I’ve been writing for so long that it’s become like breathing, and if I don’t write then the world starts to suffocate me. I use journal writing to mediate my anxieties and process my thoughts and emotions. In my fiction and essays I write to entertain and move readers, while at the same time informing them about issues such as climate change, disability or humans rights.
How did you come to writing?
I lost most of my hearing to meningitis when I was nearly four. Socialising was very difficult and I didn’t learn the knack of making conversation until I was in my twenties, so I read books instead. I was also interested in writing from a young age and was forever writing letters to my rellies in New Zealand. Mum bought a Commodore 64 computer not long after their arrival in Australia, and I wrote stories on that. These were often inversions of fairy tales (Red Riding Hood, for example, was a very unpleasant girl and her grandmother was pleased when the wolf ate her up). I wonder, now, if I rearranged the plots and characters of these stories because, as someone with a disability, I knew I could never be part of a conventional narrative.
When I was seventeen, my mother took me to a careers advisor in Sydney. After running a series of aptitude tests, he recognised that deafness was a huge source of frustration for me and that I needed a way of expressing it creatively. He suggested creative writing at the University of Wollongong, and as soon as he said this I knew it was what I wanted to do. Until then it had never occurred to me that writing could be a vocation.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
I was very lucky starting out as my first novel, A Curious Intimacy, was picked up quickly and did well. However, I couldn’t keep my profile up in Australia because I was in London doing my PhD. When I came back to Australia I had to start all over again and make new contacts and new writing friends, but I ended up in a good place because the Queensland literary community is warm and generous.
The biggest problem since then has been trying to survive financially. As I can’t hear, I’ve been restricted in the jobs that I can do, so I decided to become an academic to support myself. This wasn’t easy, but I focused hard on my academic profile and after five years of trying, I finally got a postdoctoral fellowship last year.
During the time that I was applying for postdocs I had a couple of Australia Council and Arts Queensland grants, as well as the support of my parents, and now I’m saving money so that I can find time to finish two books of fiction once the postdoc is done. After that I’ll have to find another academic job to make more money. It’s a fairly hairy existence but I’ve become used to it.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
If I don’t write I feel like I’ll go mad, so not being motivated is never a problem! The biggest issue is working too hard and then getting sick, so I have to make myself take time off.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
Oh, for the glorious days of university when time stretched out forever! At work I write scholarly papers and and creative non-fiction (I’m writing an ecobiography of 19th century botanist Georgiana Molloy). I do my creative writing and writing admin on weekends.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
I have an office at the university where I do my academic writing, but I find it easier to do creative writing at home, as that’s where I’ve always worked. I write at the table downstairs and my partner is in his man cave upstairs. If he annoys me I just turn my hearing aid off!
What are your essential writing tools?
My journal, a pen, a pad of blank white paper, and my laptop. I write in my journal to warm up, write my drafts in longhand, type them up and then work from the hard copy. I love the tactility of writing, and go a bit bonkers when I look at a screen for too long.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
You need momentum as a writer, and you need to keep publishing to maintain your profile. Had I known this, I would have tried to keep my toe in the Australian litmag scene when I was doing my PhD in London.
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I did a double degree in English and Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong and the English literature degree was more useful to me as a writer than the creative writing degree. It taught me how to take books apart and work out how theme, plot and character are knitted together. I read first for pleasure, then if the book is useful, I take it apart and look at the different components.
I read ecological fiction and non-fiction, speculative fiction, young adult fiction and contemporary literary fiction by Australian women, because these are the fields in which I write and I need to keep abreast of them. However, my true love is nineteenth century fiction.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
I have too many ideas to get writer’s block!
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
If you get a rejection, get up, dust yourself down and send your writing out again. Sylvia Plath had twenty of her and Ted Hughes’ poems in circulation at one time!
Jessica White is the author of A Curious Intimacy and Entitlement. Her short stories, essays and poems have appeared widely in Australian and international literary journals and she has won awards, funding and residencies. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at The University of Queensland, where she is writing an ecobiography of 19th century botanist Georgiana Molloy. She can be found at jessicawhite.com.au