By Melanie Suzanne Wilson
Jane Gleeson-White always knew what she wanted. Since she learned to read, writing was her passion. At the age of 10, she decided she wanted to be a writer.
While Jane’s literary influences are classic titles, she says they were pop culture when released. Her listed favourites include Shakespere, Tolstoy, George Elliott, Homer, Patrick White, Agatha Christie, and Harry Potter.
Jane identifies with authors from previous eras. “They were the best selling of their day. They were writing about their day.”
But she didn’t just want to live in fictional literary land; Jane wanted to bring the real world alive.
She says she became interested in the anomalies of capitalism since studying economics in the late 1980s.
“Given that I was completely addicted to reading novels from when I could read, you’d think I would have written a novel.” Instead, she became fascinated by how the world works.
She says she goes to popular culture for inspiration. She got addicted to Harry Potter just like everyone else. Mystery stories capture her attention.
All these styles influence Jane’s writing, and perhaps her psyche. “It all feeds into the way you write. You get different ways and rhythms, and words, and ways of thinking.”
Jane was an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice and worked in publishing in Australia and the UK for 15 years. She has edited fiction and non-fiction including Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, Luke Davies’ Candy and Meg Stewart’s Far From a Still Life: Margaret Olley. From 2010 to 2012, Jane was the fiction editor of Overland magazine. She says her role as an editor taught her skills that transferred to her writing.
She follows her career wherever it leads her. Jane’s fascination with economics took her on an unexpected literary journey. She says she did not expect her first book to be about accounting, despite her early interest in economics.
Jane has mixed feelings about globalisation, as it affects sectors in different ways. While she accepts the inevitability of globalisation, she says it is too late to halt it now.
Her first book, Double Entry (2011), is a history of accounting from around 7,000 BC to the 2008 financial crash and the environmental crisis. At the heart of the story is the life of Renaissance monk and mathematician Luca Pacioli, father of accounting and constant companion of Leonardo da Vinci. The book won the 2012 ‘Nib’ Waverley Library Award for Literature and was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards 2013, the Age Book of the Year 2012 and the Queensland Literary Awards 2012.
She followed that with Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism has to have – or can accountants save the planet? (2014). This is the story of a 21st century revolution that is being led by the most unlikely of rebels, accountants, and how it will transform not only the way the world does business but alter the very nature of capitalism itself.
She has also written Classics: 62 Great Books From The Iliad To Midnight’s Children (2005) on why the greatest works of literature matter and what they can give us today and Australian Classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works (2007) which looks at many of the country’s favourite novels, poems, short stories, children’s books and seminal works of non-fiction. Writing in The Canberra Times, reviewer Peter Pierce said “Australian Classics is generously inclusive, written with flair, not bent on settling scores, but on reopening and reintroducing the rich and often eccentric body of our literature.”
She says she attempts to avoid the emotional toll experienced by many creative people. ”I do a lot of research and then I start writing.” She develops a draft after sketching initial ideas. The long draft process is, she says, “a very traumatic experience.”
Six Capitals chartered unknown territory in the field of accounting history. She was, she says, “Figuring out how it all fits in together.” She worked on it pretty much seven hours a day, seven days a week. “I was obsessed, you have to be,” she says.
“You realise that you learn stuff that you didn’t know so you have to figure out the next bit; there are implications in what you have written.”
The emotional rollercoaster continues once drafts are written and revised. “I do a messy first draft. That finessing is quite exciting and quite scary.”
Trial and error is her creative process. “I did so much work bringing out different themes.”
Six Capitals involved more work and anxiety for her than previous books, she says. The topic needed to be appreciated and understood more than previous ones.
Since the book is aimed at the general public, Jane strategically targeted her language to be more colourful and engaging assuming that many people
perceive accounting as “so esoteric, so boring”.
She acknowledges that writing is a public exercise in that it thrusts the writer into the spotlight yet she maintains complete normalcy amongst all the attention. She attributes her family’s attitude as the source of her grounding.
“You never get to be an important person in your own family. You’re just mocked and teased.”
Book reviews and public criticism are something her family appears less familiar with. She remembers her father’s recent comment, “I can’t believe that you took all that criticism in your stride. You knew what to say. How did you do that?”
She says she keeps a thick skin as a writer, despite what people say about her. There is no room for self-doubt. She realises she must stay firm in her beliefs if she is to convince others of those values.
This resilient attitude was established during childhood at the family dinner table. “We were never allowed to take ourselves seriously.”
Jane Gleeson-White spoke on why accountants might save the planet as part of the Curiosity Series at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival.