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Roger McDonald


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I was recently part of a panel on this topic with Omar Musa, Lucy Neave and Nigel Featherstone (Chair) for HARDCOPY. We had a wide-ranging and thoroughly enjoyable discussion and I thought it might be useful to pick up and elaborate on a few of the points discussed.

1. Your heart is published along with the book
Before this session I asked some fellow writers what they wished they’d known and Kim Lock put it beautifully when she said, ‘I didn’t realise quite how much of my heart would be published along with the book.’ She explained: ‘I found that reviews mattered and affected me far, far more than I’d anticipated they would. I found even the slightest criticism would stick with me for days.’

Having a book published can be a raw and vulnerable time, especially if reviews are excoriating. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t experienced one of those yet (right now I’ve stopped typing to frantically touch wood, cross fingers and toes etc, though in truth it’s only a matter of time). But I clearly remember analysing one line in a review of Two Steps Forward for a good 10 minutes. It’s meaning was unclear but it sounded potentially negative. ‘Do you think the subeditors changed something?’ I said to my bloke, and we tried to guess what might have been altered, and what criticism the reviewer might have been trying to make. In the end I concluded that if I couldn’t work it out after 10 obsessive minutes of dissection then no one else would either.


Authors often talk (usually privately) about being floored by reviews, which is no doubt why some authors say they don’t read them (frankly, I don’t believe them). On the other hand, a thoughtful critique is like a gift. It can make you think about your work in a new light — both its successes and failures — which is invaluable. There was one review of Two Steps Forward that made me think deeply about the subconscious motivations for writing the characters I do. It gave me a new understanding of my work. That’s pretty incredible.

2. Know when to stick to your guns
Throughout the publishing process it’s important to know when to stick to your guns and when to compromise. I think I mostly get this balance right but I do have one small regret. Two Steps Forward was a title my publisher chose and I never much liked it. They decided that my original title, The Anatomy of Happiness, was too long and too literary. There are plenty of published titles of similar length, but they wanted something more accessible. The idea behind the Long Story Shorts series that Two Steps Forward was a part of was to make the short story appeal to a wider audience. If I was Tim Winton, I thought, I would stick to my guns, but as this was my debut collection I didn’t want to become one of those ‘difficult’ authors. I went back and forth with my publisher about the title but in the end acquiesced. If I had a time machine I’d pretend to be Winton and stick to my guns on this one. But I should add that this is my only minor regret in what was an exemplary publication process.

3. It’s tough out there
It’s been estimated that only one percent of all work submitted to publishers ever makes it into print. So it’s tough to get that first publication. What is probably less well known is that in the current climate it’s also tough to get the next book published. I know authors who’ve had two or three or more books published and are now struggling to find a publisher for their next book. Once upon a time I naively thought that with that first book the door to the publishing world opened and everything just rolled on from there. In truth it’s only the first door in a long corridor of doors.

4. Authors make a piddling about of money
Unless you’re Stephen King or JK Rowling you’re going to need to have another source of income other than advances and book sales. Natasha Lester wrote an honest and revealing article about this recently. She quotes stats that the average debut novel of an Australian author sells only 984 copies. Authors earn 10 per cent of the cover price, so for example $2.99 of a book with the rrp of $29.95. Therefore, 984 copies equates to just under $3K. And that’s for a book you might have spent three, five or 10 years writing. In short, when you sign your first book contract don’t ditch your day job.

5. There will always be doubt…
…and you just have to push through it. Personally, I have found it somehow reassuring that even the most accomplished writers are still filled with doubt about their ability. Interviewing Miles Franklin Award winner Roger McDonald was a revelation for me. He said, ‘Even when I’m close to finishing [a book], I’m thinking, ‘This is never going to work.’ That’s my struggle…it always seems just a little bit out of reach.’

Peter Carey puts it like this: ‘Writers spend a lot of their life failing at what they are doing. The chances are on any given day you are going to finish having not quite succeeded but you have that nasty feeling that there’s something false about what you have done. That process is painful: you are always filled with doubt.’ And yet there are days ‘when you are writing and you know you are doing something fabulous, and there’s no feeling like that on earth’. That’s what keeps us going, right?

Knowing that experienced authors like Roger and Peter still feel this way helps disempower my own doubt. It will always come and go, so you just have to get on with the writing in spite of it. We are all human, wrestling with the immense spirit of creativity. It’s one beautiful, messy, doubt-filled process.

Taking stories into schools

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At Narabundah Early Learning Centre

I’ve just wrapped up three days packed with school visits for Megumi and the Bear. It has been exhausting but exhilarating. There’s nothing quite like reading to a roomful of kids so involved in the story their mouths are hanging open. Or hearing that your visit has left them so inspired they all started writing their own books. Or at the end of a session when the teacher says, ‘So who wants to be an author?’ and you’re met with a sea of hands.

Some highlights included a Kindy student asking me if I ‘sounded out my stories’. How gorgeous is that! And the Year 1 student who said, ‘I love your book. Can I have your phone number?’ Later she prompted, ‘Do you know your phone number? Because I really need to get it.’

But perhaps the most amusing moment occurred when a Year 3 student asked me when my first story was published. When I replied ‘1998’ the kids—all 100 of them—let out a collective ‘wooooah’. That was, like, back in the olden days! Later their teacher told me they had been planning to ask me what year I was born until she explained that would be rude. Lucky she headed them off. They may well have needed resuscitation.

Read More »Taking stories into schools

Then there are the moments that confirm how important it is for authors to go into schools. At Wanniassa Hills Primary a Year 2 student told me about the chapter book she is writing, adding sheepishly, ‘I don’t know where it’s going until I write it.’ I told her I’m exactly the same and that a famous author (Roger McDonald) once said to me that if you write knowing the ending it often doesn’t work (in his words, ‘it’s a dead hand’). The look on her face at receiving that validation just made my day.

At Palmerston Primary a Year 4 student told me about the series she has been writing and asked me how to find a publisher. She was articulate and determined. It was a great moment to be able to offer her both encouragement and advice. I may very well have just met a future author.

Megumi coverAnother pleasure is being asked questions that really make me think, or listening to the children’s thoughtful observations. For example, on the front cover Megumi and the Bear lie in the snow holding hands, making an ‘M’ shape. M for Megumi. I’d never noticed that before. But a seven-year-old at Narrabundah Early Childhood School did.

At Turner Primary I launched their Artists’ and Writers’ Festival with three sessions. The eight-day festival is playing host to an impressive line-up of artists, including bestselling writer Anthony Hill and cartoonist David Pope. Not surprisingly, the school was bursting with budding writers. When I told them about how I started writing books at home when I was six, they got very excited and told me about all the books they were writing. What a joy that was. I would love to see more primary schools developing similar programs that allow kids to engage with books and reading in such a dynamic way. The best learning happens when everyone’s having so much fun it doesn’t feel like ‘learning’ at all.

I could keep raving about what a wonderful time I’ve had these past few days but I’m going to finish with this. A Kindy student who came up to me at the end of my session and said, ‘I LOVE your story’ and threw her arms around me. It doesn’t get better than that.

The Megumi and the Bear drawing competition is now underway. Download the sheet here for your child’s chance to win one of eight prizes, including teddy bears, books, a tea party for four, a baking pack, and book vouchers. Craig Phillips will be judging the competition with me. Entries close Friday 6 September.

Filming (mis)adventures

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Before The Invisible Thread series I had never interviewed anyone on camera. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing hundreds of interesting people for print but my voice, my words have only ever appeared on the page, and my image has remained hidden. Seeing yourself played back is an excruciating experience (how do actors cope with their overblown reflection at movie premiers?) and it revealed an irritating quirk.

Whenever I start talking I experience an uncontrollable urge to wave my hands about. After I saw the first few interviews played back I gave myself a good talking to. Note to self: Keep your hands down. At all times. My hands would not listen. In subsequent interviews the second I started speaking up they would jump. Waving, waving, always waving. During one interview I tried to unobtrusively sit on my hands but I quickly released them. When I wasn’t waving them around I was unable to think. However it seems many authors are similarly inclined, so I’m in good company. Here’s Omar Musa and me waving at each other.

Read More »Filming (mis)adventures

My hand-waving was not the only challenge we faced. There were also a few technical misadventures. The ACT Writers Centre — where we filmed the majority of these interviews — was a logistical nightmare. Never has any room had so many plug sockets and light switches and poles, all highly unappealing features onscreen. We did our best to avoid them but early on one caught out my indefatigable cameraman, Dylan. During set-up my head was covering it, but as I began speaking and waving and moving around, the nasty little offender began playing hide and seek. When viewing the footage it was distracting in the extreme. I did show it to a couple of ‘test cases’ who didn’t notice it until well into the interview, but I knew we had to reshoot my noddies*. A right pain, but you can be sure we didn’t make that mistake again.

Then there was the issue of the second mic. We had a reliable and professional lapel mic for the author but tried a series of different mics for me. So in a couple of interviews you’ll see me holding up a lovely gold number (disco queens eat your heart out). There was no issue with the sound quality but when the interviewer holds a mic it changes the dynamic, making it difficult to set the interview on an equal footing. So we swapped that for another lapel mic which, as it turned out, would have been perfect if we were working as spies but wasn’t so great for interviewing authors. It picked up everything in the room, and I do mean everything. On the playback I swear you could even hear the air moving. So finally we returned to disco gold but with me holding it between my thighs out of shot (as you can see here while filming Roger McDonald). Rather odd but somewhat less intrusive.

But perhaps the crowning failure came courtesy of an author who shall remain nameless who deadbolted one of the doors after entering the room. The interview went beautifully, said author exited out of the second door and shortly afterwards, taking a break before the last author arrived, we did too, carefully closing it behind us to ensure that all Dylan’s camera equipment remained safe.

When we returned, reflecting on how well the interviews had gone so far that day, we discovered that my key wouldn’t open door 1 (now deadbolted) or door 2 (which opened with a different key). While waiting for the security company, Dylan paced from door 1 to door 2 and back again, vainly trying them both at least 30 times each. ‘Stop, Dylan!’ I cried eventually, and he then attempted to convince me that I would be able to climb up through a high glass window above the door and drop ninja-style into the room. Needless to say I was somewhat reluctant, and thankfully we were unable to prise the window open. There was talk of breaking the door down; we weren’t ruling it out. Eventually the security man arrived and popped it open easily with a master key (I may have fist pumped, I can’t be sure). ‘The whole thing sounds Chaplinesque,’ a friend commented. Indeed.

Now I’ve confessed all our misadventures you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that this week’s interview actually looks pretty decent. A writer and glass artist of Arrente, Chinese and Anglo-Celtic descent, Jennifer Martiniello has plenty of insightful things to say. Make yourself a cuppa, put your feet up, and click that little triangle.

* For those as ignorant as I was, noddies don’t have anything to do with Big Ears or Enid Blyton. A ‘noddy’ is the technical term for when an interviewer’s questions are filmed after the interview has been recorded. We used two cameras for the majority of the series, but for the first few interviews we only had one camera and so after the author left I became adept at pretending they were still sitting in the chair across from me.

The Invisible Thread series: Roger McDonald

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On a searing blue-sky day my cameraman, Dylan, picks me up and we road trip to Roger McDonald’s home, just outside Braidwood. When we hit dirt roads we follow Roger’s concise instructions with landmarks that include sulky wheels and stock ramps. The landscape is like something out of a novel, a Roger McDonald novel perhaps. There is half a rusted car, a group of Clydesdale horses, and a pair of cows standing in the middle of the road who watch us approaching with disinterest.

I have just finished telling Dylan that I don’t think I could live in the middle of the bush, and then we come upon Roger’s home. I immediately take it back. It is stunning, a building my architect brother would surely admire. Later Roger points me to a passage in his 1996 novel The Slap where he prophesied a ‘hand built’ house with ‘rammed earth walls and ironbark slabs, a wide verandah of stringybark poles and an atrium of heavy glass saved intact from the demolition of the original Hatton Holdings building, bought for a song in Sydney’.

Stepping out of the car, Roger is already outside to greet us. Down the hill a little way a pile of wood is flaming. ‘It’s the last day we can burn anything,’ Roger tells me. ‘We’ve been chopping down some of the trees nearest the house.’ We stand side by side looking out at the landscape, the frogs chirruping. There’s something about the place. Its stillness instantly lulls me.

Read More »The Invisible Thread series: Roger McDonald

Inside I decide I’ve definitely found my dream home (care to swap, Roger?). There’s a collection of teapots on the kitchen counter, covetable art on the walls, and floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows looking out across the hills. Roger tells me that at night the only lights to be seen are fifteen kilometres away. The view inspired one of my favourite lines in When Colts Ran: ‘On the main highway fifteen kilometres away cars have their headlights on, so far off that as the minutes pass their lights go piling into each other in a continuous animated pulp of diamonds.’

The house is made up of three separate buildings and we walk to the second where Roger’s office is. While he makes tea a cat creeps out from the adjoining study where his wife works. I reach down to stroke her but he warns me she’s a face scratcher. ‘Oh,’ I say, retracting. ‘But she’s very beautiful.’ ‘You can think that,’ he replies. ‘I’m not a cat person myself.’

Roger McDonald interview2Dylan sets up the cameras in Roger’s writing space. The window frames a canvas of gums. As the cameras start rolling the cat picks her way delicately across the camera cords about our feet. Roger has so many interesting things to say. It always fascinates me that writers of Roger’s stature rarely think of themselves the way others see them; they still doubt their ability, still feel anxious about every new book. I used to think that experience and accolades must lessen these feelings over time, but it doesn’t seem to be so. Roger says, ‘I put so much pressure on myself…Even when I’m close to finishing [a book], I’m thinking, ‘This is never going to work.’ That’s my struggle…it always seems just a little bit out of reach.’ And then on the need for feedback he says, ‘Readers can be very shy about saying something to authors. They don’t realise that an author is a thirsting person in the desert.’

We go on to talk about everything from why he feels he has finished writing about the landscapes of his childhood to the experience of being at the centre of the Miles Franklin Award furore when an all-male shortlist was revealed. (Do yourself a favour and just watch him.)

I reluctantly conclude the interview. I could have asked so many more questions, but we’re trying to keep these interviews to a reasonable length. Roger offers us lunch—salad and an omelette with eggs from his chooks—but I am still tied to my feeding baby and we turn him down with regret. Instead he assembles a carton of eggs for us both and stands in the driveway waving us off.

That night I crack the eggs with their luminous orange yolks and make a frittata. ‘These are Roger McDonald Eggs,’ I tell my kids. ‘Who?’ my daughter asks. ‘Roger McDonald. One of Australia’s finest authors.’ She doesn’t pause, pushing another forkful into her mouth. ‘Oh,’ is all she says. She’s so used to meeting authors that it doesn’t impress her much, but I think the frittata tastes particularly good.

The Invisible Thread is an anthology of 100 years of writing from the Canberra region, edited by yours truly.