Ep 305 Meet Melanie Cheng, author of ‘Room for a Stranger’.

In Episode 305 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Stay in Stephen King’s house and write! Meet Melanie Cheng, author of Room for a Stranger. Discover the biggest mistake newbie travel writers make. And we have three copies of The Island at the Edge of the World by Deborah Rodriguez to give away.

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Show Notes

Stephen King’s House to Become Archive and Writers’ Retreat

Writer in Residence

Melanie Cheng

Melanie Cheng is a writer, mum and general practitioner from Melbourne, Australia. Her writing has appeared in The Age, The Weekend Australian, SBS Online, Meanjin, Overland, Griffith REVIEW, Sleepers Almanac, The Bridport Prize Anthology, Lascaux Review, Visible Ink, Peril, The Victorian Writer and Seizure.

Her short story collection, Australia Day, won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and went on to win the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Her latest book is the novel, Room for a Stranger.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Melanie.

Melanie

No worries, it’s my pleasure.

Valerie

Congratulations on your book Room for a Stranger. I am seeing it everywhere. And it’s in like all of the staff picks and all of the must reads of these bookshops that I am going into. So very, very exciting!

Now for those readers who haven’t picked up a copy of your book yet, can you tell us what’s it’s about?

Melanie

Sure. The book follows two main protagonists. One is Meg Hughes, who is a 75 years old pensioner, who lives alone except for her pet African grey parrot Atticus.

And she has been the unfortunate victim of a home invasion. And this has really rattled her and so she decides, a little bit reluctantly, to join a home share program in which she opens a room in her house to a stranger. And the stranger that she opens this room to is Andy who’s a 21-year-old biomedical student in Melbourne. He also is a kind of reluctant participant of this home share arrangement. His family’s business hasn’t been doing so well and while they can afford the tuition on his course they can’t any longer afford the rent of his city apartment. And so he also agrees to try out this arrangement. And the book follows the somewhat unlikely friendship that develops between these two people who are seemingly worlds apart.

Valerie

Now, how in the world did this this idea for this book form? What make do you think, I’m gonna write a book about this?

Melanie

Well, I’ve always been interested in these cross cultural connections. I suppose it relates to my background, having come from a mixed background. My father was originally from Hong Kong and my mum is originally from Adelaide, South Australia.

So, I’ve always lived in this space between cultures and I have always been fascinated by the interaction between people from different worlds. And my life has, you know, been informed by those kind of experiences too.

Even as a student myself I lived with people and during my medical training and have experienced some of the awkward interactions that take place in the novel, Room for a Stranger.

But in terms of this actual premise of the homeshare type arrangement, that actually came to me through a brief news story I saw on the ABC one day, which was describing the very similar relationship between an elderly Australian woman and a Chinese student that had come to live in her house. Although my imagination is purely fictional, that was I guess the springboard for the premise for this novel, which I thought was just such a great kind of pressure cooker environment for two people that don’t know each other. Having to share the intimate and claustrophobic space of a family home together.

Valerie

So you’re also a general practitioner. So you are doctor. When did you decide that you were interested in writing?

Melanie

I’ve always loved writing and reading from a very young age. And as long as I can remember, I have been trying my hand at writing. And so when it came to the end of high school it was always a difficult decision to make, whether to go into the more science stream or whether to go towards more creative industries.

I did have a very practical Chinese father who did point out that it is hard to make a life as an artist. And that perhaps I should have a plan B. And fortunately for me, I was very interested in the sciences as well. And I did very much want a job that is involved interacting with people perhaps more than sitting at a desk.

And so I was not forced into medicine by any means, but it was slightly reluctantly that I gave up, you know, the creative pursuit because I had at high school managed to balance the two.

And so it was really only once I finished my medical training and had a bit more time on my hands that I decided that I wanted to reignite that side. And I came across this organization called The Creative Doctors Network and I linked up with them and went to a couple of their events. And what struck me was that the doctors that were there, which were doctors who were doing photography and visual arts, and not just writing and music, it struck me that those doctors were really quite happy compared to some of the more burnt out GPs that I’d met on my travels. Or the consultants on the hospital wards.

So I decided perhaps this is the good, the better path to take, a more well-rounded path. And so that’s really when it started for me, when I tried to kind of balance the two. And yeah, it’s been great. One feeds into the other and I really like having the two different aspects to my creative and medical parts.

Valerie

And so when you decided that you were going to pursue this in parallel to your work as a GP, what did that look like on a practical level? Did you have to carve out time after hours or on weekends? Or did you take a bigger step and say, I’m gonna do this one day a week or two days a week? You know, actually dedicate some work time that you were doing doctor stuff. How did that look when you first started doing it? And also how does it look now that you know you are two books in?

Melanie

Yeah. I think it’s look very different probably now than at the beginning. At the beginning I was still working full time in medicine and really the writing was something I did in stolen moments. On the weekend, in the evening.

And really I became more serious about it funnily enough when I became pregnant with my first child. I guess felt suddenly that I didn’t have a lot of time available to me anymore. And if I was ever gonna do it I should do it than.

But again, it was still very much in those kind of spare moments. There wasn’t a protected time, it wasn’t really structured into my routine. And the first book, Australia Day, was the culmination of stories written in that kind of environment.

But obviously after securing a book deal, you’ve got a deadline and you can’t necessarily just rely on those moments coming about. And I remember my agent telling me, look you’re gonna have to try and structure some writing time into your week.

And it makes it much easier to when you have an advance and a contract to validate taking that time. I think I probably wouldn’t have prioritised it in the same way. Which is not the right thing. I think we should learn to prioritise our creative passions. But it is easier when there’s someone expecting something from you.

So nowadays I do have one full day when the kids are at school and I’m not working which is my writing day. And then there’s a couple of other afternoons throughout the week. And then I still do that stolen moment thing as well. But especially with writing the long form novel, you really do need longer stretches of time. With short stories, you can kind of get away with a couple of hours here and there. But I found it a real struggle to do that with the longer form work.

Valerie

Now, the two main characters which you’ve mentioned are Meg, who is 75, and Andy, the international student who’s 21. Now, you’re neither 75 or 21.

Melanie

Somewhere in the middle.

Valerie

Very much in the middle. What did you draw on for the behaviours, and the emotions and the nuances and the language and the understanding of each other? Not only from an age point of view but also from a cultural point of view?

Melanie

Yeah, that’s great question. I guess I have been 20 and 21.

Valerie

Yes.

Melanie

So I did have some of that experience to call on. And Andy’s training is similar to mine. I did move to Australia to study at age 19, around the same age that Andy would have first come to Australia.

My experience is quite different from his because obviously I speak English. That is my only language. And so some of the cultural barriers he experiences are not my lived experience.

I do happen to now work at a university seeing university students, so I’m very fortunate that now I do have some insight through my work into what it’s like to be an international student. As well as obviously when I was training, having friends who were international students, some of whom were from Hong Kong.

And so that’s where the work feeds in, the medical work feeds into my writing. And similarly with the elderly protagonist, I think I’ve drawn very much on the experiences I had for almost a decade working in a community health centre in the western suburbs of Melbourne where the population was very much skewed towards the elderly. And I did see a significant proportion of pensioner patients.

And some of those patients were my, you know, I guess doctors aren’t supposed to have favourite patients, but you do have favourite patients! And some of those older patients were my favourite patients, because they had time, they were very keen to share their stories. And as you kind of relax into your role as a GP, you do start becoming much more interested in your patients’ stories, not just reducing them to their signs and symptoms. And you start to appreciate how important the story behind the patient is.

So that’s where… I feel I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t had those experiences in general practice.

Valerie

Now this book has… It switches points of view between Meg and… Well, it’s third person limited, but still, it’s between Meg’s close point of view and Andy’s close point of view. What did you have to do to get the right voice? And to get really into the right point of view and the right tone so that it was really clear that this was Andy’s point of view, and so on?

Melanie

I think there was really no other way that I could have written this book. I couldn’t have switched from first person to first person. And part of that is how it relates to your last question, in that I think to be able to write first person, you really have to be able to completely inhabit that character. And as you say, I’m not a Chinese 21 year old student, and I’m not a 75 year old elderly woman. And I think I felt more comfortable being slightly distanced from them with the third person.

And also the third person allows you to be, although limited, still observing as well. And this book is very much about observation. Because both Andy and Meg are quiet observers, I would say, of each other, and of the world. And so, yeah, I thought a lot about the point of view. And in the end, I didn’t think there was any other real way to tell this story.

Even in the collection, most of the stories I’ve written are from the third person limited, which is a point of view I really love.

Valerie

And so, take us through a little bit of a timeline. You saw this article, or this news story or whatever that kind of sparked your interest. Take us from that to then how long afterwards did you think, oh, this could be a novel? And then how long to write the first draft and so on? Just a bit of a potted timeline.

Melanie

Yeah, sure. Well, it’s actually a bit funny because I guess I was a bit daunted at the prospect of writing a novel. I always wanted to. It was a secret dream of mine. I think I’d written it in my high school yearbook, that that was one of my key, my bucket list ambitions.

But I had never, I wasn’t one of those writers that had lots of finished novel manuscripts under my bed. So when I wrote the short story collection, and that got shortlisted for the Unpublished Manuscript Award, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, I suddenly got contacted by publishers and my agent.

And when I was going around to publishers with my agent, my agent said to me, look, it would be really good if we could try and get you a two-book deal and publishers generally would love to have a novel. Because short stories are quite a niche market. And it would be great to give them a short story collection and a novel.

And so she said, do you think you could give me a synopsis of a novel?

Valerie

Just like that!

Melanie

Just like that! And so literally, within one night, I wrote the synopsis for Room for a Stranger.

Valerie

No way!

Melanie

Yeah. So I’d probably seen the ABC news piece maybe a month or so before. So it had been kind of swimming around in my head a little bit. But that was all. Just this idea, nothing really concrete.

I had been toying with the idea of writing a story about an international student trying to settle in Melbourne. So that was there already. And I’d always wanted to write a character inspired by my aunt who was a carer her whole life. And had a special place for me in my heart.

So it seems like everything was kind of fitting together. But yeah I wrote a chapter synopsis in one night before we went out to publishers to try and do them. And interestingly, Atticus was there, African Grey Parrot Atticus was there in the synopsis. A few things, details weren’t there. Like the love interests. And I think Meg’s illness probably wasn’t there. Andy’s illness wasn’t there. But the bare bones of it were there.

Valerie

Oh my god! I can’t believe that!

Melanie

I can’t believe looking back! Someone said to me the other day, oh, you’ve really got to go back and look at that synopsis and compare it to the book. And yeah, I probably should do that at some point.

So yeah, so then we were very lucky. We got this two-book deal with Text. And I think the deadline for the first draft of the novel was about two years after we signed the contract. But because we were doing, I was doing publicity for Australia Day for about a few months, I really only got writing on the novel… It probably was all up somewhere between 12 to 18 months to write the first draft.

Valerie

Okay. So you took about 12 to 18 months to write the first draft? And that was based on the one day a week that you had set aside during your week?

Melanie

Yeah. Well, you know, it’s a little bit more than that. Probably one day, a couple of afternoons here and there. Yeah. So might be looking at 10 to 12 hours a week, maybe.

Valerie

Right. Okay. So because you had already written the synopsis, had you pretty much… Did you need to wrestle with any plot ideas? Or you just needed to roll it out? I mean, I know that makes it sound so easy, but you know what I mean.

Melanie

No, no. It was really a struggle actually.

Valerie

Really?

Melanie

I would say. I mean, the bare bones were there, but I’d never written a novel before. And so…

Valerie

[laughs]

Melanie

So I remember… And I’m not a planner, either. I mean, in all other aspects of my life I’m very obsessive and a planner. But when it comes to writing, I don’t actually like to plan too much because for me, part of the magic is actually not knowing what’s happening. I’m kind of more, I go with the character. I try to know the character well and then kind of put them in these situations and see where it goes.

So yeah, I found about a third of the way in, I felt pretty lost. And I remember doing a course at that point, and that was just such a great course. It was just at the right time for me. Because my background is clearly not, you know, I haven’t studied literature or creative writing. And so that kind of gave me a bit of the basics, which I really needed at that point.

And a lot of what I do is just from through reading and through instinct and emulation. And so having someone just teach me the nuts and bolts of structuring a novel at that point in the process was really, really helpful.

So I didn’t, I still… As I was writing it, I didn’t know where these characters were necessarily going. I had a couple of major plot points, but yeah… And as I said, that keeps the magic alive for me, not knowing where, what, how it’s going to end.

Valerie

So you knew you had a certain deadline. You knew you had a day a week, or 10 to 12 hours if you included some of the afternoons. And with that though, did you then have some kind of target word count so that you could ensure that you had everything done in time? Or did you just, were you a bit free and easy about it?

Melanie

Oh, I don’t like to have these absolute word counts. Because I tend to beat myself up about things if I don’t meet certain milestones, so I know that that’s not going to work that well for me. But it’s more about dedicating the time, the fixed time, to writing per day, rather than aiming for a definite word count. Because also so much of the time I know you’ll write so many hundred words and then when you come to look back at it, you’ll end up cutting that. So only a portion of the words you write will even go to the finished novel.

So it was more about the time I would spend sitting at a computer, focused on the book rather than a dedicated wordcount.

And as you know, it’s not an epic saga book. It’s on the shorter side for a novel. But I think that was always going to be the case coming from a short story writer who’s been taught to always choose words carefully and not overwrite.

Valerie

So now that you’ve done both, you’ve written a novel now, you’ve written a whole lot of short stories, is there a preference? And do you think you’re going to go in one direction or another?

Melanie

Ah… I mean, I do love both. I have to be honest when I, as a younger reader, I didn’t read a lot of short stories. And I’m guilty of really only coming to read short stories when I started writing them. But I fell in love with the form. And so short stories will always have a special place for me.

But I think, looking forward, I would like to write another novel. I enjoy the immersion that the novel allows, both for the writer and the reader. But both, I think, forms have their own challenges.

The short story was great for me when I had young kids and didn’t have a lot of long stretches of time. But then it’s challenging because it teaches you to be so disciplined and efficient with words, which I think can be useful when it comes to writing a novel as well.

Valerie

So do you think, how about the next step then? Do you think you’ll make a choice between being a GP and being a writer?

Melanie

Oh, well, I write literary fiction. So it’s hard to make a living as a literary fiction writer, if we’re honest!

But for the reasons I’ve touched on earlier in the interview, that my work really feeds into my writing, I would really like to keep both going, if I could. I actually do really love being a GP. And I’ve… You know, the writing, I love it, but it’s a hard slog sometimes. And it can be quite isolating. And so I like being able to put that away, go to my clinic, and interact with people and be reinspired by stories about their love and loss and grief. Because all of that is relevant to understanding the human condition and all of that feeds into the writing anyway.

So I find them to be quite complementary. They kind of feed different parts of my brain.

Valerie

And are you working on your next manuscript now?

Melanie

No. I’m not physically writing anything yet.

Valerie

Is it in your brain?

Melanie

I don’t have anyone forcing me to write a synopsis at this stage.

Valerie

Yes.

Melanie

Perhaps that’s what I need. I have the germ of an idea.

Valerie

Did that come from a news story?

Melanie

It’s actually… So the last story in the Australia Day collection is called A Good and Pleasant Thing. It’s based around three Chinese sisters who are living in Australia. And I really enjoyed writing that kind of family dynamic and I think I’d like to explore that more. Not necessarily those characters, but I would like to write a – I don’t know if it’ll be a saga – but a family story about a Chinese Australian migrant family.

Valerie

Well, I’ll give you a tip. Just write a synopsis tonight! And you’ll be set. Because clearly that worked for you.

Melanie

Thanks for that.

Valerie

All right. And finally, what would be your top three tips, advice for aspiring writers, who hope to be in a position where you are one day where they will be able to fulfil their dream of being published and writing?

Melanie

Okay. So top three tips. I mean, one I would say, firstly read. Read widely and read outside of your genre. And read a lot within your genre as well. Because I often feel when I’m getting, I’m stuck in a piece of work, the best thing I can do is go read my favourite author or a really inspiring work, and that kind of reenergises me and reinvigorates me to come back to the manuscript.

My second tip would be to, you know, Stephen King says write with the door closed and rewrite with the door open. And I really love that. Because I think I was only ever successful in any submissions after I started showing my work to people. And not to friends or family who are either going to be very critical or alternatively just say, oh, it’s wonderful. And neither of those are particularly helpful.

So writer friends or a writers group is really great for once that first draft is all nutted out and you just need a fresh pair of eyes. It’s scary, but I think it’s really essential.

And the third thing is, you know, the first point was to read, but the third tip I would say is to actually physically write. Because I think a lot of people spend a lot of time talking about their writing, and what they’re going to do, and the ideas. And it’s so beautiful in your head, but it’s the process of translating that idea in your head on to the page that is so painful and so difficult but so necessary.

And so I think it is a hard slog. And I think sometimes emerging writers, myself included, think it shouldn’t be, that it should be easy, and it should flow, and if it isn’t flowing then you’ve got writers block. But that’s just a process. I mean, that’s what you’ve got to go through. And if you write hundreds of pages of just rubbish, there might be one great little nugget in there, and then it’s worth it. All of those hours spent are worth it for that little nugget of gold.

Valerie

Great. And on that note, thank you so much for joining us today, Melanie.

Melanie

Thanks, Valerie. Thanks for having me.

 


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