Mary Moody has had a long passion for gardening. She moved from Sydney to Leura in late 1970s with her family and there became an avid gardener and self-sufficiency advocate. Her gardening and love of writing led to a number of columns on gardening and eventually many books, including the Macmillan Gardening Encyclopaedia, Mary Moody’s Roses, and The Good Life in the Nineties – a book about self-sufficiency.
She is probably most well-known for her French trilogy – Au Revoir, Last Tango in Toulouse and The Long Hot Summer. Written during her time in France, where she lived alone for six months while her family remained in Australia, they were bestsellers in Australia and overseas. She is also the author of The Long Table – a food memoir.
Her latest book is Sweet Surrender: Love, life and the whole damn thing. This book was written after her adventures in France when Mary returned to Australia and embraced the inevitable – growing older and the importance of family.
Click play to listen. Running time: 31.28
* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability
So Mary thanks for joining us today.
Great to talk to you Valerie.
Tell us how did you first start writing? When did that happen, that you discovered that you enjoyed writing?
Well, I think that I must have been born with ink in my veins, in fact. Both of my parents were journalists. One of my grandfathers had been a journalist way back in the 1920s and I grew up in a house where books were being read all the time. I always did well at English and especially the expression at school.
So when I left school understandably I went and trained as a journalist. Back in those days of course you didn’t go to communications at university to become a journalist. You did on the job training, a cadetship, which is like an apprenticeship.
I went to Consolidated Press and Woman’s Weekly was the magazine I got my cadetship on and did a three-year training. I’ve really been writing ever since.
You really made your name about writing about gardening. How did that all happen?
I’ve been very fortunate in my life in the sense that my passions have ended up becoming my career. My career path has followed my passions and back in the 70s when I had my young family, I had the first of four children. I had two at that stage.
I was reading an awful lot about chemicals in the environment, especially in the food chain, about pesticides being used on fruit and vegetables, about chemical fertilizers, about sprays. I was absolutely horrified.
I decided I needed to grow our own fruit and vegetables and herbs, which was a bit crazy as we lived in a tiny little semi-detached cottage in Crows Nest. I started looking up in the Blue Mountains which is an area where we could afford and we got about an acre of ground up there with a lovely old house. And I moved our entire family which at that stage was my husband, David, the two kids and my mum, Muriel, who was a retired sub-editor. She was obviously a journo too.
We moved to Leura and I taught myself to garden by reading books and by talking to gardeners. I had very good gardeners all around me and so I joined a garden club and just became passionately enthusiastic about gardening.
At that point I thought that my career as a writer will probably fade away because I’m not living in Sydney any longer. Out of town, and you know, out of sight out of mind. But various journalist friends of mine would come up for the weekend, as people love to do when you live in the mountains, and sit around your open fire and drink wine all weekend.
They were very, very impressed by my gardening. This is a couple of years down the track when I had really got the hang of it. I think that I started by writing a gardening column for Home Journal magazine and it took off from there and suddenly publishers were getting in touch with me and saying would I edit a book or would I write a book.
I ended up editing about four series of gardening magazines, taking all the photographs myself. I got myself a really good camera and taught myself to use that. I think the reason I was successful is before that gardening books had been written by botanists and horticulturists and they were inclined to be a little bit formal and a little bit scientific and perhaps not very accessible.
Because I was writing as a passionate amateur and making people feel as though they could garden too and it really just worked. So for 25 years that was my career and it was a great career to have working from home. I started off on an electric typewriter and I use to have to courier all my manuscripts down to Sydney.
Then eventually I got a computer and then eventually the Internet happened. The manuscripts of my new book, Sweet Surrender, I actually sent it from Heathrow airport because I put the finishing touches to it on the plane and sat in the Qantas lounge and press “Send” and my publisher in Sydney had it immediately.
I’ve been fortunate that the things that I’ve loved doing in my life have ended up being the things that I have written about.
God love the Internet, hey. It’s wonderful for writers because it basically means you can write from anywhere these days.
That’s right and that’s given me tremendous flexibility because I divide my time between three places, between here near Bathurst where we have the farm. France, obviously I don’t get as much time there but still have the little house there and also now Canada, Vancouver Island because my sister lives over there and she is quite sick. She has Alzheimer’s.
The editing of Sweet Surrender was done from Canada. No, it really does. It gives tremendous flexibility.
You moved from gardening to writing memoir and you do a very successful series. Did you actually make that conscious decision, oh, I’d like to try a different genre now? Or how did that come about in the first place?
Once again it was a bit sort of serendipity. I had decided at the age of 49 that I wanted to have some time off. My kids had grown up and left home. I’d been working for the ABC’s gardening show for nine years and I had been meeting deadlines constantly. I had my garden open as part of the open garden scheme. I had been caring for my mother who had become very frail and elderly at that point.
I thought once the kids left home I thought this is my chance to go and live in another culture. I told my agent, Lynn Trantor not to sign me up for any book deals for six months. I had taken six months off from the ABC and that I was going to go off and have this adventure and live on my own. I had never lived on my own before.
She said, “Well, why are you doing that?” I more or less said as I had explained that I’d had this incredibly busy, hectic life so far and I wanted this downtime.
She said, “I think that would make a fantastic book.” I remember being horrified because I thought well the whole reason that I’m running away is that I’m trying to get away from deadlines. But nevertheless she introduced me to a publisher, Tom Gilliard at Pan Macmillan.
I said, “Well, I’m not going to take an advance because I don’t know if I will get around to writing the book. This is my holiday. I don’t want to be sitting in front of a computer during my six months.”
In fact the first three months I didn’t do anything. I just revelled in being on my own and that wonderful freedom, having no possessions, just living in the simple room in the back of a shop in a medieval village. I just had a bed and a table and two chairs. I did have a little laptop but I didn’t have the Internet. I didn’t have a phone. I didn’t really have anything. It was wonderful.
Nobody could interfere with me or touch me or ask me to do anything. It was a fantastic period in my life anyway. Eventually I thought that I would put some thoughts down on paper. Tom Gilliard had said something quite interesting to me. He said, “We don’t want you to write a travelogue. We don’t want you to just write about where you go and who you meet and what you see. We want you to write about yourself as a middle-age woman and why you have reached this point where you have this desperate need to just get off and be on your own for a while.”
So when I started to write I found that quite difficult to deal with the whole factor of writing about myself or writing from within myself because as a journalist you are trained to write about other people. You are trained to interview them and draw their stories out and write about them. A good journalist never sort of winds themselves into the story at all. You are completely in the background anyway.
I didn’t even know what person to write it in. I remember ringing in Trantor and saying, “What person?”
She said, “First person, you silly woman. It’s your story.”
So off I went and it was just quite a cathartic experience because I’d had a difficult childhood. My parent had been both alcoholics. There was a lot of domestic violence and it was a pretty hairy sort of, it had its good points. No childhood is all black and bleak but there had been a lot of sadness there. Once I actually started writing about it I was sitting in this little room in front of my computer sobbing my eyes out because for the first time I was really confronting my childhood in print which is very different from talking about it.
I’d obviously talked about it to my husband, David, and had even talked to my children about it. But it’s so much more tangible when you write things down so I found it quite emotional. I wrote about my sister running away from home at 18 because she couldn’t deal with my father’s aggression. I wrote about all those sorts of things and I also wrote about eating and drinking and having fun in France and kicking my heels up and all of that.
I came back and did give the book to Pan Macmillan and I can remember thinking, “Well nobody will be very interested in this book.” I really did. I thought nobody cares about my dysfunctional childhood in Mossman or anything like that but in fact it was extraordinary.
We did a publicity tour just to kick the book off. And Au Revoir was in the top 10 and it stayed in there for ages. And it sold, I can’t remember, well, close to 200,000 I think.
Was that surprising to you?
I was absolutely gob smacked. I honestly could not believe it. Yes, it just sort of demonstrated to me that people actually do love other people’s stories and especially if they are told in a very candid way. If you are very honest and you don’t sort of try and fudge it at all people will really relate to it and I guess that’s what happened.
The second book in the series, Last Tango in Toulouse, especially got a lot of attention because you wrote about the affair that you had while you were there. Did you expect such different types of reactions from the public and from your reading public?
How has it affected your relationship with your family in the aftermath of it?
Well see that’s the whole big tricky thing when you are writing about something as deeply personal and traumatic as that. It had devastating consequences within the family in relationship to my husband of course primarily, but also my children.
That was an enormous dilemma because after the success of Au Revoir the publishers obviously wanted me to keep writing. So I went back to France. I started to write the second book and I thought that I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to write about but I knew that it had to be positive and it had to be personal and all that sort of thing because that’s obviously what people had related to with the first one.
I went back to France and I must have been about a third of the way through the writing of the book when the affair happened. Of course I had not planned it. It just came like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. I was completely traumatized. I think that I lost something like about 15 kilos. I just kind of couldn’t eat. I was paralysed with the emotion of the whole thing.
I came back to Australia and my husband had worked out what was going on and so we had this huge confrontation. The family were all involved and informed about what had been going on. It was just a ghastly period.
But I had a deadline and I remember I rang Tom, my publisher, and said, “Look, Tom I don’t think that I can actually write this book because my life is turned upside down. This thing has happened and its over but its got dire consequences.”
He said, “Well, it’s up to you if you want to keep writing, keep writing. If you feel that you can’t write any more because of what’s happened that’s your call.”
And what I did was, I just kept writing. I wrote exactly what had happened. I thought, well, I’ll just go for it and write the whole thing down. My husband was very opposed to that idea.
So I also wrote another version of the book. A very similar, with a lot of different things happening but I just did not mention the affair. When I read both books through I realized that one of them had a ring of honesty to it and the other one just was a vaguely unsatisfying book really because you knew something was wrong with this woman, me as the central character crazy as it seems.
You knew something was wrong but you really didn’t know what it was. So in the end I said to my husband that I really, really want to go with the honest story. He read it and I changed some things just to make him more comfortable but I just left a few things out that he thought were a bit too deeply personal.
He read it and he said, “I don’t like this book. I’m never going to like it but it’s your life. It’s your story and I support your right to write about what happened to you.”
So he in fact actually physically delivered the printed manuscript to Pan Macmillan himself as just to demonstrate that he totally supported what I was doing. It was a nightmare and then the publicity afterwards was really the unpleasant part of it.
Some people were fantastic but some journalists, especially male journalists, I did get a bit of a savaging in a couple of interviews. I really believe that there is a double standard. I think that if a man wrote about falling in love with someone in the middle of his life and facing the dilemma of was he going to stay in his marriage or not people would admire him for his honesty.
But because I’m a woman and a grandmother, it was some male journalists just could not deal with that at all. I did get a lot of flack but at the end of the day I think that it was the only way to do it. I couldn’t really just leave those things out.
Was the writing process therapeutic for you in some way? Did it help you get over the trauma of it?
Absolutely. In fact that was something that I discovered when I wrote the first one. It was like a form of therapy, writing down about my childhood. Then with everything that had happened with the affair and ending the relationship and feeling so terrible about my husband and angry with him because I felt that our relationship we had grown apart and that’s why this had happened.
To actually sit down and write it out it crystallizes your thoughts and it actually helps you to make sense of the whole thing somehow. I don’t quite know how but it certainly did for me. And that’s how it’s been ever since.
There was another book after Last Tango called The Long Hot Summer and certainly with this latest book, the same thing, it is like a form of intensive therapy when you sit down and get it all down on paper.
So this most recent book, Sweet Surrender, sounds kind of like it’s a final book in the series. Is it? Are you planning to write more memoirs?
Every time that I write one I think that it’s going to be the last one. When I finished The Long Hot Summer I thought, well, I’m never, ever going to do this again because I really find in a way its like sort of standing naked in the street when you are writing all of this stuff down.
I get fantastic emails through my website and fantastic letters through the publisher from readers, both men and women, but mostly women. That sort of urges me along or encourages me to feel that it’s okay to keep going but I didn’t want to do another one and in fact I did all sorts of other things to distract myself.
I made a film for SBS on the restaurant in front where I spend a lot of time which is a working man’s café that has been in one family for a hundred years and five generations of women run it. So I made that documentary. It went to air last January and I wrote a book for Pan Macmillan about it also called Lunch With Madame Murat.
I did a rose book and another gardening book and I wrote a cookbook. I was sort of desperately wanting to do all sorts of things that weren’t just about my personal life. In fact I had signed a contract with Pan Macmillan to write a book that was a general book about the Baby Boomer Generation and how we are fighting the notion of every growing old and how can have a bit of Botox and go to the gym and climb mountains and dance on tables. We are never going to surrender to aging at all.
Then all of these different things happened in my life. My sister was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s which was devastating and one of my grandchildren who already had problems, she developed epilepsy and still has a very, very difficult life. She will never walk or talk and can’t feed. She has to be fed with a tube. So that has become a very difficult thing.
Two of my adult children went through marriage breakdowns and I found that incredibly confronting and difficult. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune system disease which isn’t imminently life-threatening but does have some sinister long-term connotations.
I just couldn’t write this book about the Baby Boomers. It was going to be called Forever Young. I thought this is ridiculous. I don’t believe in this anymore. This whole notion that we will just go on and there are no consequences, I guess, for actions. So I had yet another painful meeting with Tom Gilliard, painful in the sense that I was saying to him, “I can’t do this book. I don’t believe in it.”
He said, “Well, why not write about these things that are happening in your life because a lot of people will relate to them. You are caring for your sister with Alzheimer’s. A lot of women and men in their 50s care for elderly parents with Alzheimer’s and a lot of people have children and grandchildren with severe disabilities. A lot of people get sick themselves. A lot of people deal wit their children’s marriage breakdowns.”
So basically I did sigh a big sign and sort of “here we go again” but I tended to agree with him. I thought, “Well, all right there is a lot of material here.” So off I went again.
It does feel like the end. It really does but already within a day and half of that book coming out I was getting emails through the website from people saying, “Oh, I just loved that. You make me feel normal. You make me feel that I’m part of the human race because it’s happening to other people too and please keep writing.” So I don’t know.
In the midst of everything that’s going on in your life and the number of books that you write, how do you fit writing into your obviously very hectic schedule? Is there a daily routine that you go through? What happens?
When I have signed a contract and the contract always has a deadline. The book manuscript has to be X number of words at least and it has to be delivered on a certain date. I tend to just sit down with a calendar and I work out approximately how many words that I need to write a day.
I don’t want to be writing at the weekends because that’s grandchildren time and family time, gardening time. I allow myself my times when I take off on my trips and things like that. I sort of deduct all the obvious things and I usually deduct at least a couple of weeks for getting sick or just not being in the mood. And then I am incredibly disciplined.
I literally get up, my husband gives me a cup of tea in bed and then I leap up and then I am in front of that computer until lunchtime. I usually knock off at lunchtime and then in the afternoon I can garden or do any other creative thing or go and visit some of the family who live only 40 minutes away or something like that.
I would say then it would be maybe four hours a day and in that time I can usually write a couple of thousand words.
That’s pretty good for four hours.
I think that the way I write is the way that I talk so I’m a very straight-forward communicator. My father, as a journalist, once said to me you know never use a complex or big word if there is a shorter equivalent, a more commonly used equivalent. So I don’t think that I write in a literary style. I write in a very communicative style which basically flows. I guess it just flows.
I’m not agonizing over sentences or trying to dream up metaphors. I want to paint a picture. I love to paint a picture of where I am at any particular time but you can do that in a very straight-forward fashion. Basically what I’m about is telling the story. I try and get a couple of thousand words written a day.
I think that as a journalist you are used to writing so many words in such a short period of time as well. I don’t know if you’ve found this but as a journalist myself I’ve found that with quite a lot of my book deadlines which I took very seriously, the deadlines that is, a couple of weeks before, a few weeks before I would always be getting messages from the publisher saying, “Would you like extra time?” And I couldn’t understand why they would do that.
How irritating. I’d be terribly irritated because really by the time that I get to the end of the book, I’m so jack of it I really just want to get rid of it. The last thing that I want is to contemplate another four weeks of writing.
I mean I know that you have to go subsequently have to go through all of the post-production with the editor and that sort of thing.
Yes, very irritating.
I’m quite happy when I make the deadline. I’m happy to press the button as send it down the line to the publisher and then have a bit of a breathing space. I love editors. I think editors just take what you do and make it that much better. I think that they take what you do and make it that much better. They have an outside eye on everything, a different perspective.
I’ve had excellent editors on my books and they’ve always said to me, “Oh, I want to know more about this.” They have more or less, not drawn it out of me, but after I have done the first draft and then the editor goes through, they really do encourage you to put more down, to be more explicit.
Tell us about The Long Table food memoir.
The Long Table was a gorgeous project. I loved working on that and the idea was to do a cookbook because I’m a mad keen cook, and as were my parents and my daughter too is a very good cook.
But once again the publisher didn’t just want a list of recipes. They wanted it to be a bit of a story, a bit of a journey as well. It was great fun. I reflected on growing up in the 50s and 60s and the food that we used to eat back then and they way that we shopped which was so different to the supermarkets of today. You dropped a list into the green grocer and the grocery store and everything was delivered on cardboard cartons on the back porch. I wrote about all of that.
Then I wrote about when I started to have my own family and how passionate I was about fresh food and how I started to garden in order to grow all these veggies and have the fruit myself and wrote about the sort of healthy food that I was cooking in the 70s for my family but very traditional sort of meals. Then I wrote about the fun of going off to France and discovering the markets. Then ultimately I wrote the last chapter was about being here at the farm and cold climate and fires going and grandchildren coming and sitting around the table.
It was a very personal book but it wasn’t personal in the same sense of being – there were no revelations. It was just a lovely family memoir around food and I loved doing it.
What are you writing now? What are you working on now?
Believe it or not, Valerie, I’m working on a novel.
A fictional novel?
A fictional novel, yeah. So I’m having a go at that.
That’s completely different.
Yes, well I didn’t ever think that I had any talent for fiction but several years ago I was invited to go in a competition called “Once Upon a Deadline” in which a whole bunch of authors were given a computer for a day and sent around a lot of different locations.
Yes, I remember that.
Once again my journalistic skills came in very, very handy because we had to write 1200 words and then we had to stand up at the end of it and do it as a performance piece to a live audience. There were about 1000 people there plus the judges.
I wrote exactly 1200 words which nobody else did. Everybody else overwrote. Anyway I won the competition. I couldn’t believe it. It was pure fiction, it was total fantasy.
It was a thriller in 1200 words and so I thought to myself well if I ever really decided to turn my hand to it I could probably do it. In fact there were two ideas that I’ve got. One is a very light-hearted comedy sort of fun book. And I’ve already done a few chapters basically about a bunch of ex-pats from all over the world who buy a chateau in France and set themselves up like a retirement village for themselves in a chateau.
The other one is a more dramatic book which is based upon my father’s life and the fact that he lived in America during the war and was a correspondent for the Sydney Daily Telegraph. I’ve got to go and spend some time in New York and Washington where he used to go of Roosevelt’s press conferences. I’ve got to do some real in depth research and get hold of all the stories that he filed and all that sort of thing. But I want to fictionalize it because I think I can make it more interesting that way.
So have you actually got three on the boil or are you deciding which one to pursue?
I think that I am going to go with the light-hearted one first because the other one is going to take more research. I’m doing my usual things. I’m just about to go off to China and do a trick to look for plants in the Himalayas, keeping myself busy as ever.
Your writing is nothing but varied and fascinating especially the books that are based on your life and experiences but I think that it will be absolutely fascinating to see the fictional work when that finally comes out.
I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into it.
On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Mary.
It’s been wonderful to talk to you.