In 2014, I was surprised to receive an email from the organizer of the Salon du Livre in Tahiti. The invitation meant a lot to me. And as beautiful as the island was, what I enjoyed most was meeting authors from around the world. Today, I am thrilled to reconnect with Jessie Cole, whose book Darkness on the Edge of Town has been translated into French as Borderline. Jessie’s French publisher describes the novel as a Springsteen ballad, while Harper Collins calls it, ‘a haunting tale that beguiles the reader with its deceptively simple prose, its gripping and unrelenting tensions, and its disturbing yet tender observations.’ Today, we talk about sense of place in writing, her first book, and the best advice she ever received.
Jessie, we met at a literary festival in Tahiti. What did you enjoy most about it?
Even the name ‘Tahiti’ has a kind of beautiful mythic quality for me. I’d never been anywhere in French Polynesia so I had no idea what to expect. I’d also never been to a festival where the first language wasn’t English, so that was in some ways quite challenging. The festival provided translation earphones, which was utterly novel for me, but it was great to be pushed out of my comfort zone!
I really enjoyed meeting lovely new people like yourself, but I also enjoyed experiencing the prioritisation of the writing and experiences of Indigenous people. Sometimes at Australian festivals the writing of Indigenous Australians can seem almost an add-on, or maybe a ‘sub-genre’, whereas at the Tahiti Literary festival the writing of Indigenous people was centre stage. I met the Maori writer, Patricia Grace, who was welcomed in Tahiti as a sort of national treasure and that was so beautiful to see.
Also, I come from the countryside and have always lived in the same small town, and in Australia this is seen as quite an unusual life-experience for a writer. Australia has a very mobile population and, generally speaking, people move from place to place quite a lot. This means when I talk about my experience in Australia I often feel very odd or like an outsider, whereas when I talked about this aspect of my life in Tahiti, the audience response was – ‘Oh, you are just like us!’ And everyone seemed to embrace me. Most festivals I’ve been to are quite urban experiences, and the city is an alien landscape for me, so it was really special to be part of a festival on a small island all set out under one giant magnificent tree.
What is the first line of your book?
The steering in the old girl lunges a little to the left, so on that night I was holding tight around the corners, swinging into them the way Marie says she hates.
What is your book about?
In the opening scene of Borderline, the protagonist – Vincent – a man living on the edges of a small Australian town comes across a woman who has crashed her car outside his house. The woman is injured and cradles a dead baby. Vincent calls the ambulance and takes care of the woman until it arrives. It is an awful few minutes, but they are bonded by it.
Vincent is nearly forty years old, with little to show for his life except his precious sixteen-year-old daughter, Gemma: sensitive, insightful and wise beyond her years. When the stranger crashes her car outside Vincent and Gemma’s home, their lives take a dramatic turn. In an effort to help the stranded woman, father and daughter are drawn into a world of unexpected and life-changing consequences.
Borderline explores issues of grief and loss, but also depicts the intimacy that can be formed in extreme circumstances. In some ways I see the story as a (non-traditional) romance, examining facets of love, violence, masculinity and sexuality, but focusing on the small moments of connectedness between people, and the beauty and potential in those moments.
Is sense of place important to you in your work?
Definitely, yes. Partly, I am trying to give expression to a very particular environment: my homeland in Northern NSW. This landscape is unusual in Australia – or in Australian literature at least – because it is a very lush, green, forested place, and Australia is often portrayed as barren and dry. Where I live there is a sense that the landscape is in charge. The forest is very fast-growing and wild, and relatively resistant to control. There is also a feeling, for me at least, that my homeland is at the very periphery of what might be considered ‘civilised’, so there’s an atmosphere of edginess to the place itself. In English, Borderline was actually called Darkness at the Edge of Town so the original title pointed to that quality as well. Because Borderline is primarily told in the voices of the two major characters it isn’t overly descriptive, but I think it certainly evokes the landscape in which it is set.
Do you have a schedule when you write?
I am not a very disciplined writer, so I don’t work to a schedule. I tend to write better in the mornings, and certainly when no-one is around. I’ve written two novels and both of them have had a similar trajectory in that the force of the character voices seemed to come to me in a kind of rush and then the novels almost wrote themselves. I’ve learned to trust that process, even though I’m aware it sounds a touch mad. I might spend years pondering things of interest and writing nothing at all. My preoccupations and obsessions just seem to swirl around in my mind in a pointless muddle, then all of a sudden this mess of thoughts spirals to a point of focus and I almost hear a voice speaking and I just follow the story being told by that voice. Once the process begins, it feels utterly delicious and exciting, but up until that point it feels like a terrible waste of time.
What books are on your nightstand?
I’ve just read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I’ve got Half of a Yellow Sun on my nightstand too. Also most of Kate Atkinson’s books, as my sister gave them all to me for Christmas. Right now my nightstand is basically a collection of all my sister’s favourite books from last year!
What is the best advice you have ever received?
A writer friend pointed out to me that even after you’ve been published the act of writing can remain private. That choosing to share the work is a decision completely separate to the writing of it, one that can happen long after the writing part is done.
When I first started writing I wrote from a place of intense isolation, both geographically and emotionally. There was no reader. The existence of an audience was outside of my fathoming. That meant I wrote in a state of complete privacy. The process was only between me and me. I had no-one to speak to, so it was a way of breaking a deep silence in my life; of both speaking to myself and of being heard. I wrote Borderline in that profoundly private space. What followed was a long and strange journey to publication, and – for me – also a journey from isolation back into the world. Once I was published, it was harder with my subsequent writing to recreate that sense of privacy, and I have had to remind myself again and again of my writer friend’s advice: that the writing process itself is private, that choosing to share the work is a decision that can come much later. I find that concept very freeing.
What advice would you give to first-time novelists?
My advice would be to focus, as much as is possible, on the creation of the work itself, rather than on its final destination as a product. The process of writing, that part that no-one will ever really see, is where most of the joy and fulfillment lies. And if there is not some joy in the writing process – what is it even for?
The first book I wrote was very autobiographical and has never been published. For the past couple of years I have been reworking it as a memoir, and that will hopefully be ready for publication soon.