Talking Heads with Fiona McFarlane

Fiona McFarlane (Photo credit: Andy Barclay)Last week I attended a book event in Sydney for Fiona McFarlane, author of The Night Guest and the new collection of short stories, The High Places. Held in Newtown library the event was small but inviting with a lovely selection of wine and cheese nibblies upon arrival.

The Night Guest has been on my TBR list since its release and I finished (and started to be honest) The High Places on the train. I’d planned to read them both beforehand by my online order didn’t arrive in time so it was a scramble to get a copy. Luckily I was able to purchase a copy of The Night Guest on the night from booksellers Better Read Than Dead.

There was a small crowd who gathered upstairs in library, perhaps 10 people, but they were all eager to listen to Fiona talk about writing and her new book. Fiona spoke about how she’d always written fiction and her time growing up in Newtown had helped inspire some of her stories. She said that making stories out of the things she saw and experienced was natural, an example being the skydivers who are mentioned in one of her short stories, were based on the skydivers she used to see landing nearby her house. She mentioned of course many of these things can be easily speculated after the story has been written, she wasn’t too conscious of it at the time.

After reading part of one of her short stories, she provided insight into a few references and the history to her ideas. She told us it surprised her when she noticed all her stories had histories. Fiona mentioned the trouble she had writing fiction after her PhD and decided she would read great sentences instead because her brain couldn’t handle creating great sentences at the time.

Another thing Fiona discussed was the commentary people provide about being a short story writer versus a novelist. She said people think that writing a novel takes much longer, thereby making short story writing easy, but Fiona disagreed and said short story writing can be intense, some of those in The High Places had taken her ten years to complete. Comparing that to The Night Guest, from first draft to publication it only took four and a half years.

She mentioned that what’s good about short stories is that they’re patient, they wait for you in a way a novel doesn’t, novels need to be written in one go while the world of the short story is easier to step back into. Another thing I liked was that she pointed out that no one asks why someone chose to write a novel, but always ask why someone writes short stories, as if a novel is a normal thing to write. But as Fiona said, “it is no way normal or sensible to write a novel” and why would anyone spend their time to write something that is 20 times longer?

Fiona had great things to say about the short story: “[They] can be anything but small; they’re compact explosive charges with the makings of existences.” She also said it was a bad idea to think of short stories as less than a novel. In fact, The Night Guest started a short story but Fiona soon realised it was bigger and had to face that it was turning into a novel whether she liked it or not.

Speaking about her new collection, The High Places, she said while there are no mountains in the book, the high places make you think of the low places as well. The joy of short stories she concluded was that short stories can play with scale; it forces you to face the large compressed into the small, which is something I love most about short stories and something The High Places does very well.

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