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"Stories do make you feel less alone in the world."
1 October 2011

Paul Jennings is unreal

Interview by Josephine Rowe
Photography by Cory White

Josephine Rowe on Paul Jennings

When I was eleven, I decided to telephone Paul Jennings. It was 1995 and he had just been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to children’s literature, although I was unaware of such accolades at the time.

Like millions of other eleven-year-olds, in Australia and around the world, I was ruthlessly devouring his short story collections—Unbelievable! Unmentionable! Unbearable!—and had probably just read something particularly hilarious or heartbreaking that had prompted me to scour the first volume of the White Pages.

There were only three listings for P. Jennings, which meant that at the very worst, there would only be two awkward wrong numbers before I got through to the real  P. Jennings. Then I could tell him… what?

I realised I didn’t know what to say to Paul Jennings. It also occurred to me that a phone call from a stranger, however well-intentioned, might seem a little odd. Eventually I closed the phonebook and put it back in the cupboard.

Fifteen years later, I remember this with a sort of nostalgic cringe as I ride the early train to Paul’s Warrnambool home. There is still a fingernail of moon in the sky when we pull out of Footscray station, but bright winter light creeps steadily into the carriage as I reread old favourites; a boy feeding lemons to a fox fur; the busker whose face is forever tilted to the sky. I try to remember the questions that the eleven-year-old me would have wanted to ask.

Fiona, Paul’s PA, collects me from the station in her husband’s truck, and we head out to Paul’s fifty-two acre property; a long narrow strip of land that runs uphill from road to sea, which he has been working to revegetate over the past several years, enlisting the help of friends and neighbours in planting indigenous trees and shrubs, and which birds, wallabies and one koala have seen fit to reclaim as home.

Perched at the top of the hill, the house is constructed of recycled timbers that still hint at their former lives as shipping jetties and railway lines, the large windows making picture boxes of the landscape. Paul—a warm, softly spoken man in his sixties—greets me in the kitchen, where we speak for the next hour and a half about dreams, Carl Jung, the importance of snails and what it means to be a storyteller.

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

JOSEPHINE ROWE: You’ve been writing for 26 years, and have published 70 books. What’s changed for you in that time?

PAUL JENNINGS: Well, that’s an interesting question actually because it’s an issue that’s been filling my mind lately. As you get older, your writing reflects a different slant that you have on life. I’m very proud of my stories and my books. The funny stories, I don’t trivialise those at all because they do have more to them than just the laugh, although a laugh’s a pretty good thing to bring to the world. But increasingly I’ve been wanting to write something more serious, and it’s very difficult for a writer to break out of genre because no-one wants them to do it.

Especially the publisher.

Especially the publisher. But also the readers to a certain extent. I’ve noticed this in my own reading. Ray Bradbury, for example, is a fantasy and science fiction writer—a fantastic writer, very good with surprise endings—and he wrote a detective novel which I was totally disappointed by. I didn’t finish it, because I just wanted more of his brilliant short stories.

You wanted heartbreaking sentient robots?

Yes, exactly! And he obviously wanted to do a detective book and, you know, that wasn’t what I was into so I was disappointed. So I’m aware of that as a writer. My last book, The Nest, was totally out of genre. It’s for teenagers and is about a boy with a mental illness. I think it’s the best thing I’ve written but it’s not my biggest selling book. So people are disappointed with that, that it doesn’t sell as many as a collection of funny short stories would. But I’m very glad that I wrote it and I’ve had a small number of really strong responses to it, rather than a large number of sort of congratulatory responses.

I’ve been very interested in Jungian psychology for quite a while now. Jung differentiates between two types of writing. One he calls ‘psychological writing’, which is what most writing is, according to him: writing which has a conscious plot and comes from the conscious mind of the author who’s plotting out a story about love or loss or some ill in the society. He also postulates what he calls ‘visionary writing’, which is sort of dreamlike, as from a vision of unknown origin – a book he gives as an example would be Moby Dick, or the second half of Faust or Rider Haggard’s She. That sort of writing is coming from some sort of unknown place. I don’t agree about the total distinction. I think you can have both in the same book, but I’m more and more inclined to the visionary type of writing. I’ve always been aware of the unknown agenda popping up in my books. One of them is the theme of the separation of the parent and the child…

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

As with The Fisherman and the Theefyspray

Yes, though the first book I wrote where that theme popped out was The Cabbage Patch Fib. I thought I got that idea from my daughter Gemma; she had this Cabbage Patch doll, you know, and you had to treat them like they were real. So she would bring it up to the restaurant, prop it there at the table and poke food at it. And at the end of the meal she’d say, “Oh, Jennifer has to go to the toilet,” so we’d all wait while she went into the ladies’ toilets with Jennifer. That was my conscious thought, to write a book about that. So I wrote a story about a little boy whose father told him that babies come from the cabbage patch, and he went down and found one – found a little green baby.

About three months after I wrote it I sat up in bed and said to my wife, “that story’s about one of my children.” I had two adopted children and two step children and two biological children. And that little green baby, it didn’t come from that Cabbage Patch doll, it came from something real. And when I started thinking about it, I think it came from an even further, more distant place. As a little migrant boy, six years old, I had to leave my grandmother behind, and she had been the major carer in my life. When we left England she didn’t come and that was a huge loss, though I didn’t actually know it at the time. I remember having this dream twice when I was still in England, that I was tumbling down the stairs from my upstairs bedroom and there was a big ocean with ocean liners at the bottom. I just woke up as I smashed into the sea and was totally terrified. Obviously, on an unconscious level—although I wanted to come to Australia and I thought it would be great fun—I knew that it was going to be a big loss.

My grandmother, who was into dreams, was to come with us and the night before we were to sail she had a dream that she’d died on the boat. So she wouldn’t come, and we had to put it off six months so that she could be placed in an old folks’ home. I mentioned this to a colleague of mine who’s a Jungian psychotherapist, and he said she would have died spiritually if she had’ve come to this country in her eighties, leaving behind her other daughter and her family to come to what was then a fairly wild sort of country. So that sort of unconscious thing has always been in my writing, but I’m more inclined to go with it now.

I’ve just finished writing a story called The Bird Said Nothing about a boy who broke a vase and his mother and father were angry with him, so he said “I’m going to run away” and they said “off you go then”, like parents do. Anyway, he ran into the forest and became lost, and found a house that provided all his needs but he could never leave it; the forest had formed a barrier against him. Everybody has an emotional response to this story, but the publishers aren’t really sure whether they like it or not. They ask, “who’s it for, Paul?” Because in the end the boy goes back and his parents are dead. It’s got sort of a happy ending… well, it’s got a hopeful ending, but it’s a fairly bleak story. Once again it’s the separation of the parent and the child.

I mean, I just can’t help doing it. I must have written at least twenty of them and I always say I will never do it again.

But it still works its way in there.

It just keeps coming back. And that question, who’s it for? is very hard to answer. My answer to that is another question, which is to say, well, who are the fairy stories for? Hansel and Gretel, or Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or Little Red Riding Hood—who are they for? They all had deep, profound truths relating to the psyche of human beings.

They also had widespread variants – they were folk tales. They were for everybody, before the Brothers Grimm came along and tidied them up specifically for children. And over time they’ve become more ‘tidy’ and less dark and further away from those truths.

They’ve been Disneyfied. I mean, Bettelheim believed that those dark stories actually help children to cope with what they fear. The world is a pretty dangerous and dark place but dealing with that through fairy stories means you can actually address it and see that other people live in that same scary place that you do.

What you said about The Nest, that I read in one of your interviews, was that it was written to make people feel less alone. And that’s the same thing, really.

It is.

That’s what I found, growing up with your stories. It was the sad ones that I really responded to, stories like The Busker. And a lot of people talk about the images from your stories being … they use words like scorched, etched, embedded in their minds. Fifteen or twenty years on, those stories are still very real and those characters are very familiar to them. So the visual longevity of your stories is something that strikes me. Do many of your stories start as images?

Well, firstly, that’s a very nice thing for me to hear. Actually I got a letter from a little girl, not long after The Busker came out. She said, my mum was reading me that story The Busker in bed. And I looked up and my mum had tears in her eyes, so I said to her “What are you bawling about?” And her mum said, shut up it’s a bloody good story. And I thought that was really nice.

They do start from an image. You’ve got to start somewhere. I did have that image of the little boy running away and not coming back in my mind for years and years and years, right back when I was a teacher and a lecturer in Burwood State College. One of the staff members said a little boy she’d been working with had said he was going to run away, and his mum had said, “okay, I’ll pack your lunch.” And the staff member said, “that is so cruel, and so mean!” And I sort of remembered that I’d done that once—said “off you go”, and so that stuck in my mind.

But yes, little images, like from a dream; so the image of the glowing teeth, and then what do you do with it? Or the image of the eye on the end of the finger, what will you do with that?

And something just comes from somewhere inside as I’m writing it, and it suddenly develops into a whole life of its own. But yes, everything starts with a little image.

You became renowned for the twist in the tale/tail of your stories, but they never read as being formulaic. Was there a structure that you applied to all of them?

No, not really. In some ways it seems like a bit of a burden to be required to do it all the time. The book I’m writing at the moment is a collection of linked stories, each with a surprise in the ending, and I’d thought I wouldn’t do any more. But actually I found that I got six new surprise endings quite quickly. Basically, I get a rough sort of outline of the story—I can show you my ideas books if you like. I just jot down what if this happens? No, this couldn’t happen. This can happen. There’s a sort of process, whereby something occurs to me from something else that happens in the story, it’s a sort of lateral thinking. You think, Oh—yes! That’s it! But having said that there is the technical side of it, which is to go back over it and throw the reader off. So if it was a snail, for example, that saves the day, you’ve got to go back and give that snail another purpose in the story. Because if I just put it in like they do in movies, where they suddenly just show you the snail on a rock, you always think, they put that snail there—it’s going to come back later. You have to go back and you have to make it that the snail caused the fight between the two kids, that one was standing on snails or something like that. If you’ve given it a legitimate place in the story the reader doesn’t guess.

I think it was Jung who said that you don’t write the story, the story writes you.

Or, you don’t find the story, the story finds you.

You spent four years writing The Nest. That’s a huge investment, not only of time, but of the creative energy that you’re putting into this one marathon, compared to your short stories. How did you approach that, and was it daunting?

It was really daunting and I had a lot of editorial help on it from my editor Julie Watts and my publisher Jane. I did draft after draft after draft. I wrote it in the present tense, I wrote it in the past tense. I wrote it as a total book of short stories and I wrote it as a total novel. Then I wrote it as a mixture of short stories and a through story, and in the end I settled on the mixture. I wrote quite a few stories that didn’t go into it and a lot of autobiographical material that didn’t go in. Julie, you know, if she doesn’t like something she tells you. I had to take out large bits which was very difficult and quite painful. I didn’t want to make it too dark, but I think I got some dark humour into it.

There’s a book that Fiona and I were talking about yesterday, Pascal Bruckner’s Perpetual Euphoria. Bruckner says that the notion that one’s going to be happy all the time is just a false notion, and everybody’s going to have hard times and down times. In the case of Robin, the boy in the book, he wasn’t really cured. But people who have intractable mental illnesses can still have a life. So I wanted to end with hope in that story, but I didn’t want him to be miraculously cured. The ending reflected that, with the little story about the boy with the snake arm; it sort of said, you know, sometimes I’m happy and sometimes I’m not and mostly I’m on top of the problem but sometimes it comes back.

It was very hard to get that balance right, so that you felt good about what happened but you didn’t get a false feeling, that you’re going to be happy all the time. I think a lot of people didn’t understand it because it was full of metaphor. The other problem I had in that book was that Robin was plagued with unwanted ‘thoughts’—I’ll use that word, though it’s not the right word. The first couple of times I wrote it and he would get an image of stabbing someone or something like that, my editor said to me, “we don’t like him as the reader, Paul.”

Because, even though he’s a nice boy, when he’s having a thought like that the reader thinks he’s a psychopath. And he’s not, because lots of people have problems with thinking things they’d rather not think; you think of something stupid you did and get this, like, electric shock.

And it can be quite physical, the way you respond to it. To turn your head away or some such.

That’s right. So the boy had an extreme version of that. I thought, well I can’t have people not liking the character when they read it, but I can’t lie about what his problem is either, so I used metaphors: all those stories were metaphors for what was happening to him and eventually as you go through the book you realise that. So the story about a monk who tried to overcome his drinking problem by breaking all the bottles of wine. There is a psychological treatment which is sort of saturating, so instead of fighting the thought, you actually saturate yourself with it.

But at the same time those metaphorical stories still worked as complete, stand-alone stories.

Yeah, they did. I have been toying around with taking them out of the book and putting them in a collection of dark stories.

What I found interesting about Robin’s stories was that the first one, about the monk, seems like an earlier, Paul Jennings-ish story. But further along in the book they actually seemed like a great opportunity for stylistic diversity. You get a sense that Robin is playing around with different styles and different voices, and I wondered if that was also a way of you including a few stories that might not be considered as Paul Jennings-ish enough. A way of you getting around this idea of how Paul Jennings is supposed to write.

Yes, well there’s always a problem with how far you can go with things, especially with humour. When I wrote Unreal, four publishers rejected those first three short stories. At the time, writing a story about a haunted dunny—and using the word dunny—was considered quite outrageous by the gatekeepers of children’s literature. So I was pushing the boundary there. Well, with The Nest, that’s pushing the boundary too. There’s a dope smoking bit in there, then the boy’s mental illness, then this little joke about the monk and all the naked women. Because it’s for older readers, it did give me the liberty to put in material that I’ve never been able to before. In some ways, I almost would have liked to have made an adult book, then I could’ve done anything.

You’ve talked before about entitlement in stories. What do you believe readers are entitled to?

I don’t want to sound gratuitous or contrived but I think really what you’re doing is letting people see themselves in the story, and you’re letting them learn something about themselves and about other people. Stories do make you feel less alone in the world and I think that the really successful writers probably feel more intense about things. It’s not that they’re better or anything like that, but if they’re lonely, they’re probably more lonely than most people. They know that feeling of loneliness inside out, so when they write about it the child or the reader who also feels loneliness, because everybody does, they really relate to it. You know, I think I’ve probably quoted a few times

a little boy who wrote to me and said, Dear Paul Jennings, how do you know what it’s like to be me? And to me, that’s probably the nicest compliment I’ve had about my writing.

We had these lads up here on a school visit yesterday, and the teacher who brought them up said, “you’re always on the side of the underdog—those stories about the strugglers, and how it all works out in the end.” And I think everybody feels like that, to some degree, even the bullies. The bullies don’t sit there thinking “I’m a bully.” They’re probably bullying because they haven’t been acknowledged or they’ve been deprived of love or something.

I think writers are more intensely in touch with their feelings. This isn’t my idea, I think it comes from Peter O’Connor who’s a writer and psychotherapist, but there are tribes in the community and when you’re growing up, you don’t realise there are tribes. You just see yourself as part of the big mass, and you might feel left out of it because, say, most of them like football and you don’t like football—I’m just using my own example now—and they all want to go off and do this and you don’t like that, so you think, what’s wrong with me? Or they’re all having a farting competition or whatever it is, and they all seem so confident, or so good looking, or good with girls or good with boys or whatever, and it’s not until you get quite well into your life you suddenly realise, yeah, well my little tribe doesn’t like all that stuff, and my little tribe does like this stuff. And it’s not that your tribe’s better, but it’s different, and it’s quite alright to be in it. I used to nick off and hide in the library when football was on, and I got the cane for doing it. In fact I went back to that school, they asked me to go back to talk to the boys in the very library where I got caught, and I felt like telling that story to the boys. I didn’t, but I did say, look, go for your thing. You don’t have to do what everyone else does. And so you’re sharing that, because you’re a storyteller, and you’ve felt all those pains.

Do you think that your readers have changed much, over the years?

No, not really. I think to a certain extent the world that I write isn’t exactly their world; the kids in my books are still climbing trees, going down drains, getting lost in the forest. This little book I’m writing at the moment about the flying boy, I put iPads in it—well, that’s the first story I’ve had an iPad in and I can remember when I put the first mobile phone in. It’s not really important. People ask, “how can you write for kids when you’re that age?” But as long as you’ve got a bit of an eye to see what’s going on, it’s the feelings and the circumstances that are really the thing. I think my grandchildren and other kids that I see at school now, the Facebook thing’s definitely given them bigger problems. They’re the same sort of problems, being left out or having nasty things said about them, but they’ve just got this magnitude now; with the press of a button suddenly hundreds of people know your shame instead of just three or four at school. But you still feel the same. I don’t think they’ve changed, no. I think their world’s changed.

Was writing a novel for older readers something that you felt obliged to do? Or was it simply the format that fitted the story?

I wanted to tell the story about the boy with obsessive thoughts. It’s a type of obsessive compulsive disorder and the more popular, or well-known understanding of that disorder is the avoidance behaviours which become a bit bizarre. Like Jack Nicholson in As Good It Gets, he couldn’t stand on tiles, you know, and other people have obsessive hand washing. One theory is that they actually do this to head off the unwanted thoughts. But in the absence of those bizarre behaviours people may be suffering and nobody knows, because they don’t tell anyone. They don’t want to admit to having these thoughts because they’re worried they might be crazy or something. And I knew about this and thought I would like to write about it, so that’s how it started. But it became increasingly difficult, as I’ve said before, to do it in a way that made you sympathetic towards the boy.

One of the problems when you’re writing a book that’s somewhat confronting is there’s always the pressure to be commercial and sell a lot of books. You don’t blame your publisher for that because that’s how they make their business, and of course I want to sell a lot of books. But there’s an example in How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare, which was also autobiographical. The boy was about eleven and he didn’t know anything about masturbation or what semen was. Because he hadn’t had that experience he didn’t know that there was such a thing. I thought, well, there would still be boys today who get no help at all and no preparation for that experience, and I wanted to make that part of the boy’s journey. So

I put his first wet dream in the book, and a mother whose son read it said to me afterwards, “I was so glad you put that in. I’ve been trying to talk to my son about it and he puts his hands over his ears and runs away every time I bring it up. But we had a discussion about Hedley Hopkins and he didn’t mind talking about Hedley Hopkins.”

So she said I want to thank you for writing it, and I felt really good about that. But my publisher had said to me, “if you take that bit out, Paul, you’ll sell four or five times as many books.” And, in fact, one book distributor told me she wouldn’t take it around to primary schools. That’s the problem about how far you go, putting the commercial benefit of the book up against what you believe in.

It’s funny that it’s always the adults who are telling you what the kids want, because kids want to be challenged, and of course they want access to these things that nobody else will talk to them about. Have you found that to be an issue throughout your writing career?

Well, I guess I have. I’ve got one little story, I mean it seems very self congratulatory this, but it was something that did mean a fair bit to me. When I first started writing I definitely wanted to get kids reading and I made my books very simple. That was basically what was motivating me at the start, and I thought humour was the way to go. I didn’t actually realise I was a storyteller, which is what I feel now; I’m a storyteller more than a writer as such. In those days I just wanted to get kids reading, because I’d spent all my adult life working with kids who couldn’t read in one form or another. And when I wrote that story, Skeleton on the Dunny, I thought the Children’s Book Council will never like my books, ever. And I didn’t even actually feel as if I was a real author in a way. I sort of felt as if I was somehow off to the side of the whole thing. But then after a little while I started to think, well, I actually think I’m doing something good here. And when I wrote The Cabbage Patch Fib, I thought, well maybe the CBC will list that this year, they might list it for their junior book, because it had sold a lot and it was popular. I was at the Dromkeen Children’s Literature Centre doing some talks there with a whole lot of other authors, when someone rushed in and said the CBC shortlist was out. And there was a hush as they read through the shortlist, and my book wasn’t on there. I must admit I felt dejected. Anyway, when I got home there was some fan mail in the letterbox and one of the letters was from the teacher at the Children’s Hospital. She said there was this little girl in the burns unit, and she was really badly burned and her father would come in every day to sit by her, but she wouldn’t talk.

But I read that story to the ward, the teacher wrote, and she laughed, and her father cried. And I wanted to thank you for that. And I thought, bugger the awards.

Basically, I have to be true to the children, and to myself.

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