The Stella Prize chats with Fiona McFarlane, author of The Night Guest and The High Places

McFarlane, Fiona 2013 (photographer credit Andy Barclay)

Stella: Who did you admire when you were fourteen?

Fiona: My admirations were various and intense. They included my ancient history teacher, Mrs Hawkins, who, when not talking about Orestes and Pericles and Ovid and Livia, was introducing us to Philip Larkin and Barbara Pym.

Stella: Is there a writer you aspire to be like?

Fiona: There are so, so many writers I admire, but I find it paralysing to compare myself to any of them. The most I can say is that I want to be the writer who’s the best version of what Fiona McFarlane is capable of. The business of publishing can be so disappointing, intimidating, euphoric and distracting; I aspire to be like any writer who knows all this and keeps writing anyway.

Stella: Why did you become a writer?

Fiona: Because it was impossible for me to imagine being anything else. When I was a child, my mother worked in a bookshop; later she became a school librarian. My parents brought me up as a reader, and it’s as a reader that all writers start. I understood very early that a writer was something you could be, and I wrote my first “novel” – an eleven-chapter epic called The Fake God – when I was six. I suppose I imagined being a writer would come about almost magically, simply because I wanted it to; my six-year-old self would, I think, be a little horrified by the time and effort actually involved.

Stella: Do you have a good writing place? Tell us.

Fiona: I can write in any room, as long as I’m alone. I need four walls, a glass of water and a happy temperature. I like to revise in libraries; the State Library of NSW is particularly lovely for this, being both subterranean and light-filled.

Stella: Where would you live if you could live anywhere?

Fiona: This is difficult to answer; I’ve lived in so many places that my ideal one would be some kind of perfect combination of all of them, populated by everyone I love and miss. Texas barbecue would be a key ingredient. Practically, I’d love to be able to divide my time between my two favourite cities: to live in Sydney, but to spend a few months of every year in Rome.

Stella: Have you ever received a grant, residency or fellowship to write?

Fiona: I’ve been the very fortunate recipient of all of the above – grants from the Australia Council for the Arts and St John’s College, Cambridge, residencies at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts and Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and a fellowship from the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. Grants, residencies and fellowships are such a practical form of generosity – exactly what writers need – and I’m so grateful.

Stella: Are you part of a writing group?

Fiona: I’m not. I tend to be very private about the first few drafts of my work – I need to spend a long time alone with it before passing it on to a few readers I know will challenge and inspire me before I start getting more general opinions. I do love reading the new work of my writer friends, so I suppose you could say I’m part of a very elastic writing group, many members of which live in different places.

Stella: What book would you take with you to a desert island?

Fiona: I’d take Moby Dick. It’s long and beautiful and endlessly strange and nautical and lonely and would also make a passable pillow.

Stella: Favourite heroine in literature? Favourite villain?

Fiona: My favourite heroine may be Miss Jean Brodie. She’s probably also my favourite villain.

Stella: How do you know when a story is finished?

Fiona: This feels different depending on the project. Some stories assert their own ends, which is helpful of them; others require greater faith, or more time, or external input. I’ve learnt not to rush anything. With The Night Guest, I knew my first draft was finished when I was ready to stop being its only reader and show it to someone else.

Find out more about...
Fiona McFarlaneThe Night Guest