Interview with Andrea Mayes

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: Tell me about the genesis of The Rose Notes.

Andrea: It started off with an idea for a character in my head. I’ve got lots of feisty older friends and I wanted to explore their frustrations, vulnerability and waning of personal power as they grew older and how they handled it, even with a degree of mischief on some occasions. What I really needed was a kingdom for this person. I wanted a small canvas for my very first attempt and completely coincidentally while I was looking to leave the corporate world, I had a chance to work on a farm, handling administration. I knew straightaway that it was the most perfect kingdom for this Lear-like character. That’s how it all started. I took the job deliberately for research, and took copious notes. Most didn’t get used, but I do feel that the whole experience really strengthened the characters, and I know it strengthened mine.

Magdalena: Did some of the people you met on the farm wind up in your fiction?

Andrea: No. The joy for me apart from working with language in general is the process of creating fiction. The book took me two and a half years, which seems like a long time. But these characters took a while to develop and unfold during that period.

Magdalena: Were there any scenes, situations, or characters that you really struggled with as a writer?

Andrea: Yes, Pearl. I found it quite difficult to work out how to manage her. She is so tied emotionally and financially to the farm, and as a writer I needed to find a pattern of growth for her which wasn‘t the obvious, stereotypical one of having her live happily ever after. That was quite a challenge but I think, without giving too much away, that I’ve managed to sort out a solution which works.

My favourite character isn’t Dobie, although I am very fond of him. It’s Thomas. I love Thomas. He’s probably the only one whose life I would like to revisit. He’s just at the beginning. The other characters have perhaps come to the end of a phase. Thomas is the character most like myself.

Magdalena: It’s interesting that the “younger” characters in the book are in their early fifties.

Andrea: Yes. It’s a time when you start asking questions – that sort of late forties early fifties when the potential for dissatisfaction and change is enormous. All of the characters are on the cusp of something in a way, even though the ages vary tremendously. I’ve been asked why there aren’t any younger characters in the novel, but it wasn’t a deliberate decision that I made. It’s just the way this book grew. Perhaps it’s just the echo of country life.

Magdalena: The narrative voice is unusual – visible – prefiguring the action in a kind of wink with the reader. Was it difficult to toe the line between getting inside your character’s nightmares and sensations and maintaining that deliberate, almost post modern cool narration?

Andrea: I don’t know if that kind of narration will happen again. It was just the voice in my head and it seemed to come out naturally. I’m not even sure exactly who the narrator is, although perhaps it’s Alice. I didn’t really have any difficulties with the narration. It was just the style it settled into quite early and from then on the voice remained constant.

Magdalena: Does the term “rural gothic” (The Age) amuse you? Was that what you had in mind?

Andrea: I didn’t really know what they meant by it! I think that might have been a reference to some of the darker humour in the book, and I’m glad that they got that, but I don’t really know. None of the other reviewers have used the term, but it’s nice to think that my work might have coined a new genre.

Magdalena: Tell me about Varuna.

Andrea: I didn’t get to go to Varuna. I did win a fellowship, but because I’m self-employed I couldn’t afford to go. Peter Bishop was marvellously supportive, told me he liked the book, and we talked a lot on the phone. I just couldn’t take the three weeks off from earning a living. I do hope I get to meet him one day though. I certainly owe him a debt, and he gave me positive feedback at a time when I really needed it and didn’t know if people would want to read the book or whether I should continue.

Magdalena: People say that it’s almost impossible to obtain representation for a first novel. Was it hard to get taken on by the Australian Literary Management?

Andrea: People say all sorts of things. Dear friends who had my own interests at heart I’m sure told me that I would never get published, and that I shouldn’t get my hopes up. I built up a CV by sending my work out to competitions. I’ve been writing for years and just kept sending things out until gradually I built up a very short CV and sent that with the first 3 chapters to a Melbourne agent very early on and she told me that she liked what she read, but didn’t think it was developed enough and that I could contact her later or something like that. I was just looking for feedback at that point. Six months later I did the same thing with ALM, and Nicky Davis who was then working with Lynn Tranter asked for the full manuscript. It all happened from there. Lynn got me onto Penguin and I feel I was just the luckiest person. It’s a bit of a worry how much luck plays a part in it. I just kept pushing for any kind of feedback. The luck factor was enormous, but once I was with Penguin, it all got very serious.

Magdalena: Is fiction ailing?

Andrea: My agent is very down about it which is depressing, but people are reading the book and seem to be enjoying it. I don’t know, but I think there will always be a demand for a good story. I certainly hope so. I guess the problem is compounded here because the market is so small. Once a rumour gets going it promotes the idea and the word spreads. It’s all about perception. So let’s just say that fiction is doing wonderfully well, and maybe the idea will catch on!

Magdalena: Tell me about Sunset: Penguin Summer Stories. How did your story get selected?

Andrea: I wrote “The Bag” during the time I was researching Rose Notes at the farm. I did most of the writing at about four am and had the draft written out before breakfast. It was published in January of this year. I was already working with Penguin on The Rose Notes when I saw the call for submissions. As you probably know, Penguin is huge, so I sent the short story to the people who were handing that side of things. I was so excited when I heard it would be published in the collection. I grew up with Penguin Australian short story anthologies.

Magdalena: You’ve been writing for most of your life. Does a published novel change the nature of your work?

Andrea: Yes, it does. I always thought I would write a novel and that it was just a progression from writing short stories, but once I began working I found it ridiculously hard. There was just the biggest learning curve. It’s so humbling. I didn’t have a clue how to do it and there were endless possibilities for character and plot development. It was rich and wonderful, but I was so far out of my depth. I was really cocky when I began but I quickly lost that.

My life has changed and not all for the better. I had a tremendous sense of play when I was writing The Rose Notes. It was something I retreated to. I still have that with the second book, but it’s much more serious. There are people waiting to see it, and my finances are linked to it, which makes a big difference. I have a responsibility to myself to do this. I’ve restructured my life around writing novels and I have to make it work now. I do love it though. I feel like it’s the most wonderful job in the world, but it’s really a job now.

Magdalena: Talk about the writing process for you. Do you begin with a theme, a situation, a setting, a character or some rough storyline with all of those things?

Andrea: It usually is a voice. I have to find out where it’s coming from and who it belongs to and why it’s causing me emotion. The faces and fleshing out come later. As for the setting of my current novel, I know I didn’t want to do more work in the farming sector and was very attracted to the Port Fairy area. I thought it would be wonderful to set something in a fictional region based on that landscape and of course I had the national park around it to indulge my landscape writing. I wanted to see if could put that voice together and work a story through it. I‘ve got the first draft out now and it‘s melding quite well. The first draft for me is fairly rough–just the story. It’s in the second draft that I discover what I’m writing about. That’s the most interesting part and it changes as the characters develop. I love the editing process. That’s what it’s all about.

For The Rose Notes I have had some offers of editorial assistance for this novel but I definitely want to keep it to myself at least through to the end of the second draft to see how the story will change and the characters grow.

Magdalena: Is there a theme you want to explore?

Andrea: Territory is a theme in my current work that is coming out quite strongly. The idea of identification with a particular place. I wasn’t aware when I was writing but perhaps it has something to do with being a migrant–I came to Australia when I was just twenty years old– how you create your sense of personal safety. That’s something which I’m exploring.

Magdalena: Have you ever been tempted to write about England–your first home?

Andrea: I took my son back to meet the family, but writing about the North of England is daunting for me. There is nothing about it that has moved me to want to tell a story about it. All of my passion seems to be for this place– what I know of the Australia I’ve lived in for thirty years. I just love it and if that means that my books don’t sell so well overseas then it would be a great shame.