Working with Words: Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is the author of four works of fiction. Her most recent, Indelible Ink, won the Age Book of the Year 2011. She has also written a travel memoir, Strange Museums and is a performance artist. Fiona is the author of our latest Long View essay, on Peter Doyle.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A story called ‘Cumquats’ in Westerly magazine. I was about 19. It was kinda magic realist, hardly recognisable next to my current writing …

What’s the worst part of your job?

The solitude, the penury, the boredom. the years you spend not knowing what you are doing. Having said that, these aspects are also tremendous galvanisers, they build your strength and stop you taking things for granted and being complacent.

Increasingly, I find the emphasis on public persona problematic. Writers are being judged by their performance on stage, by what they sound like in interviews and how they seem in momentary meetings with readers, rather than by what their writing is like. And yet these public appearances are so fleeting, by some who are skilful in that way, so highly contrived …

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Hhmmm … the best moments are still those incandescent ones where you find something when you’re writing - a shard of wisdom or magic or something beyond yourself that you didn’t know you had in you … I also love the moments when you’re beginning a book and you get so excited you can hardly keep up with your ideas, and the story feels so real you are convinced you’re not even making it up. But these latter ones feel delusional when you sit down to write and the grind begins.

Other best moments are the connections to readers – of which I had most with my latest book, and winning the Age prize – the most significant acknowledgement I’ve ever received.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

To read. I still don’t read enough.

Maybe one of my problems is not taking advice … oh wait, I do remember John Tranter wagging his finger at me when I wasn’t writing and was worried about that, and saying, Guard your fallow periods – Mallarmé. I’ve revisited that many times throughout my workaholic years – and I am better at that now.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

Was a bit discombobulated when a fellow panelist at Melbourne Writers Festival many years ago called me ‘ageist, sizeist, a lot of thingsist’ on stage. There have been a few of this sort of accusation of immorality – maybe not surprising really. It makes me laugh.

If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I don’t make my living by writing – alas – not entirely anyway. Next priority would be more performance art. I don’t have enough time or money to do it properly. Then it would be marine biology – a childhood fantasy – or horticulture.

I would have liked to study languages intensively. Full-time. I’ve got some European ones – relatively easy for us - but some indigenous Australian ones, maybe Chinese, that would be a blast.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

My view is rather complicated and ambivalent. I’m on a DCA scholarship for my current novel, so I’m benefiting from the state endorsement of these programs. But I can’t say I am actually being taught. I am, rather, being supported.

I think of Flannery O’Connor coming out of Iowa all those decades ago, and think it can’t hurt and could maybe even help. I know some brilliant teachers, like Debra Adelaide. And I’ve heard people commend courses for how it has helped them generally with confidence and self-expression.

But I am wary of what I see as an increasingly lucrative industry preying on people’s natural desire to be heard and seen, sometimes even on delusions of celebrity and wealth. I think a lot of people are being persuaded they can be taught to do something which is essentially an act of alchemy, borne of talent and hard work and dare I say it, a touch of madness. I am noticing more in contemporary publications a slickness and homogeneity which seems to counter the sizzle of voice, vision and verve that characterise the best writing. I wonder if a lot of people are being trained as technicians.

I don’t believe you can walk out of a course and become a writer. But I do believe you can be exposed to great writing, to inspiring and intelligent pedagogic minds, to technique. I think that ultimately you can only become a writer at the desk, alone, after years of yakka – I have never seen anyone become a writer otherwise. Actually, I don’t believe much in the noun – only in the verb. A lot of people want to be writers. Fewer want to actually write.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Just do it. And read, and live.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?


If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

The one I’m trying to conjure right now. I would ask her how to write the effing book! Help me! Help me! She’d probably just laugh and get so drunk she couldn’t talk. So maybe we’re better off not meeting …

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

OMG, impossible to say. Funnily enough Terry Castle and Luc Sante’s essays come to mind. Edward St Aubyn in the novelist department. I’m on the look-out for a novel to blow my mind.

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