I have strong memories of mum sitting on our beds reading. It was the highlight of the day
FIONA McFARLANE was six years old when she wrote her first novel – “or what I called a novel as a very young girl,” she laughs. Before that the award-winning Australian author had been turning out numerous short stories, so she feels as if she has been writing all of her life. “I grew up in a family with a lot of books,” says the Sydney-born-and-bred 38-year-old, whose impressive debut novel, The Night Guest (2014), became a critically acclaimed international bestseller and, according to the Los Angeles Review of Books, promised “literary greatness”.
“My mum, Lyn, worked in a bookshop before becoming a librarian so there were always stories being read or told at home,” explains McFarlane. “I always had an awareness that books were written by real people, that they weren’t all dead or living in England, because my mum organised author events for children. There is so much pleasure in the stories we first encounter as children. As a child, for me, part of the charm of existence was being read to; I also think that gave me a love of the well-placed adjective.”
Both of her parents – her father Ian, now retired, was a biochemist – read bedtime stories to McFarlane and her older brother and younger sister. “Fairly early on they read the Narnia books to us. I have very strong memories of mum sitting on the end of our beds and reading, and me loving that because we got a chapter a night. It was the highlight of the day.
“There were all sorts of books in our house, not just literary fiction. Because of dad’s job there were his reference books and we had a subscription to National Geographic. My parents are Christians and take their faith very seriously though I am not religious. You encounter narrative through faith and I grew up with stories from the Bible and the richness of that language. We were surrounded by printed matter.”
She has just produced more printed matter of her own, a terrific collection of short stories, The High Places, a baker’s dozen of powerful stories written over the past 10 years. “I like to let some stories lie dormant,” she says.
The oldest of the 13 stories in the collection, the unsettling Unnecessary Gifts, is about lost boys in an enormous, empty shopping mall. The newest is Buttony, which centres on an apparently innocent children’s game and a golden boy. “What a lovely story!” many people have remarked, much to McFarlane’s mystification since it’s actually deeply sinister – she has a penchant for the macabre, the magical, the mysterious. “I am very interested in how strange the ordinary can be and, conversely, how ordinary the strange can be,” she confesses.
Buttony was published by the New Yorker in February. Another story, Art Appreciation, is hooked to a lottery win in 1960s Sydney and was inspired by a story McFarlane’s father told of her grandmother once winning the lottery, albeit not a large amount. It begins: “Henry Taylor had always known he would have money one day...” and was published by the magazine in 2013.
“It is wonderful to see a story you have written in that font and in those columns, an experience beyond anything I could have imagined. Surreal,” she says, speaking from her parents’ Sydney home, although she now lives alone in the city. She returned a while ago after 11 years in England and America, as well as visiting Edinburgh, where she spent a month finishing The Night Guest, which she had begun after abandoning a long historical novel that was collapsing beneath the weight of endless research.
“I was drawn to Edinburgh because we had lived there for a year when I was three-years-old,” she says. “In 2012, I felt the need to go somewhere, to be alone and just get my head down and finish this very quiet novel, which I honestly didn’t think would ever get published because I thought that the subject matter – dementia – would be of no interest to publishers. I loved Edinburgh, just loved bring there, it was a wonderful place to write. I’ll be back.” Scotland has a special place in her affections anyway. Her father’s family emigrated to Australia from Glasgow five generations ago, although they are not aware of any living relatives.
Since The Night Guest came out, praise has been heaped upon McFarlane. She has won a shelfful of prizes, including Australia’s prestigious Voss Literary Prize, as well as being shortlisted for a number of other major awards.In the novel, widowed, 75-yearold Ruth senses a tiger stalking her New South Wales beach house – a bigger, far more terrifying beast is, however, about to invade her life. A beautiful tale of ageing, loneliness and the shifting sands of a woman’s mind, it began as a short story after McFarlane witnessed the effects of dementia on both of her grandmothers. Although Ruth’s story is not based on either her grandma or her nanna – her mum’s mum – the novel is a fine tribute to them.