The Airways by Jennifer Mills, published by Picador, Pan Macmillan Australia
Literary Fiction, Author Interview
“He closed his eyes and concentrated. He inhabited for a time that liminal space between consciousness and unconsciousness, where the mind began to believe it might wander free of the body. He thought of experiences that he could not quite remember, felt the emotional shadow of events he was not sure he had been present for. He allowed the breath to take over… Where had it been, this air, before it reached him?” The Airways
Jennifer Mills’ writing is critically acclaimed and she is most well-known for her third novel, the Miles Franklin shortlisted, Dyschronia.
Her fourth novel, The Airways is a literary experience that pulsates and permeates. It is embodied by fine writing. Set in both Beijing and Sydney, the protagonists take the reader on a disconcerting, metaphysical journey through place and spaces.
Thank you for speaking with PaperbarkWords, Jennifer.
Where are you based?
I have been living in Italy for the past couple of years but am in the process of trying to get home to Adelaide.
How does the title The Airways and cover of the book hint at its contents?
The Airways refers to the breath, the endangered body, but also to flight. Tristan Main at Picador did a great job evoking these concepts with the cover.
The structure of The Airways is sophisticated. How did you develop or refine the process of telling a dual narrative here?
The novel has two main threads with very distinct voices. I worked on these separately, then drew them together, like a weave – refining the details over multiple drafts. It was a process of finding each narrative voice and then bringing them into a relationship.
Your protagonist Adam seems to be implosive. How does this aspect of his character build the tension in the novel?
Adam is an interesting character to me. He’s very fragile. I was drawn to creating a portrait of someone who was unstable, even at times insubstantial, but still trying to make his way in the world. In many ways Adam is more of a ghost than Yun is…
How is your other protagonist distinctive?
Yun, the ghost in the novel, is killed in the first chapter – but they find a way to continue being, and through their transformations and transferrals they are able to find an unusual kind of strength.
Could you tell us about one of your absent characters?
There are a few characters in the book who remain more or less offstage, if that’s what you mean. Natasha, Adam’s Chinese girlfriend, is one of them. I wanted to keep the action of the novel very minimal in his chapters, simple and focused on his inner state, so the story of their relationship breakdown is told only in pieces, through his reflection (or lack thereof). But you still get an idea of her perspective, I think.
How have you contrasted Sydney and Beijing?
They are seasonally opposed in the novel, which helps the contrast – Sydney falling into its indolent and lush summer, and Beijing heading for a cold, grey winter. But they have a lot in common, too. They are both porous places, where histories have been erased; they are both cities that seem to me inhabited by multiple eras simultaneously. This is partly architectural, but partly cultural as well. I grew up in Sydney and lived in Beijing for two years and I enjoyed recreating these cities in my imagination.
With a fine and restrained use of metaphors, so much of your writing in this novel is quotable. Could you share a sentence or more from the book and briefly explain either how you crafted it or what pleases you about it?
I can’t choose anything specific in terms of language, since for me the magic of it lies in the rhythm, the music of it, all together. There’s an interplay between the sound of the words and their meaning which I wanted to bring forward here, particularly in Yun’s chapters. The important thing for me was to give the reader a physical experience, to elevate their attention to the feeling of being in a body, so the language is very physical in that way.
The Airways is an exceptional book. It is ground-breaking and unforgettable. Thank you very much for this unique, provocative reading experience, Jennifer, as well as for your responses here.
Thank you Joy.