Superwoman, super author…
Fiona McIntosh is a prolific and extremely popular Australian author and also, I think, something of a superwoman.
Since 2001, she has released over thirty books covering a number of genres and which propelled her into something of a household name. She was born in England but calls the Clare Valley of South Australia her home. Bryce Courtenay recognised something in Fiona that subsequently took readers by storm. I wanted to find out what it was and so I’m pleased to welcome her to my blog today…
Fiona, let’s begin…
1. Perhaps the most actively engaged Australian writer I know, you are a cross-genre writer – women’s fiction, historical fiction, crime-thrillers, fantasy across the age groups. Which genre raises the hair on your neck with excitement more than any other?
Lovely to be here with your followers and readers, Prue, thank you. Yes, I have written across several genres but they’ve all caught me slightly by stealth and I’ve compartmentalised them into periods of my life. I began with adult fantasy and was in love with it while I wrote it. The last novel was The Scrivener’s Tale…I have no plan to write adult fantasy again although I am someone who never says never because I dabbled with timeslip with Tapestry and not only combined historical fiction with fantasy but the audience enjoyed it too.
I wrote children’s fantasy while my sons were growing up because they both wanted something ‘they could be proud of’! Rather than being insulted I wrote fantasy for them and was lucky that The Whisperer was shortlisted as one of the best children’s stories of 2010 by the Children’s Book Council. It’s been sold into France, US, etc. I wrote crime simply because I could write faster than my publisher could publish and so my editor pleaded with me to write something else rather than queue up the fantasy novels. I love reading crime thrillers so I had a go and while I was writing the DCI Jack Hawksworth novels I was an addict for him and his stories. I only wrote two because suddenly a new publisher was banging on my door and suggesting historical fiction. Now historical fiction is where my dream began.
In the Year 2000 when I sat down with Bryce Courtenay in his masterclass it was a story set in 1925 with Cornwall and southern India for its backdrops that I wanted to write but he dissuaded me, assuring me that while I was the emerging star of his class, I was not ready to tackle the enormity of a highly commercial historical fiction novel. I trusted him. He told me to write what I loved to read. At the time that was adult fantasy. It took me ten years of solid storytelling and being published by HarperCollins around the world – and fully grasping Bryce’s warning – before I felt accomplished enough as a fantasy writer to embark on the historical fiction book I’d always wanted to write.
And then as soon as I did the floodgates opened and I dived into the depths and haven’t returned. Clearly, I love reading and writing historical fiction; I don’t tire of it and have plenty of ideas for stories, so for now that’s where my passion is and where my audience continues to support and build. I have fun writing it too so as long as I’m enjoying it, I’ll keep writing it.
2. In terms of your historical fiction, you have lately sat comfortably in the early twentieth century. What is it about that timeframe that so appeals?
I love the eras between 1910 and 1945. I particularly enjoy the period swirling around and just after WW1. This is an age where women were just beginning to break out of corsets, marriages, being under the thumb. They were yet to get the vote but it was in the wind and times were changing fast. The Great War required women to shoulder a lot of the burden at home and they proved to themselves they could; that they were independent, strong, decisive, capable, clever, etc. That’s a lovely awakening to be playing with as a storyteller.
Beyond that I love this period of late Victorian, Edwardian, roaring 20s and elegant thirties because the technology was still simple. The industrial revolution is terrific – railways and motor cars and glorious cruise ships but the lack of the phones, computer age is wonderful for my style of storytelling. I loathe how technology would change my stories in a heartbeat so I don’t want people to be able to grab a mobile phone and warn each other of events for instance. I also love the enforced manners, the elegance of life, the slower pace, the glorious clothes, the fabulously wealthy and the plucky workers. Writing contemporary fiction doesn’t call to me as strongly and while I’m sure one day I’ll will write in today’s society, for now I’m happy channelling my inner Downton Abbey and playing in what I believe is a glorious age of the previous century.
3. What is the first moment of inspiration for a novel – a picture, a sound, a smell, a chord of music?
I am a traveller.
I’ve been on the move since three years old as my father worked overseas and we commuted between England and Africa. I left England alone by 19 to see the world. And by my early twenties I was entrenched within the travel industry and globetrotting. So I think for me it is about place first. I feel the story very early but it is usually prompted by the setting first and foremost for me. I tend to think about where my reader would like to armchair travel with me and go from there. The next novel published will be set quite claustrophobically in the city of York in England and not move about much from a small triangle of settings but the novel I am researching next will see me gadding about from London to Calcutta.
There is no pattern with me…
4. One of the things I’ve noticed about Brand Fiona Mcintosh is the extraordinary involvement of your readers through social media. In particular I was struck by the story of the elderly woman and the Frenchman. I found it filled with emotion and one of those stories that one just hopes will have the best outcome. Can you elucidate a little, in particular about your readers’ involvement in the search for this man.
I was at an event at a small library in South Australia, giving a talk. A hunched, elderly lady struggled in after I’d begun. Later, when I was signing books, I noticed she was tiring in the queue and so I asked everyone if they would allow her to jump to the front. She gripped my hand so hard and told me that she’d caught two buses and a train to get to this event so she could look me in the eye and tell me about the man she had fallen in love with as a 17 year old and had lost track of during WWII. She was German living on the border of Germany and Poland and from a highly anti-Nazi family. Her sweetheart was French, sent from the newly occupied south, to do enforced work for the German war machine. They met in a bomb factory where she was forced to work and they fell in love. They ran away together and lived in bliss in the forest…it’s a long story that I won’t tell here. But the upshot is he was forcibly repatriated to France after the war and she was sent home (it’s far more dramatic than I’m telling here as I was weeping within minutes of her beginning her sad tale). They searched for each other, kept missing one another and then she lost him entirely and came to Australia. She has married, been in a violent relationship, etc, but carried a torch for her sweetheart that she never stopped loving. She was past ninety when we met and he would be the same and she was trying to find him before she died. She just wanted to know if he was alive or if he wasn’t where he was buried. She had tried so many avenues but no one seemed to care enough to help her and I said I would. And so we began. I marshalled the help of social media and we had people on the ground in France, in the US, in Britain and in Australia – all of us leaving no stone unturned. But she never knew his proper name or birth details and without that we constantly came up against walls. We tried everything but there was no happy ending unfortunately but I know we made her deliriously happy that we cared and we got a documentary film maker involved too. That’s the short version!
5. You have an exhausting annual programme – two publications a year, signings, readers’ tours overseas, and masterclasses. It’s the stuff any writer envies you for, and at the same time they are desperate to have the secret to your energy. Apart from living on black coffee and 70% proof dark chocolate, how do you manage the pace and still maintain the quality within your work?
I wish I did drink black coffee – always so grown up. No, I’m a single shot macchiato or strong latte girl and I do eat vast amounts of chocolate, preferably Haigh’s. My life is busy but I can’t operate any other way. I never holiday – I find it boring actually. The idea of sitting on a beach with nothing to do is a dull option for me. I have to be on the move, enriching my life somehow or achieving something. I am certainly one of those overactive, overachievers! The way to keep me still is reading or watching movies, then I’m like a statue. My husband often believes the best drug he’s found for me is Netflix because I am mesmerised – no ads, no breaks, just that spinning red circle and the wonderful countdown to the next episode.
I compartmentalise well. I only work on the books four days a week. I take Fridays off to have coffee with friends, shop, catch up on errands, have my hair done, be normal and irresponsible, etc. I take weekends entirely off for my family. I’m strict about this. So I do have a healthy work/life structure and I think it’s because I write fast that I can cut through the workload. I also make decisions – I don’t dither. Dithering soaks a lot of time. I also keep my days long. I rise early enough to walk for an hour and still be at my desk, showered and dressed, by 9am and I don’t hit the pillow until after midnight daily. That means I can cram a lot into my days and I like my working days to be full, varied, pressured. I enjoy lots of different tasks and yet I need ritual because I’m extremely disciplined about my writing. I set my own deadlines, I have high personal targets and I have been a goalsetter from young anyway so all of those qualities keep me driven and constantly on the move. I never waste a single hour if I can help it (waiting at traffic lights kills me!) – I bake, or I think of a new project and play around with ideas for it, or I throw together a storyline and file it. Watching TV or sitting on facebook etc, is like an anaesthetic. Numbing, mind dulling stuff most of the time. I do watch TV but I’m specific, I enjoy facebook but only aspects of it. I am strategic about where my time goes and that helps me to remain productive.
I am overseas twice a year researching, I have three masterclasses per year, lots of events I have to appear at, festivals, talks to give, fundraisers to do the right thing for, workshops to host, libraries to visit, lots of publisher meetings, etc. This work always takes one away from the screen and keyboard so I have to be strict about making time to write, to edit, to dream up stories. Discipline is my key.
As to the quality of the work, that’s maintained by being relentless on research. I am always reading but never novels. I am forever buried in a nonfiction book about anything from perfume to copper mining and lots of stuff in between. I don’t retain a lot but I learn heaps for each novel before I begin to write. It’s this knowledge that ensures the quality is there plus the more you write, the more polished you become at storytelling and bracing together words in a way that the reader enjoys. I started late at 40 but I’m now 16 years down the track and about to start my 32nd novel so that’s plenty of practice J
6. I know you are a huge fan of GRR Martin and Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s an interesting mix because Guy Gavriel Kay is such a lyrical writer, such a beautiful wordsmith, whereas GRR Martin is a brutally explosive and explicit writer. How do you reconcile the two and do they influence you right through all your genres?
Reading GRRM gave me permission to be brutal and you’ll discover that in all my fantasy tales, and that aspect follows through into all my other books – no character is safe around me. As to GGK, his writing is so very beautiful I can only aspire to it. But I do love to read his storytelling and when I read him or other people who inspire…Ian McEwan, for instance, I am reminded that I am still on the mountain and looking up with a long way to go. That’s a good thing. I don’t analyse how I write ie, whether I write like this or that. I feel I’ve developed my own style and hopefully my loyal audience knows the signature of my storytelling but yes indeed I am constantly influenced by fine writing and it never hurts to be shown someone who is doing it so much better than oneself. It makes me set my shoulders back and think, right, I’m going to be better in the next manuscript…crisper dialogue, snappier plot, sharper characters, less words, and so on. These excellent writers spur me on. I only read fiction when I’m travelling so I’m extremely choosy about who I read – I not only require fine writing but a drama that is exciting, rich with character and storytelling power.
7. I remember an ad I once saw for one of your masterclasses about the power of emotion in a novel. This resonated with me because, male or female, I like my characters to feel emotion and run the gamut. How important do you think this is in the narrative of any novel in any genre?
Commercial fiction – especially my brand – marches to the drumbeat of the heart. Without emotion we might as well close our books, and all pack up and go home J Emotion is everything…it governs our lives and it profoundly affects the experience of our reads. It is VITAL in storytelling and that’s why I run courses about it.
8. You often mention your love of Tasmania and so it would be remiss of me as a dyed-in-the-wool Tasmanian, to ask what it is about Tasmania that enthrals you? How does it inspire your writing?
Tasmanians are the most fortunate people on the planet. I envy them. I would live in Tassie in a heartbeat but I can’t so I have to be happy to visit as often as I can…and I do visit often. Those I love are on the mainland and they need me so I stay in South Australia and look longingly across the waters.
I love the climate, the peace, the colour green, the water, the delicious, kind people, the fab vibe of Hobart and the time warp of Launceston and the fantastic history in between. I love the organic push, the concern for the environment, the superb fresh fruits and vegetables. Big old beautiful buildings, orchards everywhere, large gardens, amazing…fresh, unpolluted air. Walking with only birds and cows for company.
And finally, and much less to do with writing:
9. There are two wonderfully diverse elements about Fiona McIntosh. One is cooking which you do frequently, often late at night. Can you explain what you feel when you cook and why you cook at night?
The other is boots. I understand a woman’s need to have new shoes, the stuff of dreams that can become a fetish. I ADORE shoe-shopping. But boots I don’t quite understand. Can you convince me?
I come from a long line of of matriarchal women who cook and I realise I’m just part of history repeating itself. I do love to cook although I don’t enjoy entertaining. I know that’s odd but that’s part of what makes me tick. I don’t cook to show off or because I love partying – I loathe both – but I cook for family and its laden with love or I wouldn’t go to the lengths I do. I wouldn’t leap up at 10.30pm and pull on my apron because my sons feel like biscuits, or my husband mentions that he’s grumpy the boys ate the last of the madeira cake. It’s a helpless need to lavish love on my family that I guess propels me. I cook every day…from scratch. I am extremely annoying in never wishing to go out for a meal because I prefer cooking it. I know, I know! I never go to lunch unless I have to. We so rarely go out to dinner I think my family feels awfully hard done by. I don’t do fancy cooking…it’s always more earthy and rustic. Not a pair of tweezers in my kitchen. And it’s well documented that I love to bake. Baking achieves a sort of zen like state in my mind…all that measuring and mixing. Baking terrifies a lot of people and it used to terrify me but you have to have the disasters in order to learn and I have a lot fewer catastrophes these days because, like writing, the more you bake, the more you learn about it and the better you become at it. I love the terror of making pastry and the reward you get when you make it from scratch – that goes for all food really.
I can get lost in food and preparing it and I’m convinced that while I cook and especially while I bake, back of brain is taking care of business with the stories..because I never plan my stories and yet they all come out without much heartache. I put this down to cooking/baking and getting distracted and fully immersed in something equally absorbing and enjoyable.
I’m about to go into a new phase of growing the food that I’m going to cook and eat. Harvesting from one’s own garden has to be right up there with the joy of chocolate and boots…which brings me to my terrible vice.
Yes, I love winter boots. I love all things winter. I am a creature of winter. But having the pick of the most perfect winter boot is my failing. There are over the knee boots that make you feel sexy or maybe just below the knee boots are ideal for a certain outfit. Do we want a heel, a chunky or pointed one, a flat heel, a wedge heel? Do we want a biker boot or an elegant boot…a structured one or a more floppy look? Do we want buckles and adornments or super plain, let the leather do the talking? What sort of toe? Blunt, almond, round, pointed, square?
Are you paying attention? This is all important, and the vital questions I ask myself each morning when dressing through winter. If fashion is your game, stick with ankle boots but if comfort is your preference and you live in a very cold place then we need boots to cover the calf and keep us warm. Some of us like a bit of fur here and there. Some of us like zips. I also like mid calf boots, I love chelsea boots, I love Hunter wellington boots and Blundstone farmer boots. I love gardening boots even though I don’t garden. And then colours. I’m favouring tan and elephant grey this year but I’d take a pair of red anklet boots anytime! Some boots work best with jeans, but not with dresses. Others are perfect with skirts. I love suede but they take a lot of care. I enjoy the quiet process of waterproofing my winter boots straight out of the box – then I know I’m going to keep them. I love trying on boots before anyone else – Feb 1 and I’m in my favourite stores and struggling into boots when everyone else is in their tiny sandals. All I need is for the first whiff of the weather turning in March and I’m wearing boots and refuse to come out of them until end October. I keep the season long. I only go to Europe in spring/winter so I can miss more summer in Australia and still keep wearing boots. You cannot beat a pair of long flattish heeled boots and they can be worn day in, day out and to bed if necessary. I try on Stuart Weitzmann boots for fun because I can’t afford them but they’re like going out to dinner for me – a big treat!
Winter boots are my shallow joy. I won’t tell you how many pairs I have but I give them away in excellent condition to happy recipients each year when I do the clear out. Each pair is wept over, stuffed with tissue and boxed at the start of each summer. And from November, I am counting the days to winter again. Sad, aren’t I?
Fiona, thank you so much for your time and for the insight into a highly focused and disciplined life.
For those who wish to follow up the interview and buy Fiona’s books, go to www.fionamcintosh.com