Ep 2 We chat to Fleur McDonald, author of ‘Red Dust’

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So you want to be a writer is a weekly podcast from Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait. Valerie is an author, journalist and national director of the Australian Writers’ Centre. Allison Tait is an Australian freelance writer, blogger and author, with more than 20 years’ professional writing experience. She is also a presenter at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

Each week, they explore the world of writing, publishing and blogging to bring you news and opportunities, advice on how to succeed in the world of writing, interviews with top writers, and much more.

Show notes

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Update on Amtrak Writers in Residence program Applications close 31 March. Trips are 2 to 5 days.

Also worth noting about Amtrak:

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podcast-FleurMcdonaldWriter in Residence – Fleur McDonald (pictured)

You can chat to Fleur on Facebook at Pink Fibro Club, 8pm on 25 March 2014.

You told us: Best line from a movie ever.

You’ll find your hosts at:
Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo

Australian Writers' Centre


Today we welcome Fleur MacDonald to the show. Fleur is one of Australia’s leading author of rural fiction and a regular on favorite author lists. Her first novel, Red Dust, was the highest selling debut in 2009. And her fifth novel, Crimson Dawn will be published in March of this year, which is a lot of books in a short time. So, it’s surprising to hear that Fleur snatches writing moments in between running an 8,000 acre farm with her husband in Southeast Western Australia, and raising children. She’s one busy lady. We’re thrilled she found some time to talk to us today.

Hi, Fleur! Welcome to the show.

Hi, Allison? How are you going?

I’m very well, thank you. I guess my first question is did you set out to write rural fiction when you began writing?

Well, I think when I started writing it probably never had a term like that. It wasn’t a genre. There was one girl writing it, and that was Rachael Treasure, and I read her first book, Jillaroo, and I thought, “Oh, that’s really interesting. I think I could write something like that,” but never believed that I would actually do it. I live the same sort of life that she was living on farms, and I knew the farming industry sort of pretty much inside out.

But, it wasn’t really clusters of rural lit genre when I first started, because I was the second one after Rachael to come along. Then there were a couple — Fiona Palmer came after me and then Nicole Alexander came after that. And, then of course there was a great big influx. So, I set out to write a rural book, I didn’t realize it was going to be in the rural genre at the time.

Had you written before that? Or was this like, “I’m really like this type of work, I’m going to have a go at it.”?

That’s how it was, yes, but I sort of feel that does a lot of discredit to other authors that work really hard at their craft and have done lots of courses about writing. I haven’t, I’ve learned on the go. I think one of the things that I’m very lucky with is that I grew up around stories. My nanny used to tell me stories all the time, and they weren’t written, they were verbal stories. I sort of had that storyteller section come across my life. My dad is an incredible storyteller as well, he never writes anything down, he just tells amazing stories. I was probably lucky I had an in-built storyteller in me to get across the fact that I don’t have any formal writing qualifications.

So, yes, I sat down and I — obviously, I love reading, I have always read. I knew how a book was paced. I did actually just sit down and write Red Dust and, yeah, that was my first crack at it all.

How long did it take you to write Red Dust? How long did it take you to complete it?

Well, the only reason I completed it was because I got a contract. Red Dust was sold on the first three chapters, they didn’t ask for the whole complete manuscript, thankfully, because it wasn’t there. Look, my story is very different and I’ve been very blessed, but I went through the Friday pitch, Louise Thurtel absolutely positively rejected me for the first time and said it wasn’t what she was looking for at the time. And I had no idea of the protocol when it came to writing and my parents had always raised me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to just so long as I put in the hard work. I was lucky enough to be naïve enough to believe that I could do it.

Anyway, so I popped in these first couple of chapters, completely ignoring all of the submission guidelines, said to Louise, “You’ve looked at this before, just have another look at it, would you mind, please?” And within, I don’t know, two weeks I had a contract on these first three chapters and then I thought, “Oh, crap, I suppose I better finish it.”

How long did it take you to finish it? Do you think that having the contract made finishing it harder or easier?

That’s probably the only reason it got finished. On the same with all of my books. I don’t leave it to the last minute, but I tend to think, “I’ve got all of this time,” and then suddenly I’ve got two months to go and I go, “Oh, well, I do have another 60,000 words to write, I should get on with that.” So that’s what I do.

I think I write better under pressure.

Red Dust, I suppose it probably took me six months in the end, and we had a really rigorous edit, and that was over 12 months. So, I was actually signed up in 2007 for Red Dust, and it didn’t come out until 2009.

Did that rigorous edit come as a shock for you?

I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea in the world what to do. Wendy Orr told me at one point, Wendy who wrote Nim’s Island, she said to me at one stage when you get the edits back you look at it and you go, “Number one that editor is so wrong, they don’t get my book, they’re just wrong.” And then number two is like, “Oh, crap, the editor’s right, how the hell am I going to fix this? I can’t fix it. I can’t write, I’m hopeless.” And number three is like a light bulb moment, “Oh, I know how to fix it.” I usually sit at that number two section forever.


Yeah, the edit was really confronting, and I learned a lot.

Editing now is actually one of my favorite parts. I find putting the story down sometimes harder.

Has your process changed a little bit, like do you now do more editing as you go? Or do you still write the whole thing, or how do you work with that now? I mean are you doing a draft and then editing yourself before it goes off?

Yeah, I actually do, because I write in snatches I might be lucky enough to have a whole day where I can write, stop and pick up a pen, start typing again, for another three weeks. Often I use that chapter that I’ve done before I’ll edit that to get me back into it. Now, that’s often very time-consuming, but sometimes it’s actually the only way I can get back into the book. I’m the biggest procrastinator, as I think most writers are. So, if I don’t have to write that’s perfect, let’s see if we can find something else to do.

Fair enough. Clean out the fridge.


Do you think your writing has changed a lot from your first book to your fifth? Or just your process has changed? Do you do anything differently now?

I think the freedom of writing the first book and not having anybody having expectations of you is the best time to write a book. I tend to care a lot about what people think about my writing, so therefore I put a lot of pressure on myself. My publisher tells me off all the time for doing that, but it’s something that I can’t get away from, I’ve got to be improving or I think I need to improve every book.

I actually had a new editor work on Crimson Dawn with me this time, and she thinks I’ve improved massively since my first book. I’ve never actually gone back and looked at Red Dust again, because I was so sick of that book by the time we finished with it that I never wanted to read it again. I think if I did go back I would probably want to take to it with a red pen, because I have learnt so very, very much over the whole five books.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about rural fiction, because I know that people have set ideas about rural literature is. What do you think it is and what do you think are the misconceptions that people have about it?

I’m not sure that rural authors are taken seriously within the publishing industry itself. There are definitely people that do. But, I think there’s probably sub-genres within the genre, so you’ve got your rural lit, then you’ve got off-shoots like Nicole Alexandra, who does historical fiction, and probably people like Rachael Treasure and myself, and Fiona Palmer, to an extent, but highlight the problems with the rural industry where people that have worked on farms, we understand farming, we can talk about it with quite a lot of authority. Then you’ve got your other people like the Rachel Joneses, who do an absolutely fantastic job of telling a story, but their main content is romance and that sells as well. They do a good job of it.

I think there’s probably those three categories.

To a point I think you need to be different. Readers want to know what they’re getting, absolutely, but you want to be able to differentiate yourself just a little from everybody else so they feel like they’re picking up a different book when they pick up your book.

That makes sense. That brings me to my next question about the fact that rural literature, rural fiction market has certainly grown exponentially over the past five years, I guess, since your first book came out. Do you have any tips for would be authors in your area? I mean it’s a big genre, but it is saturated? How do you break into it, if that’s what you want to write?

Well, it’s interesting because I’m not sure, I thought it was saturated. I kept saying, “There’s other people coming in.” Thinking, “I wonder how this is going to affect our sales,” the whole way through. I had a meeting with my publishers in August last year, and they said to me that they’re not seeing any signs of it being saturated yet, because they’re not having booksellers come in and say to them, “Look, we don’t want that because we’ve got enough of that particular genre on the shelf,” which is interesting. Now whether or not that means there’s room for more people to come in, I don’t know, but what is there at the moment is obviously still selling, everybody is still buying it, it doesn’t seem to have reached saturation point yet.

I think the longer we go and the less stories there are to tell and the less difference in the plots through all of the authors, that’s when we’re going to get into trouble, which is another reason I would say you need to be different, you need to be original, and you need to have an original voice, that’s what is going to get you picked up.

As in any genre, as in any type of publishing, like that original voice, original thought is exactly what publishers across all areas are looking for.

Yeah, that’s right. So, I’m not telling anything new.

No, but I think it’s something that people forget.

I think so. And if you’ve got a different background, like my background is farming, but if you’ve got a background, say, in something really different, like Helene Young being a pilot, you know, they need a selling point for the author as well as a great story from that author. So, it’s not just the book that needs to be marketable, the person themselves that has written the book needs to be marketable as well.

Do you ever have an hankering to write something different?

I’d love to write crime. That’s where my passion lies, that’s what I read. I’m a huge Patricia Cornwell fan, like from her early stuff, Kathy Reichs, Michael Connelly, John Grisham, detective murder mystery, lawyer, mystery solving — love that genre, all up.

So, will be seeing something like that from you in the future?

Well, I keep trying to put little bits of it into my books. I had a little bit more crime in Silver Clouds than what actually ended up in the published version, a lot of the crime got taken out.

I know crime is so desperately difficult to get into as well. So, possibly not. I’ll probably just keep doing it through my rural lit books at this point, and that’s my difference from the rest of the girls.

So, I’ll probably keep doing it that way. That doesn’t mean that I’m not secretly writing something.

Oh, I see.

I don’t think we’ve got to do a J.K. Rowlings and put it out under a pen name, or what.

That’s exciting. So what do you love most about Crimson Dawn, which is your new book?

Well, I really like Laura, she’s the main character. And, she runs a Jillaroo school. She runs a school that empowers women to learn how to make good decisions in a really safe environment to do with farming. Sometimes I know from when I was younger I hate going to field days and having blokes out around me all the time and me wanting to ask a question but too scared to ask it, in case you got hailed down by all the blokes. So, Laura fixes that problem. She runs this Jillaroo school.

But, I also travel back to the late ‘30s, early ‘40s, back into the wolf sheds and how the past will or can affect Laura’s present day. I love the history side of things when it comes to Australian history. I think there’s a lot of tales to be told in that. I was lucky enough to have a couple of old shearers that I could talk to and get how it used to be, you know, authentic, like I said before, that word ‘authentic,’ as I chatted to them a lot. I really loved writing the history part of Crimson Dawn.

Well, it sounds like you’ve enjoyed the whole process.

Yeah, Crimson Dawn was really difficult to write because I think I only had about 30,000 words written up until about June of last year, and I stopped writing because I was looking after my mother-in-law and she had gotten quite a lot sicker, I hadn’t finished she died in August. I suddenly had 60,000 or 70,000 words to write in a very short space of time. So, I did find it very difficult.

But, at the end, I think we’ve really come out with something special. I think it’s different to the books I have written already. It’s probably a little bit more out there to what I’ve written as well. So, we’ll see how it’s taken.

That sounds great. I’m looking forward to it. We’ll finish up with your top three tips for writers — what would they be?

I don’t really have a lot of top tips. All I would say is you need to sit and write. You need to sit your bum down and stay there. Don’t write like me and snatches and lose your train of thought and your thread.

I think you need to believe in yourself, and it’s very difficult to do that. I think we’re programmed as authors to self-doubt, so that’s something that you probably need to try and fix, and I still haven’t done it, so don’t expect anybody else can, but give it a crack.

I think those are probably my top ones. Just try and write and write everyday, because when you don’t you tend to lose that beautiful flow of words that you can have. It’s like anything, like practicing an instrument. You sort of have to keep at it, because if you don’t you get rusty.

Yeah, that and have some self-belief.

Fantastic. Well, Fleur, thank you so much for talking to us today. Good luck with Crimson Dawn.

We’ll put all of the links to your websites and your Facebook and those things will be all on the pages that go with this podcast, and we hope that this is a great year for writing for you.

Thank you very much, Allison. Thanks for having me as well. It’s been great.


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