Draft zero of your novel is your friend. Write with freedom. Write without the fear of making mistakes.
Antoni Jach is the author of three novels – The Weekly Card Game, The Layers of the City and Napoleon’s Double; a book of poetry, An Erratic History; and two limited edition artists’ books – Still River in the Numinous World and Faded World. He is also a playwright and a painter, and a highly lauded teacher of fiction writing who has mentored many well-known authors in their careers. For further information see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoni_Jach.
Why do you write? Life’s work. Writing fiction is an obsession. The desire to create something beautiful and true. The desire to create literature.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I would spend more time painting in my painting studio. A painting is a poem without words (a variation on a Horace quote).
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Writing in a literary style that has been influenced by European modernism. The preferred mode in Australia is for fiction to be simple, clear and direct while the preferred Australian theme par excellence is ‘stories of struggle’. The ur-text for Australian fiction is ‘The Drover’s Wife’ by Henry Lawson. Though having said all that, I have been fortunate to have worked with some talented publishers who have been prepared to publish my non-mainstream indie novels, so I would like to take the opportunity to express my gratitude. Thank you to Sophie Cunningham (at McPhee Gribble/Penguin) who published The Weekly Card Game, Caroline Lurie (at Hodder Headline) who published The Layers of the City, Ivor Indyk (at Giramondo) who published Napoleon’s Double and more recently, thank you to the highly supportive Barry Scott (at Transit Lounge) for Travelling Companions.
How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? Kate Goldsworthy was a highly perceptive and skilful editor to work with and it’s a brilliant cover by Josh Durham that perfectly captures a sense of movement (the world seen out of a train window) and that spirit of sunny optimism when you set out on a journey. I also particularly like the fact that the cover image could be either a Spanish or an Australian landscape as one of the key themes in my novels is that mixing together of Europe and Australia (my father was Polish and my mother was Australian, but of Irish descent). I am fascinated by the themes of ‘Europeans in Australia’ and ‘Australians Abroad’ (in 2019, the Smartraveller website stated that, “At any time there’s around one million Australians living and working overseas”). Josh Durham’s cover is easily the best cover that I have had for any of my four published novels.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Inventing characters, placing them in a fictional world and letting them interact and converse with one another; together with being able to create a fictional world out of words that replicates (and even, on some days, replaces) the real world and ends up as a work of art.
—the worst? The VAST amount of time it takes to create anything worthwhile. Whole years disappear, never to be returned.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? If I were eighteen and starting out as a writer now, I would enrol in the best creative writing course at a university that I could find. When I was studying at university there were no creative writing courses and so when I had the chance at RMIT in Melbourne to create (with Thames and Hudson author, Anne Richter) a writing course, I did so — the course was (and is) called RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing. However, another way to answer that question would be to say that the actual process of writing a novel would be the same: you write, you make mistakes, you rewrite, you make more mistakes, you rewrite ad infinitum, you receive feedback and then at some point you have to let the novel go out into the world, even though it is far from perfect.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? That novels convey an attitude towards life. The fiction writer encodes signs while the reader decodes those same signs in her own (or his own) image. Also, “a story is a system for the transfer of energy” (which is a quote from George Saunders in his wonderful book on writing, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain).
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Be persistent. When I was a young writer there were people — such as the poet Judith Rodriguez, the poet Philip Roberts, the critic Brian Edwards and the critic Helen Daniel — who encouraged me as a writer. Also, the Fellowship of Australian Writers was incredibly helpful when I was a teenage writer. They ran competitions for young writers and I was lucky enough to win prizes for my plays and for my poetry. One year as a teenager, I would have been eighteen at the time, I was playing cricket for Panton Hill and I was pulled off the playing field late one afternoon because I had to go into Melbourne to receive a ‘best play by a junior writer’ award. The guest presenter of the awards was William Golding of Lord of the Flies fame. That was such an unexpected thrill.
What’s your top tip for aspiring authors? Instead of a top tip, I have a series of top tips. Firstly, draft zero of your novel is your friend (write with freedom, write without the fear of making mistakes). Secondly, removing a whole section of a novel and rewriting from scratch can oftentimes be necessary; sometimes simply revising what is already there isn’t enough. Thirdly, develop your own authentic and original voice. Fourthly, go for broke — write following your own aesthetic, in spite of the consequences. (There will be always people who misunderstand your aesthetic and your approach.) And fifthly, cherish your darlings.
How important is social media to you as an author? Not important, though some of my friends who are fellow writers use it superbly and I can see how it could be positive in some ways in spite of the negatives.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? No. For me, ‘writer’s block’ is like a car with no fuel; you can’t blame the car. I have a process to follow in order to return to the intuitive zone for good writing. A writer needs an energy source and for me those energy sources are music (Philip Glass and indie rock bands such as Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and The Fainters), painting in my painting studio, reading literature and philosophy, having conversations with friends, bike riding, playing tennis and writing endless ‘draft zero’ versions of whatever it is I want to write next.
How do you deal with rejection? ‘Rejection’ for an author is to be expected and is a normal part of a writer’s life. Though ‘rejection’ is overstating what actually is involved. Often, it’s simply a difference of opinion (about aesthetic values and/or commercial values) between an author and a publisher rather than a rejection of oneself as a person. Often ‘rejection’ is simply a business decision where the publisher feels that your novel is not going to make enough money to justify the money spent on it.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Literary, artful, amusing.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? I have met a lot of writers, and I have taught a lot of writers throughout my career. When I was a freelance journalist, I used to interview writers for print publication and I was able to ask them the questions about writing that I was interested in. Also, I have interviewed a lot of writers for the Melbourne Writers Festival and occasionally I have interviewed writers for the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Some of the writers whom I have enjoyed interviewing (for print publication) include Joseph Heller, Salman Rushdie, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Ian McEwan. While some of the writers whom I have enjoyed interviewing on stage, and having a drink with after the interview, include John Connolly, Tim Parks, Alain de Botton, John Armstrong and Gerald Murnane.
Solitary travellers and a couple encounter Nina, an eloquent storyteller, on their travels through Spain, France and Italy.
She entrances them all with her tales, which prompts her fellow travelling companions to share their own stories.
A handsome young man from Staten Island, who believes that life forms exist in other galaxies, vows to never work in an office again and travels by container ship to a commune in Italy. A lonely postal worker from Lodz takes home and reads the most interesting love letters, often becoming convinced a relationship needs his intervention, before delivering them the next day. A woman named Pauline calls herself Kim because her surname is Nowak. Depressed about turning forty, she mysteriously disappears from her own birthday party. Told by people on a journey, these are stories – rich with unexpected wisdoms – of lives in transit.
Travelling Companions is charming, amusing and philosophical – a wholly original exploration of what it means to honour our strangest dreams and disappointments. It is both a confrontation with, and a sweet diversion from, these, the darkest of times.
Buy the book here.