Writing Place with Jennifer Porter

As a writer and archaeologist, Jennifer Porter likes to explore what lies beneath the floorboards and cobbles of peoples’ landscapes. Her upcoming novel, The Reverend, is a work of historical fiction, set in Tasmania; and the heart of Porter’s debut novel, In Your Image, lies in suburban Melbourne.

During the 2017 Emerging Writers’ Festival Jennifer will be sharing some of her explorations in Literary Live Art: Performing Place Ahead of the Festival, she talked with us about her approach to writing work that embeds the reader in place, and the impact her own physical space can have on her practice.

How do you approach writing work that embeds the reader in a place, environment or context?

I think about physicality, how the reader’s body feels, how their surrounds smell and look, what happened just before this scene and the residue left within them. It’s about looking for the universal despite the foreign aspects of a setting, to anchor the reader in that place.

The Reverend is a historical novel, set in early Tasmania. What work do you have to do as a writer to situate your audience in a place in time they have never experienced?

My aim is to as authentic as I’m able, to make it as real as possible. Apart from all the research and immersion in people and writing of that time, the most important thing to me is creating ties to common experiences that traverse time and space. The alienation from her own body a woman can feel during pregnancy and after giving birth, the bond between a parent and their child, the complexities of friendships. These experiences bridge the distance temporally, spatially, and culturally, allowing the reader a portal into a different world.

Are there any writers, or pieces of writing, that you feel do a really good job of situating the reader in place – be that physical, temporal, or emotional?

Joan London’s description of place in her novel The Golden Age is masterful. I could smell, feel, and see Perth and the Convalescent Home in which much of the story is set.  The desolate emotional and physical landscape of the Las Vegas housing estate created by Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch is something that will stay with me. I couldn’t wait for the protagonist to get out of there.  Lucy Treloar also does an impressive job in Salt Creek.  The reader gets a sense of the character’s isolation, how they’re out of sync with their environment.

In January 2017 you were one of five Australian and five Asia-Pacific writers who traveled to the Philippines for the fourth annual Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange (WrICE) collaborative residency.  How has your experience as a 2017 WrICE Fellow influenced your writing?

Being in such a diverse group of very strong writers perhaps allowed me to find my point of difference, my voice, and gain greater confidence in that voice. There’s no doubt that being around such talented people made me lift my game, take it up a notch. My writing is tighter and more assured as a result.

Did the immersive exchange experience in the Philippines influence your approach to writing place? 

Place is so much about who occupies it. Having the time to build relationships with writers from different cultural backgrounds gave me an invaluable entry point into places I’d never been. Having distance from the clutter of my own world gave me the mental and physical space to imagine and write with more clarity about alternative environments to my own.

See Jen Porter in Literary Live Art: Performing Place on Thursday 22 June at VU at MetroWest.