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If At First You Don’t Succeed: Words by Jenny Ackland

April 17, 2018

As a child, trapped in the savage act of growing up, Olive had sensed she was at the middle of something, so close to the nucleus she could almost touch it with her tongue. But like looking at her own nose for too long, everything became blurry and she had to pull away. She’d reached for happiness as a child not yet knowing that the memories she was concocting would become deceptive. That memories get you where they want you not the other way around.

Read our full review of Little Gods.

Words || Jenny Ackland

Writing this novel took many years.

First it was one thing and then it was another, and then another thing again. It was sent out all over the place, and at times I felt like I was going in circles. Then, when it didn’t get picked up by a publisher I went back to the beginning.

I excised at least half of it, and rewrote. I remember my agent saying I must have ice water flowing through my veins and I think I do when it comes to my work. What I removed were sections where Olive was a teenager and a woman. I’d had her as her grown-up self with an unexpected pregnancy and all sorts of emotional stuff occurring. But the ‘lovely rejection’ feedback I’d received was that the magic of the story was lost, or muted, once we left the farm and Olive’s childhood.

None of the characters were deleted or added to in that reworking but I spent time developing all of the adults a bit more, sometimes in small but significant ways.

I made them all more sympathetic characters, especially Thistle. I also worked hard to build Olive’s childhood world more, and give her all the experiences I could. I thought about silos and railway yards. I’d had the trees there from the beginning but decided to add to them. Where could she go that was high and dangerous? Low, and dangerous? And so came the tunnel and the bunker. I let my imagination wander and re-built the story, but this time with a girl who was even tougher than before, one who was not going to be bossed around by anyone. I wanted her to be a risk-taker and super bolshie.

While the book has many recognisable elements of Australian fiction – a rural setting, animals, domestic themes and nostalgia – I wanted to avoid the very dark themes that seem so common in contemporary fiction.

I didn’t want to write about domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse and so on.

I wanted my ‘baddies’ to be fairly ordinary, recognisable – we all have similar villains in our childhoods I think. I didn’t want to have absent parents, or a dead mother, or a nasty or abusive father. I didn’t want to write a child who’d suffered a lot of pain, who was tormented, or super vulnerable. I wanted Olive to be extraordinary not because of what she had experienced but because of who she is.

About the author

Jenny Ackland is a writer and teacher from Melbourne. She has worked in offices, sold textbooks in a university bookshop, taught English overseas and worked as a proofreader and freelance editor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and listed in prizes and awards. Her debut novel The Secret Son – a ‘Ned Kelly-Gallipoli mash-up’ about truth and history – was published in 2015. Little Gods is her second novel.

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