Josh Donellan is a writer (under J.M Donellan), musician, slam poet, radio DJ and teacher. He was almost devoured by a tiger in the jungles of Malaysia, nearly died of a lung collapse in the Nepalese Himalayas, fended off a pack of rabid dogs with a guitar in the mountains of India and was sexually harassed by a half-naked man whilst standing next to Oscar Wilde’s grave in Paris. If that wasn’t enough excitement, he also won the inaugural Gold Coast Poetry Slam this year. Our cultural editor shot him a few get-to-know-you questions in order to satiate our curiosity.
I have to hear more about this wild dog attack! Most importantly, was the guitar hurt?
I was travelling around India with a friend getting into mishaps and misadventures mishap that would form the basis of my first novel, A Beginner’s Guide to Dying in India. We were attempting to leave the Himalayan city of Leh via an epic and somewhat perilous two-day bus trip through the mountains. We approached the bus stop just before dawn, lugging our backpacks up a steep mountain path. We were nearly there when we turned a corner to find ourselves facing a dozen mangy, red-eyed dogs who were not happy to have been disturbed. The closest one to us barked and woke up all the others and we did this awkward backwards run, trying not to trip down the mountain as I unslung my skinny little travel guitar and screamed at the dogs to get back. Luckily we made it to the bus and they left us alone. It’s not a good idea to get rabies when you’re days away from the nearest hospital. Probably not a good idea to get rabies at all, come to think of it.
Why poetry? How did you get on the path, what about it speaks to you so deeply, and who were your mentors along the way?
I was playing in various bands that kept breaking up because someone would move overseas or get a serious job at the local potato factory or study applied business necromancy or whatever. For a while I focused on writing novels and that was great, but I missed the rush of performance. Poetry for me is the perfect blend of wordcraft and stagecraft. I love seeing the audience smile or nod or cry or boo. I once had some drunk guy get on stage and snatch the mic from my hand and then mumble incoherently until I grabbed it back and politely pushed him off the stage. You’re just not going to get those kinds of shenanigans when you’re quietly writing a novel in the local coffee shop. In terms of mentors, in Brisbane the Ruckus Crew have done heaps to foster new voices, I owe them a lot. David Stavanger and Annie Te Whi are also doing huge things with the Queensland Poetry Festival. It’s an exciting time to be a person who yells things into microphones.
Many people take spiritual pathways that draw them through India. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a range of things, for me personally it was the natural landscapes. When you’re standing a few thousand metres above sea level, there’s no sign of human life in any direction and some of the mountains are purple and green from the mineral deposits you get this incomparable feeling of awe and gratitude. A lot of people are drawn to the ashrams and such. That’s fine if it’s what you’re into, but I like sleeping in and swapping stories – preferably with beer. Early mornings and silent meditation isn’t my scene.
Tell us little bit more about your latest novel Killing Adonis, because the blurb sounds fascinating. Are there themes throughout, a message, inspirations, or is it a purely fictional romp?
It’s supposed to be entertaining first and foremost, but it’s also a satirical critique of the way some of the ultra-rich insulate themselves from the realities of the world. I describe it as a journey into kingdoms of delusion. We’re all a little bit deluded, but only a few of us have the resources to surround ourselves with empires of yes-men and sycophants. The main character (an outsider to that world) is an amalgamation of a few of my close friends, people who are brilliant, funny and confident and yet continually make terrible life choices. It’s coming out in the US in a few months. It’ll be interesting to see what they make of it over there, Trump is exactly the kind of person I satirise in Killing Adonis.
Can you tell me who some of your favourite authors are and what you love about them so much?
My favourite authors switch between forms and formats and have a sense of humour as well as something significant to say, people like Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins, Salman Rushdie, Jennifer Egan etc. A Little Life is definitely the best novel released in the last couple of years. I also adore The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor. He somehow managed to write it whilst working as a senior member of the UN. I don’t understand how it’s even possible to be that productive. I am literally writing this right now in my underwear with an empty packet of biscotti next to me.
If you could only either speak, or write, for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
That is a fantastic and terrifying question! Probably write, provided I could use a Stephen Hawking style speech to text tool. Perhaps I could give my voice some serious gravitas, like Morgan Freeman or David Attenborough. Or maybe I could get myself a handsome proxy a la Cyrano de Begerac…