‘The High Places’ author Fiona McFarlane settles in
There are no true overnight successes in Australian literature. Even the crazy comets that appear out of nowhere – Hannah Kent, say, or Graeme Simsion – have been somewhere. That somewhere is usually a sort of nowhere invisible place where a writer goes to write and wrestle with their books, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades.
Fiona McFarlane, 37, is one of those comets that has actually been burning away for a decade. In 2013, her first novel, The Night Guest, arrived fully formed – like something from Joan London or Elizabeth Jolley.
This is no bildungsroman. Its protagonist is a 75-year-old woman, Ruth, and the subject matter is memory and dementia. It’s a thriller, of sorts. The tension builds – almost unbearably – as Ruth’s relationship with her carer, Frida, appears more sinister.
Critics and readers lapped it up. The Night Guest was shortlisted for multiple prizes, including the Miles Franklin, with judges saying it was “beautifully assured”.
Reading the book is an unsettling experience, and in the two days it took to devour it, an atmosphere seemed to seep from its pages, like a fog or mould, something insidious and creeping. As Ruth goes further into dementia, the sense of peril around her increases. Who can she trust? What is real?
McFarlane’s second book, a collection of short stories, has just been published. The subject matter is vastly different – but the assuredness is still there.
In The High Places McFarlane wanted to write about “Australians engaging with the world”. The results are funny, embarrassing, touching and very recognisable.
Just as all of literary New York can be found drinking in the same Brooklyn bar, or the big players in London at the same Charlotte Street restaurant, so it seems that a quorum of Australia’s literary legends have met at this cafe in Sydney’s inner west one Friday afternoon.
I find McFarlane chatting with a publisher and a former Miles Franklin winner. It’s almost enough people to make a salon, I think.
“I just bumped into them,” says McFarlane, who adds that since she’s returned to Australia after 11 years away, the literary community has been very welcoming.
McFarlane – until recently – has been part of a range of incredible communities, where students and writers live in close quarters, and spend their days steeped in the work – the books they are writing, the poems they are composing, their PhDs or their visual art.
Each community sounds more fantastical than the last – the Harry Potter-style stairways and dorms of Trinity College, Cambridge; the low skies, bleak winters and the sand dunes of a Cape Cod writers’ colony; the winters at the boarding school in New Hampshire; the baking summers and barbecue of Austin, Texas, where writers such as Jonathan Franzen taught seminars.
Now McFarlane is back in Sydney, working from her home in Marrickville, where she lives alone and craves a hermetic existence. “My ideal pattern,” she says, “is five days alone, knowing I have something on the sixth day when I can see people.”
It is an ideal rather than a reality. And in holding that ideal, it does not mean McFarlane is antisocial – just that the work itself assumes a primacy, and requires a certain amount of time to cook.
She’s not a “cafe writer” – except for when she’s working on revisions. “The idea of going to those writers’ parties in Brooklyn and making a heap of contacts and networking terrifies me,” she says. “What works for me is to live in the work, and be private and carry on a conversation with it.”
McFarlane was born in Sydney and grew up in the southern suburbs, one of three children to a biochemist father and a librarian mother.
She went to school at MLC and then studied arts at Sydney University. There was some time working – in the subscriptions department of Next Media, and at the now defunct State of the Arts.
But in her early 20s, says McFarlane, “I wanted time to write, I wanted to live overseas.”
A scholarship at Cambridge to write a PhD on contemporary American literature beckoned. And the authors were contemporary – not the recently dead 20th-century greats, but the likes of Paul Auster and Toni Morrison. A supervisor was hard to find, but procured eventually.
She lived at Trinity College and it was the “first time I was living communally. There were lots of men who were doing science. We were like exotic animals to them – we were in the humanities, we wanted to write. It seemed impossibly glamorous to them”.
Cambridge was a lot of fun: “You found your people,” McFarlane says. “They were great people – it was my first experience living in these staircases and all these parties. The whole thing was absurd, wonderful and ridiculous at the same time. You have no money at all, but these thing are available to you that are beyond imagining – libraries and wine cellars…”
While at Cambridge, McFarlane entered a short story competition for a magazine whose name she can no longer remember but “it was sort of like Tatler”.
“Out of the blue I got an actual letter that arrived in the post in this college I was staying at – so the whole thing felt very strange. It was from an agent – and one of her friends was a judge of the competition – and she asked me to send her the story.”
The agent was the head of the powerful William Morris agency in Britain. “I invented a reason to go to London immediately… And I went to this meeting thinking it would change my whole life. And I met her and loved her very much. She waited 10 years for me to write the novel. I made her about $80 in that 10 years with stories.”
McFarlane didn’t place in the short story competition – but that didn’t matter. The agent ended up in America – and McFarlane ended up being “an Australian writer living in England with a New York agent”.
Now she just needed a book.
McFarlane says she feels at home creating both novels and short stories, but the “form of the short story seems at first to be about compression and containment – creating a world in a very small space – but actually I think the best stories expand outwards in a way novels don’t. A novel is more likely to feel exhaustive, comprehensive, fully realised, and there’s great pleasure for the reader in inhabiting this completeness. But a short story, in suggesting rather than fleshing out worlds, meets the reader in a different way – it’s an invitation to play, to imagine, to create along with the writer.”
The High Places contains 14 perfectly formed stories, the earliest of which, “Unnecessary Gifts”, was written when she was at Cambridge.
“I wrote them over a period of 10 years,” she says. “I didn’t have a book in mind.”
Some of the stories are set in Sydney and “they feel – not linked exactly but of a piece … They make sense together. I loved writing those. I wrote them when I was away from Sydney and it was a way of staying connected.”
Class is a preoccupation throughout the collection – particularly the stories of an older Australia, set between the 1940s and 1960s.
McFarlane is aware how much class shapes opportunities.
Just as Richard Flanagan recounts that he is only one generation away from illiteracy – his grandfather couldn’t read – McFarlane’s parents grew up in a council house and a caravan. “My childhood’s so different to theirs, largely because Dad got to go to university.”
After her time in Cambridge, McFarlane wasn’t ready to return to Australia. Aged 27, she moved to the United States, where she started at the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with nine other writers and 10 visual artists. There was another Australian there who was writing short stories – Nam Le. He went on to sell his collection The Boat while on the residency.
“Nam and I both lived in this old barn [turned into three apartments] that was very porous. You could hear everything else that everyone else was doing.
“If Nam stood up from his desk chair I could hear it. These amazing storms would come through and the whole barn would shake. It was wonderful and strange.”
There was “lots of sand dunes, a very low sky, the harbour was still and lovely and the other side of the cape is the Atlantic. I got to see snow on the beach, which was amazing. Beech forests, cranberry bogs, whale watching…”
The residency – which lasted two years – gave McFarlane plenty of time to read, including a period reading a bit of Moby-Dick every day and jotting down the adjectives Melville used.
At the time, McFarlane was working on a historical novel. “I spent a lot of time on research – such a virtuous form of procrastination.” But the characters and plot wouldn’t come alive. “It become obvious it wasn’t going anywhere and I needed to leave it. Then I started writing what I thought was a short story but became a novel.”
Writers can spend a lifetime mourning the stillborn works – the things started but never finished – but McFarlane has no desire to return to her incomplete historical novel. After leaving it behind, the “longish thing” she was working on took over. It would become The Night Guest.
“I started it in Sydney where I was home for three months’ break. I was staying in Haberfield where a house was being painted and the windows were open and it was really cold. I’ve never been so cold as I was in Sydney.”
From there, McFarlane continued what Guardian Australia dubbed as her “literary nomad” years. After returning from Sydney she took a place as a writer in residence at the ultra posh New Hampshire boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy – here she followed again in the footsteps of Nam Le, who had just been there.
It was in many ways a dream gig. There was time to write, to speak to the students about writing and read their work, but no serious teaching obligations.
“It’s like a small uni,” says McFarlane. “It has two student newspapers – one left-wing and one right-wing. I could do absolutely nothing if I wanted. I did mentor some kids but they were so busy – busier than anyone I had ever met. Some of them had finished a whole draft of a novel, which at that stage I had never managed to do.”
But things were moving. The New Yorker accepted one of her short stories – “Art Appreciation”, which is a stand-out in the current collection – and she enrolled in a master of fine arts at the University of Texas in Austin.
“We took these courses – like literature for writers where it was just reading. I was introduced to all this other stuff that I knew very little about. It was just a really different experience of reading – and you’d have these teachers that would come in for six months and teach, such as Peter Carey, Richard Ford, Margot Livesey, Jim Crace. You would have a master class with Coetzee or Franzen – it was crazy.”
After selling The Night Guest as part of a two-book deal, McFarlane is in the enviable – and rare – position of being able to write full-time.
“The not-having-a-job thing is an enormous privilege. I know I can write and have a job, because I have done it before around other things. But it’s not going to last forever and it’s wonderful, so I’m making the most of it.”
Has she ever been tempted to chuck the art and chase the money?
“Well, there’s no massive corporate job for which I am qualified. It’s quite easy not to be tempted when they wouldn’t always want you. There’s always that alternative – what if I had done law, or applied myself to the academic thing and had a stable academic job, or if I hadn’t gone to Cambridge I would have tried for one of those Herald cadetships. There’s always these alternatives. I feel like this enormous relief and gratitude that it’s worked out.”
Before it worked out “there were many years of finding it difficult to say what I do, because until I had a book published, I didn’t want to say I was a writer. I don’t really know what I said.”
That uncertain answer, that fudge, must seem a lifetime away now.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 2, 2016 as "House style". Subscribe here.