Jennifer Down’s debut novel Our Magic Hour was released in April by Text Publishing after being shortlisted for the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Set in Melbourne and Sydney, Down’s novel follows a young woman as she grapples with her social work, relationship, friends and tarnished relationship with her mother following the death of a close friend. In the aftermath, we witness the effect grief can have on those it touches, eroding certainty and purpose.
Our Magic Hour was our Kill Your Darlings First Book Club title for March 2016. Jennifer’s work also recently appeared in Kill Your Darlings issue 24. KYD’s Meaghan Dew recently spoke to Down about Our Magic Hour, writing a first novel and the importance of place.
KYD: There’s a large cast of supporting characters in Our Magic Hour. But while Audrey’s clearly the focus, the other characters don’t feel any less real – they all seem as though they have fully formed lives outside of what we see. Are they that way in your head too?
Jennifer Down: Absolutely, I think that’s part of the process of writing a novel. Particularly as it took me six or seven years to write, and I’m not writing a lot of the time, I’m just sitting with the characters and thinking about them and there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make it to a draft in Microsoft Word. There’s a lot of stuff I just play around with in my head, and they do have lives that go on before and after the confines of this novel.
Work is a large part of Audrey’s life, one that shapes her daily tasks, her mental state and her sense of purpose. What did you do to ensure that the impact that her work had on her felt authentic?
I should say I’ve never worked as a social worker – but my mum is a social worker and several of my friends are as well. My sister’s a nurse, my dad works as a high school councillor… it’s very much of my world. I didn’t do any specific research when I was writing, but the issues that she faces and the jobs that she undertakes as part of that role as a protective worker, it’s all stuff that was very familiar to me.
Much of the novel hinges on the death of the character Katy, but to the reader she appears almost entirely in flashbacks. In those we get a good sense of her mannerisms – her way of speaking and being – while still having very little insight into her thought processes. Is this lack of transparency intended to replicate the difficulty friends and family will always have, looking back and trying to judge why anyone commits suicide?
I think so. It’s an interesting thing for me when people who’ve read the book ask me if I know why Katy takes her own life, or if the other characters will ever work it out, and for me that’s not a particularly… I won’t say it’s not an interesting question, but in real life anybody who knows, anyone who has ever had the misfortune of experiencing a suicide, even in a very peripheral sense, knows that it quite often seems senseless. And I don’t mean that in an insensitive way – often you’re just left with so many unanswered questions. To me that question would take another book to pursue, and it wasn’t something that I wanted to focus on for this novel. It’s really nice to hear that a sense of her character comes through, because I think it’s hard as a writer to expect readers to engage with this character who’s absent – from eight pages in she disappears entirely. So to that end it was really important for me to give as full of a sense of her character as I could.
You were shortlisted for the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. What was the path to publication like for you after that?
So when I was shortlisted for the Vic Prem’s, I was fortunate enough to be approached by a couple of publishers – some of whom ended up not being interested in the manuscript and some of whom were. Then it was a matter of deciding which of those was the best fit for me and my work, which was a really daunting task because I was 23 at the time. I’m not much older now, but I certainly felt a bit ill-equipped to make that decision. I’m lucky that I ended up with Text, who I couldn’t have been happier with. They just did an absolutely beautiful job with the book and I feel very lucky.
‘It’s hard as a writer to expect readers to engage with this character who’s absent.’
Is this the first book you started, or just the first one to make it this far?
It’s the first book that was ever going to be published. When I was in high school I wrote two novellas. They were really terrible. I think I was just reading a lot of Raymond Carver and I was super into minimalism, like screenplay level minimalism where it was just dialogue and nobody had any speech tags other than ‘said’. Thematically they were very similar to what I’m interested in now – which is the kind of domestic drama, and the small stories, and the everyday – but certainly they were never destined for anywhere other than the back of my English class in Year 10.
Are you working on anything right now?
Not a new novel! I can’t actually remember how I wrote a novel, and the scale of it feels really daunting now. But I have a short story collection coming out with Text next year.
Do you have anything you’re really enjoying reading at the moment, or have enjoyed recently?
I recently discovered at American poet named Erica Dawson and so I’ve been reading a couple of her collections. I think it’s her second collection that was kind of my gateway to her work – it’s called The Small Blades Hurt. It’s a little hard to find in Australia so I ended up ordering it online, but it’s exquisite poetry and she writes with this kind of sensibility that mixes a very traditional and old-school approach to poetry with this hip-hop sensibility and a lot of colloquial language. I’m not very well-educated when it comes to poetry and I often find it a little intimidating, because like a lot of people what I got given at school was kind of old white dudes, and I found it pretty easy to disengage from a lot of that stuff. Beautiful as much of it is, there wasn’t much variation in it. I’m kind of a latecomer to the poetry game so I’m a little bit loath to make poetry recommendations because I’m not sure that my yardstick is a very educated one, but Dawson’s poetry is beautiful.
And also, along the same lines, Citizen by Claudia Rankine. That totally blew me away.
I have to write a review about Helen Garner’s new book and I read it two months ago and all I can think to say about it is “I love her”, so that’s great.
There’s a very strong sense of Melbourne and Sydney that comes through in Our Magic Hour, and previously you’ve written for us about your time in Berlin. Are there any works that you’ve loved for their sense of place, or that you feel inspired the importance of location in your work?
I was going to say earlier, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa – I just read that a couple of weeks ago and it’s set during the WTO protests that took place in 1999 in Seattle. It’s not so much that Yapa names specific streets or buildings, and I certainly wasn’t there, but he gives such a clear sense of the city, of the city being alive. Along similar lines there’s Aquarium by David Vann, which is also set in Seattle and has a totally different vibe, but also evokes that sense of place and that coldness. It’s a similar cold to Melbourne, I think, because of the proximity to the ocean. It’s just that chill that gets into your bones, and I could feel that when I read both of those books.