J.M. Donellan’s debut novel, A Beginner’s Guide to Dying in India, was the winner of the 2009 IP Picks best fiction award. His second novel, Zeb and the Great Ruckus, was published by Odyssey Books in 2012, and his third novel, Killing Adonis, was published by Pantera Press in 2014.
He lives in Brisbane.
Why I write
If I don’t write the stories that jump into my head then no one else will. And I want these stories brought into the world so I don’t really have any other option. I’ve never really wanted to write a novel that would define a generation or anything like that, I just want the things in my brain to leap out into the world and start frolicking around and causing mischief.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
I write every weekday that I’m not teaching and usually a little on the weekend. I have a policy of putting an album on and not allowing myself to take a break until the album is done. I only listen to instrumental music when I’m writing and play what fits the mood of what I’m writing, anything from orchestral to minimalist to post-rock to instrumental hip-hop. My favourites are Zoe Keating, Blue Sky Black Death, Mogwai and Mr Maps. I’ll play through a few album cycles until the point where my brain gets burnt out and then do a little bit of promo or replying to emails and such, all the bits and bobs that go along with writing that aren’t actually writing.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
I live in a weird and wonderful house filled with books, instruments, paintings and miscellaneous curios left by the various travellers and troubadours that have lived there over the years. My bedroom looks out over the little rainforest backyard that is usually filled with scurrying bush turkeys, possums and lizards so it’s a great place to write. I’m also lucky enough to be walking distance from some of the best cafés in town, Java Longue and Black Cat are both around the corner from me so I’ll often tap away at the keys there if I get sick of working from home.
How often do you get writers’ block and how do you overcome it?
I’ve always thought it odd that this seems to be the one writing obstacle that people talk about. I have plenty of struggles to overcome in regards to writing, but fortunately writers’ block is not one of them.
My biggest struggle is persevering with edits, a task that I acknowledge is hugely important but I find to be comparable to having a very meticulous torture artist make thousands of tiny cuts with a surgical scalpel, then covering some of them in Band-Aids, making new cuts, removing the Band-Aids, salting the wounds, making further cuts, and then realising that he’s forgotten to fix the continuity error in the third chapter. I may have gotten confused with my metaphor there, but you know what I mean.
Worst source of distraction and best source of inspiration?
I love video games and sometimes get stuck in a digital K-hole, so I try and save that for when I’ve just completed a chapter or a big round of edits. The Internet is, of course, a double edged sword. It’s so invaluable for research, but I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve set out researching benzodiazepines or ancient shamanistic death rituals and ended up on a page about Charles Mingus’ cat training manual (true story).
Do you ever doubt your own ability as a writer?
I think every good writer does, don’t they? If I never doubted myself I’d probably never delete anything or scrap any of my ideas, and some of my ideas are terrible. I think the mark of a good writer is knowing which ideas to select and which to reject. I’m incredibly hard on myself when it comes to criticism, but I suppose it’s getting easier know that I’ve won a couple of awards, had a couple of books published, got some fan mail etc. On a superficial level that stuff’s all good for the ego, but it also serves as a sort of existential armour for self-doubt.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I have a distinct memory of being eight years old and wondering why people would ever want to do anything else besides writing, when it’s OBVIOUSLY the best job. It would be like choosing to eat celery instead of ice cream. But then again, I suppose people do that too don’t they? There’s no accounting for taste.
How did you get started writing?
I wrote a lot of terrible crap when I was a kid, but it all counts towards the 10,000 hours so that’s part of the game. When I was in high school I wrote this trashy fantasy novella that plundered Tolkien pretty heavily and printed it out and passed it around to the kids at school. I was very low-tech back then. I also had chronic insomnia during my teenage years, and I used to spend a lot of nights just tapping away at the keys. This would leave me spaced out and disassociated at school, which meant that I was just always observing everyone from behind a kind of dreamlike haze. I got serious once I finished high school and started studying literature at UQ.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I’m proud of my first novel, A Beginner’s Guide to Dying in India, but the central character was very closely based on me and a bunch of (mis)adventures I had whilst travelling. It meant that I could have fun with it and just relax, but these days I’m more interested in blending a whole range of influences and pushing the limits of my imagination. Mum once rang me and urgently yelped that I had to get Clint Eastwood to option the film rights to Dying in India because he’d be the perfect director for it. Sadly, I don’t have any contact info for Mr. Eastwood. But hey, Clint, if you’re reading this, get in touch.
Does writing change anything?
Writing changes everything. I get really frustrated with people who say that fiction isn’t important because it’s all in the mind, because the sum total of all our human experience occurs subjectively within the mind, that’s the only mechanism we have for experiencing our personal realities. The mind is everything. Ideas are everything. Truly great novels allow us to experience a virtual simulation of experiences beyond our immediate realities, which not only provide us with warnings, as in the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also help us to understand and empathise with people from different backgrounds. In high school I had a couple of friends whose parents had fled from Iran after the revolution, but I learned more about the Iranian Revolution from reading Persepolis than I did from hanging out with them because it wasn’t really something that they wanted to discuss in great detail.
Writers change our minds about what’s possible. They help us forge a more complex, nuanced and diverse worldview. That in turn impacts the way that we interact with and change the world around us.
Contemporary writer in any medium you always read?
I love Charlie Brooker, there’s few people that can make me laugh the way he does, he’s just so deliciously vitriolic. His column, his TV shows, his books, everything he turns his pen to is wonderfully insightful and hilarious. I also really enjoy people like Neil Gaiman and Miranda July who can write stories that peel back the skin of their characters and leave you staring at a naked soul, whether that be within a film or story or comic book.
Tough call, but I’d maybe have to say Margaret Atwood. I remember seeing her speak last year and she was just so enthralling. I particularly loved that there were young women who stepped up to ask her questions who were really nervous, it’s great to see a role model who isn’t an actual model or popstar or some such. And I have a particular fondness for authors who write across a range of styles and formats. I love her essays and novels and spec fic and poetry and kids books and tweets and everything that spills out of her brain.
Einstein’s Dreams. It’s only a tiny little thing, but that book changed my world, and I revisit it often. I’m fascinated by scientists who are also artists, and physics is the most poetic of all the sciences.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Moby Dick. Recently I read two books and a graphic novel over the course of a fortnight that all heavily referenced that damn book and one day I will put it into my eyeballs and be done with it, but not just yet… stupid white whale. WHY DO YOU TAUNT ME?!?!
What are you working on and when is it out?
I am nearly nearly nearly finished my third novel, Killing Adonis. I’ve been working on it for four years, longer than I’ve stayed in one country, longer than I’ve kept a job, longer than I’ve been in a relationship. I’ve written bits of it in Portugal, New York, Spain, Cambodia, Argentina and India even though it’s all set here in Brisbane. It’s been a huge part of my life for the last few years and I am very, very excited to be bringing it out into the world in the not too distant future.
It’s about a nurse named Freya who takes a job caring for the comatose son of a very peculiar family at the head of a pharmaceutical empire. The family insists that their sleeping son was a living saint but the longer Freya stays in their labyrinthine mansion, the more she realizes that the stories she’s been told about him are far from true and that his family has plenty of secrets (and other things) that they want buried. It’s a delightfully dark and twisted tale and I really enjoyed writing something with a large cast set in the city that I adore.
Posted: Friday, September 20, 2013