Tigers, Suspense and Ageing: An interview with Fiona McFarlane
Fiona McFarlane is that rare thing: a writer whose advances enable her to write full-time. Penguin Australia has just published her first novel, The Night Guest, winning the rights after a ‘strong auction’. Fiona has had her short stories published in The New Yorker, among other publications. She spoke to us about shifting gear from a career of short stories, the allure of tigers and her novel’s exploration of ageing and reflection.
You’ve said this book grew from the image of a woman waking in the night and imagining a tiger in her house. What appealed to you about that image – and how did it evolve into The Night Guest?
I became interested in the tiger after talking to a friend who was researching Victorian children’s literature – we were talking about all the exotic, terrifying creatures that turn up in nursery rhymes and bedtime tales, and I was intrigued by the idea of a tiger showing up from the edges of the British empire to haunt the Victorian nursery. I thought right away about writing something in which a woman with some kind of colonial past is visited by an uncanny tiger in her very ordinary house. I didn’t know, when I first started writing, whether it would be a novel or a short story, but eventually it became clear that it was a novel.
The morning after the tiger incident, a mysterious woman, Frida, arrives to announce that she’s been paid by the government to be a daily carer of sorts for Ruth. From the beginning, there’s a sense of disquiet about her presence, but neither Ruth nor the reader quite know what to make of her (danger or blessing?) for some time, as she takes control in ways both benevolent and suspicious. How did you get that balance – and suspense – right?
The balance and suspense were the hardest part of the book to get right. I’m not very good at showing my early work to other people, but this really needed other eyes that were less familiar with what was going on than I was; even just thinking about other people reading the book helped me track momentum and suspense.