Cover of book: A Novel Idea

Fiona McGregor
A Novel Idea

In her work as a performance artist, Fiona McGregor is no stranger to physical and psychological endurance, often sitting uncomfortably still for hours on end. However, it is the more challenging act of endurance – writing a novel – that she documents in this photo essay, A Novel Idea. In the epilogue, McGregor laments that novel writing “is mystified, romanticised or, conversely, trivialised”. She says, “Let this document then show how banal, gruelling and lonely it really is.” And so she does.

McGregor documents the process of writing her award-winning novel Indelible Ink through a series of photos, usually captioned. Many of the images of McGregor at work are shot from behind, inviting the reader to become a voyeur, peering over the author’s shoulder. McGregor is anchored at the desk in the oceanic blue of her tiny Bondi study. The repetition of her image in this fixed pose lays bare the tedium of her task. Her entry on November 19, 2007: “Consider the novelist who sits at their desk day after day year after year with nothing but twenty-six letters for material.”

We follow McGregor’s progress as she leaves Australia to head to the northern hemisphere – first to a residency on an Estonian farm; then onwards to Berlin, where she sublets a succession of increasingly gloomier rooms and eventually retreats to a public library for the final push to birth her manuscript. Throughout, we catch glimpses of her writing life through images of the books and newspapers she reads, the food she eats, the many cups of tea she drinks and the heavily annotated manuscript drafts that drift across her desk.

McGregor’s documentation feeds her twin writerly predilections of procrastination and obsession. While she describes the book as tongue-in-cheek, A Novel Idea affords a unique insight into the often rarefied process of writing as we sit with her anxieties: Sydney’s drought, her complex relationship with her mother, peer comparisons, slipping deadlines. In the “often vexed, occasionally euphoric, mostly boring process of writing a book”, McGregor also reveals the constancy of her project – the safe harbour it provides as the Earth spins on its axis, the seasons change, friends die and her heart is broken. Why do writers endure? Her entry on May 10, 2009, tells us: “My book, my refuge.”

Justine Hyde

Giramondo, 352pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 22, 2019 as "Fiona McGregor, A Novel Idea ".

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