You have lived in rural South Australia and Western Australia your whole life. Do you think this has given you any distinct advantages or disadvantages as a novelist?
Well to me, it’s given me advantages. I write about where I’ve lived and where I live now. I understand the people, the landscape, weather and so on, so it allows me to write with authority about these places. But I also write about ‘what’ I live – the land, the animals, flora and fauna. It’s really difficult to do this with authenticity unless you’ve lived it.
As for any disadvantages, I can’t think of any. I wouldn’t function too well in a town. The openness and clear ‘headiness’ of the land inspires me to write.
I guess, once I signed the contract to have my first book published, I wanted to go to Sydney and meet all of my team, see the Allen and Unwin offices and so forth and there were times I never thought that would happen. Farming makes it very difficult to get away. But patience paid off, and on my book tour for Blue Skies, I got to go to Sydney, see a different side of life and meet all of my team. That was hugely exciting!
Why did you decide to write fiction professionally, and what motivated you when you were starting out?
I never actually decided to write professionally, it just happened. I knew it was difficult to get in to the writing scene, so I decided to write a book I would like to read. I got about a third of the way through and a couple of friends thought it was good enough to send away, so I targeted Allen and Unwins’ Friday Pitch. The first time I sent in Red Dust, I got a very positive response and that was what motivated me to keep going. Louise Thurtell’s email to me said ‘Your writing is strong and commercial but it’s not quite what I’m looking for at the moment.’
I can be a bit tenacious, so I re-jigged the first bit and about six months later sent in (taking the bull by the horns and ignoring the submission guidelines!) three chapters and a synopsis – that was when I hit success!
My motivation is still to write books that I would like to read. To give people pleasure and entertainment, but also to tell people about our lives in the country.
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing one of your novels?
Red Dust was very different to Blue Skies.
Red Dust I had all the time in the world to play and get things just right. I sat and wrote when I had time – and that’s all I did, just sat and wrote from the beginning to the end. Occasionally I had to stop and make sure what I had written, worked with what I had planned and also the stock squad side of things required a bit of research (I had a wonderful source who worked in the Stock Squad, at the time), but mostly it was sit and write.
Blue Skies I found more difficult. It has a history element to it that required a lot of planning and research. I started to write before I planned and I really got myself in a tangle. The story wasn’t going anywhere and nothing I tried, worked. I stopped and started to plan things and once I did that, I could sit, write and refer back to my notes, when I started to get lost. For the last ten chapters, I actually wrote chapter summaries, which I’ve never done before. (I hope I don’t have to again, I much prefer just to wing it!)
What are some of your favourite Australian novels, and what makes them stand out for you?
A Fortunate Life, by A B Facey, is one of my favourite books (I studied it at school but still love it now), as are all Colin Theile ones. (I’m just reading them to my daughter at the moment.)
As for adult ones, I think Rachael Treasure has to be one of my favourite Australian authors. Although I will add, I like her earlier books, much more than her latest one. (*Hands up, before I get howled down!* I still enjoyed The Cattleman’s Daughter, but not to the extent of say, Jillaroo.)
What works for me, in her books, is the realistic way the story is portrayed – and her stories can happen and do happen, to real people.
Some people find it hard to write stories set in their local area because they don’t think it is interesting enough. What are your thoughts on how to write stories set in your local area and do it well?
The area you write about, doesn’t have to be interesting – you’re only using it for a stage to set up your story. It’s the story that has to be interesting.
The area is giving you the setting – the weather, scenery, people’s attitudes… all that sort of thing can be woven around a tall tale that doesn’t have to happen, or has happened, in that particular area.
What makes a great character, or what is an example of a great character and what makes them stand out for you?
I’ve just finished reading The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold and I have to say that Susie Salmon was an awesome character.
She showed us what was happening in both worlds – heaven and earth – she told us by being inside the rooms when people were talking and being in the air, watching, when things were happening. I loved her character.
In different books, I think the main character has to be my friend. Someone who I can relate to, understand their thinking.
Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s MC in many of his books, is another one that works well for me. He’s strong, has leadership, steers the story in the direction he wants it to take, not what the reader expects.
I’ve read a few books recently, when I wanted to bash the MC over the head and I didn’t enjoy the book because the MC didn’t work for me.
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give to new writers?
Don’t give up. Read. Write. Edit. Just because your MS isn’t wanted today, doesn’t mean it won’t be wanted tomorrow. Keep trying.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’ve just signed a two book contract with Allen and Unwin’s Arena imprint (who I’m with now) so that will keep me busy for the next few years!
I’m working on Purple Roads as I type this and I have a million ideas flying around in my head – I just need to find the time to write them all down!
More on Fleur McDonald and her fiction can be found at www.fleurmcdonald.com.
The Australian Literature Review