A woman crashes her car outside Vincent’s house. Vincent attempts to help the woman, and the baby in her arms, which may not have survived the crash. Rachel is her name and her arrival will have repercussions for Vincent and his daughter Gemma, and will draw attention (and judgment) in town. Darkness on the Edge of Town is Jessie Cole’s gripping and emotionally intelligent debut novel. Jessie and I have been getting to know each other for a little while now, sending missives from my urban jungle to her forest and back again, about animals, books, children, place, and more. I finally sent through a few questions to Jessie in order to introduce her, and Darkness, to you:
Darkness on the Edge of Town has ‘thrilling’ aspects, it moves along, it’s compelling, but I’d say it’s a character-driven novel. Could you tell us a bit about setting up the situation, and then letting it unfold? About pacing the story? How much of the whole story did you have when you began writing?
Good question! Firstly, the MS I’d written before Darkness was a very personal ‘family saga’ kind-of-story, set across several generations, and I decided after I finished writing it that I really enjoyed reading books that were more just a snippet of time. Stories that simply picked up in a certain part of someone’s life and stayed with them for a bit. I liked the immediacy of those stories, and the way they almost felt like they were told in real-time. And I suppose, I liked the smallness of them. And that was about as far as I’d gotten in terms of thinking consciously about what I wanted to write next. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was ‘a writer.’ Only that sometimes I wrote.
Then, the whole of Darkness came to me in a one big blast late at night. Beginning to end. Hit me like a whack across the back of the head. I have no real explanation for why or how that happened, but it was a very powerful moment and I knew from the outset that it was something special, something whole. It’s difficult to explain how a fully-formed story could come all-at-once, how it could even fit inside a mind in one instant, but it did. I didn’t think at all about setting up the situation, I just sat down and let Vincent talk. I imagined myself as a stranger in a pub who struck up a conversation with him. Him telling me his story— among all the noise and cacophony—and the story being just so hard and so strong he had to get it off his chest. The intimacy of it thrilled me. I wrote the first 20,000 words in a week.
In my mind Vincent and Gemma and Rachel were all compelling characters in traumatic but oddly intimate circumstances, and I was enthralled by them. Part way through the book I realised that I was writing something with some elements of a thriller. This was not purposeful, it was just how it came out. I’m not much of a deliberate writer. I don’t like to plan or over-think things. I do know that when I write I am looking to be thrilled—to feel a kind of wave or nervous tremor of emotion or sensation—and I do use this as a guide to know I’m on the right track. I didn’t think about pacing, the story had its own momentum. I trusted it. At some stage I saw Sonya Hartnett speak at the Byron Bay Writers’ Fest, and she said something along the lines of: ‘I like to start with a bang and end with a bang and have lots of bangs in between’. And I realised that this was what I was doing with Darkness.
Although Sonya Hartnett does plot out her novels, with different coloured sticky notes for different characters or something like that, I’ve been told! That’s what works for her. It fascinates me how each writer approaches a book or a story so differently (and it can be different for each book, too).
Yes, everyone works very differently. Sonya Hartnett has written so many novels, she must have it absolutely down-pat! I guess I just meant that last comment about the bangs in terms of pacing. When I heard Sonya say that, I realised that’s what I was aiming for in the pacing of Darkness, even though I hadn’t really known it. And yes, I think each book is different. I like what Jonathon Franzen says about how you have to become the person who can write the book you want to write, and how with each book you probably have to become a new person.
The connection that forms between the two young women in Darkness, Rach and Gemma, adds a layer to the story. They each come alive a little bit, and maybe grow and make some sense of what is happening to them (separately and together) through their conversations. Could you comment on this aspect of the novel?
I’m very interested in the power inherent in the kindness of strangers. I think in some ways Gemma’s generosity towards Rachel is a bit of a surprise. Teens are notoriously self-centred and maybe—in the circumstances—it would be natural for Gemma to be quite hostile and territorial. But she isn’t. I think that’s because she’s got this wonderful mix of knowingness and openness; she’s also hungry for adult wisdom and it’s in short supply. People who’ve been deprived can start to bloom with the smallest smatterings of attention, and I think Rachel and Gemma give this to each other in as much as they are able. To be truly heard is a powerful thing, and a lot of the time we don’t give each other that gift. I suppose I wanted to show how a kind of openness to connection can build something worthwhile and healing between people, even in the least likely of situations. I’m also interested in the idea of family. In Darkness none of the three main characters are related by blood, but the bonds that they form are, in many ways, familial. In our culture ideas about family can be so narrow. So nuclear. I guess I wanted to question that a little. What makes a family? How do they form?
I want to ask about the small town Australian setting. It’s really as rich as a setting can be, with its history and tensions, and its rituals (thinking about Gem drinking Jim Beam and Coke from a bottle, fumbling in her friend’s bedroom). How is the setting integral to the story?
This small-town-question always leaves me a little stumped. I know that sounds ridiculous because Darkness is so completely a small town story, but it’s really hard for me to have a lot of perspective on that. I’ve lived in the same small town almost all of my life. It’s funny, when people come to visit who haven’t been to my place before, they always say something along the lines of: ‘Wow, you really live in the middle of nowhere!’ And I always reply: ‘What do you mean? This is the centre of the universe!’ Which is, of course, a joke. But in a sense it’s also true, in that it is the centre of my universe. It’s the only way of living that I really understand with any depth.
In terms of how the setting of Darkness is integral to the story, I suppose for the characters of Vincent and Gemma it is that ambivalent mixture of security and claustrophobia. That sense that they are ‘known’ by the people around them, which is in some ways affirming, but that they are also judged or pigeonholed by who they once were, or how their lives have played out thus far. In a small town the past is not a foreign country. It’s a tangible presence that everyone remembers. And on top of that is the way that the private can be translated in small communities. I mean, once you drive up your driveway in the country no-one knows what goes on inside your house. You have no close neighbours to listen to the rhythms of the household, so I think people make up stories about each other based on whatever facts are at hand, but often these stories lack subtlety, or even truth. Maybe the difference in the city is that people don’t assume they know anything much about the people around them, whereas in a small town more assumptions are made. In Darkness, Vincent struggled to communicate what was happening between him and Rachel. He knew that he’d never be able to explain, but that all sorts of judgments would be made. The friction between what is really happening in the private sphere and what the town at large assumes—and how these assumptions play out—creates a lot of tension in the story.
Just as an aside, I think our culture favours the ‘escape’ narrative. The story where we escape our past and start our lives anew. Makeover. Transformation. Alteration. Just look at how many films turn on that fantasy. Especially now, when moving is so accessible. In some ways it is seen as a type of failure not to leave your past behind. And it is almost a given that anyone with any prospects should leave a small town and make something better of their lives. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. And I’m interested in stories about people who decide to stay. I’m not sure how apparent it is in Darkness, but I feel there is a different kind of bravery required to live with your past, and it isn’t something that is celebrated all that much.
Check out Jessie Cole’s website.