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Campbell Jefferys Q&A

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Now residing in Hamburg, Campbell Jefferys (B. Arts 98) has just released his fifth book. ‘Rowan and Eris’. A road trip novel, the characters begin in Perth and travel across Europe and North America. A journey that echoes the path of the writer, who went travelling right after graduation and talked his way into a local newspaper job in Canada.

The book has an accompanying CD of original music entitled ‘One hand clapping’. Musician Joel Havea wrote the soundtrack in character as the protagonist Rowan Davidson, bringing the songs in the novel to life.

We caught up with Rowan to find out how he became a full time writer and his thoughts on some of the big issues in life, such as Ed Sheeran…

With a work like Rowan and Eris, do you have the structure/character/plot mapped out before you start keying the opening paragraph?

I consider writing a book like going on an adventurous trip. It’s good to have lots of things planned, a clear idea of where I’m going and what I want to achieve and that I have everything I need with me, but it’s also important to leave scope for detours and following my instincts. For a novel, I plan extensively before beginning the first draft but things can change substantially through the drafting process. New characters enter, some recede. The scenery changes and maybe even the point of view. I like the drafting process because I think it is through several drafts (and by draft I mean writing the whole book from scratch and not merely editing) that the story gets stronger each time. I have faith in the story. If I sit down and do the work the story will write itself.

What was the first freelance piece you got published?

The first paid article was a travel story about getting lost in the Blue Mountains and it went in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. It was the result of timing and luck. The Sydney Olympics were approaching and the Globe was looking for Sydney-related content. I received 500 Canadian dollars, which was standard then. You’d never get that kind of money now for a freelance piece. These days, travel sections of the majority of newspapers are advertorials, which is a shame because it means the stories are just long sales pitches and really dull.

When you are editing your own work after first drafts – what are the main methods/techniques you use?

I started writing books with no clue what I was doing. My only background to getting good at something was sports. So, I applied a sports methodology to writing. I practised. I did exercises. I trained. With each book, I really put in the effort, writing draft after draft, which is why it took a good two years to write each book. It was a kind of endurance writing. I would write the first draft, leave it for a few months, print it, read it, and then start writing the whole thing again. That process could be repeated up to six times depending on my level of satisfaction, with each draft taking around three months. I think of editing as a different skill to writing, which is why I have always worked with freelance editors who help make my books better.

How did the Rowan and Eris soundtrack come about?

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I had the idea for a book that would comprise words, music and art. The idea being that the three would together tell the story. I applied for a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, but was unsuccessful. This was very, very disappointing. It dented my confidence and made me think my writing was rubbish and that such an idea wasn’t worth pursuing. I felt, however, I had a good story and started writing the draft anyway. The lack of a grant meant I couldn’t give the story the scope I wanted to and I wasn’t able to include the illustrations (except for the three that appear on the book’s cover). I hadn’t planned to make the music either, but as the book progressed through the drafts and more of the music (song-writing process, inspiration, lyrics, chords, etc) was included in the book, I felt strongly that the songs had to be made. It seemed right that the book would have a soundtrack and those songs would add an extra layer of storytelling. I got in touch with Joel Havea, a Melbourne musician who also lives in Hamburg. We talked about it. He had reservations but was keen to give it a go. The end result is simply amazing. I’m very proud of this book.

Having written five books and numerous features now, can you explain how your writing has progressed?

I will be honest and say the last twenty years have been a slog. I’m glad I kept at it and I’m proud to say I’m a full-time writer, but there were lots of times when I wanted to give it away. Like any artistic pursuit, it’s hard to make a decent living and you often compare yourself to others, wondering how they have achieved fame and fortune with work that doesn’t seem that good. So, the progress I’ve made is to put myself in a position where I make a decent living, write on my own terms and I’m accepting of whatever (limited) success I have. In recent years I’ve started to experiment more, with developing new writing styles and writing under pseudonyms. In all, I’ve published nine books. One of my alter egos, Royce Leville, has won a couple of awards and even had a short story made into a short film, starring James Cosmo.

Do you believe there are ‘rules’ to be mindful of when composing headlines?

I’ve done a lot of work in advertising for slogans, headlines and captions. I wouldn’t say there are rules, but I think the best result is something that says a lot with few words and also manages to be clever and timely. One headline I was particularly happy with was for an article I wrote about commuting in the UK, citing a survey that said commuting takes longer than it should and that commuters often experience frustrating delays. The headline: London Crawling.

How do you select the names of your characters?

Great question and one that a lot of writers do not give enough attention to. A name can define a character as much as any particularly traits or appearances. One thing I’ve always liked is that names mean something. The other thing is that a person’s name can be different based on who they are with. As an example, the narrator of The Bicycle Teacher is Michael Smith. His dad calls him Mick, his mother calls him Mike, his sister calls him Michael and when he moves to East Berlin, he is called Mikhail. With each name, he is a slightly different person.

You say, “You had no clue what you were doing” when you did your first book. With all that uncertainty and doubt, how did you get the thing done?

In hindsight, and with experience, I can say the story wanted to be written. So, it was the story’s fault. I had an idea that so completely filled my thoughts I couldn’t get rid of it without writing it down. Also, trial and error turned out to be an essential learning curve for writing.

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You mentioned David Foster Wallace essays in an earlier interview. What makes them so good?

For him to be so clever, insightful and funny, while also transporting his own self-doubt and problems with mental health onto the page, it really is something to behold. A bit like watching a sublime Roger Federer backhand; you enjoy it, yet wonder how it’s possible. Wallace wrote a couple of brilliant essays about Federer and tennis. However, since taking his own life in 2008, I’ve struggled to read Wallace, as his death casts a shadow over every word. This is made more troublesome by him being perhaps best remembered for a commencement address about water than for any of his writings.

What other writers (any medium) do you admire and what is it you like about their work?

I read a lot of non-fiction. I studied history at Murdoch. As a student, I was always more interested in the whys and hows of history, than with the whats. As a reader, I go searching for books about the whys and hows and recently enjoyed 'Born Standing Up' by Steve Martin, Andre Agassi’s 'Open' and Anthony Beevor’s 'Stalingrad'. Going further back, I enjoyed the fiction writers who were basically writing narrative non-fiction, like Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham. Perhaps this is off topic but I am great admirer of songwriters, the poets of music, who can get so much into a single lyric. Don Walker, Richard Clapton, Warren Zevon, Gord Downie, Paul Kelly and Courtney Barnett, to name but a few.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given in writing and in life?

My doctor has a theory that there are three kinds of patients: head patients, heart patients and gut patients. Whatever is ailing a patient, they will feel it first in the head, heart or gut, depending on what patient they are. He told me about ten years ago that I’m a gut patient and that I should always trust my gut. When he said this I became aware I’d been doing that all along, but it was great to have this pointed out to me. Because it’s also a roundabout way of saying, “trust yourself”, which applies to writing and life. My father was always telling me to “play straight” when I was a kid. This was a direct reference to cricket but it has stuck with me, as I have taken it to mean be honest, reliable and loyal.

Do you remember a sentence from a writer that is just so damn good you cannot stop talking about it?

“It’s an illusion that youth is happy.” From Somerset Maugham’s 'Of Human Bondage'. When I taught writing at the University of Hamburg, one assignment was for all students to start a story with that sentence. The results were fascinating.

What were some of the surprises about German culture or lifestyle you discovered after moving there?

Germany remains full of surprises. Initially, I was surprised by the humour. Germans are funny and they like to laugh. They also make interesting films here, without buying into the Hollywoodisms that befall other countries. But the big surprise was the quality of things. When not in Germany this is what I miss the most - the quality. Food, consumer goods, public transport, everything feels like it has been made properly and is as good as it can be. There’s nothing slap-dash about it. The way a German key slides into a German lock. The solid thunk a car door makes when it closes. The train scheduled to arrive at 10:37 and is right on time. The quality of life in Germany has kind of ruined things for me everywhere else because it’s become my reference point and no other place quite compares.

Is The Wire the best TV series ever?

At the time, it definitely was. The digital era has kind of left it behind, making it look dated, but the story is still relevant. Ever since The Wire, many television shows have tried to rewrite that story and copy the show’s formula but have fallen short. The internet, as with other art forms in the digital era, has been a great enabler for television. Many more shows are getting made, but not all of them should be. Still, ten years after The Wire, I’ve yet to see anything that tops it.

University is good preparation for…

Learning how to manage your money.

If you started university again now, would you do things any differently?

If given the time over, I would start later. I did this, working for two years after high school before starting university. But I don’t think this was enough. During those two years, I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do, which then helped me decide on a direction at university. Even with that, I entered Murdoch at the age of 19 and without much knowledge about the world. I think a few more years of real-world experience would have done me good.

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In terms of the well-worn phrase of being ‘true to who you are’ – can we actually trust ourselves to know who we are? Isn’t saying ‘this is who I am’ a bit of an ephemeral guess, that can be merely a limiting, inaccurate and ultimately changeable belief?

I think there is a blurring between who I am, who I think I am and who I want to be. I find this fascinating and it’s something I’ve explored in my books. You can add to this blurring what others think I am, what others want me to be and what others expect me to be.

What are the big, critically acclaimed things that you just do not get, or see what all the fuss is about?

This list is long, but that is the great thing about art. We can all have an opinion and no one is really wrong. For me, many sitcoms and superhero reboots, TV shows focusing on violence and pornography, the music of Ed Sheeran and (I’m sorry to say this) the books of Tim Winton.

If all the rewards were the same, would you rather be an acclaimed basketball player or a writer?

For ages 20-30, a basketball player. For 30 onwards, writer. But I’d give up every book and three-pointer to be better at cricket.

What is the last thing you learned?

That horses can sleep standing up. My wife has a horse and pretty much every day, I learn something new about horses. Being able to sleep standing up is an ability I’d like to have.

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