This author interview follows my review of Jennifer Severn’s new memoir: Long Road To Dry River, a few days ago. You can read the review Here.
In these unusual times when we are all committed to staying indoors and social distancing, this interview was conducted via email, which didn’t allow interactive conversation. This means my questions were constructed in advance (as they should be anyway), Jennifer scribed her answers instead of voicing them and there were no spontaneously interim discussions like we’ve become accustomed to in podcasts with authors.
This does not, however, lessen the potency of the author’s answers to my questions. Her candour and interesting comments, coupled with the content of my review, will intrigue you and whet your appetite for more of the engaging narrative which she has so well executed in Long Road Do Dry River.
Interview: Jennifer Severn – Long Road To Dry River
1) The narrative in Long Road To Dry River explores three areas of your life – your childhood, the evolution of your personal and spiritual journey, and the diagnosis and unfolding challenges of life with MS… culminating in finding a place to belong. I’m curious about what in particular was the impetus for you to write this book.
Kathryn, yes, finding a place to belong is the most important aspect for me.
As for impetus, I probably started this book three times. After a conversation with my solicitor in 2001, which became the prologue, I thought, There might just be a book in this … And there were pages of jottings, old memories, that came into being in a long-ago writers’ group in Quaama. But the first time I remember actually planning to write a book was in 2012 when I embarked on a new MS diet that I really believed was going to cure me. I thought, I’d better document this because many people with MS are going to benefit from it. In other words, it was going to be a ‘Recovery Memoir’. Of course it didn’t turn out that way—but publishing consultant Mary Cunnane, who mentored me through the end stages of the project, agreed with me that it wouldn’t have been as interesting if I’d been cured!
2) What is your favourite part of the narrative/favourite scene? Why?
There are a couple of lighter moments—the naked skydiving scene is one, and maybe the marriage proposal at Gate Three of Indira Gandhi Airport, Delhi. But there’s also one near the end, at my brother’s wedding reception, where I talk to my father after an eighteen-year estrangement, with a very surprising outcome. That’s one of my favourites because at the time of that event, in 2016, I was trying to finish the book but knew that I just couldn’t finish it without at least trying to talk to Dad. And no spoilers, but it paid off.
3) Was this the easiest part of the manuscript to write? If not, what was … and why?
Those three all just tumbled onto the page. Maybe that’s why they’re my favourites!
4) What was the most difficult part/scene to write? Why?
Definitely the final days of my beloved dog Harley. Even when proofing I found myself wanting to skip that part. In the book I acknowledge the difficulty of writing about Harley’s death, and speculate as to why. I think I had very high expectations of myself as a dog-owner, and I let him down.
5) Long Road To Dry River is written in three distinct sections/parts, which form a framework supporting the interwoven threads that bring the narrative together by the last page. I am interested in the process that led you to this skilfully executed structure.
Kathryn, that’s interesting. Until almost the final draft the story started with my parents meeting on the Willem Ruys on the way from London to Sydney. Then Mary Cunnane suggested I break it into parts and start it somewhere more dramatic, and I chose what I saw as a ‘pivot point’ – a taxi ride that changed my life. Part One ends with me about to meet my father after our first long estrangement and that required some backstory—I had to explain my parents’ marriage and my early family life, thus Part Two. Then Part Three starts with that meeting with Dad—and finishes with another one, after another long estrangement.
Just trying to articulate the structure has brought home to me, again, how critical my father is to my story.
6) How did you reconcile the fact that to write your own story you have to touch on aspects of other people’s lives?
Yes, none of us is an island. I like to think I have covered events in my life truthfully. I thought, well if anyone remembers things differently they can write their own memoir. But now that all my close family members have read the book, and no-one differs seriously with my representation, I think I got it right. I definitely haven’t lost any relationships out of it, and I’m breathing a bit easier. In fact it has led to some interesting—and rewarding—conversations.
For other events concerning non-family members, I did change some names in case it caused any upset. But I’d like to think it might flush out some people from my past I’ve lost touch with—even if just to argue with me!
7) Memoirs can take years to write. How long did Long Road To Dry River take to write?
As I said before, some parts I wrote twenty years ago. But seriously, I finished the first draft about six years ago. It’s taken longer than I thought it would.
8) What would be your advice to anyone about to embark on the journey of writing a memoir?
My advice would be, just do it! But I would also suggest that you examine your objectives. If it’s a device to settle scores, put it away until you’ve dealt with your resentments. And don’t be tempted to leave out the bad bits either – the bits that cast you in a less-than-favourable light. This isn’t Facebook!
9) Now that this book is finished and published, do you have another writing project bubbling away and luring you to the keyboard?
Possibly. There was a novel I was working on before the memoir, and one day I’ll have another look at that. It’s about the inhabitants of a small town in dairy country, believe it or not…
Thank you, Jennifer Severn, for the opportunity to interview you for this Blog and to share information about your new memoir. I wish you well with this book, and encourage anyone who has even a whiff of interest to go ahead and read your story. They will not be disappointed.
Jennifer Severn’s – Long Road To Dry River – is available via her website: www.jennifersevern.com.au
It was shortlisted for the Finch Prize for Memoir in 2018.
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