Women Who Write: Emily Macguire

Today we farewell our Women in Film Columnist Nathania Gilson (who is going on to pursue her own exciting film projects), but welcome to the blog our new Women who Write columnist Sandra Todorov. Each month Sandra will introduce us to female authors and explore the craft of writing. We all know Australia has no shortage of talented female literary figures so we're excited to learn more about them here on the blog. Take it away, Sandra! Emily Maguire is a writer with strong convictions. She caused a stir with her first novel Taming the Beast, which explored the seduction of a schoolgirl by her sociopathic male teacher. Known for her steamy and provocative writing (and her feminist views – she is especially good when writing or speaking about society’s twisted view of female sexuality) Emily came to Melbourne recently for the Melbourne Writers Festival. I couldn’t wait to talk to her in the lead up to the release of her latest novel Fishing for Tigers.

Fishing for Tigers is about an older woman who seduces a younger man. I asked Emily about this, saying that her ‘older woman’ seemed a lot less predatory than the ‘older man’ in her breakthrough novel. She said it did not just come down to gender:

"Daniel in Taming the Beast is a manipulative sociopath, really. Mischa in Fishing for Tigers is different not just because she’s a woman, but because she’s not a manipulative sociopath!"

She acknowledged that gender plays a role in the way people see themselves and the way they approach relationships:

"It isn’t necessarily an inherent thing but I do think that women are socialized to think a lot more about the effect their behavior is having on other people - to think about their ethical responsibility in relationships. I think that’s something [the character] Mischa does do."

Fishing for Tigers is a beautifully drawn work – set in Hanoi, it follows the development of the relationship between Mischa and eighteen-year-old Cal. Thirty-five and single - and still recovering from her bitter divorce from a violent man -Mischa is rejuvenated by the affair but it challenges her sense of herself as a good person.

The book also explores the theme of alienation, capturing the camaraderie in the expat community in Hanoi, where people have come together to escape their pasts. Released last month by Picador, Fishing for Tigers is a typical Emily Maguire work – sexy, provocative, lively, sharply written.

I asked Emily about her career breakthrough, the importance of networking and her writing life.

Describe your workspace. Do you write at the same desk every day?

I work in the second bedroom in my flat, which I’ve turned into a kind of office/library. By library I mean there are lots of books everywhere [laughs]. It’s not really anything fancier than that. I work here in my unit in Sydney every day that I’m at home, but I travel a lot so I write on laptops in places like airports, hotel rooms and parks.

How did you get your first book deal? The first chapter of Taming the Beast really 'pops 'and I can imagine it catching an editor's eye. Was that what happened?

Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t know anything about how to get a book deal, or writing; I was working in a really awful call center job and just writing at night with that first book. I hadn’t done creative writing courses or anything like that.

I did some research into the Australian publishing scene and found that the big publishers didn’t accept manuscripts from un-agented authors. So I sent the manuscript to some of the smaller publishers - who were still accepting manuscripts - and one of the really small publishers, Brandl and Schlesinger, picked it up from that. What they did for that book was amazing – at the time they were literally just two people and I was a complete unknown with this little book. They actually sold the rights on in the UK to Serpent’s Tail, a much bigger publisher, and then in the US to HarperCollins, which was obviously amazing for me and my career: that that all came out of this tiny publishing house in the Blue Mountains.

What do you think of the Melbourne literary community? Are there any female writers here you admire? How does our scene compare to Sydney's?

I don’t know how to answer this! I don’t feel like I’m part of a scene here in Sydney. I don’t know if there is one, there are probably a few different ones. I have writer friends here but I don’t really know about a scene.

I think in Melbourne… my impression as an outsider is that there is a little bit more of a scene, partly because of the amazing Wheeler Center and the official City of Literature thing. You have events there all the time; it’s like a little writer’s festival around the Wheeler Centre. Then there’s the Emerging Writer’s Festival, which I’ve been involved in, and it feels to me as an outsider that there is much more of a coherent literary community.

Here in Sydney I’ve definitely got friends who are writers and we go to the pub and have a chat about what we’re doing but it doesn’t feel quite so organized.

There are loads of female writers I admire in Melbourne [laughs]. I’m worried if I start saying names I’ll miss people who are really great but, for example, just this Friday night I took part in the Stella Prize trivia night, which was to raise awareness for the Stella Prize. There were so many amazing women writers involved in that: people like Toni Jordan, and Ruby Murray and Monica Dux and Sophie Cunningham and Paddy O’Reilly and Cate Kennedy, it was just amazing. There were others! [laughs] I’m sure I’m forgetting some people but there was a real sense of camaraderie and support and so much awesome talent at this thing, with these serious writers all getting together and having a drink and a laugh. It was really fun.

Do you get writer's block? How do you deal with it?

No, I tell myself I don’t believe in writer’s block [laughs]. Otherwise I think it can end up being a bit of an excuse. I do certainly get stuck on things I’m working on.

What I do first is try to push through it. I give myself permission to write crap, because I often find that – say – if I’m working on an essay and I don’t know where I’m going with it, I’ll keep writing and something just clicks. I can then figure out where I’m going. That is something I’ll often try.

If that’s still not happening I find the best thing is to switch to something else. Like, if I’m doing some non-fiction I’ll switch to some fiction and work on that for a while. Or vice versa. In extreme cases I just take off and go to the movies, or go read a book. I think sometimes it’s a bit like you’ve emptied the bucket and you need to go fill it up.

But I do try pushing through it first because, like I said, it can just be a bit of an excuse. Like if I really just want to go to the movies [laughs]. I’ll tell myself I’d better go fill up the bucket at the movies.

How many words do you write per day? Morning or evening?

Words per day varies enormously, depending on what I’m working on. If I’m really, really deep into a novel I can write ten thousand words in a day. But that’s not normal! That’s not a regular thing. A writer friend of mine suggested that to me: to make that a goal for the day. Set yourself up with some chocolate almonds and a pot of tea [laughs], turn off the phone and do that. And it works! I have done that.

But yes, I would stress that that’s not an everyday usual thing. It’s usually much, much less than that.

I tend to write most days in the morning because I teach in the afternoon. I teach little primary school kids creative writing and those classes start after school finishes. I teach at three o’clock. But if I’m working to a deadline or I’m really excited about something I’m working on – usually fiction – I’ll come back to my desk after work in the evening and write then as well.

How important is it for writers to be connected to other creative people? Do you have many creative friends?

I think it’s really, really important and I can say that with a lot of confidence because when I started out I didn’t know any other writers. I didn’t have any other creative friends; I was totally on my own. What I found through going to writer’s festivals and meeting other writers and making friends with them was that it’s not even that much about the creativity itself. I find that creatively I’m most inspired by reading other work – by that really intense one-on-one thing of reading books.

But it’s important in terms of the psychological and emotional support you get from knowing other writers, because it can be really lonely work. You’re sitting by yourself all the time and then a book comes out and you’re dealing with reviews and you’re dealing with criticism and you put three years of your life into something. You know, there can be all these intense feelings that people, no matter how well-meaning, won’t fully relate to. My husband is a plumber and he’s wonderful and incredibly supportive but it’s such a different world- sometimes you really need people who live in this same strange world who just get what that feels like. I think that’s incredibly important.

Sandra Todorov's writing has appeared in The Seminal, The Lowy Institute 'Interpreter', Kill Your Darlings and Miranda Literary Magazine. She runs a consultancy from Melbourne CBD and her first novel will be out in 2013.