About the author:
Jay Martin grew up in Melbourne and lived in the UK, Vietnam, India, Japan and Perth before moving to Canberra, where she worked as a social policy advisor and inadvertently married a diplomat. While in Poland, Jay worked as a freelance writer for Australian and European publications, volunteered at the Warsaw Uprising Museum and baked one decent chocolate cake. She came to understand snow and vodka, but never, really, pickled herring. Jay lives in Alberta, Canada, with her husband.
Your story is a fascinating mix of politics and travel, did you know at the time you wanted to write about what was happening?
I’ve always liked to write about things I’ve experienced, and from early on in Poland I was writing Facebook notes and such just for friends, and later on writing regular columns for (Australian news portal) Crikey and also local Polish magazines about my life in Poland. I don’t know if I thought about writing a whole book at the time, although a lot of the events and characters I came across in the diplomatic world did seem to be straight out of a novel! But it was really the experience my husband and I went through that I wanted to share. When it was happening I was too focused on getting through it to think about – or be able to – write about it. Afterwards, though, I realised that it was that experience that I really wanted to tell people about, in case there were other people going through something similar – a difficult time in a marriage, struggling with their place in the world – who it might help. That was really what drove me to start – and kept me going all the way through.
What did you do to prepare for writing this book?
I kept diaries and other notes all through our time in Poland – luckily – so when I came to sit down and think about writing a book about it, one of the first things I did was read through all of these documents. It was amazing how much I’d forgotten – and how much some of the characters who ended up in the book seemed to just jump out from the pages, already written.
What was it like to win The City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award?
The night I won the Hungerford, it was a real validation of all of the effort I’d put into writing this book – mostly in three years of morning and afternoon bus commutes between Freo and the CBD, which is the main free time I had. I don’t think I really appreciated what the award meant until I started to find how much support and help I was getting from Fremantle Press in the publishing process. As a first time author I hadn’t appreciated how much work would be needed to get it from “almost done” to “done” – honestly, it was as much work as it had taken to write it. It made for an intense few months! I think the next part will be the additional coverage the book will garner because of its association with the award, which – again as a first time author – is simply invaluable. I feel so grateful that we have awards like this to help people get their foot in what is a very crowded door, and so honoured to now be associated with it – and for it to be such a Fremantle-based award, where I’ve chosen to make my home since Poland, well that’s just the icing on the cake.
Is there anything you miss about Poland?
Warsaw is an incredibly liveable city. It is really compact and walkable, and it has great public open spaces that are used by people young and old snow, sleet or shine, a funky pop up bar and cafe scene – it’s just a place that there is always something new and interesting going on. Fruit and vegetables are much more seasonal there, too, and you feel really connected to the seasons because of it. When the white asparagus arrives, it appears in carts on the street, and all of a sudden for two weeks every menu has white asparagus on it, while at other times everyone’s talking about how sweet the strawberries are this year, or whether the chanterelle mushroom season will last much longer. Honestly, I miss a lot of things like this about living there every day – not to mention every other city in Europe being an hour’s flight away. But I’ve been back since – and it makes me realise that it was the people I knew there who made Warsaw what it was for me – and they’re mostly not there anymore. So the Warsaw I lived in, really, doesn’t exist any more – except in the book, that is!
In your book you vow ‘to always appreciate the good weather’ when you get home- do you still appreciate it?
My appreciation of the good weather in Perth lasted about a week after I got back, you’ll be glad to know. I complain as much as anyone now when it drops below 21. I know it’s ridiculous. But I still do it.
Language and communication is a big part of your book: what’s the most interesting situation you got into because of the language difference?
By about a year in, my Polish was good enough to have conversations and talk to people about their lives and have chats. It meant I got to talk to people I never would have – like locomotive drivers on the last scheduled steam train service anywhere in the world, who I interviewed for an article once. I loved having those conversations and seeing a side of Poland I never would have seen without the language.
But there were some funny situations, too – like the time my Polish teacher asked me what parts of the body I knew. I’d been doing yoga so I felt quite confident with this, and stood up and started listing: shoulders, arms, stomach, hips, but then I got to my bum and – unbeknown to me – the word I’d heard and repeated was extremely rude. She went red, told me “diplomatic wives did not use such words,” and ended the lesson.
Things like this are funny stories now, but at the time I actually remember feeling really frustrated because all of these experiences make you feel quite stupid and powerless and helpless, which builds up over time and is what can make life as a foreigner really hard sometimes.
You talk about some very raw and personal times: what was it like writing about those things?
It was actually quite harrowing writing about some of the really difficult times I had in Poland. I probably read the book something like 40 times in the course of the editing process. There’s one part that I’ve never read again, though. Even just skimming through it brings back the feelings of helplessness and despair I felt at that time. It’s still very painful.
Your book looks at the harsh realities of expat life- do your friends here understand that or do they just think you were lucky?
I don’t think anyone who has never been in that expat bubble can really understand what it is that can make it difficult. I would say most people just consider that I was lucky to have had the opportunity, and don’t see the downsides. And I can understand that point of view. Even immersed in it myself – drowning in it, some days – I still found it hard to have empathy with others in similar situations – which is something I write about. It was one of the things I grappled with most about writing the story – could I make people feel empathy for someone who is, on many levels, so fortunate? Because I knew that if I couldn’t, I wouldn’t have a book. I guess when I start reading the reviews I’ll find out if I succeeded.
Tell us about your connection to Fremantle.
I’ve lived in a lot of different countries and cities, but Fremantle is the first place I’ve been a connection to a place, a city. We bought a place here, sight unseen from Poland, because it was next door to where my husband grew up. A couple of years later I saw it for the first time, and fell in love. With the house, and with Fremantle. I plan to come and go over the years, but I know I’ll always come back here now. I have found my physical place in the world.
You’ve just been sent by your office to Canada. What are you first impressions so far?
The day I arrived in Canada it was snowing, and the wind was so cold that I thought my face would fall off. I confess I had a moment of thinking, “What have I done?” But if there is anything I learned from Poland, it’s that life – wherever it takes you – is all about the people you meet, which is all about how much effort you put in. And from what I’ve seen so far, Canadians are as easy as it gets to make friends with. They even call out “thank you!” to bus drivers when they get off. I thought it was just people from Perth who did that! Maybe we are kindred spirits.
What’s your day job?
My whole career has been in social services – designing and evaluating programs that improve the lives of vulnerable people in our community, like employment services for migrants, housing for young people, facilities to meet community needs. Now I do that on a consultant basis – I work with government and non-government agencies who want specific help to improve the way they plan, design, run or evaluate services. But I loved the creative work I did in Poland.
One thing I’d really like to explore is what the arts and culture in general, and writing in particular, can bring to the kind of work I do work – can creative story telling bring people together? Can it help us design better services and meet community needs? Now I’ve finished the book it’s something I’m hoping to spend more time considering, and – hopefully – being a published author will give me more credibility to pursue something if I come up with a good plan!