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Erik Jensen on writing ‘On Kate Jennings’

Your first book ‘Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen’ went deep into the psyche of one of Australia’s most celebrated and, as it turns out, most troubled artists. The book won the Nib Award for Literature and you yourself have won multiple awards for your outstanding work as a journalist. Your new book for Black Inc.’s ‘Writers on Writers’ series explores the life and influence of the Australian writer, Kate Jennings. How much did Jennings’ work impact your own journey as a writer?

I had always admired Kate’s essays, mostly for their honesty. But it was reading her first novel ‘Snake’ that really influenced my own writing. I’ve always had a preference for the episodic, and here was a book that created an entire world in sparse paragraphs. Later, I found a copy of Kate’s first collection of poems, ‘Come To Me My Melancholy Baby’, and it was soon after reading them that I agreed to write this book.

How much research did you undertake when exploring the life and writing of Kate Jennings? Were there any intriguing facts that didn’t make it into the book?

This book is a biography of Kate’s novel ‘Snake’, told in counterpoint with her own life. It is based on reading Kate’s archive at the Mitchell Library, and on interviews with Kate. I tend to think of writing as looking for places to put things, and I don’t think I left too much out. But the scary thing about life writing is that you are only ever going to be writing one version of a person – it’s why I make such an effort with silences in my work. I like to leave obvious holes. They give the narrative space.

You lay down the information succinctly and with a great amount of admiration and respect. Chiefly discussed is her novel ‘Snake’which depicts a post-war marriage in rural Australia. What sort of impact did ‘Snake’ have on you, both personally and as a writer?

I read ‘Snake’ on a flight to New York and decided I had found the Great Australian Novel. I was amazed that almost no one I knew had read it. I love the blunt music of the book. It sharpened my own formal preoccupations with brevity and juxtaposition and confirmed my belief in good writing being the obliteration of sentimentality. I don’t know that it changed me personally, but who can say?

Through your interviews with Jennings, did you glean any inspiration that has since informed your own writing practice?

The way Kate talks about writing is interesting and oddly familiar. She likens her own work to Turner’s, and it’s a comparison with which I agree. I have always pictured painting when I write. I imagine each sentence put down as if with a palette knife and then scratched back and reworked.

Your background is in journalism and editing. What led you to take part in the new, genre-bending series?

I was obsessed with ‘Snake’ after reading it. When Black Inc. asked if I would write a book about another writer I jumped at the chance to ask questions of Kate that I might otherwise be too coy to get to.

The book is written as a series of explorations on Jennings’ vivid, sometimes troubled life and the poetry and fiction that is informed by her past. You weave biography with beautiful snippets from ‘Snake’, allowing the reader to draw parallels and consider the impact of the writers’ life on her work. Has Jennings been able to read the book?

Kate has read the book, and so far as I can tell she liked it. 

As an established journalist, what is the best piece of advice that you can give an aspiring non-fiction writer?

Keep notes.

Erik Jensen

Erik Jensen is the founding editor of the Saturday Paper. He has written for film, television and the stage. His first book, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, won the Nib Award for Literature and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. He has worked as a writer and editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, where he won the Walkley Award for Young Print Journalist of the Year and the United Nations Association of Australia’s Media Peace Prize.


‘On Kate Jennings’ is available from Black Inc. Books

It is part of Black Inc’s Writers On Writers Series


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