Books for Big Brains: Q&A with Jennifer Down + Review of Pulse Points

Every so often we’re sent new books that are written by women. We’ve decided to take advantage of this by publishing short, succinct reviews that give you the lowdown on the quality content found within each book’s pages. These reviews form part of an ongoing series: Books for Big Brains.

How could it get any better, you ask? Well, we want to give YOU the books for FREE. If you’d like to be among the first to get your hands on the latest publications, all you have to do is provide us with your opinion on the book you’re sent in the form of a 200-300 word review. Sound like a sweet deal? Get in touch with us!

This time around, we’re mixing things up with a Q&A with author Jennifer Down before Kaylee Gannaway‘s review of her latest book, Pulse Points.

 

Hi Jennifer! Please can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

Hi! I’m a writer, editor, and translator. I’ve written two books – a novel called Our Magic Hour and a short story collection called Pulse Points. Sometimes I teach writing workshops.

Have you always known you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always written. Is that the same? My first book was a story I dictated to my mum and illustrated myself called Barbie and the Divorce. I was four. Then, in high school, I wrote two novellas. They were pretty terrible. I was reading a lot of Raymond Carver, so it was all very spare. I never wanted to be a writer, though.

How did you get started in your career, and were you always encouraged to pursue it?

My parents just wanted me to do whatever made me happy. When I was younger I had this big chip on my shoulder about writing being flaky and self-indulgent.

I wanted to be a doctor until I was 18, then couldn’t afford to move interstate to study medicine, so I enrolled in Arts. When I was 20 I submitted a piece to a now-defunct Fairfax short story award and placed third, and it kind of took off from there.

Can you remember the first book you read that really moved you? If so, which was it and why?

I think it was a book in the American Girl series called Meet Kirsten. She and her family are emigrating from Sweden to Minnesota, and on board the ship, her best friend Marta contracts cholera and dies. I had to ask my dad what cholera was, because I was six or seven. Then I cried.

What challenges have you faced in your career to date?

I’ve always worked at least full time, usually more, and shoehorned writing around those hours, and it can be exhausting. That’s true of most people in the arts, I think. Also, periods where my mental health has been rubbish.

There’s this romantic idea that suffering breeds art, but in my experience, it just fucking blows – when I’m depressed, my brain is fallow and writing feels pointless.

So then I’m not producing anything, so then I feel stagnant and useless. It’s an ugly cycle.

Has your writing process changed at all since the publication of your first novel, Our Magic Hour? If so, in what ways?

The writing process, not so much. Now my deadlines are often imposed by someone else – my publisher, say – and not just me, so I think I’m more conscious of the pace that I work at, and how much I get done.

I’m trying to treat writing more like a career and less like a side project.

Can you tell us a bit about Pulse Points, your latest collection of short stories?

They’re a lot of small worlds.

I’m fascinated by very ordinary, everyday things, and how I can use them to refract the bigger things I care about – social, environmental and ethical issues; class, at-risk kids, economic disenfranchisement.

They’re stories set in different places; lots in Australia, but also in the US, France and Japan.

 

Which of the stories in Pulse Points took the least amount of time to write, and which took the longest? Why?

I think ‘Aokigahara’ took the longest – about four years from beginning to final draft form. It was also one of the first short stories I wrote, and I think I was learning a lot as I wrote and reshaped it. ‘Dogs’ was one of the fastest, which is weird, because it was quite a difficult story to write in terms of themes – there’s a lot of sexual violence in there. Maybe I wanted to get out of that world as quickly as possible. The title story was fast, too. It just came out.

Who are some of your favourite authors/writers whose work you admire?

Helen Garner, Ellen Van Neerven, Eimar McBride, Erica Dawson, Tony Birch, Noy Holland, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Sherman Alexie, Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Elena Ferrante, Eileen Myles, Hanif Kureshi. Too many to name.

What advice do you have for emerging writers?

My personal motto is ‘Expect nothing, appreciate everything’.

Writing is hard work, but none of us is owed anything, so you’ve got to celebrate and value every tiny victory.

Also, read heaps! And broadly.

Finally, can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’ve just started working on a new novel about a woman who decides to disappear, but I’m very slow. I have a lot of research to do, and I’m a bit terrified by something as large as a novel – I can’t remember how I did it last time. But it’s exciting, too. I feel more experimental; less rigid about it.


Kaylee Gannaway Reviews Pulse Points

☆☆☆☆☆

Jennifer Down’s Pulse Points is possibly one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful books I have ever read. A series of short stories exploring the lives of incredibly different characters, this collection is a delicate study of trauma.

Some tales are incredibly confronting, dripping with violence and fear. Others are quieter, smaller, tackling the insidious creeping of sickness and aging. Still others are delicate and vulnerable, holding love up to the light to show its diverse colours and expressions.

This is not always an easy book. Nor it is one to read all in one go. Rather, it requires patience and reflection.

I am normally a devourer of books, but with this one, I had to take a moment after each story to catch my breath.

It wasn’t that the stories are (all) sad, but rather that each one has a quiet intensity that forced me to reflect on some very hard questions of love and sickness and rage and fear and so very many emotions. The enduring sensitivity and quietness of this collection has made it a new favourite, alongside The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, or Ben Okri’s The Age of Magic.

While I have done my best to convey the complex reactions I had while reading this, I think this book is best described in Down’s own words, as she thanks her parents for teaching her to ‘tun[e] into the frequency of other peoples lives”.

Would you have bought this book for yourself?

Probably not, as I don’t tend to read many short stories. I find the genre can leave me feeling unfulfilled, with whiplash from the quick change between stories. However, this collection has definitely challenged that.

Down cuts straight to the bone, and each story is exactly the length and depth it needs to be.

What kind of person would you buy this book for?

Someone with a lot of patience, and a 5-hour train journey ahead of them.

What sort of book would you give a 1 star rating?

Any book that feels insincere. You can tell when an author’s heart is not in their work. While I have read many books like this, I can’t seem to remember any of their names. Which tells you quite a lot.

What sort of book would you give a 5 star rating?

I love sensitive and vulnerable narratives that spend a long time reflecting on seemingly small thoughts. I tend to describe these as ‘quiet’ or ‘still’ stories. For example, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, The Unexpected Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, or Ben Okri’s The Age of Magic. Otherwise, gloriously trashy romance novels that are entirely there to make you feel good.

How many stars would you give this book?

5 stars, easily.

Pulse Points is available for $29.99 from Text Publishing


Answers by Jennifer Down

Images of Jennifer provided by Text Publishing

Review, Image of Novel, and Featured Image by Kaylee Gannaway

Questions and Edits by Emma Kate Lewis

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