Fiona McFarlane, author of The Night Guest and The High Places, spoke to AWM this month. She has previously completed a PhD on nostalgia in American fiction at Cambridge University and spent three years at writing residencies in the US. Fiona also studied for a Masters of Fine Arts in Fiction at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin. Her first novel, The Night Guest, won a NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2014.
AWM talked to Fiona about her recent collection of short stories, The High Places, and how she successfully conveys emotional beats in short fiction. Fiona also spoke about creativity and how harking back to childhood memories can fire one’s imagination. To read more about Fiona and her writing, visit her website.
You have degrees in English from Sydney University and Cambridge University as well as a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Texas. You wrote many of your stories and part of your novel while you lived overseas. How did writing in different places influence your writing process?
Writing Australia from overseas was a way of conjuring place for my homesick self — the trees, the birds, the Australian light, the streets of Sydney, the size of the sky. It also helped me identify the things that are specific to home, which gave a new precision to my writing of place.
You have imagined and developed a range of characters and plotlines in your writing, from an elusive tiger in a seaside home to a quest to free a giant squid named Mabel. What habits have you formed throughout your writing career that help you to exercise your imagination and create intriguing characters and ideas?
I try as much as possible to remember being a child who loved to make up stories — who used narrative and language as a way to make sense of the world around her, and who felt a playful and delighted joy in all the possibilities of story. That’s hard to do as an adult when you have to contend with an inner critic looking over your shoulder as you write every word. Structure helps: actually setting aside time for play and discovery in my writing. So does being open to story in all its forms; I write fiction, but I draw from film, poetry, philosophy, theatre, oral histories, opera, nursery rhymes, photographs…
Your most recent book, The High Places, is a collection of short stories and was published in February this year. It starts with the tale of a newly married couple involved in a car accident in which an elderly man is gravely injured. In one sentence you alter the reader’s reaction, as it has been up to that point, about the wife’s character. What advice would you offer to writers about conveying a sudden departure in the expected behaviour of a character?
It’s fun to surprise readers with character behaviour — and this story is, in part, about the way we never really know another person, even the one we’re married to. But I’ve laid the groundwork for Sarah’s decision through the story, and my hope is that when it comes it feels both surprising and inevitable: that Sarah’s behaviour seems conceivable even as it might feel startling. Characters can and should do unexpected things, but generally those surprises will be more successful if they feel like extensions rather than about-faces.
Your first published work, The Night Guest, is a novel. Editing a novel involves looking at plot, character, setting and theme and can take countless hours. How does the editing process for a short story unfold and does it differ significantly from editing a novel?
The processes aren’t particularly different — it always comes down to an obsession with word choice, sentence structure, knotty problems about point of view and pace and character development. Obviously a novel takes longer, and not just because there’s more of it; it’s harder to hold all the strands of a novel in your head at once.
But you’re also given the opportunity to really immerse yourself in the large world of a novel; short stories require re-acclimatising yourself to each new world more often.
In addition to writing fiction and short stories you were a monthly blogger for the literary journal Southerly in September 2015. How did your process for planning and writing blog posts for Southerly differ from your approach to writing fiction or short stories?
Southerly gave me the opportunity to think out loud about the work of writers I admire, and to consider the way that work circulates through the world. This is the sort of thinking that feeds my own work but remains blissfully separate from it; it feels to me as if a different brain produces the non-fiction I write, and it’s a great pleasure and relief to spend time in that brain, which seems — perhaps strangely — both more logical and more personal.
Zoe Biddlestone is currently studying a Master of Arts in Writing, Editing and Publishing at The University of Queensland. She also has Bachelor degrees in Arts and Law. Zoe works full-time and enjoys freelance editing and proofreading after hours. She loves reading travel writing, the classics and translated fiction.