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So-you-want-to-be-a-writer---Episode-12

Ep 12 Secret libraries; ‘The Novelist’ computer game; how to stay published; and interview with author Fiona McFarlane

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In Episode 12 of So you want to be a writer, we ask are journalists miserable, over educated and underpaid? The Best Australian blogs are announced, the secret libraries of New York city, write a novel… in a game, how Reading Australia are making a difference to Australian schools and universities, the importance of staying published, Writer in Residence Fiona McFarlane, our Working Writer’s Tip, our Web Pick and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here.

Show Notes

Report: Journalists Are Miserable, Liberal, Over-Educated, Under-Paid, Middle-Aged Men
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/report-journalists-are-miserable-over-educated-under-paid-middle-aged-men-mostly/361891/

Best Australian Blogs Competition
http://www.writerscentre.com.au/community/best-australian-blogs-comp/

Secret Libraries of New York city
http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/secret-libraries-of-new-york-city

The Novelist: game
http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandartsdaily/the-novelist/5432900

Reading Australia
http://readingaustralia.com.au/

Staying published
http://writerunboxed.com/2014/05/06/staying-published/

McFarlane, Fiona 2013 (photographer credit Andy Barclay)Writer in Residence

Fiona McFarlane, author of The Night Guest, chats about her writing process, the pleasure (and pressure) of being listed for many literary awards and prizes, and the thorny question of ‘author platforms’. We also discuss the big question: Just what is ‘literary fiction’?

Connect with Fiona on Facebook

Sydney Writers’ Festival blog
http://www.swf.org.au/?option=com_wordpress&Itemid=346&lang=en&view=bloglink

Literary fiction branding
http://www.allisontait.com/2013/03/fibro-qa-charlotte-wood-literary-fiction-branding-and-all-that-junk/

Working Writer’s Tip

How to critique friends’ writing
http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/how-to-critique-friends-writing

I will not read your f***ing script
http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2009/09/i_will_not_read.php

Web Pick

Dragon Dictate

Pink Fibro Bookclub
https://www.facebook.com/groups/274090672737464/

Writers’ Centre Facebook
https://www.facebook.com/WritersCentre

You’ll find your hosts at
Allison Tait
http://www.allisontait.com/

Valerie Khoo
http://valeriekhoo.com/

Australian Writers’ Centre
http://www.writerscentre.com.au/

Transcript

Allison

Fiona Mcfarlane has a writing pedigree that includes degrees in English from Sydney University and Cambridge University and an MFA from the University Texas at Austin. Her debut novel, The Night Guest sold into 15 territories around the world and has been short-listed for many prizes and awards, including the Stella prize, the LA Times Debut Fiction Award, The Indie Awards and the 2014 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. It has also been long-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, which is a very long and impressive list.

Hi, Fiona, it’s great to talk to you today.

Fiona
Hi, Allison.

Allison
You’re on all of those award lists, it must be so exciting, like did you image when you typed ‘The End’ that The Night Guest would be so well-received?

Fiona
No, no! I mean it’s obviously absolutely delightful. I was at the Stella ceremony on Tuesday night, and one of the things that Clare Wright said immediately is, “Nobody writes books to win prizes,” which is so true, but it’s really, really nice to get the recognition.

I think when I was writing the book I was thinking, “Well, here I am writing this book about an elderly woman who…” I mean there’s about 2.5 characters in the whole book. It didn’t really occur to me — I wasn’t thinking about audience at the time, or if I was it was in a really general way. I was writing the kind of book that I like to read. I wasn’t thinking, “All right this is definitely going to get me onto prize lists.” But, it’s very nice to be there.

Allison
So, it’s not like that thing — I often wonder when they write a hit song if they know it’s a hit when they get to the end of it. So, you don’t have that feeling of like, “Oh, this is great…”? You just have that awful feeling of, “Gee, I hope someone likes this…”?

Fiona
Yeah, I think writers generally are just so plagued with self-doubt. By the time you finish something you really — you have very little idea — well, I certainly had very little idea what I’ve just done and what I’ve achieved, or not achieved, and that’s why you need editors and readers to come in and chat with you about what you’ve actually just done.

Allison
How did you come to write the book, as you said there’s about 2.5 characters. It’s an elderly woman’s perspective. Was it one of those ideas that sort of popped into your head out of the blue? Was it something you had been thinking about for awhile? Was there an experience in your life that brought it on? Where did it come from?

Fiona
It came from a whole lot of different places. The first recognizable one was a conversation I was having with a friend who I studied with who was doing some research on Victorian children’s literature, and we were just having a chat about this, about all of those nursery rhymes and cautionary tales that Victorian’s used to use to terrify their children.

Allison
They do, don’t they?

Fiona
They do.

She mentioned how many wild animals appear in these tales and rhymes, and you know all of them colonial sort of animals, lions and elephants and crocodiles and particularly tigers. I just got interested in the idea of this very safe space of the British Victorian nursery being unsettled by these colonial animals that are creeping in, and they’re both terrifying and thrilling at the same time. I thought, “Well, what if one day I write something, a modern house that’s sort of safe and privileged but is also being sort of unsettled by some kind of nursery title, that has some connection to the colonial.

So, there was that. But, then there were other things as well.

I heard a story from my mom about a friend of hers whose father’s cleaner had convinced him they were married, trying to sort of move in, all of this sort of stuff. I mean you hear stories about vulnerable elderly people being taken advantage of all too often.

At some point those two ideas merged and became The Night Guest, so I couldn’t exactly tell you when that was.

Allison
Can you describe your writing process? How long did it take you to write this book to the point where you thought it was finished?

Fiona
There’s a good distinction about when I think it’s finished and when someone else does.

Allison
Yes.

Fiona
It took about two years to write the first draft, so the first, which isn’t to say that I sat down and wrote something and didn’t revise it at all as I was going, I was revising all the time. It took about two years to write something that read from beginning to end. I didn’t necessarily think it was finished then, but I felt like it was more finished than it turned out to be. I sent it off to my agent and got great feedback from her and ended up spending another two years revising it before we then sent it out to publishers and then went through the editorial process with them.

Allison
You already had an agent at that point? How did that come about?

Fiona
It’s sort of a fairytale, honestly.

Allison
Fabulous, I love those.

Fiona
I love telling this story because I think it’s really heartening and great. I met her ten years before I finished the book, so she waited ten years for me to write a book. I think I made her about $80 in that decade.

Allison
Fantastic.

Fiona
What happened was I had just moved to England and before I left home I used to enter a lot of competitions, a lot of writing competitions with my stories and had some success. When I got to England I thought, “I’m going to do that again.” So, I entered a competition, it was run by one of the big glossy magazines, I can’t remember which one now. I just got a letter out of the blue saying, “A friend of mine who’s a reader for this competition,” which I didn’t win, I might add, “A friend of mine who’s a reader for this competition, she loved your story and thought I would like too. Do you think you could send it to me?” And it was from an agent, I mean she was actually the head of quite a prestigious agency in London. So, I said, “Yes.” She wrote back saying, “I love the story, next time you’re in London please let’s meet and have a chat.”

I, of course, invented a reason to be in London immediately, within three minutes, and I went down and met her and I really liked her. We just really clicked. We just sort of chatted about my work, and there was no pressure, you know, “You have to write something right now,” or anything. It was definitely always this sense I had that she was interested in me and my career and what I might produce in the future, she was incredibly patient, she was great. She sent short stories out and it was through her that I got some really good publications. But, yeah, she waited ten years for me to write
The Night Guest.

Allison
That is amazing. That is a fairytale, you’re absolutely right.

Fiona
It is.

Allison
With such a happy ending.

Fiona
Yes! With such a happy ending!

Allison
All right, so she read The Night Guest, gave you feedback, and then she has therefore then gone out and sent it out to all of the publishers for you at that point?

Fiona
Yes, that’s right.

Allison
You’re not someone then who sort of like has spent five years building an author platform or branding yourself, or anything like that, up until the point of publication? This is not something that you thought about, you were busy writing the book?

 

Fiona
I mean I think that, for me, writing is enough work. It’s all-consuming to not think too much about sort of branding and social platforms and things. It’s possibly naïve of me. I think things have worked out very well for me and I think I got some high profile publications and magazines before the novel came out, which certainly helped the sense that there were people waiting to see it.

 

Allison
Right.

 

Fiona
I think that was incredibly important. Yeah, I sort of had to be prodded into having a Facebook page for me as a writing, a professional Facebook page. I’m really not the person to sort of give advice on that. I know other people who are really good at it, who love it, who are excellent at engaging with their readers and with the literary world at large. I’m all for that because I think great conversations get opened up.

 

For me, personally, it’s just not really my style.

 

Allison
Do you do any sort of stuff to get your book out there? Are you doing — I mean obviously you’re talking to me, which is clearly a fabulous thing, but do you enjoy sort of book talks, or are you doing writers’ festivals? What sort of stuff do you prefer to focus on?

 

Fiona
Yes, I’m doing festivals. I’ve done quite a few. I’m going to be the writer in residence at the Sydney Writers’ Festival next month.

 

Allison
That’s so exciting.

 

Fiona
Yeah, that will be great. I just get to go to everything and blog about it.

 

Allison
Fantastic.

 

Fiona
That’s great.

 

I’ve done book groups. I’ve done a lot of interviews. I’ve gotten to travel, which has been really nice. The lovely thing about being with a publisher like Penguin is they really organize a great deal of it for you, so that suits someone like me who, if left to my own devices, will probably just be curled up in my house reading a book.

 

But, I really enjoy doing it, I mean it’s fun. I had a wonderful time at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival recently. It’s great to meet people who have read the book and have fantastic questions about it. It’s great to meet other writers and make those connections with people who are doing the same preposterous thing you are.

 

Yeah, I love all of that.

 

Allison
I think with any book, whether you’re sort of like doing your own publicity, or as you say having it organized for you, or whatever you’re doing, there is a time component to that isn’t there? Are you finding that you’re getting writing done still? Are you working on something new?

 

Fiona
I am, yeah. I think I was very, very fortunate in that when I sold The Night Guest I also sold a collection of short stories, which was great. I was very close, I was sort of 75 percent finished writing that. So, I was the stories at the same time as the novel.

 

So, I had an existing project that I could just sort of head back into. I think that’s been really important for me, especially because it’s stories, I think dealing with such concentrated worlds you can sort of step in and out of them a little more easily you can a novel. I felt like I can keep writing them, or working on them around everything else that’s been going on. So, I’m really pleased it worked out that way.

 

Allison
That is fantastic. It must be also reassuring having that work already in progress, being almost there with it. Like being in contention for so many awards and prizes is amazing, but it would also bring, I think, if you were starting from scratch right now, some pressure for your next novel, would you agree?

 

Fiona

Yeah, definitely. I think it would, it think it still will. I know what I want my next novel to be about and I’m thinking about it, I’m researching it already, and I’m really, really excited about working on it. But, I will definitely need to try to put all of it away as I’m working. I think once I get into it I’ll be able to, but you have to be good at sort of shutting out distractions like that — and they’re wonderful distractions, they’re lovely distractions, but you still need to sit down with your brain and words and write, try not to think about that stuff at all.

 

Allison
The other thing I guess that may come with your next novel as well is will you have a deadline? With The Night Guest I’m assuming there was no deadline to it, with another publication will you be having to sort of hit some kind of mythical date? In which case, is that scary?

 

Fiona
Well, it is interesting how many people will give you advice about the maximum amount of time you should wait until you bring out your next novel, which is terrifying because it took me a lot longer to write than I guessed.

 

Nobody is actually going to give me a deadline unless I sell a partial manuscript. Psychologically, I think it would be best avoided for me.

 

Allison
Paralysis would ensue.

 

Fiona
I have a feeling it might, you never know. I respond well to deadlines, so perhaps it would be great. That’s a problem I’ll see if I’m lucky enough to worry about.

 

Allison
Fair enough. Let’s just talk a little bit about this term literary fiction, because that’s generally where your book is placed. How would you define it? Is there a genre, so to speak? What is the definition of ‘literary fiction’ do you think? And did you set out to write that?

 

Fiona
Sure, I think literary fiction is such an elastic term, in so many ways it just encompasses anything that’s not part of a more rigid genre like sci-fi, or chick-lit — that horrible word.

 

I think that at the same time there are so many genres that are a part of literary fiction. I think the best books are playing with more than one genre at the same time. You can have literary fiction that’s also a thriller, or you can have supernatural elements to it, of course.

 

I think, for me, I just set out to write a good book, the kind of book I like to read. I’m drawn to books that are interested in more than just sort of plot and story and keeping pages turning, though I think those things are really important and that we’re narrative animals and there’s a reason we love reading books like that.

 

I love to read books that are interested in ideas and interested in language, that aren’t necessarily entirely for entertainment, that like to be sort of sneaky about expanding world views and things like that at the same time.

 

I think that is what literary fiction does. I think that it can be an elitist term, which is a shame. I think people should just read books that they enjoy and get something out of. I don’t think I, or any of my other friends, or writers I admire, sit down thinking, “Ah, now to write literature.” I think there is a great love of what language is capable of going on when people sit down to write the kind of books that end up being marked as literary fiction.

 

Allison
Are you the kind of writer that will spend a long time on one sentence, just to make sure that it’s absolutely perfect?

 

Fiona
Yeah, I definitely am. Maybe not initially, I’m not necessarily someone who will sit there and sort of stare at the same sentence all day if I’m working on a first draft, but I revise a lot. I think revision is an enormous part of the writer’s work. So, I’ll spend a lot of time going back over sentences later.

 

Allison
I know that you said you got the book to where you thought it was finished and then it went into the publishing process, and then, of course, you find out that it’s not as finished as you thought, but how many drafts would you imagine that you did on The Night Guest before you got to the point where you were happy to go, “I’m ready to send this out.”?

 

Fiona

It’s hard to say because there are parts of it that I probably redrafted 25 times and other parts that I probably revised three times. So, it’s difficult to say.

 

In sort of the narrative I’ve invented after the process in my brain there were two major revisions before, or maybe three major revisions before we sent it to publishers. Then once it entered that process you could consider that one other draft I suppose.

 

Allison
Yeah.

 

Fiona
Saying that there were four drafts before it was printed would be a completely false, because, as I said, I mean there are parts of it that I just changed so many times and other things that stayed pretty close to what I first wrote.

 

Allison
We’re going to get into the advice section of our interview right now, if were to ask you for your three top tips for writers what would they be? What are the three main pieces of advice that you find yourself giving over and over again?

 

Fiona
The first one is an obvious one, is just to read — read everything. Always be reading. Don’t let your reading frighten you, let it excite and inspire you.

 

The second one, and maybe it’s my third one as well, because I think this one is so important, and the one that I wish I had listened to more is to be patient. Be patient with yourself and be patient with your work. Don’t hurry, don’t rush. Don’t compare yourself to other people, don’t think, “So and so has brought out a book…” “This person has just had something accepted…” just remain in your work and give it the time it needs.

 

At the same time work hard. This is the third bit. Work hard, work steadfastly, figure out the ways that mean you will write everyday, because that’s how you write a novel is to make yourself actually produce words.

 

Allison
Rather than just talking about producing words?

 

Fiona
Yes.

 

Allison
Which is so much more fun, don’t you think?

 

Fiona
It is. It’s a lot easier.

 

Allison
OK, Fiona, thank you so much for talking to us today. If our listeners are looking for you where can we find out more about you?

 

Fiona
You can find me on the Penguin website. There is a Fiona Mcfarlane, Author of

The Night Guest Facebook page that you can discover as well.

 

Allison
I will put links to both of those in our show notes.

 

Thank you once again and good luck with all of those additional prizes and things coming your way, and have a fantastic time at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

 

Fiona
I will. Thanks, Allison.

 

 

May 13, 2014 Podcasts Australian Writers' Centre Team

Written by Australian Writers' Centre Team

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