It gives me more pleasure than you can possibly imagine to welcome Fiona into the attic. It’s not the first time she’s visited (read her first post from 2017) and these days Fi is an almost daily visitor to the attic, as I am to her office, when we write together with Raihanaty A Jalil via Zoom each morning.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be a fly on the wall during the editing and publishing process of If You’re Happy, her short story collection. I’ve seen Fi’s dedication to the craft of writing over many years now, while raising a family and working as a doctor. I’ve watched her write and keep writing, during fallow and fertile periods, and I know how much work, energy, thought and emotion has gone into this book.
In today’s post, Fi gives us an insight into the inspiration for a few of the stories in her collection. Keep reading to the end because there’s a double giveaway this week – the opportunity to win two books: If You’re Happy and The Torrent, by Dinuka McKenzie, who will be next week’s guest in the attic.
First, here’s a bit about Fi. She’s a writer and doctor from Brisbane, Australia. Fi was shortlisted for the Richell Prize in 2018, and won the Glendower Award at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards. Her stories have been published in Australia and the UK, and have been shortlisted for international competitions. If You’re Happy is her first short story collection and it was released last week through University of Queensland Press.
Walking Away for Inspiration
How writers find ideas is something that intrigues me. It seems such a mysterious process. I’ve heard of novelists writing a whole book after overhearing just a snippet of conversation.
Since If You’re Happy is a short story collection, there’s no quick answer as to what inspired it. I thought I’d talk about three of the stories, and how they came about. All of them were prompted by time away from the desk.
Watching Netflix is writing
I wrote Sweet Bountiful – the story of a second wife in a fundamental Latter-Day Saints community – after watching the documentary TV series Three Wives, One Husband on Netflix. In this show, several families at an isolated fundamental LDS community in Arizona were living in a way that seemed incredibly strange. I became fascinated with the men – their flaws, justifications and patriarchal ideas, but also their kindnesses and their earnest efforts to follow their religion. The wives (plus one prospective wife) were even more compelling viewing. These women were articulate, funny and honest. Many expressed feelings of jealousy but also their firm convictions that sharing a husband taught them valuable lessons. They explained that having sister wives made for a strong family unit.
I watched other documentaries and interviews. I read case studies, personal essays and news articles about fundamental Latter-Day Saints communities. Eventually, I wrote a story which tries to explore the contradictory emotions a woman might feel in such a situation.
Going out for dinner is writing too
Birthday Wishes is a favourite story of mine, though it doesn’t involve earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, sinkholes, or a tornado, like other stories in the collection. It’s a quiet tale of an older woman caring for a partner with dementia. But the inspiration for this piece came from having dinner with a friend whose elderly mother has significant memory loss. On her birthday, my friend’s mother kept looking at balloons in the kitchen and asking ‘Is it someone’s birthday?’ Over and over, my friend’s father replied gently, ‘Yes darling, it’s your birthday’. This story almost brought me to tears, and I couldn’t forget it. Months later, I asked my friend permission to use that dialogue in a slightly different story.
Folding washing is writing, dammit
As a feminist and resister of household duties, I’m reluctant to admit this, but I wrote Happy Hour (about a widower called Colin who runs a home radio station) after a session folding washing. Faced with a pile of clean clothes, I sometimes flick on the bedroom clock radio, and listen as I fold. This day, the dial had been bumped, and the voice of an older gentleman warbled from the crappy speaker, giving a rambling and affectionate description of a piece of classical music. I soon changed stations, but continued to think about this radio announcer with fondness and amusement. And one day, I began the story of Colin.
Other inspirations have come from my brother’s military service in Afghanistan, childhood memories of drunken adult parties, nightmares about being stuck in a narrow gap, and a creepy flock of ibises in a tree across the road. All the stories began with dreaming and thinking and living. They definitely didn’t start as I sat glaring at my computer screen (the glaring part came later).
If you read If You’re Happy, I hope you like the book. And maybe you can enjoy these few stories a little more, knowing how they began.
Wishing you an inspired and creative 2022.
TWO BOOK GIVEAWAY
It’s such a treat to offer these two wonderful books to give away.
Fiona has donated a copy of If You’re Happy and next week’s guest, Dinuka McKenzie, has donated a copy of The Torrent.
To enter, simply comment on this blog or any of my social media posts about Fiona’s or Dinuka’s books.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) next Friday, 18 February, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.