page seventeen has had a lot of varied authors featured across eleven issues – close to 400 individual writers if we wanted to sit down and count them all. That’s a lot of authors and poets – and while we may never be able to give due acknowledgement to every contributor who has ever graces the pages of page seventeen, we can try to shine a spotlight here and there as we go along.
S A Jones is one of those writers, with her article on the nature of being an author, ‘What is Writing For?’, appearing in Issue 09 of P17. For anyone interested in reading the article and the rest of Issue 09’s goodies, back issues are available through Busybird Publishing. But recently her second novel, Isabelle of the Moon and Stars, was released to critical praise. We at P17 caught up with S A Jones to have a quick chat about the novel, the article and her influences as a writer.
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Describe your main influences in writing Isabelle.
Isabelle of the Moon and Stars did not have direct influences, which may be one of the reasons it was so damnably difficult to write. I had ‘anti-influences’ more than anything. My motivation derived partly from my dissatisfaction with the way mental illness is portrayed in popular culture. I wanted to see if it was possible to write honestly about the experience of depression and anxiety without falling back on the tired old tropes of ‘suicide chic’ or ‘protagonist is unbalanced but endearingly quirky’. Whether the novel is the best form for exploring an illness characterised by wearying sameness and repetition is something I’m still grappling with.
In ‘What is Writing For?’, you described the writing process as ‘psychological taxonomy’. How would you say this idea applied to you in writing a book described as both personal and historical?
Isabelle is a story about dark and light states and places: how they contrast, how they connect, how they differ across space and time. For example, part of Isabelle’s fascination with the city of Prague involves the Libussa myth. Libussa was a seer and visionary, prone to trances and altered states, who prophesied that a great city would emerge where Prague now stands. To twenty-first century sensibilities Libussa sounds quite ‘mad’, but her contemporaries recognised a power in her unconventional consciousness. Isabelle evinces some of Libussa’s ‘symptoms’ and is labelled ‘mentally unwell’. But is she any more or less sane than her boss Jack, with his reliance on inane management strategies, or her best friend Evan who runs his life according to a singular childhood experience? I’m interested in the way states (personal and geopolitical) are ‘read’ as adaptive or dysfunctional.
In the same article you also discuss the ‘addiction’ of publication and its negative effects. As a published novelist, what advice would you give to writers still seeking their first publications?
I hesitate to give advice because I’m not sure any writer outgrows their apprenticeship. I certainly haven’t. What I will say is that rejection is an endemic part of writing for publication. Rejection can be crushing and demoralising, especially when it takes years of one’s life to complete a novel. All writers need to find a way to process rejection, take what’s useful from any feedback, pick themselves up and keep writing. I generally give myself twenty-four hours to wallow after being rejected. I drink wine, cry, seek solace in the company of writing friends who know how it is and generally feel sorry for myself. Then I keep going.
Your admiration of the Brontë sisters’ works – Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre in particular – is well documented. How have these books influenced you as a writer?
Wuthering Heights is a master class in structure. When I figured out the ‘how’ of Wuthering Heights it was a revelatory moment for me. As I’ve written elsewhere:
… the duality, the symmetry, the very patterns evident in the architecture of the novel all led inexorably to one conclusion. This was no anarchic work of random genius. It was a painstakingly crafted work built on well thought through ideas, imagery and structure. Discipline, not divine intervention, created Wuthering Heights … if this book with its sublime power is the result of discipline, study, revision, trial and error then writing – even writing of genius – is a process. And that means that I can learn it.
I’ve been greatly inspired by the persistence and dedication shown by the Bronte sisters. When Charlotte Brontë asked the poet laureate Robert Southey for literary advice he told her, ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.’ Jane Eyre is the ultimate middle figure to such nonsense.
You developed your own management strategy when writing Isabelle. Can you tell us a little about how you managed your time and how it affected your writing process?
I am very disciplined and rigid when it comes to my writing time. I have to be, as I have a demanding full-time job and a family. I must be at my desk and writing by 9am on Saturday and Sunday and I don’t move until I’ve achieved my word-count objective for the session. My time is limited and I cannot afford to wait for inspiration. Even then, it took me seven years to finish Isabelle of the Moon and Stars. I went through thirteen drafts, three points of view and junked near on 130,000 words before arriving at a version I was happy with. There were times I wondered if I’d crossed the line between admirably persistent and woefully dogmatic.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a novel called The Fortress. It’s a radical departure from anything I’ve published before. It is about an all-female civilisation running parallel with the modern world and the experience of a man who takes a vow of total submission to enter that civilisation. The novel is interested in what male sexual submission looks like, if readers find it sexy or strange, and how a female civilisation might operate. Its Fifty Shades of Grey meets The Handmaid’s Tale at a cocktail party thrown by Anais Nin!
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Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is available now from UWA Publishing.