Julienne van Loon on Philosophy and Literature

Host Christopher Merrill talks with Australian writer Julienne van Loon about her forthcoming collection of essays titled, The Thinking Woman, due out in March 2019 by NewSouth Books. Focused on six living, contemporary women thinkers, writers, and philosophers, van Loon engages with their work and their ideas on work, wonder, play, and much more. Van Loon also discusses her novel-in-progress, Instructions for a Steep Decline, and about how research can be a playful creative practice.

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Julienne van Loon Interview Transcript


I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.

Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.

The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the Program celebrated its fiftieth-year anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at iwp50.grad.uiowa.edu. To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.

This episode of Origins features Australian writer Julienne van Loon.

Julienne VAN LOON (novelist, essayist; Australia) is a research fellow at non/fiction Lab of RMIT University in Melbourne. She won the Australian/Vogel’s Award and in 2005 was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize First Book Award for Road Story. Her work, including the recent novel Harmless, has strong creative and cultural connection to Asia, particularly China. Her forthcoming collection The Thinking Woman includes interviews with leading women from across the globe. Her participation is made possible by the Paul and Hualing Engle Fund. 

We are recording from the University of Iowa on Friday, October 27th, 2017. We had the chance to sit down with Julienne, who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.

MERRILL: Welcome, Julienne.

VAN LOON: Thanks, Chris.

MERRILL:  You are a researcher at non/fiction Lab at RMIT University of Melbourne where you research creative arts. In a sense, do you feel like this is a self-analysis of your own creative life? How does your academic research feed into your creative work; is it a fruitful tension between the two?

VAN LOON: Well it’s an interesting question. I don’t think of myself as researching my own work but rather to sort of reframe that, I think of the creative work that I do as a form of research. My research fellowship at RMIT has been wonderful in that it’s really a validation of the kind of work I do as a creative arts practitioner and a vote of confidence in the form, if you like of creative writing as a sort of method as well as a product for interrogating knowledge and for expressing, you know, problems in the same way that other forms of research we might think of as more traditional forms of research in the sciences and so on, are also creative investigations of one sort or another, forms of experimentation and so on.

So, I mainly see my main job as a research fellow in creative writing to simply get on with writing books. But there is another element to too, which is a more conventional research aspect I suppose, which is to do with looking at creative practice as research. So, I have a couple of projects where I look at that kind of thing.

MERRILL: Do you want to say a word about them?

VAN LOON: Well, yeah. One of the things that’s been up for discussion in Australian higher education for a while is this notion of creative practice as research and we’ve got good PhDs, and so on, in which creative practice is understood to be research and one of the projects I’m looking at the moment is kind of going back the other way. Instead of saying what we do in creative arts is a little bit different to what people do in other parts of the university, I’m interested in looking at the similarities, in fact. I have a project about play, and play scholarship, and the approach of playfulness to research as a practice. I’ve been doing interesting interviews with writers and artists and musicians, but also with mathematicians, with physicists, and so on about research as a playful kind of a practice.

MERRILL: A fluid practice.

VAN LOON: Yeah, that’s right.

MERRILL: Do you know that wonderful symposium that Brewster Ghiselin put together called The Creative Process in which he collected writings from artists and writers and mathematicians and composers and found at heart, there are commonalities that we have to prepare the ground for that work, we have to open ourselves up, we may need to rely on chance and trying to interrogate the ideas of inspiration and revision and how all these things feed new work.

VAN LOON: Yeah, that’s right. I find all that sort of thinking quite interesting, and I find it interesting about to think about the role of not knowing, you know, the role of uncertainty in all sorts of practices about new knowledge.

MERRILL: How critical it is to cling, as Wisława Szymborska said to our not knowing, what say poetry is. During the Fall Residency, you read from your forthcoming collection of essays called, The Thinking Woman, which includes interviews with leading women thinkers from across the globe. I wondered if you can tell us a little something about that and what are some of the things you have learned by interviewing people working at the top of their game?

VAN LOON: Right, it’s been quite an amazing process, actually, putting that manuscript together, partly because I think my practice as a fiction writer has been a fairly solitary practice over the years, and with this book I really wanted to go out and meet some interesting women thinkers in person and to speak to them about ideas. So off I went, sort of invited into the homes on the other side of the world of my key subjects. And I think that it won’t be the last book I write that involves this more collaborative process because I’ve enjoyed it so much.

MERRILL: So, who are some of the people that you interviewed?

VAN LOON: Well, it’s interesting. This book was a direct response to Alain de Botton’s book The Consolations of Philosophy, which is a really wonderful book and a good go at trying to make philosophical ideas that are usually just bandied about in the Academy relevant to everyday life. So, I wanted to look at a book that, instead of using the philosophy of dead white males, looks at living, contemporary women. But women in philosophy is a bit of an issue because there aren’t many and the kind of thinking that women do tends to be pushed aside, and there are quarrels about whether or not it qualifies as “capital P” Philosophy. And I found as I started to look for women philosophers that I too had to broaden my definition of what a philosopher might look like. And so, I called my subjects “women thinkers,” but they include novelists as well as traditional philosophers. So, people like Siri Hustvedt, for example, who writes fairly philosophical fiction, but is very well read in philosophy. I spoke to her about the concept of play and she brings a neuro-psycho-analysist approach to thinking on play. We talked a bit about the role of play in her fiction as well and philosophical ideas about play. I spoke to Marina Warner in the UK who’s probably best known as a mythologist. She’s an independent scholar, which I admire, and we talked about wonder, and she’s a fascinating thinker and a wonderfully welcoming personality as well. There are a couple of examples. Probably one of the less well-known American philosophers that I spoke to was Nancy Holmstrom, who was the chair of philosophy at Rutgers University, and she’s written some interesting philosophy about work. So, we had a chat about what work is and what it might become and she’s quite the Marxist. There’s quite a bit of Marx in the book because a lot of the women I speak to are fairly informed by Marx, but Nancy’s got some interesting thinking about sex workers as kind of a limit case as to what work is and what it might actually mean in terms of what labor buys.

MERRILL: You mentioned in an interview about your novel-in-progress Instructions for a Steep Decline, “I don’t know yet about the shape and pace and direction of the narrative to come.” So, I wonder, is that how your fiction often proceeds? Do you work somewhat blindly on your way forward, or do you have a form in mind when you sit down to write?

VAN LOON: It’s a little bit of both, I think. I tend to think of it as kind of writing in and through the darkness to find out what might happen and in practice, that’s probably what it looks like. If you took out one of my notebooks at the moment, it would look like a fairly messy kind of process, but at the same time, I do have a particular set of questions driving the work. One of the things I do while writing is I keep going back to my synopsis and rewriting it and so that’s one sort of planning mechanism.

MERRILL: And the synopsis is written before you take pen to paper?

VAN LOON: It often is, because I’m often applying for grants and so on to help me get the work done, and so I have to be able to pitch that work to others right from the beginning and I find that then becomes a useful tool for me to keep going back to think about, well what is it I’m actually trying to explore. And it’s not just a question about what happens or what the thematic content is about, but for me it’s a question of how I’m going to make this work meaningful, and so form is a big part of that.

I have a great love for the novella form; I wrote my PhD on the form of the novella, and I’m particularly interested in books that are somewhere between the thirty- to fifty-thousand-word length. So, I do think a lot about that whole question whether the novella is a genre and what you can achieve within it and what you cannot achieve, and questions about economy of form come up quite a bit. With this particular work I’m working on at the moment, I’m taking a sort of discontinuous approach to the narrative so that question of how is front and center for this particular work.

MERRILL: And presumably that synopsis changes as you go back to it and it develops.

VAN LOON: Absolutely, yeah, that’s right. And I usually have a paragraph in there which is to do with where the work fits in relation to other people’s work. And so, it’s a bit like this particular work or it’s a little bit like that, and it’s interesting to see how those influences change as the manuscript develops sometimes.

MERRILL: So as I understand it, the novel has intertextual links to a canonical Buddhist work on the lives on nuns living in fourth and fifth century China, and I’m guessing that in order to secure the residency that you had at Peking University that you had that much in mind when you decided to start writing. What made you think to set a novel in China? What was your inspiration for that?

VAN LOON: Well it’s a philosophical inspiration. I am a practicing Buddhist and my most recent novel Harmless was an intertextual engagement with the Jataka stories, which are ancient Buddhist texts. I’ve enjoyed the process very much and I’ve enjoyed the thinking that it forced me to do about Buddhist philosophy as well. And I also really wanted to bring those stories to a new audience, you know? And so, I began with the same kind of idea with this book, the Lives of the Nuns, is a sort of a set of biographies of nuns who lived in China in the 4th and 5th century, but they’re odd biographies. I mean, some of them are a paragraph long, and in many of them magical things happen, so they’re not sort of biographies in that sort of realist sense that we associate biography with now.

MERRILL: Exemplary texts.

VAN LOON: Yeah, that’s right. And there are some questions about whether these women really lived, as well and so in a sense that the text that I’m using is illustrative and an educational piece of work as well. So, to the question of how literal the representation of those nuns is in the fiction I’m writing is still something I’m trying to figure out. I certainly have written, well rewritten and reinterpreted, so far about four particular lives and placed them in the body of the new work, but sometimes I give those life experiences to one of my contemporary characters and at other times, the journey back to 4th century China is much more literal and so I do have a couple of scenes where we are back in the 5th century. But it’s a philosophical adventure rather than an exercise in authentic historical fiction, I guess you would say.

MERRILL: But there must be, speaking of research, a certain amount of digging you had to do in order to make those lives fantastic, as they may have been or not, come to life on the page.

VAN LOON: Yeah, that’s right, and during my residency in Beijing, I had a wonderful opportunity to go further up the Silk Road and actually have a look at a couple of ancient Buddhist sites where they date back to around that period and to look at some of the caves and cliff faces and so on that were early indicators of Buddhism on its way from India through to China and beyond.

MERILL: Was this in Dunhuang?

VAN LOON: Yes, yes, that’s the place, a really magical place. It really sparked my interest to go back to the Silk Road and spend more time, it was fantastic.

MERRILL: Yeah, and engage with all those paintings.

VAN LOON: Exactly, that’s right, yeah. So again, I’m not quite sure how that experience will be represented in the book in the end and how literal it will be, but it’s certainly something that’s kept me thinking.

MERRILL: And yet you identify yourself as an Australian writer, but it seems as if the whole world is available to you for a text.

VAN LOON: Yeah, I think that it’s interesting I started very close to home with my first book; I set it in the area in which I grew up, in Western New South Wales and I was interested in the language that had formed me and the culture that I had kind of emerged from and the questions I had about that I sort of invested in that book. But I suppose the interest I have in philosophy, both in Buddhist philosophy and other forms of philosophy, has really taken me well beyond Australia’s borders now. And Instructions for a Steep Decline, the book I’m working on here, is an engagement in many ways with the notion of the kind of boom-time economy. And so to be immersed in a place like Beijing, for example, and to think about questions of development and rapidity of change and those kinds of things in a global context has been enormously helpful to me with the imaginative kind of work going on with that book. So, I hope that this will mean that my work will be published more widely; it’s actually quite difficult for Australian authors to be published overseas. We’re a very small country with a very small population and our publishing industry doesn’t have a great deal of heft, you know, compared to the UK and the US on the global scene.

MERRILL: In geo-political terms, Australia plays a key role these days in that changing environment when we think about the American withdrawal from the Pacific, and Australia’s reorientation in certain respects towards China, and you as a writer are navigating those different kinds of issues, right?

VAN LOON: Right, and I have had two residencies in China now, and I’d love to go back for a third. It’s interesting because that first residency in Beijing at Peking University really changed me and partly because it was a really difficult time. It was one of the most difficult residencies I’ve been on, and it was partly because of the terrible pollution going on in Beijing at that time. I mean, even just across the street, some days you couldn’t really go outside. And I had my son—

who was then six at that time—with me and we’d get warnings to say that small children and the elderly shouldn’t be stepping outside of the building today. But I kept looking out of my window, you know, from my thirty-sixth floor on those days and thinking, “This is Australian pollution, actually; these are our minerals coming to Australia.” You know, the manufacturing that is going on here will be brought back by us and yet what’s left behind is this air and the Chinese people are breathing it in. And that really affected my thinking about globalization and the mess we’re in environmentally as a global people quite profoundly.

MERRILL: And if Americans assume it has nothing to do with us, in fact, the particles of dust and pollution make their way to California and Oregon and Washington; no one is exempt.

Well, before we wrap up our conversation, I wonder if you could tell us about what else you are working on now, and also what have you been reading while you’ve been here?

VAN LOON: Okay. Well, I’m really now fairly preoccupied with the novel Instructions for a Steep Decline, so that’s my main focus; I haven’t really got any side projects going on. In terms of reading, I am enjoying a book called Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant and it’s, you know, I’ve read a few excerpts of it before, but my experience here in the States and particularly during the time of Trump has really got me thinking about some aspects of American everyday life that I hadn’t thought of before so I’m enjoying that book.

MERRILL: Such as?

VAN LOON: Well, I mean, the strange optimism in ordinary everyday conversations. And this ranges from the people that you buy your coffee from in the morning to the kind of conversations you hear between neighbors on the street, and it’s a very different mode of operation to the way we behave in Australia, which is a much more withdrawn, probably more English in some ways—Australians would hate to hear me say that. We’re much more reserved and probably pessimistic actually as a nation. So, it’s quite a contrast, so Lauren Berlant’s book is helping me think through some of those aspects of nationalism, both looking in as the outsider to the US and also reflecting internally on the Australian way of being with one another. So that’s interesting food for thought.

And the other book I just started reading is a lovely little book called The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, which is kind of a, I’ve only just started it, but it’s a conversation between an eight-year-old and a grandparent. I miss my son, I suppose, is what made me pick this book off the bookshelf in Prairie Lights but it’s a wonderful, refreshing example of the kinds of conversations that young children can inspire, questions about life and death that we ought to have more often, you know?

MERRILL: You mentioned the difficulty of Australian writers finding publishers inside the States; are there Australian writers that our listeners should know about, besides you?

VAN LOON: Oh yes, of course, yes! I’d like to encourage more American readers to read the work of Kim Scott, who’s one of our most wonderful working novelists at the moment in Australia. His latest book is called Taboo that was just released this year. He’s won the Miles Franklin Award, which is our big national awards a couple of times. He’s an indigenous writer but also a very wise person and quite an experimenter, and so his fiction can be challenging, but it’s hugely rewarding. The other person I’d recommend is Charlotte Wood, who’s just written a sort of dystopian, futuristic, feminist novel called The Natural Way of Things, and her whole backlist is worth looking into, but if you start with The Natural Way of Things, it’s very rewarding.

MERRILL: And we will encourage listeners to also pick up Harmless, and when it comes out, The Thinking Woman, and all the rest of what you write. Thank you so much for making time for us.

VAN LOON: Thanks very much, Chris.

The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.

Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to next podcast available January 15, 2019 on ApplePodcasts and SoundClound. Thank you for listening.

Additional Information

Julienne van Loon
December 15, 2018

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