Maureen McCarthy: Best-selling Melbourne-based author

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Maureen McCarthyMaureen McCarthy is a Melbourne-based author whose most recent book is The Convent, a fictional novel about the lives for four generations of women who are all inextricably linked to The Abbotsford Convent, a real place in Collingwood Melbourne. The Abbotsford Convent has function as a convent, orphanage, laundry, farm, school, nursing college. These days, in real life, it’s a vibrant artistic community featuring arts and culture organisations like the Australian Writers’ Centre, a series of writers studios, and a diverse range of other artists.

Maureen is also well known for her novel bestselling and much-loved book Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life which was made into a highly successful four-part mini-series produced by Trout Films in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Click play to listen. Running time: 34.56

The Convent

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Maureen, thank you for joining us today.

Maureen
Oh, a pleasure, Valerie.

Valerie
I understand that you actually started off as an art teacher, which is very different to writing. What inspired you to move into writing in the first place?

Maureen
Probably because I was such a bad teacher. No, I actually was married to a filmmaker, and I got into writing an odd sort of way. More for want of something better to do, I think, because I just couldn’t stand teaching, I only did it a couple of years. I started working with him on small projects doing some research and writing. And, we did a big show for SBS that I researched and wrote, co-wrote, and that got me going. That was way back in the late ‘80s, it was a big drama project, and I wrote books to go with it. It was from that point I thought, “This is me. I want to write books after this.” So, we sort of went our separate ways from there, but I got into through filmmaking really.

Valerie
How did you determine that you wanted to write your most recent novel, The Convent? What inspired that?

Maureen
Well, that was a bit of a complicated thing. My mum had grown up there. My mum was there, as an orphan, at the Abbotsford Convent from age 3 to 16. And we’d always heard about the convent and I’ve been there a couple of times. It was sort of finished as a convent in the 1970s, and then the government took it over, and I’ve been there where it looked like it was going to be bulldozed any minute, and then it got taken over and made into this very vibrant community.

And, I’ve been there a few times, I thought, “This is where my mum was.” And then I moved out quite nearby and I started going there a lot, and I never went through the gates without thinking of my mother, and of the past life this lovely place, it’s a lovely place now with cafés and beautiful gardens, and artist studios and everything, but all of those spaces were used by nuns, by – there was a huge orphanage, there was a laundry with the “bad girls,” they’d take them from the courts and working a huge commercial laundry. And, I knew about all of that, and I thought, “God, it would just be so – I’d love to just…” and the whole place just meant so much to me. I thought – I really thought, because of my mother being there I suppose, initially, but I thought, “It’s got so much history, this place. I’m going to –” that was really what got me going. I thought, “Oh, I’d love to just set a book here.” And using some of my mum’s history and then researching a whole lot more, which I did.

Valerie
How did you go about researching what you needed to find out about the convent and your mother?

Maureen
There’s a really good archive there, so I was able to pull up my mum’s – what was there of my mum’s history. She was born 1912, was there from the time she was three, fifteen right through to when we was sixteen, so almost into the ‘30s, but… and so I was able to read up a lot from the archive. But, also the wonderful thing is, Valerie, there’s still nuns around. They sold the place off and then they bought a whole lot of housing nearby, so there were old nuns around that I could talk to, and also they, along with the sort of houses for themselves, they bought houses for some of the “girls, who were old ladies now, who had been completely institutionalized. There was a nursing home near and all these women still alive could tell me their stories.

Valerie
Wow.

Maureen
So they’re well into their 70s and 80s, some of these girls went there as orphans and they never wanted to leave because – I know from my own experience, but even from just being in a boarding school for six years, it’s very easy to get institutionalized, and some of these girls never wanted to leave and they just stayed with the nuns all their lives, never left.

Valerie
Wow.

Maureen
But there are others, of course, I went to see some of the girls who had been in there as punishment, and I met some of those, and heard about their stories, as well. So, a lot of it was talking to people.

Valerie
Did you discover a lot about your own mother through writing this book?

Maureen
Well, quite a bit, yes. I mean I discovered that her mother – it’s actually in the archives, that her mother would come intermittently, knocking on the door, wanting to see her daughter. When her daughter, my mum, was taken away from her, she never saw her again. But, she would come back to the convent. In one of the little notes on this woman coming back for my mum, it had: “She’s speaking filthy language and smelling of drink.” Little things like that, you know?

Which is just great little hints into the times and the life, and incredible judgmental attitude to women. Oh, boy. If you didn’t tow the line, you know, you could have your children – it wasn’t just a matter of neglecting the children. If you didn’t tow the line, you could have your child taken away from you, certainly by the father and by a couple of other people too. You only needed a couple of people to have your children taken away. It’s just amazing.

Valerie
I mean it sounds like such an amazing true story, why did you decide to write a fictional novel?

Maureen
Well, I’ve always written fiction. I sometimes will start something, “I,” in the first person, “Maureen McCarthy…” and it just never feels right, but of course I am in all my books, I’m certainly in that book as well, very much so. It’s a hard one to answer that one. It’s what medium do you feel comfortable in? Not medium – that’s the wrong word, but how you want to tell a story. Yeah. And, I just tend towards life-based fiction, if you know what I mean. Based on real events, real people, but it’s still fiction. Yeah.

Valerie
You have a number of characters in this book that are all interlinked, not only with each other, but with the convent. So, when you are writing that, though, on a practical level, because you’ve got four generations of women.

Maureen
Yeah.

Valerie
But, on a practical level, how do you map this out? Do you figure out all of the characters and their relationships beforehand, or do you let them emerge as you go along? How does that work?

Maureen
Well, a bit of a combination, but I can tell you that The Convent book, as you said, it’s four generations within the one family. So, I’ve got the 19 year old, Peach, who’s been adopted out when she was a baby. Without giving too much away, then it was her mother who was a nun there for some time, and then – by the way my sister was a nun. And, then there was the character, the older – Peaches grandmother, who’s very much – her story is based on my mother. And, then there is Sadie, who’s based on my grandmother, I suppose.

Once I decided on the four generations within the one story, it’s very strange, but it all just sort of fell into place. I knew the story. I knew a lot of it. And I had done research, and I certainly never write plans for myself. I’m certainly never a very planned writer, but somehow that worked – yeah, I hope so anyway.

Valerie
I guess because it was life-based fiction you knew how the story was going to pan out.

Maureen
Yes, but the whole story of Peach, the younger girl, and tying her life in with what happens with her mates, she’s got this mate Deck, who’s in a life dilemma that’s very akin to how the women were in the convent years ago, but it plays out very differently in today’s world, you know, with the unwanted pregnancy. All of that was sort of fictional, although I have to say that a very good friend of my has two adopted daughters, so I knew up close what adoption was like too, from them. So, yes, in a way it was very life-based, yeah.

Valerie
How long did it take you to write this book when you finally kind of knuckled down to researching and writing, and what do you think was the most challenging thing about it?

Maureen
Well, usually my books take about 18 months, two years. I wish it could be half that time. I wish I could put out a book every year. But, I just tend to meander a long a bit, and I do a bit of research, and then I do a bit of writing, and I get a new idea of how it’s going to – what direction it’s going to take. So, then I have to stop and do a few workshops, take a few workshops, or go to a few schools. So, it’s never an easy one to answer, for how long, but it’s usually within that 18 months-two year period, I can get a book together.

Valerie
Do you typically do all of the research, or most of the research first, before you sit down and write it out? Or, how does that work?

Maureen
No. No, I don’t. Once again, I wish I did. It would make more sense. But, I tend to – at the beginning of a novel, Valerie, I lose all confidence. I think, “Oh, I’m never going to be able to write this.” “OK, I’ve read all of this history of the place,” because there’s a big history of the Abbotsford Convent that’s been written, so I read that a couple of times. I think, “OK, now there’s a whole lot of other stuff that I should do… but how am I going to tell this story?” So, I’m grabbling with that and I don’t do anymore history research for awhile, but then I find that I need to. So, it’s all jumbled up.

Valerie
Yeah. I understand that you had the benefit of actually writing in the convent, in the writers’ studios in the convent. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that came about and why you decided to do that?

Maureen
Yes. I had written all my books at home before, but then I always had – I never quite lived alone before, and I just felt the need to sort of get out. It’s a bit of an isolating experience. I knew that they had the – writing is an isolating experience. But, I knew they had these artists’ studios, writers’ studios. I was lucky enough to get an Australian Council grant for this book, which was just fantastic. I thought, “Right, I’m going to see what that’s like, working out of home, and get myself a room there.” So, I had to be on a waiting list and everything, they’re quite coveted places. Anyway, one came up and I took it, and it’s not that far, I can just ride my bike there, and it’s great. I really enjoy it, so much so The Convent finished and I really didn’t want to give it up, so my grant is also finished, so I have to share a room now, so I moved into a room with someone else, half the cost sort of thing.

But it’s still really good. I really love it.

I felt with writing The Convent too, that I needed to be in the place and to sort of smell it, walk around and know it intimately too. Where the artists’ studios are is where the nuns lived, the actual convent part, and there’s these long corridors. So, every time I walk up the very wide wooden stairs and look along the corridor and see where the big statute of the Sacred Heart used to be – it’s not there now, obviously, you know, it just gives me a feeling of the place, all of those rooms just leading off on each… all of those cells they used to call them in those days. Three floors of cells, you know? At one stage, Valerie, there were 150—in the ‘60s there was 150 nuns there in that place. Looking after 1500 to 2000 women and girls on that site.

Valerie
Oh my goodness.

Maureen
It was huge.

Valerie
That is huge.

Maureen
And are basically self-sufficient. They had a piggery, they had farms, they had poultry, they had – the only thing – they had schools, orphanages. I mean it was a huge, huge place, 6.5 hectares. So, I mean even from that point of view it’s very interesting.

Valerie
Yeah. What a gift, though? To be able to write there for the entire time, in the very place itself.

Maureen
Yeah – yeah. No, I love it. It’s just a lovely community there now too, of painters and writers. I love going there, it’s really good.

Valerie
So, are you planning – what was it like, how was it different to writing from home, and was it better? And why?

Maureen
Yeah – yeah. No, I liked it. Often, because naturally I’m a pretty lazy person, I have to say. I think, “Oh, I won’t go there today,” but you mess around at home in a way you don’t want. It’s a little bit of a business, I’ve got to get on the bike, and lock up the bike, and I think, “I cannot be bothered. I’ve got my office upstairs, I can just work from home.” But, it’s always worth it just to go away from your home life and make that break. Get a coffee at the beautiful little café, sit there and zone out from domestics, and my kids, and all their problems, and my own problems, and just zone into this book. It was great.

Valerie
Tell us then, when you’re writing a book, do you have a particular writing routine, like some people have to start with a cup of tea and then reading  yesterday’s pages, or something like that. Do you have a routine?

Maureen
I wish I could say I do. I would say though that I do love to take a little time to zone out of my practical life, of people coming for tea, or my son’s got a new child, or da, da, da… and just letting – one way of doing that is to grab a coffee or a cup of tea and read – I read a lot of writers, and I love to read just a few pages of a good book, and that will just take me away, take me into the writing zone.

Valerie
Many of your stories feature young women either in their late teens, maybe early 20s, do you have a particular interest or passion about writing about this stage in life, or something?

Maureen
Well, I think I must have, because they just keep appearing. And, it doesn’t quite make sense, because it’s – like they’re just a little bit too old to be teenagers, so people – “Is it teen fiction?” “It’s not exactly.” It’s young adult, I suppose, but I often have older characters as well, but I do gravitate – I’m going to really try in the next book not to do it, just to get away from it. I feel like that was a very interesting time in my life. I love that time in life. I love looking back to that time of life. The late teens/early 20s, I just feel like so much is going on there, decisions are being made, relationships being formed, values being developed. I find it a really – it was an interesting time in my life, and I see it as – yeah, just before the age of about 26 or 27, when you start sort of sussing out, you’ve sort of sussed out a bit – I just find it an interesting time. Yeah.

Valerie
You made reference to your next book. Have you already started on that?

Maureen
Yes, I have, except I’m not as far as long, I have a contract and everything, and I should be much further along with it than I am. But, once again, I’m taking a big institution and like that was The Convent, I’ve done, and oddly enough – I won’t go into why, it’s sort of another family story, but I’m taking the big Willsmere Kew Asylum for the insane.

Which is just not far away. That was closed down even after the convent. It’s now being made into just quite expensive housing.

Like, it’s all being renovated into housing. But, you go there, there’s still walls – because it’s heritage, and still the old hospital is there. I’ve been doing research into that, and I have a story that I’m working on for that. But, I’m sort of a bit scared, because it’s not quite the – it’s a pretty sad story.  You know, what happens to people with mental problems. You know, just extraordinary stuff. Like, little children being born there to a mother and never going out, they actually live their whole life there and died there.

I mean this is what happened, but part of me just thinks, “People don’t know this stuff.”

Valerie
No.

Maureen
And it’s sort of very – it’s a part of our history. It’s not so long ago either, Valerie. That’s the weird thing. It’s not long ago.

Valerie
You also write scripts, because as you mentioned that’s how you kind of got into writing.

Maureen
Yes.

Valerie
Script writing is a much, much, more collaborative process, than the isolating of writing a novel. How do you deal with that? Especially when you’re so used to just being your own boss kind of thing, suddenly you have to collaborate with all of these other people.

Maureen
Yeah – no, I don’t do script writing anymore, Valerie. That’s why – for exactly the reasons you’ve pinpointed, that’s why I sort of stopped. Look, it’s fun in a way, but to sit in the room with half a dozen people and be told what’s wrong with your script, and you know, people get very excited about the ideas and the characters. They tell you what’s right with it and everything, but at the end of the day you’ve got to go away and take onboard some of those changes and it will work or won’t work, depending on what the producer says, or sometimes you’ll write a scene – this is so long ago now, but I just don’t do it anymore. It’s not me anymore. You’ll write a scene that you think is pivotal to the whole half hour of TV or something, and because it’s raining that day, or they’ve run out of money, they don’t shoot it. That happened to me once.

Valerie
Do you write everyday? Do you feel it’s important to write everyday?

Maureen
No, I don’t. I think – well, in a way I do because I very much start off by hand in big notebooks. So, I’ll do some of that sort of work, most days, but working seriously on my book, not everyday. No. But, it just depends on what’s going on. Sometimes I’ll get a really good run on, and I’ll do it everyday, but not all the time.

Valerie
Some writers feel that when they’re in the process of actually writing, serious writing, they shouldn’t be reading other books at that time, in case it kind of infuses into their story. Do you have any issue with that?

Maureen
No, quite the opposite. No, I love picking up – especially if I’m really in the zone with my book and I’m feeling up about it, I feel, “Yeah, that’s great.” Even just this morning I started rereading a bit of Colm Tóibín,Brooklyn, and it’s just – it’s just so good, the writing is so good. It just reminds me, again, the power of it. I need to be reminded again the power of story, the power of words. I love it so much when other people do it well. It gives you sort of inspiration to try your best to do it as well as you can. I sound very jolly holistic, don’t I? But, no, I find it inspirational.

Valerie
Cast your mind back, obviously you are a very, very experienced and successful novelist now, but cast your mind back to when you were writing your first couple of novels, what did you do to hone your craft? What did you do to try and be better?

Maureen
The big thing you can do is read. Reading widely is what tells you what you’re able to do, what’s possible, that’s the way you really learn. If you’re loving it and reading it and loving it, and writing down – often I have notebooks, I’m writing down just sentences or paragraphs that grab me and rereading them afterwards and thinking about the way they do grab you.

But the thing is also you are working for somebody in the sense, if someone is giving you a contract and you’re working with these marvelous people, in my experience they’ve been marvelous people, the publisher and editor, I’ve only ever worked with good people. They’re telling you, “Look, Maureen, this first half is great, but the second half it just drags, you know? And we don’t understand the motivation there, it doesn’t feel right,” and so you talk about that. They’re not saying, “You must do this…” “You must do that…” But, they’re just sort of helping you – that is a lovely time, I always enjoy that time, after I’ve done the first draft I enjoy that time of working once they’ve said, as long as they basically love it, they’re telling you how to make it better, and you’re learning from that. That’s teaching me a lot, yeah.

Valerie
Work with good people.

Maureen
Yeah, yeah.

Valerie
One of your best-selling books, Queen Kat, Carmel & St. Jude Get A Life, was made into a series, what’s it like seeing that happen? Seeing your words actually come alive on the screen?

Maureen
It’s fantastic, I wish it would happen again. It’s great, yeah. It was great.

Valerie
Was that how you had pictured it?

Maureen
Well, not exactly, but people would often say, “Oh, were you pleased with it?” you know, sort of expecting that I’m going to be displeased. Often people sort of think, I suppose it’s that Hollywood thing, you know, really famous writers, big writers get snarky about what’s being done to their books, sometimes you read that. But, I certainly enjoyed the whole thing, certainly I had some criticisms, I felt like there wasn’t enough this or that… But, I loved the three girls that they chose, that were cast in the main roles. I thought a lot of it – it was just great and it was a real buzz to sit down on Sunday night and see Queen Kat, Carmel & St. Jude, from a book by Maureen McCarthy going right across Australia. It was fantastic.

Valerie
Yes. Finally, what do you think is the most challenging thing about writing a novel, and what is the most rewarding thing?

Maureen
The challenging thing, for me, is keeping my confidence up, really believing that I can do it, because I’m naturally a pretty – I don’t know if I come across like that, but I can often lose momentum. I just think, “Oh, who wants this anyway?” Sometimes I’ll read a really fabulous book and I think, “I’m so far away from that, what’s the point?” You know? So, for one reason or another you can sort of lose it. You can lose it, because to sit in that room by yourself you actually have to believe that you’re doing something very, very exciting that other people are going to love, you know? You actually have to believe it’s important. And, if you lose that feeling, which I often do, that’s the hard part.

What was the other part of the question?

Valerie
What is the most rewarding thing?

Maureen
Well, the rewarding thing, I suppose, the couple of things, it’s just wonderful if you’ve been very tentative about a first draft and you’re just hoping to hear from the publisher and they ring up and say, “Maureen…” you know? And sometimes they haven’t, you know? They say, “Oh, look, we’ve got big problems here,” but if they ring up and say, “Just love it – love it.” I think, “Oh god!” I just fall on the floor and think, “Oh lord, because you’ve been working on something for months and months and months. You’re working in the dark, you don’t really know if it works.

That… but, also the other things is when you get the doorbell rings, and you’ve sort of forgotten that book, and the doorbell rings and this man’s at the door with a box and you think, “Ah…” and you see your book for the first time. You’ve got a dozen free copies of your book, and there it is, all that work, and it’s between covers, I love it.

Valerie
That’s so exciting.

Maureen
That makes it all real. It’s not quite real until that point.

Valerie
And on that note, thank you very much for your time today, Maureen.

Maureen
Thank you very much, Valerie. It’s a pleasure.


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