“We feel like kindred spirits”
The Moriarty sisters – hugely successful Australian authors Liane, Jaclyn and Nicola – sit down with Stellar for a bit of sibling revelry
Australia’s bestselling author sisters Liane, Jaclyn and Nicola Moriarty on their special bond and the supposed “competitiveness” they get quizzed about.
If novelists seem like an unusual breed, consider the fact that the job itself requires something pretty unusual. They spend hours each day in total isolation, creating worlds that don’t exist and populating them with invented characters. All of this has the tendency to, plainly speaking, make a person a little neurotic.
As US author Anne Lamott once explained, writers are just narcissists with an inferiority complex, tortured by failure until they are ruined by success. It is quite a combination.
So when three of Australia’s most successful writers tromp into the Public Dining Room at Sydney’s Balmoral Beach on the first rainy day the city has seen in months, it is a relief to discover there does not seem to be a highly strung artiste among them. And that’s not just because they had spent the previous hour being photographed on the freezing sand, wind whipping at them from every angle. These three writers, who between them have published 23 books covering genres from commercial fiction to suspense to young-adult stories, are also sisters.
Liane, Jaclyn and Nicola have been meeting here for years, and still do – as often as their loaded schedules will allow. Over cappuccinos on the terrace, Jaclyn tells Stellar “there are six children in our family, five girls and one boy. Ours was a really warm, close family and I like all my sisters. But the other two are much more sensible and practical than
the three of us. We’ve always felt like kindred spirits who share a slightly more sideways way of thinking.”
At 50, Liane is the oldest of the six siblings. Jaclyn, 49, is second in line. Nicola is the baby, younger than Liane by 15 years. While they were growing up in the Sydney suburb of Kellyville, their mother Diane also fostered more than 40 children while raising her own brood; father Bernie supported the tribe by working as an aerial surveyor. their father didn’t believe in pocket money, which may be where their future as a family of scribes began. “He believed in enterprise and would commission us to write a story and pay a dollar each for them,” Jaclyn says. “We were all prolific readers, , and wanted to be writers from quite early on.”
Bernie’s scheme paid off – it’s hard to remember a time before the Moriarty name was a fixture on Australia’s s pop-culture landscape. This year, the family surname found itself attached to a true phenomenon when HBO’S series adaptation of Liane’s 2014 novel Big Little Lies, spearheaded by and starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, dominated worldwide water-cooler conversations for months.
But it was hardly an overnight success. uccess. The Moriarty sisters have arrived here thanks to untold hours of unflagging ng hard work. It was nearly two decades ago go that Jaclyn published her first piece of fiction for young adults, earning NSW Premier’s emier’s Literary Awards for her first and second d efforts, and quietly achieving bestseller status with titles that followed. She’s now up to book 13, a magic-and-dragons tale entitled The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures Of Bronte Mettlestone.
Jaclyn began writing as a sideline, while studying for a PHD in media law at the University of Cambridge. “Really, I was just trying to extend my student life and put off becoming a lawyer for as long as possible,” she says. “I knew Cambridge was my last chance to write, because as soon as I started working it would get shut out. So I made a pact with myself to finish a book before I came home.”
She is being modest – before the PHD she earned a Masters degree at Yale University, which she only mentions in passing. And she neglects to mention how difficult it is to find real success in Australia’s small fiction market. Selling 3000 copies of a book is considered a good outcome by publishers, and authors can receive as little as $3 per copy from the cover price. So being able to pay the bills without a day job is a rarity, but Jaclyn – who is a single mother to 11-year-old son Charlie – has managed to do it.
Liane had a career in marketing before being inspired by Jaclyn to follow her into the trade. As she tells Stellar, “I’ve always said Jaclyn can never write a boring sentence in her life. Her use of language is exquisite.” Big Little Lies was a runaway success with readers long before it became an Emmy Award-winning TV show, and Liane’s 10-novel output has moved a healthy six million books worldwide. She is such a fixture on The New York Times bestseller list that she appears on it even in years that she doesn’t release a new title.
Still, as recently as last year, one news outlet described her as “the most successful Australian author that you’ve never heard of”. And in some senses she hasn’t shaken the “secretive Sydney w writer” tag that attached itself to her eea early on. “I don’t know where that cam came me from, the id idea that I’m reclusive reclusive,” e,” Liane says. “We all joke about it.. it. I find it hilarious.”
“Our only rivalry is over the use of family anecdotes in our books”
Liane says being at the school gates one day and on an Emmy red carpet the next is surreal, but that the process of collaborating with Kidman was a total joy. “Of course it was special,” she says. “I must admit I thought that everybody in Hollywood would be quite egocentric and shallow, but in fact they were so welcoming and made me part of the process, which they don’t have to do. [Nicole] has been so lovely and warm, and that has been one of the unexpected benefits of this whole thing.”
A second series has been mooted and yet Liane remains trailed by what she calls the “whole suburban mum thing”. As she tells Stellar, “I spoke to a young journalist once who obviously thought Big Little Lies was my first book. Maybe because I was so much older than her, I seemed like some mum who’d scribbled it down in the kitchen while cooking the lamb chops, rather than a mid-list writer who managed to break out.”
There is arguably a note of latent sexism in the mum narrative. Women’s commercial fiction (where Liane and Nicola’s books sit) and young-adult novels, which is what Jaclyn writes, tend to be sniffed at by critics who consider them a lesser art than literary or general fiction. As Liane points out, “I do doubt a male author would ever b be described that way.”
More pernicious is the assumption that three female siblings working in the same industry must be competitive, and riven with jealousy towards whoever has achieved the most commercial success. “I have been asked, ‘Are you envious or competitive?’” Jaclyn says, “And I always say absolutely not. I am so happy that we all write, can act as each other’s first readers and support each other that way. Liane can be ruthless but I trust her editorial judgement. And because we all understand the importance of praise, she will always read anything of mine and immediately say this is the best thing I’ve ever written.”
Still, she concedes, “All authors have crises of confidence. I’ve definitely woken up at 2am thinking, ‘Why am I writing when my sisters are such stars?’ But in the daytime, I feel confident in my writing and the space I’ve carved out for myself. Even growing up I always thought of Liane as the leader, so I just get happy for her and think, ‘Well, maybe I will be a New York Times bestseller and get movie deals, too.’”
Liane adds, “Like both my sisters, I’ve been asked on many occasions if there is sibling rivalry between us. I have always answered that our only rivalry is over the use of family anecdotes in our books.”
Nicola says she grew up “idolising” Liane and Jaclyn. And as the last to join the family business, she tells Stellar that she benefited from her sisters’ industry experience, while at the same time feeling the weight of their name. For a time, she considered submitting her first manuscript to agents with a pseudonym. “It was definitely good and bad,” she says of the family connection. “I didn’t really know how you go about becoming a writer, until Jaclyn and Liane did it and you start to feel it is possible.”
Given her sisters were already so well established, Nicola reveals that “I couldn’t even admit to myself that I was writing a novel, in case I panicked and couldn’t do it. It probably wasn’t until I was five or six chapters in that I started to feel more confident to let that be my aim – and confess to my sisters that’s what I was trying to do.” Nicola’s third book, The Fifth Letter, was released this year; she is currently negotiating film rights for one of the three.
With their cappuccinos emptied, the sisters begin to gather their things in preparation for – yes – the school pick-up. (Liane and Nicola each have two children.) As they head their separate ways, Liane reflects on their mutual success. “I have always felt like anything good that happens to one of us happens to all of us,” she explains. “Jaclyn has really good legs, so that means I have really good legs, too. And Nicola has that Julia Roberts smile, so we’ve got that covered as well.”
The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures Of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty (Allen & Unwin, $22.99) is out now.
“We have always felt like kindred spirits who share a sideways way of thinking”
THE WRITE STUFF Bestselling authors and sisters (from left) Nicola, Liane and Jaclyn Moriarty share a special bond in their love of storytelling.
BOOK CLUB (from top) Liane, who found success in 2014 with her book Big Little Lies, regularly tops The New York Times bestseller list; as well as being a published author, Jaclyn has a PHD from the University of Cambridge and a Masters in Law from Yale University; Nicola is rights for one of her novels.
INSIDE STORY (clockwise from above left) Nicole Kidman, Liane and Reese Witherspoon at the premiere of HBO’S Big Little Lies; the sisters say they are each other’s biggest support; Jaclyn’s book tally now stands at 13; her latest offering.