Behind the pages: An interview with UC Berkeley professor, author Fiona McFarlane

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A new addition to UC Berkeley’s English department, associate professor Fiona McFarlane is the author of a novel, “The Night Guest,” and a collection of short stories, “The High Places.” She has also received numerous awards, such as the Dylan Thomas Prize for her short story collection. This upcoming semester, McFarlane is teaching a class on the short story from the 19th century to present, and she is currently teaching a class on writing short fiction.

McFarlane was born in Sydney, Australia, and grew up with a love for writing. She attended the University of Cambridge after getting her degree in English in Australia and later moved to the United States. Leaving Cambridge allowed McFarlane to meet new people, and it was here in the United States where she truly began to consider herself a writer. While working on her writing residency, McFarlane was also working alongside other writers, an experience she hadn’t had for months. This helped her because she believes that writing can be a very solitary act.

And now, McFarlane is teaching students at UC Berkeley who also share her passion for writing.

The Daily Californian: Where did your journey of writing begin?

Fiona McFarlane: I don’t remember because I was such a little girl. But I have always wanted to tell a story. I wrote what I called a novel at the age of six. That simply meant I wrote something that had chapters, each of which was about one paragraph long. My mother was a children’s bookseller and then later a librarian, so I think I understood early on that books were written by people and that that was the best thing you could set out to do. If I’d had any idea how difficult it was, I probably would have been terrified by it!

DC: How was the support in your family (in terms of writing)?

FM: My family’s been very supportive. That novel I wrote when I was six, my mom tidied up and it was published with an illustration by my brother on the front. It was called “The Fake God” — it was a very strange story! My dad — he’s retired now — but he was a biochemistry professor. None of my siblings write. My dad, as a scientist, has never read any of my books. I grew up in a family with books in it, particularly through my mom, but it’s not something that anyone in my family has ever really done before. So I think that for my parents, it has been a combination of pride and bewilderment, probably. And that it has all worked out so very well is, I suspect, a great relief to them!

DC: And for the book that you wrote in your childhood, do you see that your voice as a writer back then is in the books you’ve written now?

FM: I don’t think my voice exactly, but I think that there are interesting lessons and how you become a writer that I can see in that book. So the fact that it’s called “The Fake God” — it’s a book about children who encounter someone who claims to be God. And I think that questions about faith and artifice are really important still to me now as a writer, and I think that’s sort of interesting to see. It also involves many characters which I’ve stolen from other books, so the children, the protagonists, all have the names of the children from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” And so I think … it’s sort of inevitable to go back and look at the ways in which you are already borrowing from the models that you have around you. So, I don’t think you would read “The Fake God” and think: “Aha, this must be my work!” But I also don’t think you would … read it knowing that this was by me and think she was a very different creature.

DC: Touching upon writing genres, do you have a favorite? What are your inspirations when you write?

FM: Sure — I think my genre is literary fiction. I think we tend to imagine that genre means science fiction and crime. It’s a trend that literary fiction is its own pure thing that doesn’t have to be described as its own genre but I don’t think that’s true. I think there are sort of generic guidelines that help us understand what literary fiction is, and that that is the genre I’m working in. But at the same time, I love literary fiction that’s interested in the fantastical or the magic realist or the supernatural in some kind of way … that also informs the way I write. So, I used to write much more distinctively magic-realist stuff. Now I’ve become more interested in thinking about the ways that people approach reality that may or may not seem magic to other people … it becomes more about the psychology around it than “here’s a gloriously whimsical thing that happened.”

DC: I find the concept of your short story collection, “The High Places,” very intriguing. I was wondering if any of what we’ve been talking about or anything else that you want to mention, is found within that book, and how you got to think of all these different perspectives and all these different characters that you include?

FM: A collection of short stories is a really lovely opportunity to get to explore a whole lot of different ideas and perspectives in ways that it’s difficult to do in a novel. And I think when readers encounter a book like that it can feel almost … like a package that has been delivered fully formed, and it’s hard to then conceive the process that goes into creating it. That book took me 10 years to write. I mean, in the middle of it, I wrote a novel and I wrote the Ph.D. But the first, the oldest story in that book, and the newest story in that book, are 10 years apart. So that’s a lot of … cogitation that’s happened. There’s a lot of revision that’s happened in that time as well. I wrote (some stories) and then, seven years later, by the time the book was coming out, I wrote a new ending. 

So even if it feels as if this is like a lovely neat package, (there are) actually 10 years worth of thinking and growing up and reading that feeds into it. So, it’s difficult then to kind of say, well, this is where it all came from. Each specific story I can speak to the particular kind of genesis of, but it would be hard to say I set out to write this book. It’s easy to say I set out to write this story, and this story and this story, and then they became this book.

DC: Now in terms of your experience with the English major, how did you go from living in Sydney to college in Cambridge and now living in the States? What has that been like?

FM: This is something that Australians tend to do. We live so far away that we tend to have experiences as young people where we’ll leave it overseas for years at a time. For many Australians, that involves moving to London and working in an Australian bar. For an Australian like me, that involves going to Cambridge and doing a Ph.D. You know, I think that as a writer there are all sorts of ways in which this can work for different writers. William Faulkner stayed in one place and wrote about one place for his whole career and he didn’t get to the bottom of it. For me, I think it’s been really important that I left home, though my work still deals with Australia and Australian-ness… I needed that experience of being outside of it in order to look back at it and think about how it’s been constructed and how I might play with that. 

But in terms of going, say, from Cambridge to the U.S. — Cambridge is a deeply strange place; it’s a wonderful, deeply privileged, deeply idiosyncratic safe place, and the pleasure of just being given that time to think about literature and to read is extraordinary. Then to go from that sort of bubble into any other kind of world is a strange transition as it goes, but I think I went then to another kind of bubble, which was when I first moved to the U.S. (That) was when I started to think of myself as a writer because I was doing writing residencies and I was in communities and other writers. And that was a different experience, not only because America is very different to England and more different to Australia than England is, but also because this was the first time that I had existed in a community of writers in months.

DC: Now that you’re a professor here, do you have any messages to the future generation of writers or anyone in the world who dreams of having this profession?

FM: My feeling generally is that the aim should not be to become a full-time writer. The aim should be to write work you’re proud of. The reality is that there are very few people who get to be a full-time artist, particularly if you’re working in something like literary fiction or more experimental fiction, or if you’re a poet. These aren’t particularly well-remunerated types of writing … the satisfaction and the joy of it needs to come from the process of creating work that you’re proud of, or that you feel has spoken to someone in a meaningful way or that you feel has contributed to formal experimentation in a way that’s interesting to you, so you’ve become part of a larger conversation about the future or a larger conversation about human behavior … depending on what it is that you’re trying to do. 

If you end up being paid enough that it means you get to write full-time, then congratulations! But I think the drive, and the discipline and the consistency that’s required all have to be driven by the love of writing and the joy and satisfaction in the process. Which is not to say that you can’t also make sensible career moves or be thinking about publication; I think writers can be too unwilling to talk about money and writing in the same sentence, and I think it’s a good thing to do … because most of the models for writers we have from the 19th century (are) men with domestic staff and independent incomes. … Maybe the simple way of saying this is that there are simpler ways of making money.

DC: So just being realistic about it?

FM: Yeah, and making sure you can find satisfaction in the process.

DC: Very beautifully put! And well, what about you — where do you see yourself in 10 years?

FM: I feel like I’ve made the decision to come (to UC Berkeley) in a way that feels like I’ve joined a community, and I want to continue to be a part of that for a period of time. I want to write here and I can write here, and I think that there is a stability to being part of a university community that’s really helpful for a writer — not all writers, but for me (it is). But I think it’s also important that I’m not in Sydney, so there is that sense, too, of settlement and stability in a place that also feels like an unfamiliar challenge.

Contact Pamela Hasbun at [email protected].