Writer chit chat – Myfanwy McDonald

There’s a lot to like about Myfanwy McDonald. First off, she’s in my club – her first and last initials are the same! Let’s face it, always a win. Myfanwy is also an Australian writer, crafter and general all-round cool bird. I spoke with her earlier this year when we both made the Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist.

Obviously, a lot has happened between now and then. When we spoke, Myfanwy was all rugged up in her woollens as Australia was in winter (ahem, still double digits, not that cold, ahem). Whereas right now in Zagreb I’ve just turned on the central heating, while folks in Oz are starting to bask in summer.

At the time of this chat, I had just found out I had won the Pacific prize. But I am beyond excited to tell you that Myfanwy’s shortlisted story ‘Numb’ has now been selected for inclusion in Black Inc’s Best Australian Stories for 2017!

So it’s a little late, but here’s the chat I had with Myfanwy. She’s a bit of a sneaky subject, and frequently turned the microphone back to me, so it ended up being a two-way discussion. We spoke about the writing process, memory, time – and, most importantly, that persistence really does pay off in the end.

Myfanwy

Congratulations on winning the regional prize.

Nat

Thanks. Yeah, it was a big surprise. And congratulations to you for making the shortlist!

Myfanwy

I was totally stunned. Because I had submitted that story to a couple of other places, journals, and none of them were interested. And I saw the ad for that prize, and I thought, I’ll just submit it here and see what happens. And I totally wasn’t expecting anything at all. So when I found out I was on the shortlist, I was just stunned, to be honest.

Nat

I saw on your bio that you’ve had a few other publications. Is that for fiction?

Myfanwy

Yeah, for fiction. The Big Issue and Going Down Swinging. And then a couple of short pieces in a zine. I did a residency in Finland a couple of years ago, it was a residency for writers and artists. And there was a guy who had a zine, an art zine, but he also published fiction. So I got a couple of things published in there. But I’m constantly sending stuff off to Australian journals, mainly Australian journals, and also trying to write a novel.

Nat

I saw that. So that’s historical fiction?

Myfanwy

Yeah. It’s historical fiction with a kind of a magic realism element. So I’m about half way through the first draft. And I’ve mapped out, I’ve got a whole outline of what I want to do. But I’m kind of in that mid-project slump, where you’re just trying to get motivated or stay motivated.

Nat

I also saw that you’re very crafty. Is that a distraction or…?

Myfanwy

The craft is… I don’t know. Because you know how writing is such a stationary thing? You’re sitting down all the time. But I also like making things. I enjoy making things and having a finished product that you can hold, rather than this story. It’s not very tangible, sometimes, writing. So I like having something concrete that you can hold that you’ve made.

Myfanwy McDonald, bookart, Normal People, 2016

Nat

So with your writing and with craft projects, how do you start? Do you come up with an idea or a character or a finished product? What’s the process?

Myfanwy

With the fiction, it usually comes to me as a snippet of a conversation or maybe just an image, or a story I hear about in the newspaper. Or sometimes it’s also a dream. Like, I had this dream about a year ago that’s stayed with me about my grandmother. My grandmother was kind of a hypochondriac. And in this dream, she was shrinking. And she shrunk so small that I couldn’t see her anymore and I was worried I was going to step on her. So I’m trying to think up a story at the moment about that.

I quite like those magic realism stories where it’s written in a way that it’s real but actually it’s quite bizarre and it’s never going to happen in real life. But it’s written as if it’s actually happening. Not science fiction, but written in a realistic way.

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I thought, I need some other way of getting my stuff out there

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And with the craft stuff, I think that’s kind of similar, although I guess that’s more visual. I will see something – like I really like making little books, book art. And I’ll see something and just have an idea about how to put visual things together, and experimenting and playing around with stuff.

And this probably happens to you too, I don’t know, you can get a bit despondent about getting your stuff out there. You’re constantly putting stuff in and it gets rejected. And I thought, well, I need some other way of getting my stuff out there. So I thought I’d have other avenues of making my own books, and writing stuff where I’m putting a story in something and I’m just sending it out there myself. I’m not going through the gatekeeper, and that makes me feel like at least something’s getting out there.

What about you? How long have you been writing for?

Nat

A very long time. But I only really started sending things out when I moved out to Croatia. That became this catalyst of – you’ve got to do it now. It’s now or never.

I had my first story published two years ago, and the first thing I did was email my old University professor from back in 1998 to say, I finally did it! I finally sent something off and got it published!

And he wrote back and he was delighted. He couldn’t remember me, but he was delighted anyway, so that was nice. But it took me 20 years.

Myfanwy

Did you study creative writing?

Nat

I did a Bachelor of Arts and it was one of the subjects I did. But that was 20 years ago. Which is hard to believe.

Just going back to that idea of little snippets, I saw on your blog that you’ve got a really nice sequence called Things that happened, with each part starting “I knew a woman once”, “I knew a man once”, etc. Would you consider spinning any of those into stories? Or do you like that they’re little snapshots on their own?

Myfanwy

I don’t know. Actually that piece came to me quite quickly. I’m kind of in a mode at the moment where I’m wondering about – I don’t know if this happens to you – but you write a story and you just work on it for so long, and you try and make it as perfect as it can be. And I’ve got a couple of stories that I’ve been working on for a year, or more than a year, maybe two years. And I’m just constantly tinkering with them

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the stuff I write that comes out so easily, is that the stuff I’m meant to be writing? Or should it be a whole difficult process?

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And then other pieces, like that piece on my website, just come to me really quickly. And I don’t even, maybe because they’re shorter, I don’t really have to fiddle with them at all. They just come out like that. So I wonder sometimes about whether if it comes out, the stuff I write that comes out so easily, is that the stuff I’m meant to be writing? Or should it be a whole difficult process where I’m really tinkering with it all the time and working on it for ages?

I guess I could turn each of those into stories. But the longer stories I write aren’t really based on memory, whereas each of those things are based on a memory. Maybe that’s why it comes much easier.

Nat

Just thinking about the things that come easy, sometimes they are the best things. You’ve written a story in two hours and you go, oh, this is more or less done! And then sometimes you spend two years on it.

Myfanwy

What are your thoughts on how that happens? Like why some things just come out like that? They come out ready.

Nat

Like you said, maybe part of it is memory. When you’re drawing on a deeper experience somehow, that might make things easier.

But sometimes, I don’t know if you have this, but when you’re working on something and you get to a point, it’s either a quarter of the way through or half way through, where you know exactly where it’s going to end. And if you can do that, then somehow it becomes really, really easy. But if that doesn’t come until a little bit later, or sometimes it even comes too early, and then you have to struggle. That for me is the thing.

Myfanwy

It’s a timing thing. Some stories are just there at the right time, like you catch them at the right time or something.

Nat

I’m not a very visual or crafty person in any way shape or form, and I wonder does something similar happen when you’re making something? You’re just messing around and at some point it all comes together? And other things maybe you work on it for ages and ages and ages and it doesn’t come together?

Myfanwy

It’s interesting, actually, because I think that the crafting stuff and the book art, it’s more a traditional hobby. It’s what I see as a hobby. The writing is the main thing. And then when I need a break from writing, I’ll do the craft stuff.

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Some stories are just there at the right time, you catch them at the right time.

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So I don’t feel quite as much pressure, I don’t think, with the craft and the book art stuff. Because the only place I’ll put it is on my website. I’m not sending it out to be critiqued or exhibited or anything like that. So I don’t tend to tinker quite as much on it. I just don’t feel as much pressure on it. There have been projects I’ve started where I’m just like, nah, this isn’t going to work. But usually, it’s much easier, I come up with the concept, and then I fiddle around with it for a bit. And from start to end it’s a pretty quick process. And I’m usually pretty happy with it at the end.

Whereas with a story, I’m rarely happy with it at the end. I’m not super unhappy with it but it never seems to be what I originally wanted it to be. Whereas with the crafting stuff it’s more like I have an image of what I want it to be. And it seems to be much easier to get to that point of making it – Oh yeah, this is what I want it to be – and to be happy with it. Whereas with a story I’m never 100% happy with it.

So yeah, something about pressure. Maybe it’s about language as well, that language is so complex. Whereas images and visual stuff is maybe not as psychologically demanding or something. I don’t know.

Nat

You spend a long time with a story. I’m thinking about as a reader, or a viewer, you might spend 20 minutes with a story, but you might only just glance at a picture.

Myfanwy

And that’s the other thing that I’ve noticed. In a social media world, the crafting things that I do generally attract more attention than the writing stuff that I do. Because you can just see it on Facebook and go, oh yeah, I really like that. Whereas the reading you have to actually read something. So it’s more consumable, or immediately consumable.

Nat

Just going back to your novel, because it sounds really interesting, are you working on that every day? Or how is that going?

Myfanwy

At the moment I’m working on it almost every day. I have this friend who is also writing a novel, and we sort of started at the same point. And so for the whole of this year, we’re like, okay, we’re going to meet every four to six weeks and we have to bring a chapter to the meeting. Just to get us both motivated and driving us towards finishing it.

So I’m working on it a lot at the moment because I’m trying to write the next chapter. And I’m also trying to finish quite a detailed synopsis. So at the moment I’m working on it almost every day.

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a big thing is to keep in contact with the book

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When I went to Finland, that was the point at which I committed to writing it. And then after I got back from Finland, I didn’t work on it for a while because I needed a break from it. And it’s only probably since the beginning of this year that I’ve been like, yeah, I’m going to finish it this year. And I go through these phases of going, no this just isn’t working, I’m not happy with it. But I’m like, I just have to finish it. I just have to finish the draft. And even if I’m not happy with it, at least I know that I’ve finished it, and that I’m capable of writing something that long.

I work as well, and sometimes I’m working more weeks than other weeks, so if it’s a really busy week at work I might not come home and actually write, but I’ll come home and maybe do some research or look up things on the internet for questions I’ve got about details in the book. So that’s a big thing, actually, it’s keeping in contact with the book. I find if I don’t do anything on it for a week, and I come back to it, it takes me a while to get back into it. Whereas if I’m doing those little things, even little things like doing some research or something, it’s still there in my mind and it’s still moving.

Nat

Yeah. That is important. And can we have some clues what it’s about?

Myfanwy

It’s about a ship that’s travelling to Australia from Britain in the middle of the 19th century. It’s centred around two characters. One is a woman, a young woman who has had two miscarriages and now she’s pregnant, and she’s a bit paranoid about losing the baby. And the other character is a man who has stolen someone’s identity. And he’s stolen the identity of someone who is a famous composer, but he doesn’t know that this guy was a famous composer

And at the same time this woman, this woman who is pregnant and gives birth, she has some issues with post-natal psychosis, and it’s about how people respond to that on the ship.

The whole background is this idea that as people are travelling towards the equator, this idea that people can go a bit nuts around the equator. And so there’s all these strange things happening on the ship.

Nat

Sounds really cool!

Myfanwy

What about you? Are you working on a longer piece?

Nat

Yeah. I finished a novel a couple of months ago, which I was just so pleased that I actually did it. And now I’m in the process of editing it, which basically means I ignore it for weeks at a time, and then go, oh god! I must go and edit another five pages of that.

Myfanwy

And what’s that about?

Nat

It’s just kind of straight fiction, I guess. It’s about a woman who is 65 and she’s attending a conference. And she’s remembering the first conference that she went to when she was in her early 20s and she thinks about her whole life and she wonders if she made the right decisions, in love and in her professional career. I mean, she’s incredibly successful, but there were a few sacrifices she had to make along the way and she wonders if they were worth it.

Myfanwy

Is she an academic?

Nat

She’s more like an entrepreneur.

Myfanwy

Have you got a publisher for it?

Nat

No, but as a result of getting on that shortlist, I got an email from some agent who said, oh we saw that you finished a manuscript, you can send it to us when it’s done. I was like, oh my god, it is so far from being done!

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been shortlisted for anything this major and it was like, wow, automatically one door opens that I didn’t even know existed.

Myfanwy

The same thing happened to me, actually. I was contacted by an agent. And I’d never even thought of, I mean, I’ve heard of people having agents, but I’d never thought of getting one for myself. And they said, you know, we saw that you’re working on something, do you want to send us an example of it? And I was not really ready to share it, but I’ll probably have a draft finished towards the end of this year and they said, oh yeah, that sounds really great.

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Being shortlisted was like, wow, automatically one door opens that I didn’t even know existed.

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I’m just not sure whether I need an agent or whether I want one or what the benefits of it are or anything. But I was talking to someone the other day and they were saying it can be quite good in terms of breaking in to the US and the UK, if you have an agent. Expanding the reach of your book rather than just marketing it in Australia.

So are you going to send that agent some of your book?

Nat

I’m not 100% sure, because I really need to finish it first, get it to a point where I like it. You know what it’s like. And my original plan was actually to enter it in the Mslexia first novel competition. Because it’s a small investment, I think it’s like 20 pounds or something, but I think you can get good feedback from it if you send a good enough draft. So I just want to work on it and make sure it’s good enough to at least enter into that, if nothing else.

Myfanwy

Do you enter the whole book into the Mslexia competition?

Nat

I think you just do the first 10,000 words but on the proviso that the whole is actually finished, that you could send the whole thing if you get shortlisted.

If nothing else, it gives you a deadline. You have to have a deadline. I wouldn’t get anything done otherwise.

And your short story Numb, can you tell me a little bit about that? And what plans you have about where you’re going to place it next?

Myfanwy

It’s actually one of the stories I’ve written that is based on fact. My dad was born in New Zealand and his mum was Maori. He came to Australia in his late teens, and he not exactly disconnected from his relatives in New Zealand, but he wasn’t really that interested or didn’t really try that hard to keep in contact with that part of his life. He was brought up thinking that Maori culture was going to die out and there was no point in learning Maori or learning anything about Maori traditions. So he had this idea that it wasn’t an important part of his identity to explore.

Then when he was in about his mid-40s, after his mum died, he became much more interested in it and he started learning Maori and learning more about Maori culture. At that time I was about 13 or 14, and I went back to New Zealand with him, and met all these relatives who I didn’t know.

Also my dad had MS. At that stage it wasn’t really, really bad, but he had some issues with balance and he was quite clumsy and sometimes had trouble walking, and that kind of thing. Which is where the title comes from, Numb, in terms of he couldn’t feel things physically.

So it’s about this girl who goes to New Zealand with her dad, and goes to this part of New Zealand, quite a remote part of the north island of New Zealand, where there’s lots of people that look like her but she doesn’t know them. And all these people are saying, you’re part of our family and she’s like, no I’m not, because I don’t even know who you are. And she’s struggling with all the aspects of identity in adolescence, like sexuality and identity and trying to work out who she is, and at the same time trying to work out where she fits in this family of people that she doesn’t even know.

So it’s kind of about her relationship with her dad and then seeing her dad try and work out where he fits in that, and at the same time she’s trying to work out where she fits into it. There’s this juxtaposition of Maori culture, which is very interdependent, it’s not nuclear family, it’s extended families, and everyone lives together and supports each other. And then there’s this other part of his heritage which is Scottish heritage which is where they’re living in nuclear families and some of them are quite lonely. So there’s this other story, as well as the Maori bit, there’s a story about a woman who lives on her own and she’s also related to this girl, but she’s living a totally different life to these other people in these Maori towns. It’s about identity and also coming to terms with identity.

I’m not sure what to do with it. I just submitted it to the Best Australian Stories, the Black Inc publication [lividlili – AND totally got accepted! WOOT! Go Myfanwy!]. I don’t know how much chance I’ve got of getting it in that, but I’m just going to keep submitting it in places. And hopefully the fact that it was shortlisted will make it a bit more appealing to people.

Nat

I don’t know about you, but being shortlisted, there was a certain sense of, wow, I’m not just yelling into the void. Someone actually liked it.

Myfanwy

Totally. Totally. It was such a good feeling. It’s like you can just go along and you’re putting stuff into places and trying to get stuff published, and you just feel like, what is the point? Why am I spending all this time doing this? And you do question yourself and doubt yourself and think, maybe this just isn’t what I’m meant to be doing.

But then when I got shortlisted for it, it just boosted my confidence, and was a real motivator. Because it made me feel like, okay, I am meant to be doing this. And I do have something to say. And people do like what I say. And I just found it really a massive kind of motivation.

Also it was quite good the attention I got from other people. Even from friends and family who knew that I write, but you say that you’re shortlisted for something like that and people really do pay attention and say, oh, actually, you are a good writer. You’re not just… Because I think sometimes other people can wonder why are you spending all this time doing this stuff when it’s so difficult and you’re driving yourself crazy and maybe nothing will come of it. But then when something like that happens, people see you a little bit differently. And I found that quite good.

Nat

I know exactly what you mean. In fact, when I posted on Facebook to friends and family, and I was like, just in case you think that all I do is drink beer – because of course all my posts are just about having fun – no, I don’t just drink beer! Look, I really do write! I can prove it now.

Myfanwy

And then how did you feel when you won it?

Nat

I was sitting at work, and I think my heart stopped. I just stood up at my desk and picked up my phone and walked outside and rang my girlfriend. And I was like, oh my god, I can’t believe this. And she was in Vietnam at the time and she was drunk, and she was like, what? So it was bizarre. I think I was just in shock. And then I had to sit back at my desk and pretend nothing had happened. Just, la la la.

Myfanwy

And what’s your writing practice in terms of a schedule?

Nat

It was a lot easier earlier in the year. Every morning before work I just sat down and wrote for 30 minutes. And that was enough to get over that middle hump that you were just talking about. I got over that middle hump by just sitting down and doing the 30 minutes every morning, no matter what I felt like. And I got it done, and then I actually managed to finish the draft.

I’m finding it a lot harder now because I’m trying to fit in a bunch of other things, like some freelance work and stuff like that. So I haven’t been able to find much time.

I find holidays or sitting in the sun or sitting in a pub really useful. Being amongst noise but not being in it. And then I find I can write for hours. But otherwise, when you’ve got work and everything else it can be hard.

Myfanwy

And were you workshopping your novel with other people when you were writing it? Or were you just doing it on your own?

Nat

That is one thing that I really do suffer from being here in Zagreb, is I can’t find a group of people that I can actually talk with. I mean, I found some other writers but they’re people who are just scribbling, they’re not committed to anything. Or English isn’t their first language or whatever and it just makes it a lot harder.

But that’s definitely the next step, when I finish the second draft or this first edit, is to actually find some people and chat to them and go what do you think?

I liked that idea you have with your friend where meeting every four weeks, and exchanging a chapter. Is that very valuable?

Myfanwy

It’s really, really good. We originally had a bigger group. There was a group of about six, but various people dropped off because they were having babies and they got a new job and they couldn’t commit to it.

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Knowing that all those kind of things are part of the process, that you’re not all alone with it, is really valuable.

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So it’s only been two of us for about a year. But actually that’s been quite good. Because before we were working on short stories but now we’re working on a novel. I know a lot about her book and what she’s trying to achieve with it, and she knows a lot about mine. And it’s good because we both know that so intimately.

Actually, I think it’s quite good just having two people. Because you know sometimes if you’re in a bigger group you can get conflicting advice, and you’re not really sure what to do with it. And because I trust her judgement on what she’s saying.

Also it’s good to not feel on your own with it. To be able to get together. Like, half of what we do is just getting together and going, oh my god, this character is driving me crazy or I don’t know what to do with this. Or this chapter is really shit or whatever. And just reassuring each other. And also knowing that someone else, that all those kind of things are part of the process, that you’re not all alone with it. It’s really, really valuable.

I think if I didn’t have that, I would find it quite hard to motivate myself and to actually stick to deadlines. Especially because I don’t have a publisher for it or anything, so it’s all on me to get it finished. But if I have this external thing, even if it’s just we’re meeting in a week so I need to get this finished, that’s really useful.

Nat

And is your plan to try and get it traditionally published?

Myfanwy

That’s the plan. I’m hoping that it will get published. I’m not convinced that it will. And I’ve kind of reached this point where I think even if it’s not published, that’s okay. There’s something about the process of writing that I really enjoy, and the writing itself that is quite fulfilling. And so I’m trying to not get caught up in the idea that it’s all for publication and it’s all about publication. Because I don’t think it necessarily has to be. But it would be good if it was published.

Nat

It definitely sounds like it has commercial potential. It’s not some strange niche idea. People are really interested in that period and those sorts of topics. I’d be surprised if it couldn’t get published.

Myfanwy

And is yours literary fiction?

Nat

We were just having this discussion last night. Like, what is literary fiction? And I think there’s this idea… I almost want it to be literary fiction, but if I take a step back, it’s a bit of a romance as well. Because it’s about, did she make the right choices in love? And so of course, it’s not a romance in the sense of Mills and Boon, but it’s definitely romantic in that sense. And I always like to have happy endings. And I think literary fiction doesn’t have happy endings.

Myfanwy

That’s true! Who are your favourite authors? The ones that inspire you?

Nat

I guess that’s changing a lot. Because I used to read nothing but classics. Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope and all those sorts of guys. And I realised when I looked back on my reading history that I was reading nothing but old white guys. So I took a challenge two years ago to read nothing but women for a year, and in doing that I just radically changed all of my reading habits. I found myself reading Caribbean women and African women.

Because the way I did it was by author name, A to Z. So when I got to X, I had to find a Chinese writer. I think actually the X might have been an African writer. It was just an extra challenge.

And so now I read just about anything, which is so much better for me. My writing has changed, it’s improved, it’s for the better. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still love Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, and Jane Austen and all the really old guys. But now it’s not just old white guys. What about you? What’s your reading style?

Myfanwy

I read pretty widely as well. I try not to get too stuck on particular authors. One person I really like who I’ve only discovered pretty recently is Jane Gardam. An English author. I think she’s in her 70s now. But she’s written a lot of books, novels and also books of short stories, and there’s a collection of her short stories that’s just called Stories. And I really like her. I really like Margaret Atwood. I really like Mary Gaitskill. She’s great. And probably one of my all-time favourites is Joyce Carol Oates.

Nat

I follow her on Twitter but I don’t really know her stuff.

Myfanwy

She’s great. They’re probably my big ones. And I really like Raymond Carver as well, but I was kind of getting a bit obsessed with him, so I was trying to move on a bit. But I still really like him. He’s American. He was writing in the 1970s and 1980s, and he writes short stories. I don’t think he wrote a novel at all. Some of them were quite depressing, realistic stories about working class families. And also non-fiction as well. He wrote some great non-fiction. But his writing is very, it’s not flowery, it’s really clear. And quite evocative and very powerful and moving without being sentimental.

Nat

Well, thanks for talking to me. I’ll let you get back to your hot cocoa and heater.*

Myfanwy

Thanks!

* This interview is from June 2017, when it was very, very cold** in Australia.

** Honestly, it wasn’t that cold, but we Australians always think 10 degrees is frightful.

You can find Myfanwy on her website, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.

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