Interview with Hilary McPhee

 The author of Other People’s Words talks about being an author, the publishing industry, the McPhee Gribble story, the Australian voice, e-books, and her latest project.

(photo credit:Ponch Hawkes)

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: With all of your publishing experience, is it difficult to be on the other side; to have a publisher promoting your own book? Do you have to resist the urge to direct?

Hilary McPhee: I did find it strange but I didn’t want to direct. Writing and editing use two entirely different parts of the brain, I think, and by the time I’d finished the book I was feeling like an author, in that I badly needed other people’s feedback and expertise. I also made deliberate decision not to interfere with the publishing side and I didn’t. I kept out of all that, and Pan Macmillan has done a terrific job.

Magdalena: Has becoming an author yourself changed your perspective of the
publishing industry?

Hilary McPhee: No, not really, but it has certainly given me a different perspective on the promotion side. It’s much more demanding than I’d realised, I think. For example, the Sydney’s Writers Festival where you are in competition with other writers, was a challenge for me. I kept wanting talking up other people’s books, which was a bit counterproductive
since there’s alot of fairly direct selling. I’ve also been doing a lot of talking to medium to large groups of people where the book has been on sale
afterwards. That fact that I’m having to sell and sign copies as well as speak is a new experience and not one I like much.

Magdalena: While you were in Greece, you did quite a lot of writing yourself. Have you always thought of yourself as a writer at heart?

Hilary McPhee: Well, when you are a publisher, you often write a lot anyway. We wrote kids books for example, and there was not a time where I wasn’t writing articles or putting something together.To write in a much more focused and creative way is something that I wasn’t able to do for a long time, and I’ve loved the experience of giving myself time to go into the work in great detail. But no, I wasn’t longing to be a writer all that time.

Magdalena: Did you find yourself over editing your own work too soon? Was it hard to just let go as a writer and put the editor on the back shelf until the story was formed enough?

Hilary McPhee: It was very hard. I actually wrote about the difficulties in an
article in the Australian Review of Books a couple of years ago. When I started out I thought I was going to write a conventional shaped ‘tell-all’ memoir which is what the publishers asked me to write. I wrote about 30,000 words and was editing it to death in my mind. It was stolen along with my laptop, one day, not properly backed up, which must have been a Freudian
slip of some kind. So I had to start again, and found the book I really wanted to write by visiting for the first time in ten years the McPhee
Gribble archive in the library which had acquired it. I started with that, and then I was able to go back into my childhood to understand better the
context of what we were trying to do and what later happened. I found that was the story I really wanted to tell. And, from the response to the book, it seems to be the right time to tell it.

Magdalena: You make a couple of very interesting, and fairly pessimistic points about the nature of publishing today. Firstly there is the overt commercialism, which doesn’t allow for that all important relationship between editor and writer; the time to create a good book, rather than a saleable product. Do you feel that the quality of fiction being produced has deteriorated as a result, and that this deterioration will continue?

Hilary McPhee: I think that writers are having a harder time as a result. Quite a lot of poorly edited fiction especially is getting out there before it is ready. Things are getting published too soon. There is such strong pressure to pump books out, and editors don’t have much say anymore, that it can be hard for an inexperienced author who has been overhyped, to resist that pressure for publication. A more experienced author like Tim Winton can, but a new author quite often thinks I’ve got to deliver more or less on time and here it is. We’ve got to find a way to solve this problem. Corporate publishing is not going to change its spots and return to earlier ways of doing things, especially now all the pressures of global copyrights and internationalisation. Australia is a small player and its publishing industry has always been basically subsidiaries of London and New York. But I think if writers, readers and editors understand the roots and complexities of the structural problems, we can work to address them in different ways. Small independent presses can still sustain good editing relationships with their writers. I also think that writers, if they realise the importance of support, will find other places to get what they need. They may seek it from their agents or other writers. There are some fine writer’s support groups, on the Internet and in the major cities, a lot more than there used to be.

Magdalena: You also raise the question of our children’s literacy and the importance of books in our lives. Again, do you feel that, as a society in general, we are in danger of devaluing the importance of words, books and stories in our children’s lives? What are the implications of this?

Hilary McPhee: We are a much more visually oriented culture globally than we were when I was growing up, and the emphasis on imagery is more powerful now. But I’m more optimistic than your reading would suggest! I draw great comfort from studies that show that children still want to read. As long as they aren’t
pressured into it. There have been recent studies showing that if books are brought to their attention through word of mouth via their peers, they’ll read, alongside enjoying all the other forms of electronic entertainment available to them.

Magdalena: There is also the impact of internationalisation, via the Internet and other multimedia forms. People are more mobile today, and Peter Carey and Lily Brett for example are Australian writers living in NY. Then there is also
the Australian book written by a Brit, such as Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers. Do you feel that there is something immutably Australian which forms the focus of an Australian novel, regardless of the home of the author, or will that sense of nationality be lost as writers move about and works become simultaneously released in many countries. In other words, is it possible to still speak of a national fiction?

Hilary McPhee: I think that the whole nationalism argument is a red herring. What I’m interested in is voice rather than notions of literary nationhood. There are many kinds of voice in this place and there is a huge amount of creative work going on in Australia. I’m not entirely sure why, but it is a very creative
country. So there is something rather precious here. My concern is with that idiosyncrasy and individual voice will be ironed out if writers
are primarily writing for a global market. It’s happening in film, in the theatre.We don’t have to protect what is uniquely Australian, but we have
to recognise that what we have is unique and interesting, and doesn’t have to be smoothed out to work internationally. The Internet is already having an impact on how we promote and distribute books of course – and I hope it helps rather than hinders the promotion of what is unique from here.

Magdalena: What about the whole concept of electronic books? Do you think
that these will really become as popular as the printed book, especially as portable e-book readers become cheaper? How do you think this will impact on society as a whole?

Hilary McPhee: I am guessing, of course. We are not there yet and I don’t believe that e-books will ever replace paper and printed
books. I think they are gorgeous, and I’m sure they will survive. But I’d hate them to become elite things, only for the privileged. I hope they coexist comfortably, since both means of transmission can do quite different things. I can’t imagine that electronic ways of transmission will be able to replace the total immersion that a fabulous book provides. E-books seem to me to be great for browsing, for reference, for skimming for a quick fix. I’m very interested in all of this and will be watching closely.

Magdalena: Is there another book in you?

Hilary McPhee: I want to write some more. I do have something in mind, but if I talk about it at this stage, it will evaporate. It is just too early. I’m still involved with Other People’s Words.

Magdalena: Are you working on a major project at the moment?

Hilary McPhee: I am working on a books-on-line project, a way of bringing the best Australian stuff into a global market, a select list of perhaps 300 Australian titles, many of them out of print because few publishers hold backlists anymore. It is a little way off, but very exciting.