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A wrong turn at the office of unmade lists by Jane Rawson: 9 Feb, 2017

It's 1997 in San Francisco. Simon and Sarah are on a quest to stand in every 25-foot square of the United States at least once. Decades later, in Australian, Caddy is camped by the Maribyrnong River. She’s sick of being broke and alone. Caddy’s future changes when her friend, Ray, finds some well-worn maps—including one of San Francisco. Their lives connect with those of Simon and Sarah in ways that are both unexpected and profound.

A wrong turn at the office of unmade lists was the winner of the Most Underrated Book of 2014.

Jane Rawson will join us for a Q&A on Thursday, 9 February between 8 and 9pm. Please leave any questions you have below. (And discuss the book at your leisure!)

Want to buy A wrong turn at the office of unmade lists? Receive 10% off when purchasing it from Readings at State Library Victoria. To receive the discount online, enter the promo code BOOKCLUB in the promo code box during online checkout. To receive the discount at our State Library bookshop, simply mention the Thursday night book club at the counter.

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The section of the book that mentioned the Green Tortoise was a blast from the past for me. I travelled on it around 1981 from San Francisco to Seattle and was wondering whether Jane had also been on it?+

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Hi Melinda, thanks for the question. I have been on Green Tortoise - in 2000 I took the overnight bus from San Francisco (where I was living) to LA to meet my brother who was working as an assistant at a gibbon research facility in Santa Clarita. I loved being able to make my own cosy little floor nook to sleep in. And it was great seeing the young folk meet, fall in love and break up all in the space of a 10 hour trip: backpacking is so emotional. I'm glad you asked this, because I went online to check if they still exist and was shocked/delighted to discover they do.

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Public servants, bankers and bureaucrats often make the best writers (Kafka, Borges, Faulkner, Melville, Eliot). How does Jane's writing life at work relate to her creative writing life at home.

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Hello Louise! How lovely to see you here. For my whole creative writing life I’ve also had a full-time non-creative writing job. Sometimes I think it would be great to be a full-time author, but I’m pretty sure having a paid job keeps my mind in balance. Being an author is such an emotionally febrile thing – the constant longing for approval, the constant flailing about between over-confidence and utter despair about your writing. Having a job where my success is measured in whether I show up or not is a nice balance. Plus, I get paid. That means I’m free to write whatever I want without having to think about whether it will sell (and generally the things I write are not very commercial). Being a professional writer has taught me some skills that are very useful for creative writing – meet the deadline, keep it clear and succinct, remember your audience, don’t stress too much about the first draft (just get the words on the page). These have all helped me get novel writing done even though I have to spend most of my time not writing novels. They’ve also affected my style; whether beneficially or not I couldn’t say. My books are kind of short. As you’ve noted, a fair bit of my work has been in bureaucracies, and that’s also provided content for my fiction: ‘Formaldehyde’, ‘A wrong turn…’ and my short story, ‘In registry’ (published in Sleeper s Almanac) all strongly feature the minutiae of bureaucracy. I find process – particularly the process of getting something approved by people who don't want to be blamed for anything – quite inspiring.

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Ooh, please can I post a question even though I'm a bit late?! I read this quote from Jane on SLV's #booksonthursday twitter feed and I'm dying to know the answer (assuming the questions weren't rhetorical): “What happens to the ideas you have but never do anything with? What happens to all your misplaced dreams?” Please tell!

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I'm sneakily here to answer this, and the answer is: you'll have to read the book! This is what 'A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists' is all about.

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These questions came from Eva Lomski on Twitter:

"yr process for this novel vs process for yr short stories? Why write both?"


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Hi Eva, hmmm, good question. I started writing ‘A wrong turn…’ in 2007 so I reckon my recollections of my process are not entirely solid, but I can talk more generally about writing novels and short stories, both of which I’m still doing. Really, my process for both is kind of the same. I usually leap in with a vague idea of what this thing will be about, start writing, and see what happens. When I run out of ideas, I stop and reflect for a bit. Then I keep writing. At the end, I rewrite until it’s either good enough, or I decide it will never be good enough and throw it out. This is a bit simplistic of course, but in general terms it’s true – I don’t know much about what I’m going to write when I start writing, whether it’s a novel or a short story, and I write to find out more about what it is I’m writing.
I think I write both because some ideas are short and some ideas take a few more words to flesh out. My short stories tend to be pretty short – 800 words feels like my natural length – and the kind of idea you can write about in 800 words is pretty different to the kind that takes 50,000 words or more. For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to get started on a novel about an alternate Australia where Anzac Day is the national religion, but a few months ago I tried writing it as a story instead and it turned out I could do the whole thing better in 800 words than I could in 60,000. That’s the other good thing about short stories – they’re much quicker to write (for me, anyway. Those people who write brilliant, complex, nuanced short stories probably take absolute ages over them).
And probably the other reason I write short stories is sometimes I just feel desperate for attention. You can write a short story and send it out to people and have them tell you what they think of it, sometimes in the course of a day. Even if you send it to publishers, it might only take them three months to let you know what they think of it. With novels, there are long breaks between being praised (though also long breaks between being ignored/derided, so maybe novels are better...)

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Hi Jane! You've written and published three books in three years, how did you do it??

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I cheated! I wrote the first draft of 'A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists' in 2007 and 2008, and I wrote the first draft of 'Formaldehyde' in 2000. 'The Handbook' was written from scratch, but I had a co-author, so I only had to write half a book. And I started writing 'From the wreck' in 2009. In reality, I've written three and a half books (or three, if a novella only counts as half a book) in 17 years. By the time 'A wrong turn...' was published in 2013, I already had a nice backlog of partly or nearly finished manuscripts that I could polish up and submit to publishers over the next four years. Now I'm out of manuscripts and I have to start my next book from the very beginning, so it might be a while between books...
I guess the moral is that maybe it's not so bad if it takes a while for your first book to get published, as long as you keep writing while you're waiting through that interminable process of submitting and being rejected over and over and over.

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Hey Jane,

Given the exponential change in both climate change and San Francisco's culture in the 10 years since publication, is there anything about your book that you would change?

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Hi Matthew - that's a really interesting question. I definitely wouldn't change anything about the San Francisco sections - they're set in what Caddy imagines San Francisco would have been like in 1997, and that hasn't changed. But would I do the climate change scenarios differently? I don't think so. I definitely didn't want to write something completely apocalyptic, though that is maybe what we'll be facing by 2030. I wanted to write a slow disaster, something that was affecting some parts of society horribly and others barely at all. Perhaps I'd bring the timeline back to 2020? But that would require some horrific juggling of all the other dates and it might not be worth it! At any rate, it's not really supposed to be accurate - for something approaching accuracy, I wrote 'The Handbook: surviving and living with climate change' (though that's probably out of date by now too) - Caddy's Melbourne is just one version of what Melbourne 2030 might be like in one universe.
I did fix one thing though: just as the book was about to go to print I noticed that Simon and Sarah's dad, in about 1989, was ordering maps of the US off the internet. Even in my messed up view of the universe I couldn't let that happen.

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Hi Jane! How do you resist wanting to give up on a novel draft?

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Hi Katheryn, I do have at least one novel draft I've given up on. It's 50,000 words long and I'm pretty sure it can't be salvaged. There are some great scenes in it but it just doesn't make sense and I don't think it ever will. I'm hoping I can pull a short story or two out of it, maybe. But it may be that there's nothing can be saved. I gave up on 'From the Wreck' at least twice - it was fine, with some good scenes and characters, but just a bit boring and I couldn't be bothered writing it yet again to try to make it interesting. But it wouldn't leave me alone, I kept thinking about it. I even got a tattoo of it in the hope that that would be enough, that I wouldn't have to write the story again. But I was stuck with it. And eventually I found the right way to write it; or at least, the rightest way I could write it (I'm sure someone else could write it another equally good or better way). And I gave up on Formaldehyde too - after I wrote it in 2000 I tried to get it published for about seven years, but no one wanted it. Then I wrote 'A wrong turn...' instead. But once that got published I thought I'd have another go at rewriting Formaldehyde. A good friend and very good editor suggested it might make a novella, and that I should enter it in Viva la Novella, and she was right.

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