Forced into an early retirement due to illness, Sam Rosen has lost any semblance of control over his life. His frustration flares into rudeness and obstinacy frequently and bizarrely. His wife Rhonda, confined to the carer role, is feeling her identity ebb slowly away as her former life retreats further and further into the past.
Their eldest son Mark is over-invested, over-reaching and overwrought. As he lurches towards financial disaster, he can't bring himself to tell his wife Ingrid that they're losing money fast, and that her dream of starting a family might be the collateral damage. Middle child Liza has always been independent and political, content to scrape through on her child-care worker's wage in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Then her biological clock goes off. She begins to plan a nursery at her elusive boyfriend's inner city apartment, but instead uncovers a seedy secret. Before she knows it, she's back at square one: single, underpaid, undervalued. And angry. Baby of the family Jemma thinks that being mild-mannered will let her pass through life unharmed. Then, after dropping into a party at her neighbour's place one night, she wakes up bruised, naked and with no memory of what's happened. Her careful, uncurious life as a celibate finance lawyer falls away.
Frenetically paced and with comedic Franzenesque prose, Hopscotch captures contemporary urban life, interrogating our endless capacity for self-destruction, longing and love, and asking why we think we could ever find peace in a city that's roaring with dysfunction.
Jane Messer lives in Sydney where she teaches creative writing at Macquarie University. Her books include Provenance, Night by Night and Bedlam - an Anthology of Sleepless Nights. She is a regular contributor to The Conversation, has been a Director of the Australian Society of Authors and a judge of the Australian Vogel Literary Award.
Author: Jane Messer
Question: What motivated the idea behind Hopscotch?
Jane Messer: Two things. I wanted to write a comedic book about serious matters. And, I wanted to write about life today in a big urban city, an international city but an Australian city and what it's like to be living here facing all the challenges we face if we're women in our 30s, 40s, 50s. Family, career hassles, sexuality, unrequited love, wanting children, the corrosive effects of debt.
I was noticing what was happening around me, in our cities, and to friends and work-mates. Quite a few of my friends were being gutted financially by the GFC. Internet dating and webcam sex was becoming normal. (In fact, I met my partner during this time on RSVP.) Others were trying to and not finding a man to have children with. Some of my younger friends were only five years into a career but already used to the culture of churn and retrenchment.
So my imaginary family of five adults – Sam and Rhonda the parents, and Mark, Liza and Jemma the 30-something kids, pull all those themes together in a high pressure six months of pre- and post-GFC.
Question: Can you talk about the research that went into the title?
Jane Messer: The title was, to be honest, a little last minute, though it suits the book to a tee. For most of the years of writing the novel, the title was 'The Happiness Project". Every time I saw those words on my computer screen, it was an affirmation about the book. But infuriatingly, a couple of self-help titles came out with that name.
So I did the usual thing of writing lists of possible titles, none of which I liked. Then I came up with Hopscotch. It's a game that I played when I was a kid growing up; didn't we all. And it's one where you can be quick or slow, but pretty well everyone misses a beat or a square or goes for a tumble, then has to pick them self up again. Like life really. (It's also the name of a Spanish novel in translation from fifty years ago, and the name of a film distribution company.)
Question: There are several issues raised in this book. Was this deliberate or did the story evolve this way?
Jane Messer: I like to start with some deliberation, some planning, and a strong sense of the mood and tone of the narrative. But, until I've been writing the characters for a while, I'm not exactly sure, or I change tack.
With Mark, I wanted to show what it's like working in a high-churn, low security industry where you're kind of captured by the lure of the money you can make but constantly insecure. I feel very strongly about the way we're working more and more, the way -flexibility' can mean you work 24/7 and don't have security. Mark is anxious all the time but like many men, has little insight into that. He was a lot of fun to write, and is the character who offers the most comedic opportunities. He is also the most intensively researched character. I spent time with men and women working in North Sydney IT companies to get a feel for the business.
I also began with definite ideas for Jemma, but there came a point where she was not working as a character. I'd been trying to show a woman who wants to stay under the radar, hoping that by being mild, nothing bad will happen in life. As it turned out, Jemma had to break out and find herself in a way I had not planned for whatsoever. I love her story now. It took me by surprise that she gets together with her neighbour Andie, yet makes perfect sense.
Liza must surely be the first character in a novel to work in a child care centre. She's my big political statement about women and work. She's very likeable, very flawed and I completely admire the way she gets herself out of bed every morning even when her life is so bad. I didn't set out to write about resilience, yet that theme is there, pulsing away in her.
Question: How much of your inspiration comes from real life and real people?
Jane Messer: My children criticise me for 'staring" at people. 'Mum, don't stare," they say when we're out for a meal. It's true that I'm curious and watchful. I'm listening and filing away the moods, expressions and stories that I see or hear, all the time. As a writer, I need to have a huge storehouse of gestures and reactions to draw upon for creating scenes and motivations and consequences for my characters.
But, I actively try not to use the lives of people I know in a direct way, and the occasions when I have, I do much to disguise the person. Or, I'll draw on something that has happened to a few people and mix it up into something new. Sadly, for instance, I know a few women who have had their drinks spiked. I drew on their stories and much research into the after-effects for Jemma's story.
I also invent. I truly believe in the power of the imagination to pull together known things into something new and wonderful. Most of my writing is pure invention set in real places. Everyone wants to know what's true in a novel, but so much is the mysterious work of the writer's imagination. Mark's Dee Why drug dealer with the converted Nintendo is pure invention. Liza's boyfriend's webcam sex CDs: there's invention and much online research in those details. Sam's San Francisco lover's corduroy bedspread from the 1960s, invention. And yet, so recognisably -true' to life.
Question: What's next, for you?
Jane Messer: I almost know, but not quite. I do love my Hopscotch characters and am thinking of a book set about five to ten years forward and mixing some of the Rosens in with one or two new characters. I know where Jemma is headed, and long to decide Liza's fate with Tomas. Maybe there'll be enough readers wanting to know more and this will spur me on. I have other projects I'm working on right now, including a book about mothering and work, and that will take me to Berlin for a few months later this year. I was in Berlin last year, doing the final work on Hopscotch and have very happy memories of writing in that city.
Interview by Brooke Hunter