Author profile: International Writers Program alum Josephine Rowe takes comfort in doing things differently
Australian author Josephine Rowe is comfortable doing things a bit differently. Most fiction writers avoid poetry; Rowe regularly blends it with her fiction. Many pursue a master of fine arts (MFA); Rowe has not. But perhaps most striking is her method of composition. Instead of using a laptop, Rowe wrote her latest novel, “A Loving, Faithful Animal,” on a manual typewriter.
“I know this sounds insufferably hipster, but yes,” she said in a recent e-interview. “It was a very practical, economical intervention on my tendency to ‘flit.’”
Rowe said she tends “to ricochet around a lot, between scenes, across chapters, and the work becomes littered with placeholders or fastidious prevarications — the same sentence written five slightly different ways, for instance. Maddening.”
Using a typewriter curtailed this, to some extent. “Sometimes the page would end up kinked from where it sat under the roll-bar three days, while I tried to negotiate the best way forward.”
“I never typed quickly enough to gain strong fingers,” Rowe said. (She claims to do nothing quickly except walk.)
“A Loving, Faithful Animal,” set in 1990 in a small town in southeast Australia, follows one family as they navigate the aftereffects of the Vietnam War. The story is told from various perspectives, from the youngest daughter Ru; to her perpetually disappearing father, Jack; to her rebellious older sister, Lani; to her mother and uncle.
It’s a beautiful, poetic novel that reads as if it were rooted in truth, then spiraled out into fiction.
“Its engine is comprised of several lived truths — family life in the aftermath of the Vietnam War; how we choose to interpret the harm that happens to us, as well as the harm we cause; the ways in which we come to agency,” Rowe said.
“Anecdotally, though, it started with my own father’s story of the mascot panther kept on an Australian army base, and how this was always fused in my mind with the phantom panther reported to lurk around those parts.”
An MFA program in creative writing, with its workshop format, has become the typical path for writers. But Rowe said it isn’t the only way to be a writer.
“I didn’t set out from an MFA-workshop footing. For the first several years that I was writing and publishing, I was navigating largely by instinct, and by an audibility that’s perhaps more typically associated with poetry. I think it’s a useful place to start from.”
This means that authors are sometimes better served spending some quality time “in a vacuum,” she said.
“Not that I’m anti-MFA, but there should be space afforded to messing up quietly, gaining a sense of the dimensions of one’s own voice before appealing to other, stronger voices for guidance.”
Rowe instead pursued writing fellowships that weren’t reliant on academic standing and that did not result in a degree, such as the immensely competitive Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and writing residencies, such as Yaddo, which provided time and space to write uninterrupted.
“When I visited Yaddo in 2013, ‘A Loving, Faithful Animal’ was a short story. Over the course of that first stay, it became a novella. Like so many things, organic and non, perhaps it simply grew to fill the space it was allowed. Those four weeks of uncluttered time were like a sudden rush of air and light.”
“Residencies, for me, aren’t so much about locking down a predetermined number of words — more about this allowance for clarity and unhindered drift. As with walking from a low-ceilinged room into a high-ceilinged room, one thinks more clearly, perhaps more ambitiously.”
The Stegner, which she completed in 2016, allowed “more space again, more time to walk around in it, more time to take risks, and it became a novel.”
Rowe had a number of great readers for “A Loving, Faithful Animal” as it was taking shape, but none more present as her Australian editor Ian See, who was “almost intimidatingly familiar with my previous fiction and the fabric underlying it. He always intuited what I was trying to do, and held me to my best self.”
“Thankfully, I don’t think his suggestions were geared on an idea of mainstream or broad-as-possible readership, which has never seemed all that attractive to me. It’s more important that the writing arrives at the right readers, and it’s not for me to project who they might be.”
Time in Iowa
But before Yaddo or the Stegner Fellowship, Rowe was accepted into the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa in 2011.
At the time she was 26 — the youngest writer in that year’s contingent.
“The residency enabled me to work solidly on finishing my second short story collection, ‘Tarcutta Wake,’ but the greater impact came from being in close creative proximity to writers of such diverse experience — people who are not simply of varied geographical, racial and political backgrounds, but writers — those who have devoted their lives to noticing, to seeing and transcribing the world, perhaps most fiercely, its injustices, often at great personal cost.”
Among the writers that year were several former political prisoners, including one fiction writer who switched to poetry when it became apparent that poetry wasn’t so heavily scrutinized by authorities.
“I think it left me with a keener sense of responsibility, and definitely a different definition — a higher water mark for ‘brave,’ so often overused in terms of literary praise.”
“It might take an essay to talk about what I got out of the IWP. But to try for concision here: it was pivotal. Partly as it came at such a formative point in my writing career.”
Rowe hasn’t been back to Iowa City since her fellowship, so reading at Prairie Lights is “definitely a highlight” of her book tour.