Jo Case talks to S.J. Finn about her debut novel, This Too Shall Pass.
This novel is so firmly rooted in Melbourne and surrounds, with your descriptions of judgemental hippie rural towns, disengaged urban commuters, and details like St Kilda’s date palms, trams and cafes. How important is place to this novel?
Place has been central to me as a writer – perhaps before anything else. It could be because I find it more straightforward to put on paper. But there’s also no doubt it helps me to envisage a scene. In This Too Shall Pass, place is a reality, sometimes harsh and sometimes not. Descriptions of it are, of course, guided by the narrator’s mood, her thoughts; it’s seen through her eyes, so to speak.
Your narrator is often unsympathetic (for example, in the way she conducts her extra-marital affairs before she leaves her husband, who she admits is basically a nice guy). Early readers Steven Amsterdam and Carmel Bird have used the word ‘uncompromising’ to describe the book. Did it require bravery to make your central character so morally complex? Do you think the complexity of her behaviour reflects the way life often unfolds, particularly in times of crisis?
I guess when you present a young woman being driven by physical wants and desires, it is kind of brave. Men are expected to behave in this manner more often than women, even when there’s a strong imperative to remain loyal to the family. I would also hazard a guess that for both genders, disarray means normal limits of behaviour crumble and people often do things they wouldn’t if their life was in a more settled phase. Even when people know some things aren’t ‘right’ they continue to do them as if it’s beyond them to stop, which, I believe, sometimes it is. Something has to change and sometimes, certainly not consciously, we don’t know what that something is until our actions force it to emerge.
Sexual and gender politics, as well as the more general politics of government privatisation of public health services (as it affects Jen’s workplace), are central to the novel. Do you see yourself as a political writer?
I’m so glad you asked me this question. Politics is indeed central, in my view, to this novel. Perhaps strangely, after having said that, I don’t see myself as a political writer. What I do think is that politics is embedded in everyday scenarios and experiences. I’d go so far as to say that being a woman is political. Who we love is certainly political and how our institutions conduct their business – there can be no doubt – is definitely political. Politics is just not always obvious amongst the hurly burly of our lives.
Jen describes several handy attributes for a social worker at the beginning of the novel: listening, basic compassion, curiosity, patience, lack of expectation. It seems these skills would also ideally suit the writing process. What do you think?
Curiosity, absolutely, plus basic compassion; those two are a must for a writer, I think. The others, well, I’d say they’d come in more than handy. Lack of expectation is, in more general terms, helpful just for getting through life, something I’m still cultivating in myself.