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.
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!