On my bedside table:
Leap by Myfanwy Jones.
Joe lives – despite himself. Driven by the need to be alone for the neglect of a single tragic summer’s night, he works at nothing jobs and, in his spare time, trains his body and mind to conquer the hostile environment that took his love and smashed up his future. So when a breathless girl turns up on his doorstep, why does he let her in? Isn’t he done with love and hope?
On the other side of the city, graphic designer Elise is watching her marriage bleed out. She retreats to the only place that holds any meaning for her – the tiger enclosure at the zoo – where, for reasons she barely understands, she starts to sketch the beautiful killers.
LEAP is a beautiful urban fairytale about human and animal nature, and the transformative power of grief. While at its heart is a searing absence, this haunting and addictive novel is propelled by an exhilarating life force, and the eternally hopeful promise of redemptive love.
The first line:
She comes when the others are out, announced by Sanjay’s Bollywood door chime; tinny and overwrought, its siren song ricochets along the ceiling and through his muscles as Joe takes the five long strides of the corridor.
The lucky 13 interview:
1. Myf, let’s start by talking a little bit about your novel-writing process. Leap is your second novel, following The Rainy Season. What was your experience of ‘Second-Novel Syndrome’?
I’m not sure I had ‘Second Novel Syndrome’… I think my first novel was rapidly followed by ‘First Memoir Syndrome’. After The Rainy Season was published, I co-wrote Parlour Games for Modern Families with Spiri Tsintziras. That book did well, won an award, and was published in several countries. It was lots of fun and easy to put together. But after that, the words dried up. For three years I couldn’t put down more than a sentence without wanting to cower under the table in shame. But it wasn’t a second novel I was grappling with. On turning 40 I’d experienced a fresh flood of grief over ten friends who had died young and I was attempting to put something down about wayward youth, about sex and death and love, but it was too hard. The only way to get over this syndrome was to start a second novel. Leap, when it came, was fast and effortless. Perhaps I’ll have ‘Third-Novel Syndrome’.
2. I’d argue that Joe is the main character of this deeply affecting and beautiful novel. He is natural and effortless and so real. Reading him, I found myself on the cusp of my twenties pining for his broodiness and brokenness. Sanjay also has to be mentioned; he made me laugh out loud. Did writing a young male protagonist and male characters feel as natural to you as they are to read?
Weirdly, yes. I’d always assumed I wouldn’t be able to write close male characters; that I couldn’t gain insight without a bone-saw and scalpel. Then Joe arrived and to be honest there was no point at which I wondered what he would do. He was just there. I was half in love with him and half possessed by him. It made me think that perhaps we are less gendered than we think. Scratch a little and I think I am a 22-year-old guy. The fact that I live in a house full of boys no doubt adds to this sensation. You know, one has to fit in.
3. Melbourne is drawn so vividly in the book. As I’ve mentioned to you, I had little moments of insider glee recognising bars and streets I love to haunt when I’m in Melbs. How did you go about conjuring the place you live and love in this novel – for example, did you need to take distance from the real setting, or did writing while and as you were there serve you better?
I wrote most of the first draft in a cell at the Old Melbourne Gaol but the second was written out of an old storeroom at the back of a community hall on High Street – in the heart of Joe’s world. I often went to hang out under the bridge. Sometimes I would take an apple and catch a tram to Joe’s Laundromat and his 7-11 and just dawdle in a daze, looking on, sure the boys were inside playing blow soccer. I guess I used these tangible places like a set for the movie that was going on in my head. That was very helpful.
4. The solace Elise takes from tigers in the face of unfathomable grief is a gorgeous thread throughout Leap. What are some of the references or inspirations you sought out while weaving them through the story? Are they a new interest to you? Did you draw on a piece of art, a song, or a fairytale about tigers to feed your inspiration?
I’ve always been taken with tigers; sometimes I dream of actually being taken by one. Until Leap I’d never interrogated my thing for tigers but when I found Elise doing these weekly visits I started doing them too, to try to understand what she was getting out of it. So being with the young tigers at Melbourne Zoo – Indrah, Aceh and Hutan – was the main inspiration for this thread. I also surrounded myself with books about tigers and revisited old docos. In my writing room I had a postcard above my desk of a painting by an artist in my choir – Michael Camilleri – depicting a tiger whose head is swathed in plum fabric, biting down upon human flesh. There is something in this image – the overlapping of tiger and human worlds, the sensuality and danger – that still intrigues me.
5. In the novel, parkour, the art of freerunning, is Joe’s escape, release and meditation. Please tell me something I don’t know about you is that you’re a parkour runner, scaling bidges and buildings in the early hours of Melbourne life?! What did your research into this intensely physical art form involve?
If only! In truth I am too clumsy. I would get up there and fall. I watched lots of Youtube, read books and articles, and was assisted by a local stuntman and traceur Harley Durst who let me ply him with questions about the parkour way of seeing and doing. He also came to Joe’s bridge and helped me work out a sequence of moves. I did a lot of parkour in my head.
6. The broadest question: what was the hardest part of writing this book?
Finishing. In ways I feel this novel gave me more than I gave it. I really miss Leap.
7. More generally now, what do you think most characterises your writing?
Oh, that’s hard. People often call it spare. I know I compulsively trim till I’m down to bare bones. Which is not to say I don’t enjoy lush writing – it’s just the way my own writing goes. I am obviously interested in character though I care about structure too. And my characters tend to be flawed little beings so naturally I am concerned with their struggles and particularly the complex intersections between how they relate to themselves, to others and to their environments. I seem to have an abiding faith in the narrative power of love – whatever that quite means; all sorts, not just romantic.
8. What do you like to read now in your free time?
I am slowly catching up on the dated, fizzy joy of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. I read H is for Hawk and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves this year and loved them both. The Paris Review. The Guardian Weekly. Poetry. Fairy tales.
9. Where do you best like to write?
In my dusty, chill room behind the church on High Street where there is no WIFI. I feel cut off from the world there but have only to step outside to get a fix of people and coffee. Or at home in bed with a laptop. Some scenes definitely have to be written from under a doona.
10. Do you have any writerly superstitions or practices? Light a candle before you work, throw salt over your left shoulder, lucky underpants?
Do you have lucky undies too, Holly? I have two pairs. I’m very ritualistic for a person of no faith. Or do those things go together? Life is chaos so I introduce patterns where I can. As well as the underwear, a black glittery keep-cup, a heart-shaped stone for mindlessly rubbing. And I always surround myself with little lucky objects and images that speak to whatever it is I am writing.
11. If you could immerse yourself for a day in the world of any book that you’ve read, which would it be?
It’s a toss-up between a day on the brothers’ farm in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, or a day at the Little House on the Prairie, helping butcher the pig and churn butter and then listening to Pa’s fiddle and the wolves howl while I get tucked up in my trundle bed with my one and only doll which is actually a corn cob with a face.
12. One of the countless things I dearly loved about Leap was its subtle, understated twist that only hit me a couple of days after I had finished reading it. It was one of those experiences every reader lives for; when a book has become so real that it affects you as if you are yourself a key player in the story. I was in the supermarket when it all came together and dawned on me. I wanted to grab the person next to me in the fruit and veg aisle and bellow at them – but of course, this is the pleasure and pain of the relationship between a book and its reader. I’ve wondered if the subtlety of this reveal felt risky to you; I imagine if I were writing it I might have grappled with the temptation to make this powerful revelation more explicit. Was that your experience?
As a reader I like endings that are open and ambiguous. I know there’s a balance to be had and I probably err towards understatement. But the interesting thing with Leap is that while readers understand the ending in different ways, it doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference to where they have arrived. I’m being enigmatic but I’ve talked about this with lots of people and some worked out the twisty bit two chapters in, others in those final pages, some not at all, but the essence of the journey and resolution seemed more or less intact however they’d read it. So I sort of like that, that people are experiencing it differently.
13. What have you been daydreaming about lately?
I am about to go to the US for the first time. We are driving up Highway 1 from LA to San Francisco and stopping over in Monterey to go whale-watching. I am wondering if I might see an orca. A sun fish. A blue whale. Too exciting!
Full disclosure: I was thunderstruck by Myf Jones the moment we met on a balmy summer’s day in Melbourne a couple of years ago. We were introduced by a mutual friend, and sat in Myf’s garden chatting together with tea. The more we talked the more I was quite convinced we might never stop, and that was perfectly alright with me. The first time I heard about LEAP was during those early conversations Myf and I shared. I couldn’t wait to read it, and once I had a copy in my hands I couldn’t put it down.
LEAP is a moving, punchy, beautifully universal novel and a powerful addition to Australian literature. Joe is a modern-day Ponyboy. My love for him was swift and wholehearted. The story moves at a compelling pace, and the characters are fully drawn in living colour. So much so that the twist in the novel did not hit me until two days after I finished it. Sanjay in particular was an absolute delight, I loved every scene in which he found his way onto the page. Reading this book reminded me of the sheer volume of stories we all carry around inside of us every single day, and how fundamental human connection is to our well-being. LEAP illuminates the savage and wild emotions that roam inside of us all, and the lengths we go to to bury or express them. Most of all, for me, it is a prayer for vulnerability, grief, and ultimately, hope.
Readers who, like me, loved Ponyboy so much he is unquestionably real, and who yearn for that ‘stay golden’ feeling to flood their chest again.
To remember how vital self-forgiveness is to our freedom. To believe in hope, our capacity to survive grief, and in its wake make something more of our lives. To fall in love with Melbourne through the storytelling of one of the city’s best novelists.
For your headphones:
A playlist straight from the heart of the 2015 Melbourne International Jazz Festival, which, I tell you, I wouldn’t mind playing while I cracked open a bottle of red to share with Joe.