With her third novel, Hopscotch, hitting the shelves earlier this year, it’s a busy time for UTS alumna Jane Messer. As author of five books, including three novels – Night by Night (1994), Provenance (2007) and now Hopscotch (2015) – for the full-time academic and mother of two, it’s a good thing she enjoys what she does.
“I love doing it,” she says. “I just really love writing, thinking about it, talking about it. That’s why I like teaching creative writing. ‘Cause I get to think about my favourite thing. I like getting ideas and seeing how they can take form.”
Jane is known for her versatility and the depth of her characters, and this new novel – a frenetically-paced journey into the life of a Sydney-based family as they crash up against debt, deceit, disease and violence – offers no exception.
"I just really love writing, thinking about it, talking about it. That’s why I like teaching creative writing. ‘Cause I get to think about my favourite thing."
It’s very possible that Jane’s gift for characterisation in narrative fiction was born of a childhood spent on the move: she lived in Melbourne, Copenhagen, San Francisco and London before settling in Sydney, where she lives today. Her undergraduate studies in sociology, gained at Macquarie University where she now teaches creative writing, also played a part.
“I loved studying sociology because I was interested in people and society and how those two knit together,” she recalls. “I am completely attuned to characters as individuals, but also want to know how they function in society today, and training in sociology provided me with the broader social critique.”
Embarking on the Masters in Creative Writing at UTS soon thereafter – in the first ever cohort for the course at UTS – her love of travel prompted her move her studies overseas. With some guidance from much-loved writer and UTS academic, the late Glenda Adams, Jane landed a scholarship and a position as a tutor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She returned to Australia with a finished novel, Night by Night, and a Masters degree, settling back into UTS to pursue a Doctor of Creative Arts (DCA) during which she wrote the novel later published as Provenance.
“It was the natural home for me to start the DCA. A doctorate was becoming key to advancing in academia as a writer. If I hadn’t completed the DCA I would still be teaching casually. Actually, I’d have left the industry.”
Now Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Macquarie University, Jane balances her writing career with academia, fostering the next generation of writers. “I really enjoy the interaction with students, both face to face and online. Many of the students, if not most, won’t have met a professional writer before, so for those students who are seriously interested, it’s an important contact with the ‘industry’.”
“At the same time, I’m super keen to hear about their experiences in the writing world: most of these are online and in newish arenas such as fan fiction. It’s interesting to talk about the future of writing too: how can we make game writing better through using our skills as narrative writers? Or, what’s happening to the paragraph in the online sphere?”
Jane’s considered approach to engaging students with the learning process led to her being awarded a Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning by the Office for Learning and Teaching last year. With the aim of enabling students to not only extend their skills and knowledge, but apply them in industry, she initiated and developed the e-journal The Quarry, giving students a major ‘artefact’ outcome from their studies. Now very well-established, the journal has been more or less taken over by the students.
When asked what advice she would offer young writers in approaching their careers, Jane paints a candid picture. “Firstly, plan on two careers. Your badly paid career is writing. That’s the one you’ll do for life. Whatever else you think you can like and also make a living from is your other career. Actually, you’ll probably have a few of those. Enjoy them!”
Jane has recently returned from Berlin, where her father was born, during which time she worked through the edit of Hopscotch alongside progressing her research into maternal labour and citizenship as a visiting academic with the University of Potsdam. Exploring her German Jewish grandmother’s decision to leave Germany with her children in 1933 for the safety in England, and the role of mothers during war, by sheer luck she found herself living next door to the apartment her father was born in, in East Berlin – a strange and moving experience.
“My father remembers the stair banister in his apartment building. It is very ornate, a dark timber. I ran my hand over it, as he had done when he was a little boy.”
While much of this year will be taken up with promoting her novel, she’s planning to return to Berlin for a further two months of focused research on her maternal work project. But the versatile writer also has a radio drama, Dear Dr Chekhov, in production with ABC Radio National for broadcast in August this year. “Radio writing allows for a more lyrical style of writing. Radio is an old medium but it’s also incredibly new and experimental now that it has gone digital.”
“And I’m thinking about a new novel, again set in contemporary Australia, possibly Sydney again,” she adds. “There’s a lot more to say about contemporary life.”
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