Jan’s top tip for aspiring authors: I really believe in the power of story. If you don’t have a good yarn, even the prettiest of prose has nothing to say. And if you don’t have a good story, then turn away from your keyboard and head for the door. Don’t bring anything with you other than what you’ve already got. And go forth to elsewhere and come back with a story. When I left Australia, I had very little to offer life. I chose the Sahara and returned with Magic.
Jan Golembiewski grew up in suburban Canberra and in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. He has a PhD in psychological aspects of architecture, and he runs his own architectural practice specialising in psychological aspects of design. Jan lives in Sydney with his wife, the novelist Bem Le Hunte and their children (Taliesin,
Rishi and Kashi) and a revolving collection of friends.
Why do you write? The brain is a story telling machine. It looks into the chaos of existence to extract meaning. Communication is as basic as life itself (recent research suggests that even plants do it). But one thing that separates humans from animals, is that we can write and through writing, our stories can benefit humanity as far as it stretches, and as long as readers will be here.
Until now, most of my writing has been scientific and academic – and the benefits of that kind of writing are limited to the topic at hand (let’s say approaches to design to protect against the onset of dementia, useful – but not a pool-side page-turner). Magic is different. It’s my own memoir, and I wrote it to inspire people to reach out beyond the muck of everyday life and to find the swirling lava of pure magic beyond.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I run an architecture firm, specialising in design for bespoke psychological impacts and I spend far more time doing that than writing books. It sounds like a completely different focus, but in its essence, I’m doing the same thing in my day job, only using a different language: in place of words and sentences, I use the language of design to shape people’s worlds and experiences. And like with my words, the narratives I create are for the psychological benefit of those that experience the creation afterwards.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? I had some surprises in my publishing journey. Firstly, it took ages, but I wasn’t hit by a string of rejections. If anyone read my manuscript (and bothered to get back) it was to say ‘yes’. One big publisher did just that, only to return a week later with bad news from the marketing department who couldn’t find a sufficient budget to bring a book like Magic to market. On another occasion, I had to turn down a publisher because we disagreed about a vision for the book.
The one thing I thought I’d hate (and thus put off for 20 years) was the editing. But once I started, I realised that it’s a joy and privilege to make the time to read through your manuscript, slashing and re-writing – turning a jungle into a manicured garden. It must’ve started overweight. I slashed 50,000 words – and far more, if I were to count the bits I re-wrote.
So in short, the toughest obstacles were phantasms – the ghosts of other people’s difficulties that somehow haunted me.
How involved have you been in the development of your books? Do you have input into the cover/illustrations? I submitted my manuscript with a cover I designed myself. But in truth I wasn’t happy with it. I did a couple of others, but somehow they were all wrong. And then the publisher’s designer sent me his first idea. It was meant to be coloured flames but looked like someone had vomited on a notebook. I rejected it. The publisher wasn’t displeased. I don’t think he’s was impressed either. The next cover was lifeless. So I sent a brief to the designer detailing the visual themes I wanted to see. Just as I was thinking I’d have to insist on one of my own covers, the designer presented a third – and I loved it. I have no doubt it is better than any I could have done myself. It takes a village…
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? This question is like being asked, “what’s the best bit of the ride?” when you’re still on the roller-coaster. So far it’s been sharing my story with my friends, students and family and the general public. But I just don’t know. The ride hasn’t reached the loop de loop where the fixed camera takes the shot I’ll no doubt see in the gift store afterwards. You never know, I might hate that the world at large knows all my boyhood secrets. I might balk at the reviews.
—the worst? So far the hardest thing has been in paring the story to the bone. While editing has been fun, I’ve suffered when I’ve had to slash out countries, people and experiences because they don’t add to the overall narrative or because publicity about what happened may have compromised real people in some way. Magic is a true story, and so it has to tell other people’s stories, at least in part. And I feel genuinely sorry for the characters who deserve to be represented in the book, but didn’t ‘fit’.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I’d embrace the editing phase sooner and with less caution. I’d stop listening to the nay-sayers who complain how hard it is to get published. I think the stories we tell ourselves need as much pruning and re-writing as those we prepare for publishing. Tell yourself a story you want to hear. There, that’s your first lesson in magic!
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I wish I’d been told that I’d get a killer advance. Sadly it didn’t happen. Instead, I chose to publish with an independent who offered something more important, but less glamorous – passion and commitment.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Good advice is a major theme of my book: I was told to pare back my belongings. Good advice – advice I took so much to heart, that in the end I had nothing more to protect me from the harsh Sahara sun than a loincloth and string bag containing my vaccination certificate, some quinine pills, a hand-traced map of northern Nigeria, an empty water bottle and some tarot cards. It was good advice. It made for a good story, and later for a good edit!
How important is social media to you as an author? I hope it’s not important. When the Cambridge Analytica scandal hit, I was in the first wave of people to quit Facebook. Bye bye to all my ‘friends’, au-revoir to my connected life. For me, integrity is everything. I could no longer believe in Facebook, and I wasn’t going to support them with my patronage.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? What is writer’s block? Is it what happens when you’ve got nothing to say? If so, go and explore. The world is a fascinating, contradictory and extraordinary place once the humdrum of normalcy slips away. Take some risks in your life and in your writing.
I don’t really suffer from writer’s block. But I do teach creativity, and one of the lessons I share is to leave your editor persona turned off until there’s something substantial to edit. Having a strong critic on your shoulder won’t assist the creative and generative impulse – it’ll turn your words (however presentable) a bit anaemic.
How do you deal with rejection? As I say, rejection isn’t the narrative I write for myself. But I understand it can happen, in which case, be rational: there are reasons that a publisher might need to reject a manuscript, even if it’s a heart-rending work of unadulterated genius. It might be a boring reason – a marketing budget overrun for example. Would you prefer a publisher to offer you a half-arsed deal, with a shit cover and without the resources your book needs to make it in the market?
There’s also always the possibility that your work isn’t the genius you thought it was. Once it’s written, it’s essential to read it through again and again, and if you can’t muster a worthy critic when one’s needed, get a professional editor to look at it. What do they say? If it’s junk, do you really want to put your name to it?
In three words, how would you describe your writing? An amazing story.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? I live in the heart of a wonderful literary scene, and I’m married to Bem Le Hunte, one of the greatest writers I’ve ever read. My friends also include a bunch of other wonderful writers – Louise Katz, Libby Hathorn, John Zubrzycki, Sofie Laguna, Dominic Smith and so many others, and frankly I’d probably prefer to do something fun with any of them, than be stuck with a total stranger. But the possibility of drawing someone from the dead using some time-travel magic (just to ask a stupid question) wouldn’t lead me to literature, but to music. I’d probably end up with Bob Marley or Leonard Cohen to ask about how they got here (to Sydney in 2018) and how was the journey!
This is a true story … A young man heads off on a journey to find out if magic still exists in the world, to know its wonder, and to see if it might save him when his own life is unexpectedly at stake. In the Caribbean, he meets a Rastafarian Don Juan who teaches him about the ‘natural mystic’. Fate propels his travels through
the Americas and Europe to locate the source of this knowledge in Mother Africa, where his own emerging mastery of mysticism is tested by the Sahara Desert. He is imprisoned in Nigeria, and tortured, and then sold as a slave.
Magic is an incredible journey, both physical and spiritual, that reverberates with the uniqueness of lived adventure and of a passionate heart and vision. Upon closing the last page of this book, we ache for the innocence to lose our way and travel deeper, to rediscover the savage but delicious nature of the
miraculous in our own lives.
The book is available here.