By Ellie Fisher
Dr Daniel Juckes is a writer, and a Lecturer in Creative Writing at UWA. He is an Associate Editor at Westerly Magazine and holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Curtin University. Daniel’s creative and critical work has been published in journals such as Axon, Life Writing, M/C Journal, TEXT and Westerly. His research investigates seamlessness in prose style and the potential of objects in stories about the past.
Ellie Fisher: This is your first semester teaching at UWA, so for those who don’t know: who is Dr Daniel Juckes?
Dr Daniel Juckes: That’s always a tricky question, Ellie—especially when you ask it of a life writer. I’ve spent a good while trying to figure out an answer, and it’s safe to say that one always seems further away, no matter how many words I put down in pursuit of the problem! To offer a broad-brush response, though—and perhaps to get side-tracked by the ‘Dr’ part of your question—I’m a writer and academic with an interest in finding innovative ways to write the past and memory. I have a PhD from Curtin University, which was awarded in 2018; Curtin was where I did my teaching prior to starting at UWA. I work at Westerly Magazine, which runs out of the Westerly Centre here on campus, and I am—like most of the emerging writers I know—currently trying to persuade publishers to take a chance on my manuscript.
I was born in England and moved to Perth, with my family, when I was 15. We lived in the north of England, in a town called Todmorden (for those who might be wanting to Google). You can still hear the north in the way I speak, and much of my writing centres on the feeling of leaving there, coupled with the sense of arriving in this complex place we inhabit and call Australia. I like to read—though that may have been obvious—and hold Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald, Mervyn Peake, and Rebecca Solnit among my favourite writers. If you are ever in the Arts building (my office is G37—give me a knock!), you’ll probably hear some kind of tune wafting past the door and into the corridor. Current favourites are Phoebe Bridgers, Max Richter, and the 1975; all-timers include Bloc Party, the Middle East, and—of course—the Wicked OBC.
To the team at Westerly—and to lots of my friends and family—I’m just Dan. So, if you see me around on campus, that’s always a good place to start.
EF: What inspires your love of the transmission of the written word? Can you remember the first moment you realised that you wanted to pursue writing and English?
DJ: I can remember the first story I ever wrote, if that’s what you mean? It was about a beaver—not sure why—and typed painfully into an old PC running Windows 95, which sat on a desk in the ‘best’ room of the house I lived in for most of the time I lived in England. By ‘best’ I mean that room your parents don’t like you going in, except for when you have visitors over. That room with all the ornaments, and the couch in it which looks nice but is always uncomfortable.
To be a bit less glib, I think I am inspired by writers who can communicate the nuances of experience—by those who can tell their readers things they don’t know they know until they read them. I like the slowness of books, the peace they offer, and the very nature of contemplation inherent in holding one and looking at it for a long period of time. Books, for me, have always been a sanctuary, though that doesn’t mean I just read for comfort: those nuanced truths the best writers communicate mostly always pulse with the pressures of being here in the present.
As for that first moment: I think I’ve always known, really, that words are the thing, and that sentences are worth worrying about. It feels that way, anyway. But it took a whole other degree—History and Politics, at Notre Dame—and lots of prevarication, before I took the plunge to turn the things I’d been reading and the moments I’d been living into my own work.
EF: You’re Associate Editor at Westerly Magazine and are a lecturer in creative writing at UWA. What practical yet encouraging words of wisdom would you offer aspiring writers?
DJ: For me, the one way I’ve been able to get work done is to have a routine which revolves around writing regularly. This is easier said than done, of course, but if you can work out ways to trick yourself into sitting down and setting off into your own head, then you’ll find the hardest part of the job is done: there’ll be something on the page at the end of a day, or an hour, or a few minutes, which wasn’t there before. Sometimes—when I’m in the middle of a project—I get a bit pedantic and ‘spreadsheety’ and will track my progress. But most of the time it’s just a matter of setting aside some small time every day to at least consider myself a writer. This kind of repetition and contemplation will help immerse you in your work; consistency is key, too, because books are big things, which take a lot of time, and little-and-often seems a good way to get to the end of them.
I should say, too, that I’m also a big advocate for writers sharing their work. This is, without doubt, immeasurably scary. But without the support and encouragement of peers and friends, not to mention the eagle-eyed attention of readers I trust, I don’t think I’d have much to show for my random spots of scribbling. Even the act of sharing is important: you find new ways to look at your work when you realise someone else is about to.
So yes, two things, really: write often, and give the results to people to read. Make sure you listen to what they say about the work too, even if you don’t take their advice!
EF: Some of the themes examined in your research and creative non-fiction include the synergy between English and history, how cosmic and earthly place and space are bound up with memory and genius loci, and the exploration of writers and thinkers such as W.G. Sebald and Albert Einstein. What fascinates you about the transmission of these ideas and leitmotifs?
DJ: Well, you put that a lot better than I might have, Ellie! I’ll do my best to articulate something I find quite tricky to talk about: central creative urges are often in-built and beyond the intellect.
One answer might be that I just like to magpie around, and to think about what it feels like to be where I am. Another might be that it’s about trying to communicate all which is packed into the moments we live through: we tend to skirt the surface of experience—at least, I do. Days/weeks/entire lockdowns can go past and not register at all on the scales of my attention. But, in my writing, I can get a bit deeper, and acknowledge all the edges and curlicues of moments, all the bits and bobs of history which fall off and disappear, but which are still motors of the present. I guess I’m after what Rebecca Solnit calls, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, ‘grandmothers’. She says she’s interested in elusive truths—truths that ‘lie in hopes and needs’, which might be ‘hidden, lost, neglected.’ These truths are grandmothers because ‘purely patrilineal Old Testament genealogies leave out the mothers and even the fathers of the mothers’, and thus miss all the more tangled bits of the past. If I can write in a way which suggests grandmothers, or if I can put a world on the page which is thick with potential and which implies what our senses always miss, then I am getting closer to something like a genius loci, the numinous, or the cosmic. What I want, in short, is a fuller impression of all I take for granted because of the mechanisms of habit.
EF: You describe yourself as a bit of a technological Luddite. What is it about the tangibility of paper and ink that you love?
DJ: This is a tricky one to answer, too! Much of it is, I think, sensorial—though, I hope, in a way which doesn’t entirely contradict my response to the previous question. Because all that higher, deeper thinking I trumpeted a minute ago is filtered through fingers and eyes and nose and ears and mouth—though I wouldn’t recommend eating paper and ink. If you’re into books, though, you’ll know what I mean when I talk about paper stock, and font, and cover design. But, more importantly, you’ll know the intimacy required to form a true encounter with a book: you have to take it around with you, have to have it share time with you as you read it—maybe you even scribble in it or turn the pages. In this way, you and a book can accrete bits of each other: you can impact each other. I guess, for me, this kind of tangibility is about connection. A literal connection with reader and book, and, thus, between reader and writer (whose voice circles through your head). Of course, it’s slowness too, and we all need a bit of that—I can say so for sure because I am as tethered to my phone as the next person. An object—at least for me—is less slippery than a screen. It has a history which you can partake in, in the same way that you and your book can join together. Of course, I know this is true of the internet and the places you might go when wandering the backways of it. But the affect is different, and that’s where I come back to physical sensation: I tend to glaze over if I’ve been on YouTube for more than a little while, and there’s much more chance of being woken from that stupor if I’m looking hard, listening intently, making physical connections.
EF: Finally, obligatory booklover question: what books are on your bedside table? Any recommendations, old or new?
DJ: I’m currently reading Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and re-reading Anthony Powell’s (very old-fashioned) Dance to the Music of Time (I am up to volume 10—it’s a 12-volume novel). Carson is electric, and Powell is almost the opposite, so it’s a nice combination. Carson’s book is a contemporary retelling of the Greek myth of Geryon and Herakles. It’s a hybrid work, too: somewhere between novel and poem. Powell’s is a chronicle of the twentieth century, but one which only tends to focus on posh people. And I am hopelessly addicted, so please send help.
As for all-time favourites—and I’ve mentioned some of these names already—I’ll plump for The Waves, by Virginia Woolf; The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald; Middlemarch, by George Eliot; Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books; and Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. I do tend to fall for big books. Perhaps that’s because of what I tried to articulate earlier: that the journey of reading is, for me, a vital part of the process. However, it could just be the sunk cost fallacy hard at work.
Honourable Mentions to past/always favourites would go to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and the Harry Potter books. Contemporary writers I love are Max Porter, Ali Smith, and Sally Rooney, and the next cab off the rank—at this stage—will be either Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World or Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory. Hope you aren’t sorry you asked!