How would you describe the kind of fiction you write?
I am a rural author and at the heart of my fiction is a passion for Australia’s wild places. The bush is the main inspiration for my writing. While I love to explore the complexities of human relationships, my narratives are always informed by country landscapes, together with their flora and fauna.
You have written that the inspiration for your second novel, Brumby’s Run, stemmed from a poem of the same title by Banjo Paterson. Could you describe the process of how you got from reading Paterson’s poem and getting your original inspiration to arriving at a novel-length story?
To begin with, I let the poem play over and over in my head until I could recite it in my sleep, and then I just let my writing mind blaze away. Here are some examples of how it worked. I loved that the wild horses in the poem had a secret life, and I wondered what might happen if a girl gained their confidence and was admitted into their society. The plight of our brumbies has long been a concern of mine, and I already knew a fair bit about brumby runners, or gully-rakers as Banjo so evocatively calls them. The chase described in the poem is recreated several times in my novel, each time to a different purpose. The haunting refrain of the final stanza percolated away in my brain. It urged me to explore the sense of loss experienced by both the sisters and the horses: loss of health, home, identity and freedom. The poem was such a rich catalyst for my imagination, it was hard to fit all its themes into just one novel!
On your author website, you have 10 Useful Rules For Better Writing and number 10 is: “I write every day. When I make a habit of putting my thoughts into words, it becomes an instinct. I have found this to be the most important rule of all.” How did you come to learn the importance of writing regularly and how easy or difficult did you find it getting into that habit?
I think I learnt the importance of writing regularly by trial and error. When I wrote intermittently I found it difficult. When I wrote regularly, the process became easier. It’s human nature to take the easy way, I suppose. The first time I had a manuscript deadline it became even clearer to me that every-day writing was far easier and more productive than random, creative spurts. Now I think it’s like going to the gym. Once you get used to it, you miss when you don’t go (or so I’ve heard …).
Your short story Woorawa, an extract from an unpublished novel, features eagles from the forests of Tasmania, and is partly told from an eagle’s point of view. What joys or challenges did you experience writing from an eagle’s point of view?
I’ve always enjoyed a profound affinity with the animal world, and writing from their point of view comes naturally. The challenging part was to understand what might motivate an eagle. I spent weeks researching every aspect of their lives. In the end though, it was a calculated imaginative exercise. How does it feel to live inside another skin? Which pains and pleasures are theirs alone, and which are universal to all animals, including us? I think it’s important to contemplate these questions.
Your first novel, Wasp Season, also features animals prominently. What attracts you to featuring (non-human) animals in your fiction?
I love writing from non-human points of view. As a child, Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby novels were my favourites. Then I progressed to Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, a set of narratives about birds, fish, eels, and other non-human characters. Without being sentimental, Carson walked the line between scientific objectivity and anthropomorphism. Her birds experience joy, her fish fear and her dolphins show fierce maternal love. And why not? It certainly makes her work accessible to a general audience, and we are all animals after all. Eva Hornung, author of Dog Boy, has published short stories from the point of view of a mother fox, a cow in an abattoir, and a caged cockatoo. It tests imagination, but I think this sort of writing also expands empathy and touches our hearts. We are not separate to nature, we are a part of it. In my writing, animal lives are always closely intertwined with the human.
What kinds of novels do you most enjoy reading and do you have some favourites?
I enjoy an eclectic variety of writing. I love Andrea Goldsmith and Charlotte Wood for their elegant prose and keen observations of character. The Prosperous Thief (AG) and The Children (CW) are particular favourites. I love the Aussie rural lit genre for their heartfelt love stories, outback settings and unpretentious depictions of regional life, both human and animal. I also enjoy environmental thrillers such as Dust by Charles Pellegrino and classics like Dune by Frank Herbert and Earth Abides by George Stewart.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes that character stand out for you as a reader?
I hate to be unoriginal but Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is a great favourite and the ultimate bad boy. To everyone but Catherine, he is evil incarnate; a man of stormy emotions who shuns humanity because he himself has been ostracised; a rebellious anti-hero who is a law unto himself. His sole passion is Catherine, yet he hates as deeply as he loves. Such an extreme character! I just love him.
If you could bring one fiction writer back from the dead for one day for the sole purpose of you discussing fiction writing with them, who would you choose and why?
Charles Dickens, hands down. I’d like to know how he managed to so seamlessly bring to life his cast of thousands – his orphans, eccentrics, conmen, phony politicians, lovelorn widows and sly servants. I’d like to know why it was so important to him to give the dispossessed a voice. If I could bring one tenth of the richness and complexity of his characters to my writing, I would die a happy woman.
What is next for your fiction writing?
My new book is set in the foothills of the Bunya Mountains on Queensland’s beautiful Darling Downs. I hope to keep writing stories about Australia’s wild places.
You can read more about Jennifer Scoullar and her fiction at www.jenniferscoullar.com.
The Australian Literature Review