I recently met Jonathan Englert for a coffee and chat in Mosman, Sydney. Jonathan has moved to Sydney from New York so, although his commercially published work to date is US based, we can consider him an Australian author.
We spoke about teaching and learning writing skills, his series of novels based on a mystery-solving dog named Randolph, comedy in fiction, and more. We also managed to arrange, in consultation with Michael White, a giveaway of some writing courses from Jonathan and Michael’s new The Sydney Writers Project. (These courses will provide participants with an excellent foundation for commercial publication, so enter by writing your own obituary in 100 wordsor less by Jan 30th.) You can read a poem by Jonathan, called The Shoals at Middle Head, Sydney Harbour here.
Following our chat, Jonathan offered to respond to some questions in writing Q and A style, based on things we discussed, to give you readers access to his thoughts in his own words:
Now that you’ve moved from New York to Mosman, has the location or lifestyle change inspired changes in your fiction you might not have otherwise explored?
So far there are no limits to the fruits of exile. A professional writer keeps writing no matter where he or she is. But to have been plucked out of the familiar (Manhattan) and placed in the alternative universe which is Sydney and Australia for me has been really welcome. Australia is a great and expansive country beyond knowing. In fact, I know less and less about it every day that I live here and am grateful for that. Being stripped of the pretense of familiarity with your surroundings can do wonders for your writing.
How would you describe your fiction?
Tragi-comical-not-plot-unfriendly narratives with a tendency to whimsy and even slapstick sprinkled with philosophical digressions occasionally black but never without the redeeming graces of humor and goodwill. That’s how I describe my fiction but someone on one of those nasty book club sites where everybody’s an expert reviewer claimed to have fallen asleep during the climactic last pages of dog book #3 (A Dog At Sea). My question was if my book had that effect on them how they even got that far because I’m sure there were several natural nap-inducing moments prior to the climax (when I don’t like a book I throw it across the room before I’m past the first page). On the other hand, another reader was so moved by A Dog About Town that they bought a goat for OxFam in honor of the main character.
What can you share about the fourth Randolph book, other upcoming fiction projects, or likely directions for your fiction?
Randolph’s fourth book is in “development.” I’ve gotten a good number of readers asking about book #4 (it’s always heartening for a writer when the abyss speaks back in an encouraging way) but no clear publishing path/deadline yet. The screenplay has been humming along though. In terms of new novels, I am currently finishing one that is more satirical and has no narrating animals.
How can non-fiction/journalism/observation/attention-to-detail be useful for fiction, and why is non-fiction the foundation of The Sydney Writers Project (SWP)’s Gateway course?
Nonfiction is the foundation for the Gateway Course and, indeed, all of The Sydney Writers Project because our focus is about building up a writer’s strength and equipping them with tools that will deepen their writing in any genre. The fact is that the tendency in fiction –especially in these narcissistic times— is to turn inward using the outward world only as a kind of resource to mine in the service of the narcissistic exercise. The chief stumbling block to publishable and, indeed, strong writing for most writers is failing to counter this tendency enough to be able to appeal to an audience beyond one’s family and immediate circle. The art of nonfiction is essentially outward looking and as a result supplies a healthy corrective to many of the pitfalls into which writers may fall –pitfalls that result in a good idea going nowhere and an excellent start sputtering out for lack of fuel. This is a common and dispiriting experience for many writers and can often be addressed. Nonfiction brings the writer back to a more commonly shared position in an outwardly observed and shared world. What did so-and-so actually say (as opposed to what I imagined him or her saying)? What time of day did the important event happen? What was the color of the floor tile? Seeking answers to factual questions, reporting, researching, acting as a journalist of the imagination or rather a gadfly of the imagination, this can improve fiction dramatically. Many details are inherently interesting and lead on to other discoveries. Also, often details that are commonplace to us and even barely noticed may be absolutely fascinating to a wider readership who does share our knowledge/intimacy with the world we are writing about. Nonfiction methods can open doorways to lines of inquiry, plot, scene and character that would never become apparent without this approach. It almost never fails that if you arm a writer with the tools and disposition of the nonfiction approach, the writer will grow and grow rapidly.
How did you meet Michael White and come to start the SWP together?
Michael was per usual causing trouble on the main street here in Mosman dazzling people with his erudition –he’s published 30 plus books. After breaking up a fight he was about to start with someone who said something absurd and totally wrong about the writing life, we had coffee and decided constructive action must be taken against dangerous literary trends. Thus, the SWP was born.
Why is the SWP different from other workshops, writing classes, uni subjects on offer in Australia?
The SWP is different because we are filling what we believe is a profound gap in the market. From what I can see, writing instruct ion runs the gamut from the highly theoretical (what’s-the-point-again?) to writing instruction by people who are not published, who earn their living primarily by teaching not writing. What we offer is a program that supplies the essential building blocks that people can fit into their writing array as they need –in most cases I think the writer will find themselves utterly changed in a good way because of our approach— and, equally important, both Michael and I are there for every student who comes through. Each of us participates in every course and every piece of writing that the student submits gets both of our eyes on it and our comments and guidance.
What do you tend to look for in good fiction or in a good fiction writer?
Voice and authority.
How did you come to get your first novel published?
My first novel A Dog About Town was actually the third novel that I wrote (the first two will hopefully be burned before they are published –standard journeywork I guess—and the third might find a publisher someday). I have a very good agent, Claudia Cross, at Sterling Lord Literistic and she understands my aims and takes me out to Chinese food when I am in New York.
How do you make comedy fiction work well, or what do you tend to like in comedy fiction?
That is a difficult question to answer –in fact, I’m not sure I can. I once had a teacher say that writing humor is one of the hardest things to do because of the questions of taste and sensibility. Simply put –and I see this with the “outlier” reactions to my books particularly in the U.S.— some people won’t get the joke. They’ll never get the joke because the joke is forged out of a sensibility that it would take a lifetime for them to acquire. Comedy fiction is just hard. There have been times when I have written something that I laughed writing only to find it was unfunny later –same audience, different time of day. One key is that the specific detail is usually funnier than the broad fact. This is where the nonfiction technique can be very helpful, it makes you pay attention to the details and gives you something to build upon. Then there’s Hemingway: A man’s got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book.
What are some of your favourite novels (and short stories and poems, if you have some favourites for those as well) and what makes them stand out for you?
I won’t pick favorites but I’ll recommend Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find for a short story and Wallace Stevens’s Sunday Morning for a poem. In terms of novels: Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
The Australian Literature Review