Jo, in good company with Edith the muse cat, showing us their purrrrfect writing space…
Jo Langdon is the author of a chapbook of poetry, Snowline, published by Whitmore Press in 2012. She is currently a PhD candidate at DeakinUniversity, where she teaches in literary studies and professional and creative writing. Jo was recently the inaugural winner of the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction.
Take us into your writing space
I like to think I’m pragmatic about where I write, so my answer to this question is usually that I write where and when I can. This is typically at home, and while I’m perhaps aiming to give an unromantic answer here, I have to admit that the space itself—although almost always in a state of mess and clutter—has its idyllic moments. My flat’s windows are big and let in a lot of sun; the flat is on the second floor overlooking a leafy street, and next to or just below the balcony are rooflines of slate with weird, curved over chimneys and interesting turret shapes. There are few distractions, other than those I can devise for myself. If I manage to stay away from the internet for a while, I might get something done.
How do you prepare yourself for a stint of writing?
Preparation seems so easily to slide into procrastination or avoidance, or at least it does for me, so the most I let myself do is make coffee. It sounds like a Nike slogan, but I’m often reminding myself to Just do it. Even though getting it done, so to speak, is a slow and sometimes painful process—nothing really happens until you face the blank page, or the words on the page. Ideas can arrive at any time, but transforming those ideas into something worthwhile or something that works is, of course, another story.
Indirectly though, I guess I am always preparing to write through reading as widely as I can, and vice versa; reading and writing are for me, as for many others, forms of the same thing.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Reading and writing seem to fit in around everything else—work and friends and family and the rest of life. I feel really privileged in that the work I’m doing at the moment, as a PhD candidate and as a sessional tutor for Deakin, kind of revolves around reading and writing; things I’m passionate about, but also things I often find challenging, in that they force me to think deeply, originally and creatively about different subjects. I’ve had lots of jobs though, from retail work to hospitality and a stint in childcare, as an au pair, and while it’s only recently that I’ve been writing and publishing my work—or should I say, writing work that is publishable—reading is something I’ve always done. So, I like to think that writing is something I’d be doing alongside any other occupation.
Was there a teacher or figure who had an impact on your writing life?
Of course! I’ve been so fortunate in having encountered so many supportive figures so far, however I’ll single out your guest writer for July/August, Maria Takolander, who was one of the earliest readers of my writing, and whose generosity, kind encouragement and brilliant advice I am immensely grateful for.
What books/authors have you loved?
So many! Where to begin? I feel like literature has the power to haunt us; that the stories or poems we’re moved by hang around in sometimes weird and ghostly ways, helping to shape the ways in which we remember and imagine. One of the first books I remember reading—or perhaps more likely having read to me—is Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The story and its characters really resonated with me as a child, and given that I tend to form some pretty deep attachments to places, I think I still have my share of Dorothy Gale moments.
More recently I’ve loved the novels and short stories of American writer Jayne Anne Phillips, and everything by Ali Smith, although perhaps I’ll pick it Like andHotel World as particular favourites. In terms of specific short stories, I think Alistair Macleod’s ‘In the Fall’ is perfect and perfectly devastating—I am gutted each and every time I read that, and many of his other stories.
I realise I’m eliding poetry here, and without listing particular poets or collections—again, where to begin and end?—I’d like to include it as a form I love, in part for its precision and strangeness.
Can you tell us what project you’re working on and what triggered this work?
I’m in the late stages of a doctoral thesis, something I’m pretty hopeless at talking about. The work is something that I’ve pushed myself to persevere with; the final drafts I am working with now barely resemble the ideas I began with, but paring back and discarding feels in some ways like the best part. I realise I’m responding to your question most elliptically! To work in some key words, the thesis is examining the elegiac nature of magical realist literature, and also looking at representations of traumatic or extreme experiences. I’m not sure what triggered this work originally, apart from extensive reading and a desire to engage with the works of certain authors more closely. Perhaps what triggers the writing now, though, is deadlines!
Do you have any phobias?
None come to mind, which I guess is lucky! Like everybody though, I have plenty of fears, anxieties, and insecurities, but I can’t call these phobias.
If you won the election what 3 changes would you make?
This feels like both an easy and a difficult question…this election is filling me with all kinds of frustration and dread! My political views are probably most aligned with the Greens. To list just three changes: I want action on climate change, marriage equality (or more simply, all kinds of equality; a society in which everyone is afforded with respect and equality), and a kinder, more compassionate and humane refugee policy—one that shows that, rather than being driven by fear and selfishness, or a fear of sharing our privilege, Australians are capable of empathy.
An extract from ‘Split’, a short story published in issue 44 Famous Reporter(Walleah Press, 2012):
There was a time when, if I saw some light from a globe caught in a window reflection and thought it was the moon, I would have to tell my brother straight away, and he would have to see it too.
And when I learned that a group of crows was known as a murder, and that clams and oysters came in beds, and jellyfish in smacks, I’d had to tell Kip immediately, and hear him say it.
And when I dreamt of spiders, crawling across my eyelids as I slept, strangely shaped like our drawings of suns, Kip would listen and remind me to name them. On the ceiling above our beds we could identify Lois Lane, Muhammad Ali, or Don Bradman.
My brother collected cicada shells from the bark of tree trunks, holding them up to the sun and turning them gently, their brittle husks delicate and shiny.
And the antique bodies of spiders, their dead legs clasped, velvety remains on the verge of disintegrating. He handled each with the reverence of a taxidermist, because this one was Bruce Wayne, and this was Barbara Eden.
These collections lined the windowsills and the ledge of our chest of drawers, and in bed at night I kept still because of them.
Kip’s head was a dark shape on the pillow next to me, and sometimes he would hum, and I would remember the words in my head. Other nights he would play with my hair because we both liked the way it felt in his hands.
Once he took my face in his palms and looked at me carefully.
Shut your eyes, he said.
The scissors slid sideways through my fringe, and I held still; held my breath, suddenly very conscious of my eyelashes.
Links to poems available online:
Two poems in Mascara Literary Review: http://mascarareview.com/jo-langdon-3/
‘Ellipsis’ in Cordite Poetry Review: http://cordite.org.au/poetry/interlocutor/ellipsis/
‘About’ in Otoliths: http://the-otolith.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/jo-langdon-about-maybe-this-is-about.html