Erik Jensen chats about his creative process and book “On Kate Jennings”

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Erik Jensen is the founding editor of The Saturday Paper, and his first book, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, won the Nib Award for Literature and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

He chatted to us about his creative process and newest book, On Kate Jennings , which explores the world of the acclaimed novelist, poet and pioneering feminist.

The best piece of advice I’ve been given about writing was from David Marr. He said, “Put dates on everything and keep all the events in order.” I didn’t do that with my first book, Acute Misfortune, and I didn’t do it with On Kate Jennings either.

I started writing this book the week I finished writing a screenplay, and the experience fundamentally changed my work. It was the first time I really considered character arc in my non-fiction. Previously, I had just written what I saw and left reality to make shape from it. If something was true, then it belonged. Partway through writing On Kate Jennings I had a different realisation: Kate needed to fall in love. That is the point of her novel Snake, in some ways. Knowing this, I restructured the counter-narrative and built an extra 15 years into the book I had thought I was writing, so that Kate could meet her husband. I didn’t change any events, of course: just my scope.

I’m not a terribly organised writer. I fit in writing around work, so most of this book was written at night or at weekends. Most writing, I think, is looking for places to put things. A lot of that happened away from the page. I would do an interview, and then walk to work, and on the walk home I might think of a place to put an idea. Usually, this would be a specific sentence that I knew I wanted somewhere, which I would copy down while I was walking. These are usually very short sentences, possibly because they are composed in my head: “Sometimes, she is vinegar.” Or: “Dare has soft features. His words come out padded, like bolls of cotton.”

This is a book about writing, but Kate doesn’t talk much about writing. She doesn’t like to discuss it. In the book, I write something like: “Kate says she doesn’t know what to say about writing. When people ask, she tells them to prepare for a life of failure.”

Kate told me she imagines Turner’s messy pictures as she writes. I can sense the atmosphere of them in her work. My writing is quite blunt and if it has any artfulness I think it is the accrual of those blunt strokes. I picture painting, too, but never anything finished and because it’s not finished I don’t know whose painting I’m picturing. I see the strokes more – they are violent and hard won, and don’t do a lot on their own. Usually, I’ll picture a palette knife scraping back against canvas or a small stroke of colour being put down next to another.

I suspect this is because I’ve always been a journalist and I rarely write anything longer than a news story – I just put the news stories end to end until I have a book. When I finished this book, another writer sent me a note: “Once we get you thinking and writing in bigger than 400-word chunks, there’s no telling where this line of work might take you.”

On Kate Jennings by Erik Jenson ($22.99), published by Black Inc.

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