The Stella Prize chats with Lisa Jacobson, author of The Sunlit Zone

Stella: Who did you admire when you were fourteen?

Lisa: My childhood friend Melinda, also known as Lindy Sparrow in one of my stories, ‘Walking on Water’, where I wipe her out in a tsunami. My family says she often appears in my work and I’m always killing her off. This is probably because she was tall, blonde and tanned, and had one of those gaps between her thighs skinny girls have – despite the fact I now know full well that short curvy girls rock.

Stella: How do you relax?

Lisa: Sleeping in late with a really good book. Sleep and read. Sleep and read. A bit like a sloth with glasses, except I’m not hanging upside down.

Stella: Is there a writer you aspire to be like?

Lisa: Mary Oliver, see Desert Island question, below, and a cluster of others, which varies depending on the paddock in which I’m currently grazing. Those which immediately come to mind: Flannery O’Connor, Annie Dillard and D.H. Lawrence, simply because they are all, in different ways, just so good.

Stella: Why did you become a writer?

Lisa: Because I was the kind of kid who marvelled over columns of words in those boring purple spelling books in primary schools circa 1970, and because a writer is what I most feel like most of the time. Although I have on occasion wanted to be a gardener, midwife, florist, dog trainer, paramedic, grief counsellor or foreign correspondent, not necessarily in that order.

Stella: Do you have a good writing place? Tell us.

Lisa: At a desk that looks out the window at my bush block, which backs onto the river and thus gives the illusion of going on forever, with my golden Labrador hogging the heater (in winter) beside me.

Stella: Where would you live if you could live anywhere?

Lisa: Sils Maria, a little village high in the Swiss Alps ringing with cowbells and lush with snowmelt, where Anne Frank spent a summer and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke often visited.

Stella: What book would you take with you to a desert island?

Lisa: American poet Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems, Volumes I and II, because reading her work is to immerse yourself in a natural world almost devoid of humans in order to get in touch with what it means to be human. And because she can apparently spend an entire day picking berries without getting bored.

Stella: Favourite heroine in literature? Favourite villain?

Lisa: It would have to be Jo March from Little Women. I love her passion for books, her refusal to be anything other than she is, and her love for Professor Bhaer and his book-lined rooms. Favourite villain: possibly Milton’s Lucifer from Paradise Lostbecause fallen angels are just so interesting. Oh, and Lady Macbeth, eternally washing those blood-stained hands.

Stella: What’s the most beautiful word in the English (or any other) language?

Lisa: Impossible to select just the one. Horse, boat, pier, cathedral and âme, which means (in the French) both ‘soul’ as well as a small delicate piece of wood placed inside a violin to enhance its sound.

Stella: How do you know when a story is finished?

Lisa: When I find myself fiddling around with dots, semi-colons and commas.

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Lisa Jacobson