Interview: Jenn J McLeod

Moving to the country over a decade ago to escape the hectic world of corporate communications was like coming home for bestselling Australian novelist, Jenn J McLeod. These days she lives the gypsy life, on the road fulltime and writing heart-warming tales of the Australian country that weave intricate tapestries of friendship, family and love, contemporary human issues and small-town life.

Here is an interview with her on her creative influences.


TRM: What were your favourite texts growing up?

JJMc: I wasn’t exposed to books as a child. My parents’ idea of keeping me entertained while waiting in the car for Dad to play a gig at the local RSL Club, was a few love comics and a bag of Twisties. Growing up in a musical family meant words and story came to me through song, with lyrics being my earliest writing attempt. (Well, poems that when combined with a tune—performed with hairbrush to bedroom mirror—sounded a lot like those emotionally charged country ballads that can tell an entire tale of heartbreak and betrayal in a single song. (Have you heard the joke about country songs? If you play the song backwards, the guy gets his girl and his job back, finds whatever he’s lost, quits crying, and leaves the bar sober!)

I still have my first rejection letter was for a collection of poems. It’s dated 1978. I was eighteen. That same year I gave writing away to follow my dream of acting in a Broadway musical—bringing someone else’s words to life. As it turns out the computer became my keyboard of choice, leaving the old upright piano to languish in the living room, and the daddy longlegs to weave their web around the piano’s soundboard and strings while I weave stories.


What texts do you keep coming back to?

Life’s too short to re-read books. Publishing deadlines and demands keep way too many unread novels on my bookshelf as it is—and all (unashamedly) Australian fiction. That said . . . I have been known to return to a book to de-construct it. A writer can learn a lot from breaking down a well-told story, and even more by identifying what didn’t work in a one that is badly told.


Are there texts that relate to your life?

Only if there is a book out there titled Extraordinarily Ordinary and Extremely Lucky. That would sum up how I see myself and my success late in life. My contemporary stories about family and relationships relate to lives readers can identify with and while I refrain from writing myself into my stories, some plotlines and characters do come from personal experiences—in particular, my character ‘Alice’ from Season of Shadow and Light. Most recently I spent three months camped in the caravan in a paddock on a fifth-generation cattle property outside Rockhampton (QLD) where I penned a fifth novel. My experiences—both amusing and sobering reflections of life on the land—certainly influenced that story.


Are there any artists and texts that influence you creatively?

Developing my own voice as an author took some time and to understand the type of writer I was and the sort of stories I wanted to tell was largely influenced by authors I loved reading: Monica McInerney, Kate Morton, Nicole Alexander, Liane Moriaty and Dianne Blacklock.

As an established author it is important to stay true to my voice and to achieve this I have to carefully manage those influences. In fact, there are several stages throughout the writing/editing/publishing process that I will not pick up a novel. Maybe I’m afraid of how another author’s work might influence my own, or maybe it’s something to do with too many characters all vying for space in a very crowded and overactive brain!


Are there any quotes or other words of wisdom you find helpful for your practice?

A couple of years short of my 50th, while beginning to think my publishing dream would never happen, I saw this quote from Mark Twain:

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails: Explore. Dream. Discover.”

So I did. I explored opportunities, I stayed positive, and I discovered you’re never too old to learn, and that dreams can come true if you have the courage to throw off those bowlines. Solo circumnavigator Paul Lotus once said: “You can’t steer a boat that isn’t moving? Just like life”. So I made my own wind (hmm, that doesn’t sound too good) and the rest is history. I signed with Curtis Brown Literary Agency the day before my 50th birthday and a book deal with Simon and Schuster soon followed.


What is a text that every developing artist should read/watch/listen to?

The one that beats inside their heart.

I wasted years trying to learn my craft by reading the wrong texts and listening to others tell me what and how to write. Firstly, aspiring authors should sit and write. When they do read, the texts should be the type of books they want to write. They should watch the authors they want to be, and they should listen to their heart. Writing the book of my heart is what made House for all Seasons #5 top selling debut novel in 2013.

Four novels later I’m still not convinced a writer needs too many craft books. To those like me (ie they wish they’d listened closer to their English teacher at school) I highly recommend the grammar text titled, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss—a grammar lesson that will having you laughing as you learn.


You can find out more about Jenn and her work by visiting her website, or following her on Twitter.

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