Jane Rawson grew up in Canberra and now lives in Melbourne with a bagel-baking husband and two good looking cats. For money she writes about technology and social justice for a non-profit IT company. Her first novel, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (Transit Lounge, 2013) was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and won the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award. Her non-fiction guide to surviving and living with climate change, The Handbook, is published by Transit Lounge.
I spoke with her about her book Formaldehyde and the process of writing. Here is what she had to say..
Could you shed some light onto your most recent book and why it would grab readers attention?
Formaldehyde is a novella about bureaucracy, love, identity and arm transplants. It looks at what happens if you accidentally get declared dead by the government, and at what happens if you get an arm transplant that comes with its previous owner’s dreams and memories. These things don’t happen much in real life but the feelings they cause do, so I hope readers will be able to see themselves and their lives in my surrealist story.
Do you find as a writer you are more analytical or critical of other writer’s work?
No I think I’ve become much more sympathetic. I’ve found it almost impossible to give a book a bad review on Goodreads, for example, unless the writer is very famous and won’t care at all what I say. Writing a book is hard work, writers are irrationally sensitive creatures, and just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean others won’t (I know lots of people find the things I write inexplicably odd).
What is your writing process like and/or what is a typical writing day like?
I don’t have any typical writing days. I work in an office, to make money to survive, but I get one day off a week and on that day I try to cram in writing and also the work of being a writer (updating blogs, festival appearances, applications for prizes and fellowships) – that sort of thing. There’s usually a lot of staring out the window, and a lot of experimentally writing stuff down to try to clarify the thoughts I have in my head. I often write without knowing quite what it is I’m going to be writing about.
Do you outline your books before starting the writing process or do you just sit down and start writing and see where it takes you?
See above – I usually have a vague idea what I’m going to write about – characters, some scenes, some ideas – and I might have a few notes about the overall shape of what I want to do, but that’s about it. Usually I just start writing and see what happens.
Do you write purely for yourself or with an idealised reader in mind?
I write for myself. I do sometimes worry that people in general won’t enjoy what I’m writing, but for the most part I write to figure out an idea in my head, to get it onto paper (or the screen) and see if it works.
How long does it take before you have fully fleshed out characters and a theme for your book or do they present themselves through the writing process?
These definitely grow throughout the writing process. Sometimes I’ll go back and do a bit more thinking about what a character is like, particularly if they get into a situation and I’m not sure how they’d react, but often I’m discovering the characters as the reader does. It’s usually the same with themes – they come out of my subconscious and end up on the page, and it’s only later I can see what my preoccupations were. With my current work, though, I’m trying to see whether I can work a pre-established theme into the text as I write. Wish me luck.
To what extent do you immerse yourself in your characters; for example do you insist on your family and friends calling you by your character’s name while you are ‘being that character’?
Ha! No, I’ve never done this. I mostly don’t talk too much to people about what I’m writing while I’m writing it anyway. But while I’m writing I do spend a lot of time just sitting and thinking, trying to put myself inside the character’s mind and imagine how they might feel.
What is the most difficult aspect of writing and how do you overcome it?
Self-hatred – thinking ‘this is terrible, you’re terrible, this will never work, why don’t you do something useful instead?’ as I’m trying to type. I’ve learned to talk to myself (not necessarily a good sign) and say ‘thanks, that’s nice to know but I’m busy trying to write, can we talk about this when I’m done?’. I think I’ve accepted that this kind of despair and anguish is just part of the job, and I get on with writing despite it.
I like the sense of time shifting back and forth throughout the novel. What was your intention of using this as a literary device?
I did try rewriting it with all the 2000-era chapters first, then all the 2022-era chapters, but the puzzle of the story became lost and for me solving the puzzle is the most fun part of this story. Moving from one era to another gives you a chance to try to figure out the relationships and links between all the characters.
For me the arm in formaldehyde symbolised a kind of disconnect from the body and was almost festishised. Can you talk a little bit more about this?
The arm was the reason I wanted to write this story. It was a dream I had – a little girl found her lost mother’s arm in a creek, and realised her mother’s fate was more complicated than she’d been told. As I wrote Formaldehyde it got further and further from that dream. Derek’s relationship with Benjamin’s arm is, I think, like the relationship you might have with a left-behind belonging or two of a former lover. You hang on to these things as a memento, but also as a kind of insurance, a possible – if entirely unrealistic – way to weasel your way back into that relationship.
You drop a couple of Dostoevsky references in the book. What are your thoughts on his work?
I was really enjoying The Brothers Karamazov around the time I was writing Formaldehyde, but the Dostoevsky references in the book aren’t so much about Dostoevsky himself. They’re more to do with how we look for, and find meaning, in all kinds of things that have nothing to do with us. People talk about how the universe provides things for them, has a plan for them, but I’m a much bigger believer in everything being essentially random. I wanted to see if Dostoevsky’s The Idiot had a piece of text, something profound to say, about randomly chosen sections of the story in Formaldehyde. And it does, of course. When you’re looking for meaning, for stories about yourself, you’ll always find them if you look hard enough.
When I was reading the descriptions of the setting it reminded of San Francisco where I lived for some time. Were you influenced by your ‘dawdlings’ around San Francisco or elsewhere?
Formaldehyde was first written when I lived in San Francisco, and is very much about the city and the time I was there and the people and ideas that made up my life.
There is a sense of anomie and something unsettling, almost Ballardian, about the story. Were you influenced by J.G. Ballard?
You know, you’re not the first person who’s compared something I’ve written to Ballard, but I never read that guy until the year before last (well after first writing both Formaldehyde and A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists). But I was influenced by the strange society of San Francisco (which I understand is even stranger now) in which a whole bunch of young people (myself included) had way too much money and too much pointless entertainment to spend it on, while all around us families and older people were being forced into homelessness because their non-tech jobs no longer paid enough to cover rapidly increasing rents.
Personally, if I had a dream like the one you described which lead me to start writing a book Iike Formaldehyde I would be plumbing the depths of my unconscious to find out what it meant. Is the arm (or losing an arm) representative of something deeper?
Perhaps, but I’m not all that interested in my own subconscious. I think in my case it probably meant I saw something on TV that recreated itself in my head as that dream. I’m much more interested in the stories I can create out of little moments like this. What can I imagine? How can I fit those imagined things together into a world that’s technically and emotionally plausible?
Are any of the characters in Formaldehyde composite characters of people you encountered in SF?
There are bits of some real people in there, and bits of me, and bits of people who are entirely imaginary. No one character is a direct match for anyone I know.
Has the process of writing this book changed you in any way or made you accept certain things about yourself or life in general?
1) Great heartbreak is not a good thing to base your future character on. Eventually it makes more sense to let go and get on with being happy.
2) The best way to get a book written is to just get on with writing it and worry later if it’s any good.
3) A story is never really finished. I’ve rewritten this one so many times and with so many different solutions, none of which are more valid than any of the others. I could probably do it another ten times, but now it’s published so I’ll stop.
4) Formaldehyde was rejected 15 times (and rewritten maybe as many times) and then it was published. There’s probably a lesson in that.
Do you have any parting words you would like to share with your readers?
Mostly just the ones in books. And that I hope you enjoy what I’ve written and that it inspires you to look at the world a little differently, to feel a little bit more excited about being alive.
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Read a free sample of Formaldehyde below..