Getting it Down: An interview with Jennifer Down

[First published in The Big Issue #506, March 2016]

A UNESCO City of Literature, Melbourne is both a home and a muse for many writers. Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977) and Christos Tsiolkas’s Loaded (1995) continue to capture the community atmosphere and creative energy of Melbourne living. A new novel by debut author Jennifer Down can be added to this list, a book which imbues the city with a warm familiarity for locals, and a sense of wonder for outsiders – the aptly titled, Our Magic Hour.

“I grew up here; it’s a real love-hate relationship,” Down says when asked about the novel’s strong Melbourne mood. “Most of what’s in the book are the bits of Melbourne that I love: the dirty pubs; the view of the silos from the top of Punt Road; the Frankston foreshore. Setting is important to me, almost as fundamental as character. Even the weather is part of that – the Melbourne winter is really damp, and there’s this gritty wind.  I like thinking about the geography of people, the weight that otherwise banal places can take on.”

The emotional terrain of Our Magic Hour is also multilayered. The novel centres on a year in the life of 24-year-old social worker Audrey. Her life is upended following the suicide of her best friend. Suddenly every pub they drank in, every sharehouse they crashed in, every park they lounged in, is tinged with loss.

Down’s book first came to the attention of publishers when it was shortlisted for best unpublished manuscript in the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. At the time Down was 23 and she says the experience was a steep learning curve. “I didn’t write it with the view to getting it published. It sounds weird to call it a last-ditch thing because I hadn’t actually submitted anywhere else but I really had the sense it was the novel I had to get out of my system before I started something else.” Down says it took her five years to write. “But I’m really slow,” she adds – overly harsh, perhaps, for an author whose byline is constantly popping up in newspapers and magazines, cementing her reputation as one to watch.

Despite what some may term her ‘overnight’ success, Down has been training as a writer for a long time. “When I was in high school I wrote two novellas – they were terrible” she says, wincing at the memory. “I would write them in class when I was bored and then go home and type them up. My teachers just let me do it! I guess the thinking was ‘Oh, she’s not smoking weed behind the shelter shed, so it’s ok,'” she says with a laugh. “As terrible as they were I learnt a lot from them.”

Reading Our Magic Hour is almost like listening to a quiet piece of music. Its tone is ethereal; its imagery atmospheric. The story moves along via shy gestures and tender moments. “I do get a lot of inspiration from listening to music and I listen to music almost constantly. That certainly colours the temperature of things”, Down says when I tell her about my reaction. During the writing process, Down says she was listening to Canadian musician Emily Haines, who released a solo album, Knives Don’t Have Your Back, following the sudden death of her father. Down describes it as “the most guttingly melancholic music”. Then, without any prompts or without even realising it, Down perfectly sums up her own novel: “Haines has this beautiful feel for music and the interplay between sound and aural dynamics and lyrics. It’s a very quiet album, very understated. And I feel like she says a lot of things very powerfully”.

Now that the novel is finished, Down feels a loss similar to that experienced by her characters. “I can feel the earth dropping away from me and I feel the need to produce something else to work on,” Down says. When working on a writing project for so long, she explains that the characters start to feel like real people. “I accept how nuts that sounds but they kind of sit with you all the time. Even during my downtime, I’d be driving or riding a bike and constantly thinking about those people and moving them around space. It’s very weird when that ends.” That feeling won’t last: Down’s publisher has slotted another of her books – Pulse Points, a collection of short stories – for a 2017 release.

As for Melbourne, Down’s feelings about the city change just as much as its weather: “Recently I was feeling really down on the city – the awful public transport, the stupid cost of living, the posturing – and then I got on the tram and there were all these strangers on their way to a rally for refugees in front of the State Library, all talking to each other, and I melted.”