meet the judges of the 2020 rachel funari prize for fiction: jennifer down
Over the next few weeks, we’ll introduce you to the incredible people who make up the judging panel of the 2020 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Today, meet author Jennifer Down.
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
That I wish it wasn’t a conversation we’re still having! Publishing and media in Australia remains overwhelmingly white and middle-class, a female-dominated industry with a few blokes at the top of things, and of course that shapes the stories and voices given airtime. It’s also important for white, tertiary-educated cis women to acknowledge that, though historically we’ve often been ignored by reviewers and prizes, we still enjoy healthy representation in bookstores and libraries. We benefit from contemporary power structures in a way that still excludes many other authors—people of colour, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, writers with disabilities, trans and gender-diverse people and the working class—from the literary ecosystem.
What comes to mind when you think of our 2020 theme, ‘future’?
A lot of anxiety, actually, but that’s more a function of the present political and environmental moment than of the theme itself! I’m interested in thinking about the future in the context of forward motion, catalysts, hinges, tipping-points, and so on.
What do you think makes a great short story?
The best short stories, for me, are the ones that capture a moment or an episode perfectly, and which don’t try to do too much—they’re secure in the knowledge that the characters are well drawn, and language is used in a purposeful way. There doesn’t have to be a great epiphany or drama, but I like stories that are surprising in some way.
When it comes to writing, what’s your process? Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? Do you start with a story or a character? And does it change between writing short stories and novel-length stories?
I think I fit somewhere in between plotting and pantsing. I often know precisely where a story will end, right down to the literal last line, and that’s particularly true when it comes to short fiction. I’ll often start with a particular image, or setting, or line of dialogue, and the character and story grows out of that. I used to think much of my writing just flowed out, but a while back I realised that I spend weeks, sometimes months thinking about a story before I actually sit down to write it, so a lot of the spadework is already done.
What do you think about the idea that writers should write what they know? How much of yourself and the people in your life do you put into your characters and their stories?
I once heard someone say that writers should write about what they know they know, which is a more interesting idea to me. Of course, it’s possible to write about things you haven’t experienced firsthand—otherwise everything from historical fiction to fantasy could not exist. I’ve certainly written from a cis man’s perspective, and set stories in places I’ve never been, for example—it’s just that the research is crucial, and there needs to be a sensitivity about whose story I’m telling. Can I do it justice? Would it perhaps be better coming from another writer?
I’ve never based any characters on myself or people in my life, but I do pinch smaller things—bits of dialogue, physical tics, good- and bad-luck stories, injuries, ironies, that sort of thing.
What does your working/writing day look like?
I work an unrelated writing job during office hours. In theory, though not always in practice, I have Fridays off to work on my own stuff. On a good Friday, when I don’t have to go to the office, I like to get up early, go for a swim or a run or to a barre class first thing, then make myself a big breakfast, which I don’t do on any other day. Then I’ll work for as long as I can, usually at my desk at home or at the library. I might stop around midday or mid-afternoon for a walk or a coffee, then keep going until it’s time for the pub. Otherwise I just squeeze my writing in where I can, before or after work and on weekends.
Dorothy Parker once said: “I hate writing, I love having written.” Do you find the writing process energising or exhausting?
Both, in turn. On the best days, it can feel almost supernatural—while I wouldn’t ever call it effortless, it does feel like a kind of telepathy, which is exhilarating in its own way. Other days it’s like pushing shit uphill. The manuscript I’ve just finished deals with a lot of heavy subject matter, and the research was cumulatively traumatic. That was exhausting.
In your opinion, can creative writing be taught? Is the ability to write innate or is it simply a case of practice makes perfect?
I think there are certain aspects that can be taught—like grammar, and some elements of structure and plot—but a lot of it is instinctive, and best learned from reading others. Practice definitely helps. And although I really resist the mythologising of creative practice, I do think there’s a particular observational eye, maybe even just a hypersensitivity or an inexorable interest in other people’s lives, that can’t be taught.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? What’s on your TBR pile? And what do you read to feel inspired?
Most recently, I read Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which is a masterpiece—it changed the way I read, and even the way I thought, for a few weeks. I started to adopt the narrator’s run-on, neurotic, scatter-gun way of processing her world. I’ve just started Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, which I must be the last person in Melbourne to read. After that it’ll be either Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo or Lot by Bryan Washington.
Is there a writer or writers you admire or books that have influenced your work?
Too many to name. When I was younger I read a lot of Americans, a lot of minimalists and Southern grit lit, but also whatever I found in secondhand book shops—Joan Didion, James Salter, James Baldwin, Grace Paley, Reynolds Price, Denis Johnson, Eudora Welty, Sherman Alexie. In my mid-twenties I started to read more broadly, which was no doubt a very healthy and instructive thing, but if I think about early influences, those authors are who I think of. And Helen Garner, but everyone says that.
Did you always want to be a writer? If you weren’t writing, how might you be spending your working days?
Between the ages of eight and eighteen I wanted to be a doctor, preferably a diagnostician or surgeon. I still think I would have enjoyed it, and maybe even been good at it, but there probably wouldn’t have been much time for writing.
What will you be looking for when judging the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
Sentence-level craft, empathy, force, clarity, grace.
What does literary success look like to you?
I try not to think too much in terms of success, because to me that suggests an endpoint or crowning achievement, whereas writing feels like a constant apprenticeship. The goalposts shift as you learn more and develop your skills—they might represent finishing a story, or submitting to a journal, or having a piece published, or the launch of a book. It’s always changing.
Entries for the 2020 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction are now OPEN and close 5pm Friday 17th April, 2020. Submit stories up to 2000 words that engage with the theme ‘future’. For more information, click here.