June 2008


Catherine McKinnon has a theatre background and has written her debut novel The Nearly Happy Family. She is originally from Adelaide but now lives in Sydney.

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  1. 1. What inspired you to write about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship?

    A combination of things, my own adolescence, while not the same as the mother-daughter relationship depicted in the novel, definitely had similar elements. And so I was adhering to advice about writing, (that I don't prescribe to now) which says write about what you know. One of the things the story is about is how life trips us up and how we trip ourselves up, and one of the ways we do this is by making impulsive decisions, decisions we then have to live with, and which the people around us have to live with too. Both Jackie and Claire make impulsive decisions at the beginning of the story. Again, in my own life, I've made quite dramatic impulsive decisions that I've had to then live with. And portraying this between a mother and daughter was interesting to me. Also, I guess, there is love in this family, as well as conflict, and although it's, at times, a high level of conflict, I think it's the kind of conflict that can occur in any family. I think there is a level of dysfunction in a lot of families, at least in the ones I know, but it may not be an ongoing thing. It just happens for a particular period of time. Also, I saw Jackie and Claire as both growing up. And I tend to think this happens a lot in life - adolescence isn't the only growing-up time - sometimes, parts of ourselves don't grow up until quite late in life. Claire is in her teens, and I'm often impressed by how much insight teenagers have to the hypocrisy of the adult world, but they often don't have the maturity to know what to do with that insight, and it can mess them around. It's a time of looking to the future and questioning everything. Equally, women in their 40s often look to the future, and for the first time contemplate the second half of their life, and with it see the end of life. Sometimes this leads to a state of mind where, like in adolescence, everything is questioned, including sexuality, values etc. And when these two ages come together - a mother in her 40s, a daughter in her teens - it can mean there are volatile times, but also times of understanding. So I thought it would be interesting to write about that, because it's something I've observed happening among family and friends. I guess I also thought, in writing about a relationship that isn't functioning, I was writing about the way we, as human beings, start to see life in a different way to how we have previously seen it. (How we go from not functioning to functioning maybe.)

  2. 2. Whose voice - Jackie or Claire's - did you find easiest to write?

    Claire's was really easy. I'm not sure why. Jackie's voice wasn't hard to write but there was a fine balance between getting to the crux of her character, and revealing all those elements, the good and the bad. Plus because she has a strong streak of selfishness, mixed with, in my view, a lot of generosity, it was difficult to strike the right balance. I knew some people would just think she was too selfish for words, but that's exactly why it was interesting to write her, because her other qualities are not recognised so much in society. She does have a great way with kids, even though she doesn't do the traditional mum stuff. And although she makes some whopping mistakes with Claire, she does actually find a way to help Claire come to terms with Vince's death. She doesn't always force her own views on the kids, (although she does sometimes) and she does raise genuinely independent thinkers, which is a kind of art in itself. And also, she does think it's important to give people a good time, and whether she's any good at it or not is irrelevant, because she truly does want to make people laugh. So I think on balance she has some great if unrecognised aspects to her personality. But I wasn't sure everyone would see these aspects of her, as I was trying to show them rather than tell them, and so in that sense it was hard to find the right balance for her voice - and for her story, because as happens in life, readers just might choose to disregard those aspects that I was trying to highlight.

  3. 3. Tell us about your experiences in restaurant kitchens researching about Claire's job.

    When I was younger, before I went to uni, I worked full time in a hotel-restaurant complex, and I worked in the kitchen sometimes, waitress sometimes, and housemaid even. All the ugly chores. The kitchen was a large kitchen, but there would be meals where we would sit and talk about the food, and the apprentices would have to present a meal every month for comment and so on. So that part of the kitchen story came from that early experience. Later, at uni, I worked at another kitchen, run by a friend. It was just two of us working a couple of nights a week and I was a kitchen hand. It was easy and friendly and there weren't too many customers, which wasn't a good thing, but gave us lots of time to talk. Then, when I was researching for Claire I spent a week in an Italian restaurant in Adelaide called Chianti Classico. That has the tiny kitchen I described in the novel, (although the back part of the kitchen belongs to the first kitchen I ever worked in.) Chianti Classico has a head chef, who is not Italian, called Tobias Gush, and then several other chefs and apprentices and some Italian cooks - one woman, Luisa, who cooked the lunchtime pasta when I was there, she was 72 years old but looked about 60, and another woman, Antonia, who made the pasta. Two of my days there I went upstairs with Antonia and made pasta, and it's something I've always enjoyed. (I do this sometimes with an Italian friend of mine, and she kind of runs the show, but it truly is relaxing and fun.) Working at Chianti Classico was very intense, especially at meal times, but prepping was a more relaxed pace. I worked alongside everyone, doing kitchen-hand stuff, and would run out the back to write down lots of notes. I also interviewed some of the chefs and the apprentices. And then I used my notes, my memory, my other earlier experiences, and other reading research, to develop the kitchen and the characters in the restaurant. I made the Milani menu a little bit less sophisticated that Chianti Classico, because Milani's is more a family restaurant, and Milani's seats only 40, which is not such a big number. But I had to work out a menu that was feasible for them to do, (and also feasible for Claire and Tom to handle, under Nino's guidance, when they have their one night of taking over, later in the story.) So to check it all, and timing as well, I made most of the dishes on the menu. Food is a great passion for lots of the characters in the story, some love cooking it, some love eating it, but it doesn't bring everyone together. True, they come together for a very happy Christmas at the end, and a wonderful selection of food, but it's only a momentary happiness, it's not going to last forever. It's the way we accept each other that makes a difference, and the way we come to terms with the difficulties dished out to us by life. Accepting that life is full of moments, is fragmented and unstable, is part of Jackie and Claire's growing up. But the fact that Claire finds food a passion is a great help. And in talking to the young apprentices, and also a young friend who basically started working in kitchens at the same age and is not a chef but a cook, and an excellent one, it was the passion that contributed to them being able to accept other things going on in their life. It kind of helped them keep on the straight and narrow.

  4. 4. What message would you like readers to take from your book?

    That happiness is fragile. That life is about instability more than it is about stability, and once you accept that as part of life, like the cycle of birth and death, it's far more liberating than it is depressing.

  5. 5. How has growing up in Australia influenced your writing?

    In so many ways. Take the beach - or the natural environment - it's so much part of an Australian way of life, that we assume most people have some connection to it, but for many Europeans this isn't the case, they live far away from the sea in urban dwellings. That is the same for some people here, but in Australia, the beach seems to draw people from inland as well as coastal. So the natural landscape as part of the landscape of a story is one way I guess Australia has influenced my writing. In terms of characters, I grew up with people from all walks of life, and from many different backgrounds, and I think that's reflected in the characters in the story.

  6. 6. What about the influence of being from a big family with eight children?

    That was an influence. When we all get together now, just as a close family unit, it's nearly 50 people. And from the age of 60 down, there's a family member every two years, (sometimes, in the case of twins, two of them.) I think the position you have in the family is important. I'm fifth in a family of eight kids. So I didn't have the pressure of the older ones, the responsibilities, the rigid rules they had, nor did I have the over-protection of the younger ones. Being in the middle you kind of slip through the net. Also you become a bit of an observer. Because it always seems like you're not one of the big kids and you're not one of the little kids, you're always in-between. There's no one political persuasion in my family, probably a representative from all parties major and minor, (probably not the marijuana party, although there's those that smoke it I'm sure.) And I feel like I've seen a lot of stuff, the good and the bad. Nothing would surprise me. There's a lot of good in families, a lot of fun, and there are awkward moments, and embarrassing moments, and tacky moments, and very very sad times, and bizarre times, and they all make up life in a family.

  7. 7. What drew you to theatre?

    This won't sound sensible but it is what happened. I started off at uni doing English and philosophy because I wanted to be a writer. One day I saw the theatre students mucking around in the uni recreation square. In a way I'd grown up too fast, I was always wanting to be one of the big kids in my family, and from a young age I was always trying to act older than I was. I think I did everything too young; went to bars too young, had drugs too young, had sex too young. As I watched this group of people I realised that it was a long time since I'd been really silly. These guys - a group of acting students - didn't care what anybody thought of them. I love the sense of child in them. They seemed very free. Liberated from rigid constraints. Not caring if anyone thought them foolish. So when I saw those student actors being free of constraints - and somehow free - I connected it with what they did - theatre, and got interested in it more. Later, it became a lot of other things, but that was the initial impulse.

  8. 8. How did your book deal come about?

    I won the Penguin/Australian Women's Weekly short story competition. Ali Watts, a publisher from Penguin, was one of the people choosing the winner. She really loved my short story. She rang me to congratulate me and asked about whether I was writing a novel. I was and so I sent her a copy. But by this time I had an agent. Just a few weeks before I won the competition a friend of mine sent my novel to her agent, actually a theatre agent, without telling me, and so the agent, Nelly Flannery, who works for Shanahans' Agency, rang me and said she'd like to help me get the book published. Although she is a theatre agent, she had started doing a few books for some of her clients and she really liked doing it. So although Ali would have taken my book anyway, it was great to have Nelly to negotiate the contract for me.

  9. 9. What is your second book about?

    So far . . .. It's set in a particular valley in the Illawarra and the story switches between four different time frames - two in the past, one current, and one set in a future time. There are strong connections between the stories and between the different characters that inhabit each story. It's about relationships between people and about acts of great daring in particular periods. I guess the main characters are people who go against the grain of their time in some way. But it's also about the changing relationship people have to the natural environment. And mostly it's about fear, and suspicion and misinterpretation. The story is told by a series of unreliable and reliable narrators, and the reader has to sometimes work out what is really going on.

  10. 10. What do you prefer a) a night out watching a play or b) a night reading a book?

    They are both such different experiences. I associate going to a play with being social. It's an event. You're in the theatre, and if the play is good, then it can be an amazing night. But if the play is not good - and let's face it, that happens - then it can be disappointing and often expensive. Reading a book, a night at home, is a wonderful experience. The thing about a book is if you are not enjoying it, you can put it down and pick up another one. Books can go with you anywhere. There is no such thing as waiting if you have a good book. If you have a good book you are so much friendlier to those friends who turn up late for coffee or dinner dates. I'm a big reader, I like all kinds of books, and I vary it around a bit. I can't choose between a play and a book, I think both are part of life. Sometimes I don't want to see people, but I still want to meet them in books. And so a book is preferable to a play. But the experience of watching a great or highly amusing, entertaining piece of theatre is very uplifting. I guess books have the advantage of being able to be with you all the time. (I often feel that a book is a friend - sometimes it's the characters I feel are my friends, sometimes it's the author.) If I'm lucky, and my eyesight holds out, I'm going to be able to read until the day I die, and I'm not so sure I'm going to be able to get to the theatre for my entire life, so maybe books have the advantage there.

  11. 11. Who are your favourite authors?

    There are so many - and sometimes I like particular books by particular authors, but going back to the ones I've read recently, in order - new favourite - Heather O'Neill, (Canadian, terrific, only written one book, Lullabies for Little Criminals), Tim Winton, (I've just read Breath which is great, but Cloud Street is still my favourite), Ali Smith (I loved The Accidental in particularly), M.J. Hyland (she's a lovely writer, both her books are favourites of mine, How the Light Gets In and Carry Me Down), Ian McEwan (his works stay with me for a long time, especially Atonement and Saturday) - I can't stick with going back in time so just a few more books by different authors, rather than authors in general - I loved The Secret River by Kate Grenville, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is an all-time favourite of mine. Arunhati Roy and her book The God of Small Things, is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, has never left me. I could go on but I'd better not.

  12. 12. If you could invite three fictional characters to dinner, who would they be and why?

    That's a hard one. I just can't think of who, so I'm going to say three characters from Cloud Atlas: Somni - because she's a human clone and I found her a fascinating character, and I'd love to talk to her more, Robert Frobisher, because he made me laugh in the book and I think he'd be highly entertaining to have dinner with, and also, he'd be able to play the piano and entertain everyone, and Meronym, because she knows what went wrong in the future, and she doesn't tell us everything in the story, because she's being sensitive to living with a culture that has reverted back to relying on myth, and living in more primitive dwellings. So I think the story of the future would be fascinating, from Somni and Meronym, and Frobisher would make sure I didn't get too depressed or take any of it too seriously. He'd probably remind me it was all a story!

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