Welcome to Sunday Spotlight. Today our guest is Melissa Fagan, author of What Will Be Worn, releasing on the 1st September through Transit Lounge.
What provided the inspirational starting point for What Will Be Worn?
The realisation on the night of my grandmother’s funeral that she had lived a much more complex and interesting life than I had ever imagined. That was in 1999! I didn’t start writing the book until 2011. At that point, my main inspiration was to try to see clearly the patterns that seemed to repeat across generations in my family, especially down the matrilineal line; I wanted to understand and gain an appreciation of what I had inherited, in an emotional sense, from my mother, and what she had inherited from her mother etc etc.
How would you describe What Will Be Worn if you could only use 5 words?
I’m going to sidestep this question because it’s too hard! Instead, I will give some context to those 4 words in the title: What Will Be Worn. It comes from a news brief in The Brisbane Courier in 1910 announcing the release of the McWhirter & Son summer catalogue – What Will Be Worn was catalogue title. I loved that a catalogue had a title! The news item even refers to it as a book! I like that the statement evokes both the future and the past; that it can refer to what will be worn (in the sense of clothes and fashion) and also what will be worn away.
How far has your writing career evolved from when you first began to write to what it is today? Is this in line with your initial expectations?
I started writing short stories in my early twenties, and began work on a novel a few years later. Fiction was my go-to, I suppose, because I’d grown up reading Little Women and Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie; all my childhood heroines wrote fiction. I’ve always drawn from personal experience though, and I think in some ways my first novel failed because I was never able to successfully untether it from its autobiographical origins. I later started working in communications, then as a copywriter, mostly in travel, and also wrote the occasional feature. After I put the novel away, I went back to writing short stories. I do love reading short stories, and find writing a good one hugely satisfying, but they’re hard work! I had a couple published, but I haven’t written much fiction at all since I started the book. In some ways the book is a hybrid – there are fictional elements, and I think that mode works well for me. These days I read mostly memoir, essays and creative nonfiction – and I really love the possibilities of that space, because there is such a broad spectrum of writing styles within it, and there are a lot of writers doing really interesting work. So no, none of this matches with my initial expectations! It took a lot longer to be published than I ever imagined, but in a way I’m okay with that, because I think I have a greater appreciation for it than I would have had it happened sooner.
Are you balancing a different career with your writing? How do you go about making time for your writing within limited hours?
While I have previously worked in full time and part time roles, at the moment I’m freelance. I teach and lecture at university as a sessional academic, and I write and edit. I’ve also been quite involved in a family business over the past 7 years, though I’ve recently taken a step back from that. The beauty of freelancing is that I often have large tracts of time in which to write; conversely though, there can be a tendency to say yes to everything and end up working 7 days a week with no time to write. I manage a pretty good balance most of the time though.
Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?
I have a home office, which is where I do most of my day to day writing, but for some reason I can find it hard to focus at home – maybe because I also work from home. What works much better for me is to take a week or ten days out and go somewhere else – either to a friend’s place while they’re away or a cheap sublet, and write there. I find I’m much more able to focus in that kind of contained environment.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? How do you fill up that creativity well?
Um, from everything? Of course I draw inspiration from life – from things that happen to me, from stories I am told or overhear, from intriguing people, from places, or from ideas or themes or problems that niggle at me. But it also stems from the work, from sitting down at a desk on a regular basis and just writing, as well as reading in a focused way. Then when you get up from the desk and go and do something else, the ideas just sort of follow you around. I have a notebook that I remember to take with me sometimes, otherwise I’m constantly making notes on my phone – while I’m on the train, or out walking or when I wake up in the middle of the night.
What attributes do you think you need to remain sane as a writer? Are there any particular things you routinely do for yourself to maintain your own headspace?
My mantra in all things, not just writing, is “everything in moderation including moderation”. So I try to keep on an even keel, stick to a routine, eat well, do yoga in the morning, walk, swim, spend time with family and friends. But there are times when I need to isolate myself completely and times when I am far too involved in what is going on around me and lose my routine completely – and those extremes are a part of the process, I just need to make sure I re-centre periodically.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I like cooking, op shopping, going to markets, doing yoga, swimming, going to the beach, travelling, eating and drinking with family and friends. Reading! The odd Netflix, Stan et al binge.
What authors and types of books do you love the most?
I really enjoy essays and memoirs, or books that function as both – personal stories that push out into the world and highlight a bigger theme or issue. Writers like Rebecca Solnit, Maria Tumarkin, Maggie Nelson, Joan Didion. Elspeth Muir’s Wasted. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson is my all time favourite (I’ve written about it in my book). I devoured Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet and am currently reading the first book in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy. I’m trying to read more poetry.
If you could write a letter to your teenage self, what would be your main piece of advice?
To spend less time worrying what other people think of you.
If you could trade places for a week with any other person, living or dead, real or fiction, who would it be and why?
Judy Garland during the filming of Meet me in St Louis. I was raised on MGM musicals and that one’s a particular favourite. Garland was a bit of a wreck, obviously, in her personal life, especially in her latter years – but what a gift she had! Also I get two bites of the cherry with that choice – I get to be Judy and her character, Esther Smith.
What Will Be Worn
Sometimes it seems the most invaluable stories can be found in the unlikeliest of corners.
For all who know Brisbane, McWhirters, a once celebrated department store in Fortitude Valley, is an icon. For Melissa Fagan, it is also the starting point for this remarkable exploration of her mother and grandmother’s lives, and a poignant reminder of the ways in which retail stores and fashion have connected women’s lives across decades.
Behind the dusty shop counters of an Art Deco treasure, Fagan discovers both what has been lost and continues to shine. Ultimately this tender exploration of self and family, so exquisitely written, speaks of the ways in which life so often surprises us and of how the legacies of others can truly enrich our own relationships and lives.
Published by Transit Lounge
Released 1st September 2018