can create a completed object which has two wings. It has the theoretical, literary theoretical whatever kind of side, which is a side that I love, and I don't write particularly academically, I enjoy the essay form, so it's quite essayistic and quite creative, that side of it, but it has a lot of references, it's quite theoretical. And I think that I actually spent far longer on that then I did on the novel. I wrote the novel second.

A lot of people who do creative writing or PhDs that include practice and theory hate doing the theory. You see, I'm not like that because my intention when I began this PhD was that maybe I would get a job. Didn't work out, but that I actually was interested in being on top of or being engaged with discussions about culture and theory and ideas and all those sorts of things that I'm interested in. So it wasn't a terrible burden to me to do that, and so I was really lucky. But eventually it got to the point where I thought, ‘Well I've got to get on with it, because I've got to get this novel done’. And I had written a little bit, but I hadn't got the structure, and then I had to get the structure and I was off.

Astrid: Now that you have published Extinctions, and it was so well received both in the literary world, but also seeping into the public consciousness, can you tell us, is there anything that you want to publish, but a publisher won't let you?

Josephine: I haven't tried yet. I have ambitions, and I have projects that I would like to do. I'm not sure where they'll go.

In preparation to talk to you, I was thinking about I thought, ‘Oh they're going to ask me what I've been reading and what I've been doing’, you know, these are always revealing questions for writers because you fear appearing stupid or not well read or you haven't read what everybody else has read…

Astrid: Or judged.

Josephine: ... And judged. And so I went back through and looked at some of my accounts for things I've bought to see what I've been reading, and I noticed that I'd been looking at... For example, I read Citizen by Claudia Rankine, the long poem, the prose where she explores the racial imaginary, the American racial imaginary.

And I also really love Anne Carson, and I'd ordered a book, a beautiful book, that is a very beautiful object called I think it's called Nox, which is really written to her dead brother. It's got images and photographs and words and text, and I do love the visual and the poetic together.

So I have kind of little ideas about that, and I would like to write a long prose poem which is sort of also a memoir about... Or a piece about my mother, my mother's life, certain elements of my mother's life. But all of this remains protean and… I also, seeing you've asked me, this is like embarrassing where you actually take the lid of blind ambition...

Astrid: It's fantastic.

Josephine: ... Blind fantasy. Well, I'm a real fan of sitcoms and comedy, and I watch a lot with my daughter, and I kind of have this framework for a short book, which is almost like a film script, a series of scripts about a family.

And I have some things in the drawer, I have a play, a theatrical piece that I've never finished which is about two old women in an old peoples home, which is really about a debate between Melanie Klein and Anna Freud. So you see, I have a very vivid imagination, but whether any of it will ever come to fruition, I don't know.

Astrid: What are the things that make you decide on a particular project?

Josephine: Well, I think that one of the problems of being multi-focused is lack of focus. [Laughter] It's a strength and a weakness. And that's why I think the PhD was a good framework for me.

I think that prioritising, I mean while I say I've got all those things filtering around, the real thing I'm trying to work on is another novel, because I do feel that having had one novel, I need to have another novel, because I have readers who have bought by book and have loved my book, and it's sold really well.

One of the things that surprised me most, coming back from Sydney after the Miles Franklin, was coming home, and the response of my local community. I had the Mayor wanting to be my Facebook friend and I had all kinds of people, people that were genuinely thrilled because I think they knew me as a mum, and I was off doing my thing, but you know, who knows what Josephine's really doing, and I felt really embraced.

Also, through the process of going to lots of book clubs and talking to people and things, you do feel a community of readers, and that's an incredible thing. So, I feel that while I've got these other ideas, I think they are really just things at the edges at the moment. What I need to do is to get to work on... I got an Australia Council grant, which is fantastic, which is enabling me not to have to teach this year. And I've got an Asia Link, so I'm going to go to China for two months later in the year. So these are real opportunities that come from the success I think directly of the book, and opportunities that I didn't have before.

So, I have no excuse really, you know what I mean? I'm a terrible prevaricator, and I have no excuse. I also have family and my husband's job is really demanding, so he needs support. All of the things that can get in the way, I will let them. [Laughter]

Astrid: Or perhaps you could use them like the PhD to focus you.

Josephine: I think I need to let them focus me, yes.

Astrid: What advice do you have for unpublished Australian fiction writers?

Josephine: Well for me, the most important thing is to care a great deal about what you're writing. Now not everybody cares in the same way. I think genre writers, you know, you could have a very deep and caring relationship with plot if you're writing a very intricate detective story, and the plot needs to be completely worked out before, so I'm not saying that it's about empathy for your characters and those sorts of things, but you do have to be really engaged with what you're doing.

You have to try and understand that your book is going to be placed in a marketplace of genres, regardless of whether it fits or not. People will try and identify where it fits, so it's always a good idea that you know perhaps who you like, who you're trying to be like. And I don't see anything wrong with emulation, particularly if you're starting out. You say, well I’m going to try and write… How did they go back in time? Or what tense did they use? The really structural nuts and bolts stuff, it's really important to know that.

Astrid: Who inspired you?

Josephine: I think most writers or most people who like me, you go through periods, your relationship with books and writing and that letters changes. As a child, you do read for pleasure, but you also read largely often for escape and for immersion, probably the same drives that cause kids, my kids to get on the internet. They're exhausted, they'll sit in their room, they'll go onto the internet and you'll go, ‘For God's sake…’, but you know, there is an escape, there is a kind of immersion and escape. I was a rabid reader of books as a child, to the point of kind of obsessive, that sort of thing, and never without.

Then of course, I changed as a teenager. I found the transition from children's literature to adult literature very difficult. I didn't know how to... And there wasn't the kind of young adult market in the way there is now, and I think my parents didn't have any way of scaffolding me into that readership. So I used to read the books my Mum and Dad had, well my Mum, because my Dad only read non-fiction and history. And so I used to read my Mum's books, and they'd be anything from Leon Uris to detective stories. I remember a James Baldwin, of all things. I don't know how my mother ended up with James Baldwin, and I read Giovanni's Room I think it was, I read this. So it was kind of hit and miss. There was nothing systematic about the knowledge that I got about books.

Then I think I went through the period, when I first went to university, my disastrous first university, I was doing literature at a time when it was still kind of Dryden, Pope… It was still classical, it was still English, it was Shakespeare, it was those things. And I think that the only thing that really touched me was the 19th century novel, although I did enjoy Fielding and I did enjoy Stern, some of the 18th century stuff and the satire, but I knew that I was kind of like needing something more, but I couldn't find it.

So, I think what happened was there was this kind of change, this change in the world of reading and what universities taught, and I did a course called comparative literature at Murdoch University, where it was very kind of literature in translation. It was all very, very different. And also, it was a very strong political era, the idea of feminism was very strong, that the idea of feminism and representation, film and feminism, film theory. I felt like we were interested in images and how women are represented in art and those kind of things. I think I began with reading, I remember reading Toni Morrison, coming across The Bluest Eye and going ‘ding’, and then people like Angela Carter. So I read a lot of those kind of books that came out around that time.

Then we had a very big explosion of writing in Western Australia, where we had writers like Joan London publishing, Brenda Walker wrote Crush, and Terri-ann White was running the Arcade Bookshop and writing herself with a group of writers and Gail Jones, and there was a real sense of women in writing. Except I wasn't really part of it for whatever reasons, I have no idea why. I never felt like I was part of that, but not in the way that... but I was reading it. And I was influenced by that.

Mostly I think was influenced by the idea of place. There is a hierarchy of what it is okay to write about, it's a gendered hierarchy, it's a hierarchy of place. The East coast, Sydney, Melbourne, America, London, these are iconic places. And it took… I suppose at that time Tim Winton also was writing and casting Western Australia into a particular image of Western Australia, which is certainly not the only image, but that was emerging as well. That influenced me.

And then I think the next big influence was the great American moment of Don DeLillo and the intellectual novel, if you like, the big novel and books like Mao II, Great Jones Street, Running Dog, Underworld, brilliant, Underworld, which was gobsmackingly just so amazing. At that time, I was doing a Masters, I was trying to write a novel, Cusp.

My idea of Cusp was that it was kind of like a Bildungsroman, like a coming of education, coming to education, and I was influenced also by I for Isobel, Amy Wittings’ Australian beautiful book. And also the other book I remember being really influenced by was Carson McCullers Member of the Wedding, and those kind of girls and sort of... I became really, really, not angry, but obsessed or worried about the idea of breadth in writing, like the great span. And you remember the beginning of Underworld, I think begins with a baseball game where the ball travels over people like... the President, Sinatra, like the whole of the world is encompassed in this thing, but I became really interested in the idea that you can tell bigger stories through the local and the detail and the small.

That was really like what Cusp… Cusp was the reversal of the idea that you have to leave Australia to discover yourself. It was a girl in New York, a young woman who's been desperate to leave, but her mother wants her back, and so it begins with return, not leaving. So that to me, the intellectual job of the book for me has got nothing to do with reading the book, but I needed that. I need to think this is the idea that you need to own where you live, own your limits, own your boundaries, you can't be and do anything. This is your mother, and she's as it turns out, she's ill, and you are going to have to learn to live with those constraints. That was the project of that book, and it was really influenced by the idea of wouldn't it be fantastic to write the whole world, but in fact, this is my space.

When I was looking, I read a quote which described something which was talking about Anne Carson, it said, the interviewer talked about the paradox of distant closeness, and the idea that you can tell bigger stories through small stories, like a family, and that's what I tried to do with Extinctions as well, the Australian history, colonial history Indigenous erasure and relations between men and women and gender, they're all bubble as bigger determinants, even though it's the story of one family.

Astrid: Having reflected on what influenced you as a writer, as a reader now, in 2018, in Australia, who do you think is writing terribly well and not quite being recognised yet?

Josephine: That's really tough. I don't feel that I've got the knowledge to answer that.

I think we are beginning to recognise Australian authors. I mean, I've just been at the Sydney Writer's Festival, and the main writers, the Americans do dominate that structure if you like, and the visibility and I'm not being parochial, I'm not saying, ‘Oh we should just have Australians’, because obviously these are... Jennifer Egan, I love Jennifer Egan, these are really good, great, fantastic writers. But I don't know, I think that we need to do more to celebrate the writers that we've got, and I really hope that prizes like the Miles Franklin and the Stella help not to sort of elevate writers out of the public debate into some nether region of sort of like no longer relevant for some reason, but actually enable them also, and perhaps writers and people who feel articulate about culture to have more of a role in speaking, not just perhaps about books.

I mean, I really loved Kim Scott's new book. I really do, and he's a great writer, but that particular book, I feel really strongly about this, and that has been recognised. And so I think there are some absolutely brilliant Australian writers, but it is very difficult to read everything, and I tend to read fairly haphazardly, and I'm not a kind of, ‘Well I've got to read this, this, and this’.

At the moment, I'm trying to read books where they're sort of historical books. I've ordered this book that it's come and I haven't started called 1947 by a Swedish journalist called Elizabeth Åsbrink and she tells the history of a certain period a year through intimate and all kinds of events like the Dior new look, the writing of The Second Sex, the publication of The Second Sex, so she sets all these events in the same… And I'm trying to adapt that to a kind of novelistic idea.

I can't answer that wholly. I admire Charlotte Wood, who is I confess, a friend of mine. I think her last book was absolutely brilliant and went into really exciting, well not speculative, but it moved away from realism, and I thought that was a great thing and I'm all for that as well.

Astrid: Is there anything else that you would want to give to emerging writers?

Josephine: I think emerging writers, as I said before, I really hope everybody doesn't have to reinvent the wheel every generation. That is my greatest hope, that young men and women, and particularly women I think, don't have to feel that they're not entitled or don't have to feel, ‘Oh, I'm not good enough’. And the kind of horrors of insecurity and the awful work of getting to the point where you feel that you have a voice. I do hope that they don't have to reinvent that, but again, I do really emphasise, I believe that being able to talk about craft and talk about knowing your mechanics of writing is not a negative, it is a positive, and that doesn't mean that everyone needs to go to university, there's plenty of stuff out there about writing.

Also that writing is also about editing and drafting and it's hard work. It's not an easy pathway, and I'm all for the day when we can all make a living wage as artists and writers, but it's not here yet, even for those who supposedly have won big prizes.

Astrid: It will get here one day, I live in hope. Thank you very much for coming on The Garret again, Josephine.

Josephine: Thank you so much for having me.