Melanie Cheng’s debut novel, Room for a Stranger, was published by Text in May this year. Following on from her award-winning short story collection Australia Day, the book follows Meg, who has spent her whole life caring for others, and Andy, struggling to stay afloat as an international student in Melbourne. Brought together over a vacant room, the two strangers navigate unfamiliar territory together. In this podcast, Melanie joins Alice Cottrell, Alan Vaarwerk and Ellen Cregan in the studio to discuss her novel and her recent work as a guest-curator at the Sydney Writers Festival.

Further reading: 

Read Vanessa Giron’s review of Room for a Stranger in our May Books Roundup.

Room For A Stranger is available now at Readings.

Thanks to Melbourne Library Service – Kathleen Syme Library and Community Centre for studio space.

Theme music: Broke For Free, ‘Something Elated’.

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TRANSCRIPT:

[Music]

Alice Cottrell: Hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. My name is Alice Cottrell, I’m the publication manager at KYD, I’m here with…

Alan Vaarwerk: My name’s Alan Vaarwerk, I’m the editor at KYD.

Ellen Cregan: My name’s Ellen Cregan, and I’m the first book club coordinator at KYD.

AC: And we are very excited today to be joined by our guest Melanie Cheng.

Melanie Cheng: Thanks so much for having me.

AC: So Melanie’s debut short story collection Australia Day won the VPLA for best unpublished manuscript, in which year Melanie?

MC: 2016.

AC: And then went on to win the VPLA for best fiction in 2018. And this month, which is May, Melanie’s debut novel Room For A Stranger is out, and we’re going to be discussing that novel today. Melanie, could you maybe just tell us in a couple of sentences, for those who haven’t read the book yet, what it’s about?

MC: Yeah, sure. So Room For A Stranger follows the unlikely friendship that develops between Meg, an elderly pensioner who opens a room in her home, to Andy, who’s a overseas biomedical student, and that’s basically the premise of the novel.

AC: Melanie, would you mind reading us a short extract from the novel please?

MC: Sure.

While he was out, Meg followed the sun around the house like a cat. She spent the morning in the east-facing lounge room and the afternoon on the back verandah. It was the start of spring, and she enjoyed spotting new eruptions of colour amid the leafy mess of the backyard. The jacaranda wouldn’t bloom until late November, but even its empty branches looked majestic in the afternoon light.

Sometime around five o’clock, the smack of the flyscreen door would rouse Meg from her nap on the back porch and she’d move inside to make a start on dinner. Meg hadn’t minded cooking so much when she was doing it for Helen, but living on her own she’d come to loathe it. After Helen’s death, Meg had often settled for a bowl of stale cereal with long-life milk, or skipped dinner altogether. Nowadays she spent a good ten minutes trying to decide whether to defrost some bolognese sauce or throw a handful of fish fingers into the oven. She supposed it was better this wayat least her body got a bit of protein. But she wondered how long she could keep it up. Andy hadn’t mentioned the ten hours of weekly service and Meg hadn’t had the guts to bring it up again. She could tell from the nervous way he moved around the kitchen that he’d never cooked for himself. The only things he’d contributed to the pantry so far were a cardboard box of Cup Noodles, three KitKats and a jar of instant coffee.

Tonight she made a salad from some leftover pasta and a can of tuna. She popped two pieces of frozen bread into the toaster. As she dished the salad into bowls, Andy entered the kitchen. He pulled a glass tumbler down from the cupboard and filled it with tap water.

‘How was your day?’ Meg said, knowing immediately it was the wrong thing to saytoo much like a wife greeting her husband after a long day at work.

Andy drank the water greedily. ‘It was okay,’ he said when he’d finished. He put his empty glass in the sink.

Meg would have to tell him to start washing his dishes, but not today. ‘I’ve made a pasta salad,’ she said as she buttered the toast.

Andy sat down at the table. ‘Thank you.’

Meg placed the bowl of salad in front of him and watched him take a bite.

‘It’s cold, he said, spitting the penne into a serviette.

‘It’s a salad.’

Andy ate the toast instead.

‘Do you eat salads in Hong Kong? ’

‘A few dishes are served cold. Chicken. Pickles. Jellyfish.’

‘Jellyfish?’

‘Yes, but we only eat that as an appetiser, when we go out to restaurants.’

For a minute nobody spoke. Atticus sang the alphabet song from his cage.

‘So you’ve eaten jellyfish but you’ve never had a pasta salad?’ Meg said.

‘Yes.’

She was about to apologise but stopped herself. She filled her mouth with pasta instead. As much as she hated to admit it, the salad was horribly bland. There was no colour or texture or spiceshe might as well have been eating cardboard. Andy’s Cup Noodles with all their MSG almost certainly had more flavour. But it had been decades since Meg had derived pleasure from eating. For her, meals were a chore, like showering or brushing her teeth. Necessary but boring.

Andy finished his toast and excused himself. He scrubbed the crumbs from his bread plate and left it to dry in the dish rack. It was the first time Meg had seen him clean up. When he was gone, she ate her dinner slowly, one piece of cold pasta at a time. She stared at Andy’s bowl of untouched food, his empty chair.

EC: So Meg, your protagonist, who’s an elderly Australian woman, or an older Australian woman, you depicted her with a really rich inner life, and a really sort of rich thought process in how she’s reacting to everything that’s happening around her, which we don’t often see in literary fiction – old people are sometimes depicted as stereotypes a bit more. Why did you decide to have a protagonist who was an older Australian, and sort of treat her in this way?

MC: So in my first book, Australia Day, the short story collection, I did have quite a few older characters in there as well and obviously the collection was a bit more of an organic process in the sense that I wrote the stories as standalones, and I didn’t necessarily have a finished full-length book in mind at the time. But when I was writing those stories, I was working as a general practitioner, at the time I was working in community health in the western suburbs, and in that population I was seeing a lot of elderly patients. And so I guess I was quite intrigued with the stories of these people I was seeing in my practice. One thing that surprised me as a GP seeing these patients, was that, I guess, perhaps I had a preconception that older people had this wisdom about life as well, and that perhaps they had overcome a lot of their insecurities, but my experience was that that’s not necessarily the case. And so I wanted to write some older characters that had youthful passion and insecurities and naivety, and so I did that in the novella, the longest story in Australia Day, and I really loved that writing that story. And I had a lot of really great feedback from readers about that particular coming-of-age story in many ways for Evan, and also a bit of a love story to some degree as well. And so yeah, when it came to writing a novel I was quite interested in exploring another elderly protagonist, and this time a female one. Meg is actually based loosely on a person from my life, so my aunt, who was my mother’s half-sister, she was my favourite aunt by far, and she had a hard life – she, at age 16, found herself in the primary caring role for my mum and uncle when their mother passed away unexpectedly. And she spent her whole life from then on, you know, not pursuing education, not pursuing a career, but caring for this family. And later when my mum and her brother moved on, she ended up looking after my grandfather until he passed away, and then she passed away a few years later. And so because I was so close to her, I was really interested in that sacrifice that she made for, for the family, and it struck me as something that, I mean it still happens nowadays, but I guess we are very self-absorbed, I guess, in modern society, and we’re all about pursuing our own passions and interests at the expense of others. And so I thought it would be interesting to look at the life of someone who had dedicated, you know, most of it to caring for others and, you know, missing out perhaps on their own opportunities. And of course as a GP I also see a lot of carers – it strikes me as something that’s, you know, can be extremely altruistic, and that is often quite a thankless job as well. And certainly one that is not particularly valued by the community.

EC: It’s quite refreshing because I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with a protagonist who’s a carer in the way that Meg has been in her previous life, she’s not at the time of the novel but she cared for her sister for many years.

MC: Yeah that’s right. So I mean I’ve always been interested in centering stories around non-traditional protagonists – initially it wasn’t so premeditated, but I guess with the novel it was a little bit more deliberate because, you know, it’s all about trying to reflect through literature who we really are as Australians as well. And if we’re not seeing that, then I think it distorts our perception of who we are, so that was that was one of my aims, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

AC: And another kind of big theme of the novel is loneliness – Andy and Meg are both lonely in kind of different ways. Andy has moved to a new country, Meg has, you know, kind of been left by everyone that she, you know, had in in her life. And I was just wondering sort of what it was that you were looking at, maybe, in our society, about how lonely people can be and how sort of isolated we can be from each other.

MC: Yeah I mean again, it’s very much informed by my work, that was one thing that really struck me when I started working as a training GP – how incredibly lonely people were. I always tell the story about a patient I had, who was a young patient actually, but he was estranged from his family as a result of addiction to drugs. And he told me that in between our fortnightly appointments he hadn’t spoken to another human being. And, you know, that just really struck me as being so incredibly sad and tragic. But as I continued my work, I realised that’s not that unusual sometimes, you know, it’s, yeah, and similarly in my widowed and widower patients, sometimes that was the case for them as well, if they’d become estranged from their families. And, you know, I started to wonder if maybe I was just seeing this kind of distorted population in general practice, perhaps people that see their GPs are more lonely, and that’s why they’re seeing their GPs frequently. But, you know, the Australian loneliness report came out at the end of last year, and it would suggest that one in four Australians identify as being lonely. And I think it’s, it’s, I’ve been thinking a lot about this and trying to work out, you know, why – is this a new relatively new phenomenon? But I think it has a lot to do with how individualistic we are as a society, you know, the way we structure, even the way we live is very much about, you know, living alone, not necessarily having the sense of community. I remember, you know, I was seeing some of these older patients who I knew were craving human connection, as a registrar I’d say things like, you know, why don’t you volunteer in the hospital, or why don’t you…but of course they were never going to do that, that wasn’t their style, that required a lot of confidence on their part, a lot planning, a lot of motivation. And these were people who might be depressed or anxious, and that would, you know, make them even more anxious to even consider doing something like that. And, you know, I’d have older Italian patients who would lament the loss of their local piazzas for instance, you know, that was what they were wanting, just these places where you could gather if you wanted to in a spontaneous kind of way rather than a premeditated, you know, planned thing where you had to join and pay a membership fee or something like that, which is kind of, you know, how we how we find our communities nowadays. And yeah, so, so Andy and Meg are very much in a similar situation, and of course it’s not just elderly patients nowadays, I see a lot of international students like Andy, and it is quite isolating when you come to a new country and you don’t have friends, and you don’t feel comfortable in the the native language either. Yeah, so as you find when you read the book, they start off very much, even though they’re living in the same house, still being quite lonely and isolated within that house, but slowly there are little cracks that open and they make small connections and then life happens and forces them to kind of make even bigger connections.

AC: That was something I really loved about the novel having the two different perspectives, was seeing how often people misunderstand each other, or misunderstand what one another’s motivations are, or people read their behaviours – you know, I think Meg would read Andy doing something and think that it means he doesn’t like her, or he doesn’t like the food, but really it’s, you know, motivated by a different concern on his part or, you know, something else that’s happening in his life, so I thought that was like, yeah, my favourite part of the novel is seeing, yeah, how their different frames of reference kind of inform the way they approach one another.

MC: Yeah, thank you for that – because yeah, that was something I was hoping to achieve. Because they obviously do come from such different backgrounds and ages and genders, there are these many ways that they can misinterpret each other. But it can be quite comical and, you know, because my family comes, you know, is mixed marriage background, and now I’ve married into a Lebanese community, we have a wealth of these kind of, you know, miscommunications and cultural mishaps which we laugh about, we actually find them a great source of amusement now, yeah.

AV: I found it quite funny that it was, as you say Alice, there was the, you know, situations of Meg saying that, perceiving Andy as not liking her, but then there was also a little bit of the flip side of that as well, as Meg being, there were a couple of occasions I can remember where Meg would sort of suggest that maybe she felt a breakthrough coming along, and then in the next scene Andy would say to his friend, ‘oh, I hate it.’

EC: I wanted to ask about place and location, this is very much a Melbourne novel, it’s set in Melbourne, and it’s set in an outer suburb of Melbourne, or sort of a medium suburb of Melbourne that’s going through some gentrification, and Meg’s lived there her whole life, and there’s kind of a few scenes where she laments the Pilates studios and the coffee shops and stuff like that. What do you think about the way that Melbourne is changing in that way quite rapidly?

MC: Yeah that’s an interesting question, I haven’t been asked that before about the novel. But I think it’s really relevant, because at one of the issues, you know, at the core of the book in a way is housing affordability – because, you know, Andy is in this situation because his father’s business has collapsed and, you know, while they have enough to maybe cover his tuition it’s not quite enough to maintain the rent on his, on his apartment on Spencer Street, and so that’s why he’s agreed to the home share arrangement. And yes, Meg is one of the these people because she didn’t leave home herself, because she didn’t get married and move away, she has lived in this home for 75 years. And so she’s seen incredible change of the suburb over that time. And I suspect that would be unusual, you know, most people will have at some point kind of moved away from home and made a new home for themselves, even if it’s still in the same city. And so yeah, that allowed me to explore the changes that are happening in Melbourne. I don’t know if Meg is, you know, she’s not particularly angry about those changes, and that’s not her nature, but I think she is sad for the loss of those sources of good memories, happy memories, you know. In many ways she’s the last woman standing, you know, in her family, and she talks about how…as being the last member it makes her even question the, the accuracy of her memories. And that really arose from a conversation I had with my mum, who now is the sole surviving member of her small immediate family. And yeah, she, that’s a sentiment that she said to me – she said, you know, now there’s no one that I can talk to about my childhood anymore to kind of, you know, reenergise those memories and reinforce them, and it does make her really question that, and that was something that made her incredibly sad, and I found that really moving at the time when she mentioned that to me, and that’s why I wanted to incorporate that into the book, yeah. And also going up in Hong Kong, it’s a place of immense and rapid change, and in Hong Kong – I mean we might feel in Melbourne that we we may lament the gentrification, but here we actually have some protections in place, you know, heritage overlays, all those kind of things, whereas in Hong Kong it’s often just the money talks. And so we’ve, in the time we’ve lived in Hong Kong we’ve seen these, you know, beautiful old areas and buildings being knocked down in, you know, to build just another mirrored skyscraper. So that’s something I’ve experienced firsthand too.

AV: I just wanted to kind of build on that a little bit with, with Andy’s attitude to home and to, compared to Meg’s attitude to home, and the way that they both kind of come at it from a – not opposing, but different angles. Through the novel I sort of got the sense that Andy is missing home, missing his family, but not necessarily missing Hong Kong as a place as much. Whereas yeah – sort of had a more transient idea of home, in the sense that he wasn’t quite sure where he fit it into the world just yet, whereas coming into this house of Meg’s who, she has been there, yeah, all her life, and I found it interesting that you didn’t necessarily present, in inverted commas, either option as the right option, or as either approach being a better one than the other, that they were both trying to figure out something in the middle, if that makes sense. And I wondered how you, how you approached the idea of making a home, having a home in that novel, because it’s ultimately about home.

MC: Yeah, it’s very much about finding a home, and you’re right in the sense that while Andy, you know, does feel isolated here in Melbourne to some degree, it is an escape for him – because, you know, his mother’s really quite unwell and has been for a long time and to be at home for him with his parents can be quite claustrophobic too. And I think to some degree Andy likes the idea of the possibility of reinvention, you know, when he comes to Australia. And that’s something that a lot of migrants, I think, can relate to sometimes. It depends obviously, it’s a very individual thing. But depending on the reasons why you move, you may be wanting to start afresh in a new place. And I think, you know, for Andy, he’s only 21, he’s never lived outside the home, this holds some exciting possibilities for him as well, you know. He’s interested in this, this girl in his uni class which maybe wouldn’t be something he could have pursued if he was back in Hong Kong with his family, so I think you’re right, he has this ambivalence about Hong Kong as home, but then at the same time in Australia, things aren’t easy for him. You know, there is, there are episodes of racism that he encounters throughout the book, that makes him feel like an outsider, and yeah, so that’s something I wanted to explore as well. And I mean for Meg as well, you’re right in the sense, you know, we talked about, that her home is changing, Melbourne’s changing around her, she’s losing people. And so the home that she’s in now is not the same home it was when she was growing up – I mean, the people have all gone, and now that she has a stranger in a home it’s different again, you know, she – in I think it’s the first chapter she, you know, walks around naked just because she can, and she realises, like she never used to, but she realises it’s the last opportunity to before Andy moves in. And so, you know, we’ve all had that experience, I imagine, when you’ve got someone staying in your, in your private home, it doesn’t feel quite as – depending on your relationship with that person – but it may, it feels a bit different. You can’t, you can’t act necessarily the way that you would otherwise act…

AV: You see it through their eyes.

MC: Yeah, and she mentions that, you know, she suddenly sees…

AV: The cobwebs and things like that.

MC: Yeah, the plaster cracks and the balding carpet and these things that, you know, were invisible to her before.

AC: I wanted to ask you another question that was kind of about seeing things from a different perspective, which was – Andy and Meg both have encounters with the healthcare system throughout the novel, and those encounters aren’t always a positive experience for them. And I was just wondering, through your work as a GP, you sort of, you wrote these experiences in the novel like from the perspective of a patient, where they maybe didn’t have a great experience with the doctor – I was just interested to hear your take on kind of what it was you were looking at there.

MC: Yeah, well, I’ve been a patient many times too, and I haven’t, I would say my experiences have probably been more negative than positive, unfortunately – both in a general practice setting and in a hospital type setting. I think it’s, it’s got a lot to do with the way health care is funded, you know, GPs are, you know, the financial incentive is to see patients quickly and churn through a lot of patients, you’re not rewarded for spending time with patients. And so there’s business and, you know, it’s led I think to a culture of five-minute medicine – now that’s not to say that all GPs practice that way, I know many GPs that are great GPs that don’t – but, you know, chances are you will encounter one of those five-minute GPs when you’re, when you’re using the health system. And the hospital similarly, when I was working in the hospital system, which is a while ago now, 20 years ago, so things may have changed – but they were overwhelmed, the doctors were overworked, working long hours and, you know, a dehumanising of patients, you know, amongst doctors and possibly even nurses, just because I think it was to some degree a bit of a coping mechanism too. But now that I’ve spent time and had that continuity of care with patients, I – and been a patient myself – I appreciate that, you know, when that person comes to see a GP or goes to the hospital for an appointment, that’s a big deal, you know – you might have been working up to that appointment for a week, or many weeks, and another GP once mentioned to me that oh, you know, those patients are probably rehearsing their first line in the waiting room before they come in, and I probably found myself doing a similar thing. And so, you know, if you make yourself kind of conscious of that, it makes it more difficult to dismiss people when you’re seeing them as a patient. But yeah, you’re right, they’re, both Meg and Andy have some…not really awful, but certainly not, not satisfying encounters for the health system, and that’s what I wanted to portray as well, yeah.

AV: There’s also a scene as well where, I won’t kind of give away too much, but there is sort of a section where, you know, a character finds a, there’s a hospital setting that the character finds quite sort of peaceful, and it’s almost a reset button. And so I, yeah, I find it interesting that you, yeah, saw it from that perspective as well.

MC: I guess there’s always going to be light and shade with all these kind of experiences. And yeah, I mean, I really go to great pains to try and do that in my writing, and that’s what I see in general practice, it’s all it’s all nuance, it’s all grey, you know – I don’t see the textbook cases, I see everything in between. And so yeah I’m really loath to depict anything as all bad or anything as all good, it’s all shades in between.

EC: So this is a novel, your first book was a collection of short stories, and I was wondering about what it’s like to shift from your short stories to your novel, and which actually came first.

MC: Oh short stories definitely came first. (LAUGHS). I think, though, my rationale for writing short stories first was completely wrong. You know, I thought it was the easier thing to do, and I don’t think that’s the case – I don’t think a novel’s easier, I think they’re just very different, and different skills. So yeah, definitely stories first. The difference I’ve found has been a lot to do with…with the time to write. So short stories worked well with my life in terms of, you know, working in the clinic and having small children, stories do allow you to, you know, work in shorter bursts. Whereas I found that impossible to do with a novel, you really do need longer stretches of time in order to write a novel. And so luckily I had a book deal to justify kind of carving out those times in my week. And the other thing I found was that I needed a bit more of, kind of blind faith with the novel, in order to finish that first draft. I think with stories I’d got used to having a great sense of the whole story and what I was trying to do with it, but with the novel I, you know, sometimes I found it a bit of a struggle to keep all the threads in my head all the time. And so I did have to just keep on plugging on, and just have faith that, you know, when it came to the rewrite and the editing that I’d be able to smooth out all of those, you know, errors and, you know, mistakes, yeah. So, so that first draft I found really a hard slog.

EC: You can’t step back and look at it like you can with a story.

MC: Exactly, that’s a good way of putting it, yeah that’s right, yeah. But I have enjoyed it, yeah, I mean it’s more immersive in some ways, and you do get to develop a stronger relationship with your characters, you live with them for a longer time, yeah.

AV: Do you find that your, your reading habits, and your sort of research habits change when you’re writing short fiction, compared to a novel, the way that you approach other stories? Or do you – do you read that much when you are in the process of writing a novel? Or is it more that you try and separate the two.

MC: See, I’ve always read a lot of novels – I feel a bit ashamed to say that I only started reading short stories when I started writing short stories, but that is actually the case.

AC: I think it’s the case for a lot of people to be honest.

MC: (LAUGHS.) And luckily I fell in love with the short story, so once I’ve started reading short stories I’ve continued that. So I still read stories now. I’m not one of those writers that won’t read anything while they’re writing because, you know, I know some people feel it will contaminate the story – I actually will turn to novels when I’m feeling really uninspired, you know? Can go one or two ways, you could, you can read other people’s work and then feel really just helpless, that ‘oh my god, they’re so amazing and I’m never gonna be able to achieve anything like that’, but most of the time if I read something really wonderful I feel really motivated and inspired to try and emulate that. So yeah, I found reading really enriching from that point of view.

AV: Have you found that it’s changed the way that you read, now that you sort of know how the how the sausage is made I guess, can you see the structure a bit more? Or is it…

MC: Yeah, it is a bit like that. I read differently since I’ve started writing, and so I’m more analytical when I’m reading, you know, I’ll read something great and then I’ll suddenly stop and say ‘how did they do that? Let me go back and read that again,’ and to some degree I don’t like that, because it pulls you out of the moment when you start to try and explore the mechanics of something. And so I miss that real immersive experience and, you know, I always think of my adolescence as being the best reading experience, because, yeah, I’ve never really, really recaptured that again I guess, since I’ve started writing, yeah.

AC: Could you tell us a bit about your writing routine? So you said you’ve kind of been doing bits and pieces and snatches when you’re writing short stories, but how do you work when you sit down for a kind of long stretch, you know? Are you a planned writer, where you’ve planned out which scenes you’re gonna do, and then, or do you just kind of write and see where it goes? I feel like there’s those kind of two very different ways of approaching it.

MC: Yeah, I know some people have flashcards and whiteboards, I’m really not one of those type of people (LAUGHS.) I might have a kind of vague idea of a scene and what is, and the key kind of plot point that might happen, but other than that I don’t have much of a plan. And to me that’s part of the magic of it, like… I feel like if I know my characters well enough I’ll just put them in a particular situation and kind of, partly observe as I’m writing how they react and respond to that, and I enjoy that process. So yeah, I’m not a planner, more of a pantser from that point of view. (ALL LAUGH.) And I do write in a, you know, linear fashion because of that, I guess as well. So just chapter to chapter, beginning to end. Whereas I know other writers might write scenes, like they have a particular scene in mind and just write that one, and that might be in the middle or the end, or they might not even know where it happens, but I do tend to write in that linear way.

AV: As well as having a novel just come out, you’ve also been a guest curator at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival. I was very lucky to attend that and see, see yourself and a lot of the other panels on that, and I thought it was an excellent festival. How was the process of being a guest curator?

MC: Yeah, it was an absolute thrill and honour. So Michaela, you know, emailed me in the lead up, and I got to know the theme of the festival before a lot of other people, which is kind of exciting, but also quite…

AV: Which was a great theme.

MC: It was a great theme!

AV: It was ‘Lie To Me.’

MC: Yeah, and also quite hard to kind of not tell anyone, in the literary world that happens a lot, you know, you get told something and they say ‘now you can’t speak about it for three or four months!’ so yeah, it was, it was great to be kind of in on that. And so Michaela asked me to come up with some ideas for, kind of, I guess, sub-themes within the overall arching ‘Lie to Me’, and I agree with you, I think it’s a wonderful theme with a lot of scope and, you know, in the post-truth era we live in as well, very topical. And I knew as soon as I saw that theme that I was wanting to explore much more about the…the lies we tell ourselves, rather than the lies we tell others. Because one thing strikes me is that we’ve kind of lost our ability to reflect on our own behaviours, I feel that nowadays we’re very quick to point out where others have failed, but we are scared to admit to our own failures and mistakes. And part of that is because if you put your head up then everyone’s gonna jump on you, and that’s pretty terrifying as well. So I understand that impulse, but I do also think it’s important for progression for us to be really honest about, you know, our own failings and prejudices and unconscious biases. And so, so yeah, I ended up choosing this theme of ‘reflections.’ They’re very clever actually, at the the writers’ festival, they get you to choose your sub-themes first, and then they reveal the list of guests, so…

AV: I was going to ask whether you go to have a say in the guests!

AC: Chicken or the egg situation, right?

MC: Yeah, because I think if they reveal the list of guests first you’d kind of try and create these sub-themes to to incorporate your your favourite authors onto it. So they’re quite clever from that point of view. So yeah, it was very much my choice, and it was like being in a lolly store. (LAUGHS.) You know, having this list of international and local authors that you could choose to join your panel, with a little bit of guidance I guess from Michaela, I mean she she might make some suggestions based on on the theme that I had suggested as well. But yeah, it was an absolute thrill.

AV: What sort of factors go into setting up a panel, selecting – are there kind of considerations about when you’re selecting, who goes on, who chairs, do you sort of try and pre-empt the kind of discussions that they’re going to have? Or is it more about selecting people who are going to be able to kind of take an idea and run with it?

MC: Yeah, I’m relatively new to this, this was my first time curating. I mean, I was given guidelines that, you know, I’d facilitate one, maybe participate in another, and then one would be me in conversation about the novel. So for me it was, you know, the books that I had kind of heard about, there was a bit of buzz about, I might have already read, and then looking at the theme that I’d suggest, and see what might be a good fit. So the Smoke and Mirrors panel was looking at the self, and I invited Olivia Sudjic, who wrote most recently this essay called ‘Exposure’, which deals with feminism and autofiction, and it was really fascinating for me to read, because in ‘Exposure’, she talks about her experience of being a first-time author, and how that really made her start to question her sense of self, because she suddenly had this public persona, and she, she, you know, talks about how when she heard other people referring to her, especially like her full name, or even her surname, it almost felt like she she was dead, and people were talking about her in absence, and yeah, I could relate to that a little bit – I mean Australia Day wasn’t nearly as huge as successes has her her first book Sympathy – you know, you are, once you become published and you do publicity, you do have these different sides to you, and it does mess with you a little bit. And so I could really relate to that, and also on the panel for that one I invited Lee Kofman, whose book Imperfect…

AV: Friend of the pod. (ALL LAUGH.) Always wanted to say that.

MC: Yeah, you know, she explores self in it from a different point of view, which is very much about the body, and how… And she proposes a very interesting, you know, hypothesis, that actually your body and appearance influences your self, and there’s an interplay between the two, rather than us thinking that we’re born with this particular personality and self, and then we have this external appearance, as if they’re quite separate things. So, and the final panelist on that particular discussion was Eleanor Gordon-Smith, who’s another…

AV: Another friend of the pod! (ALL LAUGH.)

MC: And of course she looks at, you know, people’s narratives, and again, another way we derive our sense of self, and what happens when something, you know, dramatic happens in your life that forces you to question the narratives that you live by. And so, you know, I was a little bit nervous about that panel, because they’re such different books, but I listened to all the author’s podcasts that they’d done, and read the books obviously, and I got the sense that it would work really well, and it did, and it was a really satisfying thing to do. I mean facilitation, I have to say, is such hard work, because you really have to be all over the author’s works and, you know, it’s a lot of reading, it’s time-consuming, but it is really satisfying when it, when it pays off, and it’s so stimulating to hear these authors that you’ve spent time with for three months in the lead-up to the festival suddenly, you know, discussing the issues that you’ve been toying with, you know, late at night in bed before you go to sleep. It was, it was yeah, amazing, I really enjoyed that, yeah.

AC: Well, it’s been stimulating and wonderful for us to hear you this evening, so thank you so much for joining us.

MC: Thank you guys.

AV: Thank you.

Meaghan Dew: You’ve been listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. Thanks again to Melanie Cheng for her time. Room For A Stranger is out now with Text Publishing, and you can pick it up at all good bookstores and libraries. Speaking of libraries – we, the people who make this podcast, are not just voices in your head. We exist in the real world too, and we’d love to see you at Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library on June 25th, where you can see Ellen Cregan, as well as hearing her, as she asks Elizabeth Kuiper about her debut novel Little Stones. It’s the June edition of the Kill Your Darlings first book club, and you can find the details in a few places, including on our website. Coincidentally, you’ll also find some other great words there, so you might as well read some of them as well. We’ll be back very soon with more great recommendations, book chat and the other stuff – so see you next time!

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