Jane Rawson’s debut novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists was last year was named ‘Australia’s most underrated book’ in a literary prize that rewarded books that had not received the recognition or readership judges thought they deserved.
Intrigued, we made our list and made no wrong turns on our way to interviewing Jane to find out the story behind this story…
So, Jane, let’s get comfy here. Now, can you give people who may not have read you book (apparently there are many) a quick run down?
“Unmade Lists is the story of Caddy, who lives in a grotty, run-down, climate-changed future Melbourne. She lost her house and her husband and her cat in a horrible fire and now she’s trying to get by on whatever she can scrape together. It’s also the story of Simon and Sarah, characters in a story Caddy has been writing. These two teenagers have been sent on an impossible quest to see every tiny bit of America: one of them is determined to complete it; the other just wants to live a normal life. Reality gets torn when Caddy’s friend, Ray, gets hold of some maps that bend space and time. Caddy meets her characters, who are furious about being imaginary. She also has the chance to reunite with her husband, or at least an imaginary version of him…”
Ah yeah, so just a run-of-the-mill plot then. Hmm. So, that’s the plot, but is there some theme holding all these maps and quests and imaginary husbands together?
“The book is about those times when we desperately want to go back, to live in our memories, to recapture people or times we loved. It’s about whether imagination is more important than reality. It’s sad and funny and pretty freaking weird.”
Oh, really? We hadn’t noticed. So, this question you may want a lawyer present for, but where and when did the ideas for the book come to you?
“This book has a lot of ideas, and they were coming to me for years. The first of them was the idea for Sarah and Simon’s quest, which came out of a fake argument I had with a Lonely Planet colleague about how much of a country you’d have to see to have really ‘seen’ it.
Ah, that’s right, because you were a former Lonely Planet travel writer and editor. Carry on…
“We were going to make a mockumentary about a family who set out to complete this task, but of course we were all talk… The idea for a liminal place where imaginary things continue to live their lives came from a James Gleeson etching I saw, called ‘A door in London has been left open and an electric eel enters while attention is diverted by an attempted suicide’ – for some reason it sparked an idea in me for ways the imagined may sneak into the real world. Caddy’s future Melbourne came from my working on climate change projections at various jobs, from spending a few vivid months in Phnom Penh, and from a tour I took of some large oil storage tanks near my house: the engineers’ perspective on what would burn if the tanks caught fire was, um, illuminating.”
Illuminating, nice. So that all sounds like it would have ‘burned’ a lot of time (boom chish). Roughly how long, from idea to finished product, did the book take you?
“Good question. That first conversation about seeing America happened about 15 years ago, and I turned it into a short story that was published in 2007. I spent early 2003 in Phnom Penh and gathered up some more inspiration there. I wrote the first draft of the novel in 2007 and 2008 and kept redrafting until 2010, when I started sending it to agents and publishers. Transit Lounge accepted it in July 2012 (on what was probably the best day of my life so far) and it was published 11 months later. So, 14 years from inception till publication (or six if you want to count from when I started seriously writing the thing).”
Lots of numbers there. We’ll just put down 57 years. So how did your book deal come about?
“I didn’t really know anyone in book publishing – no authors or publishers. I hadn’t studied creative writing, and I hadn’t grown up in Melbourne, so I was a bit on my own.”
Great, we actually love these stories. The “I was lucky that my aunt was a publisher” stories are so dull. Continue.
“When I had what seemed like a finished manuscript, I started sending it to agents. That was in 2010. After several rejections I tried small presses instead – I think Transit Lounge was the third I approached. I’d been to the book launch of a friend of a friend, a truly disturbing and brilliant novel about a Tasmanian teenage werewolf, and I thought if Transit Lounge is willing to take a chance on that, they might like Unmade Lists. I was also given hope by their location: Melbourne’s western suburbs, where a lot of the book is set. Though they weren’t technically taking submissions, publisher Barry Scott agreed to have a look at it and two months later he sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in publishing with them. I very much was.”
Classic understatement. Okay, so let’s have a look at your typical day – do you have a writing routine?
“My typical day is like much of Australia’s typical day – I get up, do a bit of yoga, eat some food and have a shower, and get on a train to go to the office. I work as a technical writer Monday to Friday, business hours. So my creative writing routine, if you can call it that, is to write what I can, when I can, in between work, seeing friends, learning clarinet and hanging out with my husband.”
Any less fleeting time put aside to write?
“I try to steal a couple of hours one or two evenings a week, and a bigger chunk once a weekend. If I’m in the flow of something I might write on the train as well, and sometimes I write little short stories while I’m cooking dinner or on my lunch break. I would love to work part time and have a dedicated writing day (or not work at all and spend ‘work hours’ writing). But for the moment I have to work.”
Hey while we remember, how did it feel to be named the winner of 2014 Most Underrated Book Award?
“Overwhelming, at first. I’ve never really won anything. It took a while to sink in. But over the past few weeks so many people have been interested in my book and loads of them have even gone on to read it, and that has felt great. There has been so much coverage… Unmade Lists has also featured on a lot of the big bookshop websites. It takes a long time to write a book and get it published. And I knew with this book that it wasn’t for everyone, but that there would be a certain type of person who would absolutely love it. I was sad that for the most part, those people were never even going to know it existed. Now, I feel like there’s a chance they will.”
That is truly awesome. So any advice to other aspiring writers?
“Right now I’m working as a technical writer. If you want a career as a professional writer and you want to always be employed, I’d say don’t overlook the dull topics. There is a lot of writing work in areas that aren’t at all glamorous, but will really build your skills. Learn how to write clearly and simply and always think of your reader: don’t make them work any harder than they really need to.”
Sensible advice. So finally, tell us what you think your writing superpower is.
“In my paid writing, it’s clarity and concision. My arch-nemesis is the passive voice. Otherwise, I reckon it’s snappy dialogue. That stuff pours out of me. But now I’m trying to learn how to live without it: there are so many writing tasks that snappy dialogue just can’t solve…”
Curious as to just how wacky this book is? You can discover the world of Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists by purchasing it here.