Last week, Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest was shortlisted as a finalist in the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, adding to the long list of accolades already this year for this debut novel.
We thought it would be a good opportunity to share some gems from our podcast interview with Fiona earlier this year. (You can read a full transcript of the interview, or listen to episode 12 of our top-rating So you want to be a writer podcast)
Fiona on being shortlisted for awards:
“Nobody writes books to win prizes,” which is so true, but it’s really, really nice to get the recognition… I was writing the kind of book that I like to read. I wasn’t thinking, ‘All right this is definitely going to get me onto prize lists.’ But, it’s very nice to be there!”
On knowing whether your book is good or not:
“I think writers generally are just so plagued with self-doubt. By the time you finish something you really have very little idea — well, I certainly had very little idea what I’d just done and what I’d achieved, or not achieved, and that’s why you need editors and readers to come in and chat with you about what you’ve actually just done.”
On her fairytale agent story:
“I love telling this story because I think it’s really heartening and great. I met her ten years before I finished the book, so she waited ten years for me to write a book. I think I made her about $80 in that decade.
“What happened was I had just moved to England and before I left home I used to enter a lot of competitions, a lot of writing competitions with my stories and had some success. When I got to England I thought, ‘I’m going to do that again.’ So, I entered a competition, it was run by one of the big glossy magazines, I can’t remember which one now. I didn’t win, but just got a letter out of the blue saying, ‘A friend of mine who’s a reader for this competition, she loved your story and thought I would like too. Do you think you could send it to me?’ And it was from an agent – the head of quite a prestigious agency in London. So, I said, ‘Yes.’ She wrote back saying, ‘I love the story, next time you’re in London please let’s meet and have a chat.’
“I, of course, invented a reason to be in London immediately, within three minutes, and I went down and met her and I really liked her. We just really clicked. We just sort of chatted about my work, and there was no pressure, you know… she was incredibly patient, she was great – she waited ten years for me to write The Night Guest!”
On defining the term “literary fiction”:
“I think literary fiction is such an elastic term, in so many ways it just encompasses anything that’s not part of a more rigid genre like sci-fi, or chick-lit. I think that at the same time there are so many genres that are a part of literary fiction. I think the best books are playing with more than one genre at the same time. You can have literary fiction that’s also a thriller, or you can have supernatural elements to it, of course.
“I love to read books that are interested in ideas and interested in language, that aren’t necessarily entirely for entertainment, that like to be sort of sneaky about expanding world views and things like that at the same time.
“I think that is what literary fiction does. I think that it can be an elitist term, which is a shame. I think people should just read books that they enjoy and get something out of. I don’t think I, or any of my other friends, or writers I admire, sit down thinking, ‘Ah, now to write literature.’ I think there is a great love of what language is capable of going on when people sit down to write the kind of books that end up being marked as literary fiction.”
Fiona’s three top tips for writers:
“The first one is an obvious one, just to read — read everything. Always be reading. Don’t let your reading frighten you, let it excite and inspire you.
“The second one, and maybe it’s my third one as well, because I think this one is so important, and the one that I wish I had listened to more… is to be patient. Be patient with yourself and be patient with your work. Don’t hurry, don’t rush. Don’t compare yourself to other people, don’t think, -So and so has brought out a book…’ or ‘This person has just had something accepted…’ Just remain in your work and give it the time it needs.
“At the same time, work hard. This is the third bit. Work hard, work steadfastly, figure out the ways that mean you will write everyday, because that’s how you write a novel is to make yourself actually produce words.”
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The Night Guest has been short-listed for many prizes and awards, including the Stella prize, the LA Times Debut Fiction Award, The Indie Awards, 2014 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and now the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award. It has also been long-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.