Meet the Writer: Jessica White

Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Australian writer Jessica White. Most recently, she is the author of the hybrid-memoir Hearing Maud: A Journey for a Voice (click the title for my review). You can reach out to White on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for more on her writing and research.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Grab the Lapels: How has your writing process evolved since you started?

Jessica White: The success of Hearing Maud has surprised me. I began my career as a writer of short fiction and fiction, so I’ve not seen myself as a non-fiction writer, much less a biographer. Now I’m wondering if I’m actually stronger in life writing than fiction! Some people have mentioned to me that Hearing Maud reads like a novel. Structure and momentum have always been important to me, and I’ve been thinking about how to write my next book, an ecobiography of nineteenth century Western Australian botanist Georgiana Molloy, in a way that will encourage the reader to turn the pages.

Beyond that, I guess my writing has tightened (it’s lost plenty of adjectives along the way), which is a good thing, but the process is still the same: writing scenes by hand, typing them up, rearranging them, cutting back and adding more until everything flows.

GTL: What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

JW: I had to dig into the recesses of my memory to answer this, and I still can’t recall a specific piece. As a perfectionist I’m not 100% satisfied with much of my output, but I am very happy with Hearing Maud — it was the best book I could possibly write. I was less happy with my other books, and so I’m not rushing myself with future work — the cooking process is really important, regardless of how long it takes.

GTL: How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

JW: My family are my biggest fans! And my friends and other half are really supportive, too. I ran the manuscript past my family to check that they were okay with their representations, and although my parents don’t always come off in a good light (as I wanted to stay true to the self that I was describing at particular times), they were okay with this (they are very good parents).

GTL: What was the hardest part of writing your hybrid-memoir, Hearing Maud?

JW: It took me fifteen years to write this book. It was originally part of my PhD thesis, and I had to strip back the academic writing over and over again, until it was an accessible piece of writing. It was as though I had to ingest the work and regurgitate it with my life entwined with Maud’s, and it wasn’t until I brought my story in that the book came to life.

People ask me how I weaved the strands together so seamlessly, and I don’t have a substantial answer to that, beyond intuition. When I was small, I used to play the piano, and Dad would listen to me practicing as he listened to the TV. He could hear when I made a mistake, and would yell out ‘Wrong note!’ (yes, it was annoying). For me, writing is similar. I can sense when something isn’t working, and shift it around until it does.

GTL: Hearing Maud was recently reviewed on my blog. I also am part of the deaf/hard of hearing community. Did you have any hopes about how your book would impact deaf readers? What about non-deaf readers?

JW: I was largely writing for hearing readers, because it’s not immediately obvious that I’m deaf, and I wanted to explain to hearing people how hard I have to work to remain involved in the hearing world. It was a success in that sense — friends who have known me for 25 years didn’t understand how difficult it was for me, and other people who are Hard of Hearing, until they read the book. Deaf people already know about the issues that I’m writing about, but I am not yet part of the Deaf community as I don’t know Auslan (Australian Sign Language), although I’m learning. Often people like me are part of two worlds, the hearing and the Deaf, and it is hard for us to mediate both of them.

GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?

JW: I’m not sure that I have one in which I’m truly embedded. I get bored easily, so I’m interested in trying new forms (one of my favourite writers is Andrew McGahan, who was never afraid to write in a new genre). I’m involved in Brisbane’s literary community via my wonderful local bookshop Avid Reader, but beyond that I’m not sure that I identify with any particular group. I write about restlessness in Hearing Maud, and I think that might the reason why I am not particularly recognised in any one place. I’m not fully part of the hearing world or the Deaf world, and I can’t claim the place I grew up in because it’s stolen land. I grew up in New South Wales and lived overseas for five years, so I’m not a proper Queenslander (that takes decades!). But I maintain that a sense of not belonging is not necessarily a bad thing — it keeps my mind open to new things and my writing fresh.

Having said that, a hand of close friends is vital. I’ve found, over the years, that it’s really important to have a few writer friends, either to read your work or just to whinge to. You have to make sacrifices for your craft, and I’ve found it can be alienating when, at catch-ups, you’re the only person without a mortgage, car and kids. Writer friends get your weirdness. Likewise, my two deaf friends are life savers. Like me, they have some hearing, and so we have similar issues and ways of writing about it. When I talk to them, I feel myself instantly relaxing.

Thanks so much to Jessica White for participating in this Meet the Writer feature!

31 comments

  1. Excellent interview as always Melanie. I hope you don’t mind if I say I recently reviewed A Curious Intimacy -which ties in with my review Patience & Sarah now I think about it. I wonder why it did not occur to me at the time.
    https://theaustralianlegend.wordpress.com/2020/09/07/a-curious-intimacy/
    And it also ties in with the biography of Georgiana Molloy – an early settler in Western Australia and a botanist – same period, same location.
    The community I got to know Jess through is the Australian Lit blogging community and in particular the Australian Women Writers Challenge which is a Facebook page and website and major database for reviews of Australian women’s writing.

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    • Not at all, Bill. It was your review that led me to reading Hearing Maud. I Googled the Australian Women Writers Challenge and found their webpage. I’ve seen the logo of the woman in black with the purple background before, but never realized it was a group organized to share reviews.

      Like

  2. I enjoyed reading this interview and can relate to the idea of struggling to find a place and people who understand the strangeness of a writing life, how it doesn’t always fit with other social expectations and “success”. It’s interesting to read about the process of vetting the work with family members too. The point about living between worlds feels like a common sentiment but the details change (e.g. newcomers who’ve migrated, adopted children, racialized individuals with multiple ethnicities).

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    • When I was in different writing programs, the challenging thing to me was that “success” only meant publishing, with a big press, and having several books. There didn’t seem to be such a thing as a creatively-satisfying project with which one is happy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Her comments about being in-between the hearing and deaf world are fascinating, and I assume you feel much the same way. Not being fully deaf must mean that people aren’t as helpful or understanding in some ways, and I imagine that’s a really difficult place to find yourself in.

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    • I’ve heard that our brains like nice, tidy categories so that we can easily determine what is dangerous or not. So, the willingness of some people to hard on the in-between as a trickster place makes sense, but is still rude. You hear about it with people of mixed race, with bisexual people, with people who can walk some but may need a wheelchair.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah, I am so glad to hear that my parents weren’t the only ones who liked to inform me loudly whenever I got a note wrong on the piano! So unhelpful, and I feel the same when something is off in my writing as well- it’s more of a struggle figuring out how to get it just right than an inability to notice something is wrong. But I imagine learning piano while deaf is a challenge of its own, one I can’t relate to. Hearing a bit about White’s experience has been very eye-opening, and I’m sure Hearing Maud would be, too- and it’s exciting to see that White considers Hearing Maud her best work (so far!) I’m glad to have this book on my radar.

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    • Oh, no! LoL, poor little Emily getting shouted at on the piano. I didn’t know you played. I hope you read this book. I’ve also asked my library to order a book about “cures” for deafness people have come up with through the years for. Hearing Maud got me interested in the history of treatment of deaf people.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It wasn’t shouting so much as it just always felt patronizing. My mom tried to teach me herself, which just wasn’t working for us, but I have always loved playing.
        I’ve added Hearing Maud to my list, and I’d be interested to see your review of the deafness ‘cures’ book! That sounds like it could be infuriating, but a very worthwhile read.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Great interview! Her perspective about being in between world echoes what I remember from your review of the book. And interesting that she seems to feel that same in between-ness in her physical homeland too.

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      • That makes sense. In my limited experience around people who are deaf or hard of hearing, I have to focus on the way I communicate. And often simple things, like making sure I’m facing the person which, as you say, is simply good manners!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m so glad you were able to catch White and get her to participate in this series, Melanie. It’s always fun to read these interviews. I’m also glad to hear (sorry, couldn’t help it) that you feel seen in this text. ❤ It's the things we cannot see about others that are difficult to understand.

    Jessica White: Thank you for participating in this interview! I wonder – how did you decide to transform a PhD thesis into Hearing Maud? Was it difficult to strip out all the hard-won research and research writing you did to make this book?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jackie B, thanks for your Q! It took forever to turn the thesis into a book – I had to pare it back and back, and also make Maud’s story more prominent, & then weave mine through. I still have enough information sitting in my folders for a book on her mother! But I often work like this – I rewrote my first novel, A Curious Intimacy, three times to get the voice right. I also wasn’t very experienced then – I’m hoping that from now on it won’t take quite so long to produce a book.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a fabulous follow up to your recent review for Jessica’s book. I was an editor on the Aust Women Writers Challenge website for 5 yrs with Jessica, but sadly, because none of us live near each other, we never met up in person. I’m certainly loving all this talk of possible future bio’s about some of our forgotten, under-recognised AWW.

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    • It’s exciting, isn’t it?! When I was in grad school, it absolutely felt like anything to be researched and written was done and gone, but talking to other academics has sparked the love of research in me once again. White in particular reminded me of the importance of research in local libraries connected to the subject. I sometimes forget and think everything will just be on the internet….because it’s the internet.

      I also have an interview with Susan Allott, author of The Silence, coming in January.

      Liked by 1 person

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