Michael McGirr: Columnist and best-selling non-fiction author

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image-michaelmcgirr200Michael McGirr is the author of the best-selling books Things You Get For Free, about his trip to Europe with his mother, and Bypass: the story of a road, about Australia’s ‘main road’, the Hume Highway.

His latest book is The Lost Art of Sleep and it follows on from Bypass. Michael and his travel companion (now wife) Jenny have had three children since their journey along the Hume Highway (a boy and twins) and Michael’s thoughts now turn to sleep. This book explores sleep and its seeming demise despite its many benefits, and the huge role it plays in everyday life.

He was a member of the Jesuit order for 20 years, and a Catholic priest for seven years, until 2000. During his time as a Jesuit, he was editor of Australian Catholics and publisher of Eureka Street. Since 2000 he has been a literary editor for Meanjin and a regular columnist and reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times.

Click play to listen. Running time: 28.30

The Lost Art of Sleep


* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Michael thanks for joining us today.

It’s a pleasure.

What inspired you to write about sleep?

I started thinking about this topic for several reasons. One was lo and behold my wife, Jenny, and I we had a 21-month old little boy and then twins landed on us. So we had three children under the age of two in the house. We loved these little creatures but the only problem was we wished they would sleep.

I started to understand what sleep did in its absence. The lack of sleep was turning me into such a grumpy person I didn’t like the person that I was becoming and I felt so powerless to be my normal self. This actually got me to thinking that gosh, there must be stuff happening that I never thought about that is really important when I’m asleep.

But there was another agenda as well which is that the book before this was a book about the Hume Highway called Bypass and after much thinking about the Hume Highway. Actually Jenny, my wife, and I road pushbikes from Sydney to Melbourne to do that book. But that is basically a book about restlessness.

Five and a half thousand trucks every day up and down the Hume Highway carry all sorts of stuff. That road, it never stops. It just pounds day and night and to the point of the absurd. I can remember one night sitting in Truck Stop 31 at Goulburn, which is a famous place. Travellers will know it.

Actually, I spent the whole day there and at lunchtime, I met a bloke who was driving a load of eggs from Melbourne to Sydney and then that night I met a guy who was driving a load of eggs from Sydney to Melbourne. I thought what sort of crazy world is this.

I realized that book about the road was really a book about restlessness so afterwards I was drawn to write a book about rest. Because the book about sleep is really… it deals with all the physical side of sleep but also deals with another deeper issue which is why can’t we stop.

Why do you think that we can’t stop?

Because I think that we are very much formed by the culture we are part of and we are part of a culture which insists that we are constantly stimulated and constantly moving. In the book about sleep, The Lost Art of Sleep, I actually traced that right back to the very crucible of our culture there is Homer’s great story, The Odyssey. That is a book as I say about getting home to bed. People who know The Odyssey know that after of 20 years of adventures on the high seas and everywhere else Odysseus returns to his beloved Ithaca and to his wife Penelope who he hasn’t seen for a long time and to his son, Telemachus.

But really the epic makes the point that he’s getting home to this huge bed that he carved out of the stump of an olive tree in the rocky soil of Ithaca and built his palace around it. His world is anchored to this place of rest. There is a very wonderful sensibility in that which says so much about that culture.

So then the Roman or Latin culture came along and they told the same story but it was Virgil’s book The Aeneid which is almost the opposite. People who know The Aeneid know it’s a story about Aeneas, the hero, getting out of bed, leaving Dido to go off and do stuff. Namely he’s got to get off and found the empire, found the city of Rome and there is this wonderful, wonderful scene as Aeneas is leaving Dido of her burning their bed. It is so different than the Greek version. It’s exactly the opposite.

The culture that we are proud of has really gone for this version, that let’s get out of bed, let’s do stuff. I think that we have just become so buzzed up that it’s left us without deeper roots in a way.

When you started on this journey of discovering the world of sleep hopefully you got some as well, but how did you research the book? Where did you start because it’s such a broad topic?

It is and I thought of writing a book rather different than this one because I wanted to write a more factual book. There are various facts and information in this book but there are 80,000 websites that deal with the issue of sleep. So I very soon decided that the world did not need me to explain the basic information about the cycles of sleep, about REM sleep, the causes of insomnia and what to do about insomnia. There are other places that you can go  for that.

So I did something which I do reluctantly because I’m a shy person and I don’t find it easy to write in a personal way but I did start with my personal story and that was the story of having the twins. Also the story of being a person who had a sleep disorders, a couple in particular, sleep apnea, which is very common, and also restless leg syndrome. Having been I suppose on the receiving end of what medical professionals can offer in terms of help with sleep problems that had given me a lot of food for thought. I started to unpack that.

But also, somebody said to me once that I had a mind a bit like a magpie and what I did was just to start to bring together all the different things that I had read about sleep or thought about sleep. For example, I had a lifelong relationship with the words of Charles Dickens and Dickens was a famous insomniac. I think one of the reasons that Dickens was able to create his London so beautifully was that he knew London by night. Because when he couldn’t sleep, and that was a lot of the time, he would get up and just walk the streets. He would walk the streets between midnight and dawn. He had a place in Covent Garden where he could get coffee and toast about four in the morning.

This was a kind of intimacy that few writers achieve. The city was his kind of mistress that was where he went at night.

Did your lack of sleep help you in writing a book even if it just allowed you the time to sit down and tap away at the keyboard?

Yeah, when we had the little twins the thing about lack of sleep is that it is very hard to do anything particularly creative with the time because you actually are tired, it’s just that you can’t sleep. This is a dreadful conundrum for people to be in.

I am actually not a person who even if I am up in the night, I’m not a person who can do very much creative at that time. I think that is why television was invented in a way to fill the dead space.

How did you do it then if you were constantly exhausted how did you discipline yourself and get yourself into a stage where you could actually write a book?

The thing about writing is that it is almost like a disease. It’s sort of that you can’t not do it and this book found its way into me and out of me. I can’t quite describe that but I would find myself doing and writing a paragraph here and a paragraph there on bits of paper and then sometimes wondering where I had put them, which is not a particularly organized approach to life.

I also wanted to do it because we are not a family that has got a video camera and I actually wanted to do this partly as a photo album for the kids because it’s got little snapshots of what they were like when they were really little. Parents know that time doesn’t last very long and it is gone in an instant. I’m sort of glad that I wrote down some of the cute little things that they said and I hope sort of in the back of my mind I do hope that when they are older they might get a laugh out of some of those things too.

You’ve got a very interesting background as a priest. So you were a Catholic priest for seven years until 2000. What lead you to writing? How did that come about?

I was always a person who dealt with the world by writing and if I was travelling, I would always keep a diary rather than a camera. All my life I kept exercise books and that was really part of my spirituality, which was to pause and just to taste the day rather than just let it rattle past. So writing in a personal and reflective way was always part of who I was at that level I think.

Then when I was working as a priest, I was lucky because I got to work on our magazines and through working on our magazines I got to meet other writers. A lot of the writers’ craft, and I’m sure the Sydney Writers’ Centre knows this very well, a lot of the writers’ craft is passed along in casual relationships, friendships, supportive friendships. Sometimes a friendship with a writer can achieve more than doing a course because it’s the to and fro and I was fortunate that I met people. I really wanted to tell stories.

Then I was lucky enough that to get a contract for my first book and then it sold well. It sort of kept going from there.

It’s very different because you write columns for the newspaper and you write these longer pieces of work as well. So it is very different doing that sort of thing. Do you have a preference?

Yeah, I like a long stretch and I like the chance to get into a quieter space and to write a piece over and over a few times until it’s found the level that it needs to find. Sometimes with a column, a column is often the first draft of something that can be a bit deeper later. It’s no surprise to me that people who write columns often do take them further in books, you know.

But the column is a necessary start or a diary or even a blog. I think that people who write blogs the secret is not to leave it at the blog because the blog is kind of is the rough, the raw ingredients. The writers’ craft is not about creating the words, the writers’ craft is about the distillation of the words and learning what to leave out.

The thing about blogging I suppose is that it can get away with you and suddenly you have got hundreds and hundreds of words. But then the difference between a writer and a blogger is that the writer will then go back and find the words that really matter and sometimes they won’t be that many of them.

That’s a great distinction. Apart from columns, you also do book reviews. As an author yourself do you find it difficult to review someone else’s writing? How does that feel?

I find it difficult to be harsh. For three years, I did a weekly sort of column for The Sydney Morning Herald. I would do five fiction books a week so I was really reading a book a day and then writing about it.

I see book reviewing not as judging a book but as engaging with a book. I think that people who appoint themselves to judge the world they often miss out on a kind of human empathy or human understanding of what a writer is trying to do. I think a reviewer needs to ask themselves, I always did, what is this writer trying to do. If you have got no rapport with that writer’s project or hope then maybe you shouldn’t even be reviewing this book.

But then I think and also I know how damn hard it is to write a book. I know how hard it is to get a book published. By the time a book does get published it has passed through quite a filtration in that the publishers have taken a risk on it so it must have something going for it.

I think that the thing is to try and understand what the writer is trying to achieve and then to say honestly how successful you are. But I don’t think a reviewer should go out all guns blazing to try and shoot somebody down.

It can be very painful I’m sure for writers who don’t get great reviews, particularly from another writer.

Yeah, and especially when the reviewer is reviewing the book that they did not write and then have set out to write. Now I read a reviewer on the weekend which I thought was exactly like that. It was a very negative review. I haven’t read the book but I’m sure that the problem was that the reviewer had expected something different and therefore was reviewing the book that wasn’t written.

Your first two books focus on journeys, your trip to Europe with your mother and your bike ride (very energetic of you) along the Hume Highway. Are you a traveller yourself? Is that something that you want to do more of as in write about your travels?

I’d like to do more travel. Travel writing is a funny thing because there is not a place in the world that hasn’t been visited many times and had many books written about it. So travel writing you really need something new to say and often that comes about through the people that you meet and the relationships you form along the way because nobody needs really another description of India’s Taj Mahal but perhaps there is a lot to be said about the people who try to make their living around the Taj Mahal or something like that.

But sleep is also a kind of journey and it’s a journey that we make in spite of ourselves every night. Some of the most important journeys are quite short ones. A friend of ours who has been married a long time and they have travelled the world both together and separately. But they say that the most important journey in their marriage was at a time when the marriage wasn’t going so well. They were fighting a lot and they wondered if they should have time apart.

They were queuing outside a football game and it was raining and she said to him, “Ah, look will you go back to car and get the umbrella?”

And he said, “Yes.” And it was only a matter of couple hundred yards but it was the journey that saved their relationship because she realized that he cared enough to get the umbrella. They hadn’t been talking much at this stage. And he realized that he cared enough to do it and so a journey of 200 hundred yards meant more in their relationship than their journey to London and back.



You obviously have three children who are very close in age and you don’t sleep.

Yeah. I’m also a schoolteacher which I spend my days with teenage boys as it happens.

How in the world do you fit in writing? Do you have a routine? Is there some kind of trick to how you make it all happen?

I am blessed with a very supportive partner. I also am blessed because I am a schoolteacher. This book was written a fair bit in the holidays. But also, George Orwell said that a writer writes every day. And I think when you are on a project like this you’ve got to keep it moving even if you are only writing a few sentences or doing a little bit of research. It’s actually when it stops and grinds to a halt it’s really hard to get it going again.

You’ve got to keep it moving or I do even if it’s just at a snail’s pace. So I would get home at night some nights and I’d have marking to do from school so I’d read these essays. I would feel a bit tuckered out but I would just do a little bit of something.

Did you find because I agree I think you need to keep writing every day and keep the momentum going. But in this case did you find that it was something that was kind of hanging over your head that you just wanted to get to the end or did you actually enjoy that journey?

Once I found the shape of the book, I enjoyed it. There was a time of great anxiety because we moved house twice in writing this book too. The more that I think about it the more that I think it is a wonder that it existed.

Also, I had sort of been contracted to write this book after the previous one came out. I had to do it. I couldn’t find my way. I was inundated by lots of material because there is so much stuff about sleep. I just felt swamped and I just felt crippled by the complexity and enormity of the task.

Once I found the shape of the book and the shape of the it as it follows a night’s sleep. It’s a very simple structure but one that has served me well. There are little reflections. I think that it starts at 9:00 pm and then 9:30 pm you know like that through the night. Once I found that shape, it meant that the whole thing could be simplified and I knew what I was working with.

A big part for me in non-fiction writing is finding the shape of the story. I mean that was my experience with the book Bypass about the Hume Highway was I didn’t know how to structure or shape that story. Again, I had mountains of material and all the information you could possibly want about cubic metres of concrete and blah, blah, blah.

And then I hit upon this idea of riding a pushbike from Sydney to Melbourne to create a structure for the story. That sort of helped. To find a way to tell the story is a big part of the battle for me.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers out there? What do you suggest that they do? They are listening to this, people are listening to this and they want to finally get to the stage where they can combine perhaps their current full-time job with writing a book in the first instances before they get to write full-time. What would your advice be to them?

It would be old-fashioned advice in that I think the secret of being a writer is to be a generous reader. That means to read lots of things and to read them with an open mind and an open heart and even when something doesn’t appeal to you to try and be open to the humanity of that writer and to think that he as an individual much like ourselves who is actually trying to communicate something about the human experience. Of course, we can have photo books but I think not just to be a reader but to be a generous reader.

And the other thing is you know the old adage is to write about what you know. I don’t quite go along with that and I think a lot of writers start in a place that is overly familiar to them and therefore they have great trouble finding a distinctive voice because their voice is the voice of the familiar. I think rather than writing about something that you know it’s better to write about something that you need to know.

In other words, something that is in you as a question or a kind of hunger to find something out and to know something. I think something that you need to know or you’re hungry to know actually provides a kind of energy for the book, appetite that might not be the case if you just stay within your comfort zone. I think that you need to be not out of your comfort zone but at the very margins of your comfort zone.

We just heard in the background some of the reasons why you don’t get much sleep. That’s fine so I have to ask how well do you sleep now?

It depends on what night you are asking. Now last night we had a bit of a disturbed night because Benny who is now six had a bad dream and he was so frightened by the dream that he couldn’t even tell us what it was and so he was a bit sobby and upset. So then we had to get up inside the little mattress and all this in the small hours of the morning. This is just life now.

I found something about having kids and the hardest thing is that kind of surrender of control of when you are going to do what and what you are going to do. It’s a very big surrender. It’s a beautiful surrender. I love these kids but it is a surrender and part of the thing is that our entire culture expects us to be in control of their lives and yet the deeper part or the really mysterious and wondrous part is you just don’t gain access to it if you insist on staying in control of your life.

There is so much. All the old metaphors about letting go to get into the deep water and all that kind of stuff there is truth in them you know. Another thing about sleep to actually go to sleep you have to let go and you have to get out of the driver’s seat of your life. Your ego has to get out of the way and you have to surrender to an entirely different cogitative process and for the time that you are asleep you have to accept that you are not in control of your life. You have to just let yourself step over that precipice and some people don’t find that easy.

I love your description of that “a beautiful surrender”.

Yeah it is, it is. And it’s not unlike being in a relationship in a way you know in that there is so much. I don’t think that you can be in an intimate relationship with that and still be in control. I think there is a fair bit that you have to. There are wonderful rewards for it and the main reward is that bit by bit you get to lessen the stranglehold or the tyranny of your own ego.

On that note I wish you many good nights’ sleep.

Thanks Valerie.

And thank you very much for your time today Michael.

It’s a great pleasure. It has really been nice to talk to you.

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