‘We’re Not Alone’: Maggie Mackellar on Memoir
Maggie Mackellar’s first memoir, When it Rains, was a story about grief, loss, recovery and reconnection. She writes about losing her husband (to suicide) and her mother (to cancer) in the space of a year, then moving to her uncle’s farm with her two young children in rural NSW to recover. Her second memoir, How to Get There, follows a second big move, to rural Tasmania, this time as a result of gain rather than loss, after she meets a sheep farmer named Jim (in an unusual way). She explores the difficulty and rewards of joining lives, relaxing control, and making a home in a new place.
She spoke to the Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case, a fellow memoirist, about writing memoir, being in conversation with other books and writers, and why life writing is not cathartic.
This is a book about a relationship that grew from your previous book, and a letter you received after an Australian Story appearance. Can you tell us about that?
After agreeing to do Australian Story, I got a lot of correspondence – and I also, unexpectedly, got a number of emails through my agent from men who had noticed that I was single. It was a genuine exchange, but I certainly didn’t feel very comfortable or confident in replying to them, except for one. And I tell my kids the power of the opening sentence, because this letter said: ‘Hello, I’m a 49-year-old sheep farmer from the east coast of Tasmania.’ And I thought, if only I could sum my life up that succinctly.
It was a kind of wonderful thing in so many ways, but one of the reasons I wanted to write the book was to explore the fact that so often we want the neat fairy tale ending and especially for somebody who has been through stuff. Often people who are single get this pressure to somehow be in a couple, that it makes them complete. And I didn’t want to write a book that said, Life is now perfect. Because it’s great, but it’s not perfect.
That’s one of the things I really loved about your book. You love this man, but there are all sorts of things that are really hard to figure out. Like whether you can live together after being these two independent people with independent lives and different histories and coming from different places, and you having your kids and him having his. How do you combine all of that, overcome all of that, and make it work on a day-to-day basis? That’s a much more interesting story than just things being perfect – as well as being more real.
Any memoir that succeeds, any memoir that makes you think ‘yes, you’re now talking about me’, is because there’s that kernel of truth in it. I couldn’t have done this book if Jim, my partner, hadn’t first of all basically suggested it, and then been incredibly supportive of each step of it. In this book, the way I have approached trying to get to the darker fears, the more intimate interior moments, is to use the second person, in little fragments. That gave me the chance to stand aside, to almost create another character, that was a version of myself, but a darker version of myself.
So the second-person parts are where you felt you were creating yourself as a character more? One thing I really admired about your first book as well as this book is the way you’re really great at swapping between taking us right inside your experience and how it feels, and stepping back and getting distance and observing almost from the outside. Was that something that was harder to do with the second book?
Yeah. I would have loved to have given this book another twelve months. And just put it away. But the pressures of life … and I also just needed to get it out of my system. To be totally honest, I don’t know whether I’m as successful in this book in terms of that retreat and advance that I worked so hard at for When it Rains.
I guess the more distance you have in time for events, the easier it is to distance yourself and have more layers of reflection, I suppose.
The question I often get asked with When it Rains is, ‘Did you find it cathartic to write this?’ And I think, my god, no. It wasn’t cathartic at all. It was massively hard work. Or, ‘Did you find it healing?’ No, not at all.
Because you have to relive the experience to write it?
No, it’s not that. It’s just that I don’t think you could write a book such as that unless you are healed, to a certain extent. Unless you are distant from that experience. So, this book is written much more in the experience, and that was a challenge.
Was that partly something you felt you could do because it’s something that’s not as – as you said, there are moments of difficulty in there, but it’s not a story of great difficulty and great grief like the first story is.
Yes, I think so. It’s a really ordinary story of ordinary lives, And that’s why I think people relate to it, because we all live these really ordinary moments and they’re quite complex.
I wondered if your background as a historian played into the book – you write about yourself reading these histories of women’s lives, you’re reading diaries and journals of ordinary lives and interrogating them for meaning. And you do that with your own life in these domestic moments. Some of my favourite bits included your meditation on cooking.
Anybody who lives on their own knows how difficult cooking is. Now I live with a bloke who loves to have meat three times a day. And I found it really confronting to actually have to inhabit this expected role as a domestic … suddenly there’s this expectation on me to produce a meal. Really? What? I don’t know what’s in the freezer! And yet there was a part of me that really wanted that life, and really enjoyed it. I think sometimes that those domestic moments can speak to a larger dislocation.
I thought this was very much a book about reading, as well. There’s a lot about you writing almost in conversation with other books and writers, sometimes writing against them or in tandem with them.
That was one of the things I absolutely loved writing about – reading. Because I do it constantly. When you live away from the centre, it locates you in the centre. It gives you that chance to feel part of a bigger conversation. Those books about writing, I found myself drawing on again and again. I kind of felt like they were my companions, a link back to a life that I’d left behind.
So your writing community was these books about writing?
Yes. And coming from a district where it was something that I would constantly share what I was reading with girlfriends, to a place where suddenly that interaction was only happening over the internet. It’s made those reading moments I think even more important to me.
It’s really interesting the way that books pop up when you need them. I still remember sitting on the floor unpacking my books and re-reading My Friend Flicka, which I was obsessed with as a 13-year-old, and thinking, ‘How could I miss the fact that this wasn’t a horse story, this was a story about a marriage?’ It’s this really incredible book about marriage and falling in love and learning to live in a marriage and about compromise and about dislocation. And I sat there with tears streaming down my face reading about the mother, who I’d barely noticed before. In moments when you feel isolated, I think reading connects you into a sense of, We’re not alone. Everybody’s been here before.
And I guess finding something like reconnecting with an old childhood book that now gives you new things must be like meeting up with an old childhood friend and you have a whole new connection and conversation, based on where you are now. Though maybe I’m being overly sentimental …
Sentimentality’s a whole other discussion we could have. I think sentimentality’s a really interesting discussion, especially in terms of memoir. I think a lot of readers want it. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative thing. Maria Tumarkin wrote a really interesting essay on arguing for sentimentality, and saying that it’s not necessarily bad … though it’s often dissed as being feminine or somehow syrupy. I guess I’m glad it’s not sentimental, I don’t want it to be. But it’s interesting to me … one woman today, her question was, I’ve read the book, and are you happy? There’s a certain degree of ambiguity in the book, but that’s the point of it.
That life is ambiguous? You don’t reach a point where you’re happy now. Like you say in the book, you reach a point where you appreciate moments of happiness rather saying, than I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m happy.
Yeah, I think that’s it. I think a particular low point in all the publicity I’ve done was fielding a question: so, do you feel like this is a self-help book? Are you able to tell people how to get there? I didn’t even know where to start with that.
I thought it was interesting that you might think on the surface that moving from one country town to another, one farm to another, would be much less dislocating because it’s a similar sort of. But I love the way you show it is still difficult, and you show the nuances of why it’s difficult.
I thought it would be the exchange of one community for another, and it so wasn’t that. And partly that’s something about how unique Tasmania is. I often think of Tassie as being almost bipolar. It’s got incredible capacity for change and progress and connection into the new world, and it’s also got a real holding back. A sense of resistance to any change, and those two things operate against each other I think, in really interesting ways. We live in a great community, but it’s very different to Orange.
Both of your memoirs are really so much about place. And the first is about a place you’re so intimately connected with and you’ve got a history with since you were a child. And the second is about moving to this place that’s all new to you and you’re an outside observer.
In Australia, we don’t have as strong a tradition of writing about a sense of place compared to, say, Canada or the States, where there’s this real history of people writing about the land as part of their identity. I hope that both these books speak into that. It was really good for me to write about the place I’d moved to, because it made me an observer. And I think when you’re an observer, you become more connected.
If I was reading about things like renovating a house or life on the farm, or place – those are topics I wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to. But it made me think that it’s all in the writing, in the approach. You’re writing about these things, but it’s always about, what do they mean? And how are they connected to you in that place, or your family in that place?
I definitely think: how does this say something bigger? How does pulling down a wall and discovering the stones that were put in there in 1828 connect me to some sense of the history of invasion and the warfare that’s been fought over this land, and the fortress feeling of this house? How do I feel about living in this place now? All of those things.
I read one review of your book that said you’d revealed a lot of yourself in this memoir, but you’d held back with your children and your partner. And I was so surprised, because as someone who has written a memoir and included a lot about my child and my former partner … I thought, of course you do. Of course you reveal more about yourself than your partner and your children, because you have complete responsibility for yourself.
But I actually thought you were really brave in that respect. Because you write about the friction with your partner and moments of vulnerability your children have, where they feel like an outsider. For me, it felt like that would take real bravery.
It was really hard to do that. The only way I did it was to involve them. Jim read the first draft of the manuscript and then said, ‘Well what about this bit, what about that bit?’ And I said, ‘Oh, you’re happy for me to put that in?’ He was really open about it. And that was terribly refreshing. Then when he read the next draft, I think he went, ‘Oh, right’.
You can never know what people are going to respond to – what they’ll criticise and what you’re really worried about that will have great results. Have you found that?
Yes, with both books. I guess that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? You read it as your own experience and go from there. Which I love, I love the way people respond to different bits. And it becomes not mine anymore … it goes off and has its own life.
A theme of this book is accommodation of self to a relationship and the fear of losing too much of yourself in it, even while you recognise the gains. ‘Your gut says you can trust this man, you’re in the right place, you can make a new life here, but you are no longer sure where you begin or end.’
I hope I’m not alone in this – that when you enter into a new relationship, you kind of lose something of yourself. And perhaps that’s something that happens as you get older more, because you are more yourself. I think you approach a second relationship, at least I did, completely differently. You’re far more pragmatic. As I said at the outset, I really wish I could sum myself up as neatly as that sentence that Jim sent me. But somehow he seems to know himself much better in this relationship than I do.
One of the things I think you write beautifully about is making yourself vulnerable in a relationship and how hard that is, and the aftermath of grief and how that affects you. You say ‘You often hear that grief makes you stronger. I don’t agree, or not for me. I’m weaker, more aware of my fragility, more guarded about life.’ It’s another example of where you turn a truism on its head and take us inside your experience.
It’s at the heart of the book – that sense of exposing yourself. And that moment in the book where I realise – obviously, I’m constructing this for a reading audience – that I haven’t really dealt with things. What has happened in the past is affecting my present. I guess that realisation that we’re not as whole sometimes as we allow ourselves to think we are, it made me feel a lot more vulnerable. Can I do this? Can I keep doing this?