In Progress

Last year, author Toni Jordan decided to write fiction full-time, in order to pursue her goal of subverting capitalism by making people feel less miserable. She is editing her sixth book and has started writing the next one.

By Kate Holden.

Toni Jordan

The writer’s weekly schedule for editing and writing.
Credit: Toni Jordan

Before becoming an author Toni Jordan got a degree in physiology and then worked as a molecular biologist, a door-to-door salesperson, cosmetics copywriter and industrial chemist. Now Jordan, who was longlisted for the Miles Franklin and Dublin Literary awards, is the Indie Prize-winning author of many novels, beginning with bestseller Addition, about a woman obsessed with counting and Nikola Tesla. It was followed by the comedy Fall Girl, the historical drama Nine Days, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts and the literary mystery The Fragments. She has a doctorate in creative writing and is a full-time writer living in Melbourne.

So what is your current project?

Today I’m working on a novel that’s due in February next year. It’s early stages, I’ve only got a couple of thousand words, so I’m still playing around [looking] for the voice. I’m very gentle on myself in these early stages. So if I get it to 400, 500 words today, I will consider that really good. When the project goes on a bit I’m strict about word count: I do not move from this chair until I’ve done 1000 words a day. I’m very driven, but for the first month or so you’ve got to be a bit loosey-goosey.

Tell me, when you’re starting – so this will be your sixth novel...

It’s actually my seventh, I’m editing my sixth right now.

God, you’re a machine.

I’ve just sent back a – I’d call it a developmental edit or early structural edit: that book will be out in Feb–March next year. While I’m waiting for that to come back, I’ve started the next one. I don’t mess about, Kate.

You don’t! You’re a five-day-a-week woman?

I always thought I was; I had this “leftover from being in a job” work ethic. But now I’ve worked out that I have 4000 words in me for the week, and it’s better if I work four days and then have a day off. It’s flexible, but my goal is to always have Wednesday off. I might do admin, do my BAS, go for a walk, go to the movies or just something other than the work in progress. Or I’ll book coffee with someone: it’s quite isolating, this “stay at home all day every day” caper. I’ve learnt from experience that I get the same amount of words whether I do four days or five days. You’re fresher and keener. A lot of it builds up in my unconscious and if I’m draining that little tap every day it doesn’t get a chance to build up again.

I’ve had this real struggle with the concept of a portfolio career – where we all have to podge together a bit of teaching and a few workshops and a little bit of freelancing and some reviews and blah blah. At the beginning of last year I made a decision I was just going to go all-out on fiction, so I gave everything else up.

What an amazing revelation. I’m still in the podging stage. All that stuff is great but can be very distracting.

And it’s not just distracting, it’s procrastination. But I decided: [fiction writing] is what I enjoy, that’s what I got into the business for. Ha, in a couple of years’ time maybe I’ll be broke and I’ll have to go back in! But my books are becoming more commercial and in that part of publishing there’s an expectation that they come out more frequently. I realise that they need to be in the same world: that’s really the key. If I was starting a new world every time, I don’t think I could do a book a year. So the voice is different but the world is the same.

I do no plotting in the beginning at all; I plot at the end of the first draft, and I do that quite hard. But I realised that I’ve just got to get out of my own way and stop fucking thinking about things. Thinking about things is the worst. I used to tinker with it on the way through. Now I do the first draft like free skiing down a fast hill, and then I fix it up later. I’m always amazed at how much is already there. I’ll get to the end of the first draft and go, “Maybe I’ll just go back and add in a few things.” I go back, and they’re already there. My mind knows better than my brain.

I know that should the need arise I can work extraordinarily long hours. Sometimes it’s actually about forcing myself to slow down. In the back of my mind I’m thinking, “I can sit here now, do 3000 words and have the rest of the week off.” But they’re going to be worse words than if I take my time. That’s especially true with editing; even if it doesn’t look like an enormous edit, however long I have, say six weeks, I take that amount of time. I can answer it all today, but in three weeks’ time I’ll have a better answer.

You’re the explorer.

Very much! That’s so important. I think that’s actually why my work ethic is so strong and the word count is so consistently high: I want to know what happens next!

I love a book where it feels like the author enjoyed writing it. You can tell.

I know it’s really great to be dark and cynical, but it doesn’t engage you in life. When you feel like, “Oh god, it’s all very difficult”, then it’s hard to front up every day and fight the good fights that need to be fought. I’ve written lots of different types of stories, historical fiction, tragedy and romance, but now I’ve realised that making people smile is what I see my job being. I just want to give people a little bit of a break, a smile and a recharge before heading back into the fray.

I understand that life can be extremely tragic, but life is also hilarious. If you focus only on the one aspect, it’s not genuine. The entire capitalist system wants you to be miserable, right? Because you’ve got to feel depressed in order to go out and buy a new lipstick to make yourself feel better. So I really do think that making people happy is a radical act.

For a start, you can get a book from a library – it costs you zero. Or buy one copy and share it among 10 of your friends. And for a minimal or nil cost you can change your state. There’s heaps of natural humour in life. I had lunch with my sister the other day and I had to get up and walk away from the table, I nearly peed my pants. All we did was laugh through the whole meal.

So you’re a practitioner of radical subversion?

Yes, by making people smile! One more thing about what makes me happy: I keep a running list of puns outside vet clinics. I passed one on the weekend and it said, “Your pets will love us, we shih tzu not.” I just cannot love it enough. A little glint in the day.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Toni Jordan".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.