April 2012


Fiona Higgins released her debut novel The Mothers’ Group last month. She also has written a memoir called Love in the Age of Drought. She works in philanthropy and social investment and lives in Sydney with her family.

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  1. 1. What motivated you to write about a mothers’ group?

    The truth is, I didn’t really set out to write about a mothers’ group; I wasn’t motivated by a particular set of goals. The characters came and found me. I actually wrote the bulk of The Mothers’ Group in an extraordinarily sleep-deprived state (with my lovely but sleepless second child, who basically ‘woke up’ at four weeks old and didn’t go back to sleep until she was 14 months old) and it was as if this group of women came and lived inside my head. I would be up five times a night, breastfeeding my daughter and dog-tired, when a snippet of a story, or a character, or even a dramatic revelation would suddenly flash into my mind. It was, without a doubt, one of the most curious and creative processes of my life. It wasn’t until I had written four of my six characters that I began to suspect I was writing a novel. All that aside, mothers’ groups are a fascinating societal construct. They’ve been gaining momentum since the 1970s, arguably at a time when society has become quite atomised. Thousands of these groups meet every week all around Australia, and in other countries across the developed world. They offer lots of interesting territory for a writer to explore - like the incredible intimacy that can develop between members, the power of shared experience, the philosophical conflicts or personality clashes that can arise, and the healing power of female friendship.

  2. 2. Which of the six women’s stories did you find the most difficult to write?

    I found I had to revisit Ginie more than the other characters, to flesh out some of her background and make better sense of her brittleness and anger – which was quite a convoluted and wearisome process at times. Cara’s story was also difficult to write, but in a completely different way; I often found myself in tears as I wrote the second half of her chapter. It was difficult to write about Cara’s situation, and the absence of moral reasoning involved. Her story demonstrates that sometimes, bad things can (and do) happen to good people.

  3. 3. How did your time in Indonesia shape Made’s story?

    That’s an interesting question because I lived in Java, not Bali, and they are culturally quite different (Java is predominantly Muslim, Bali is Hindu). But my personal experience of Indonesian people generally is that, irrespective of their province of origin, they are good humoured, well-meaning and generous. Of course there are exceptions to that rule, but I suppose Made is a composite character of all the wonderful friends I’ve made in Indonesia over the years. And despite her complicated and quite disadvantaged background, she is one of the happiest characters in the book. This is possibly because she carries the fewest expectations about what motherhood – and life generally – should deliver to her. Made looks around and asks the question, ‘Who said life is all about happiness, anyway?’ That’s something an Indonesian friend once said to me in real life, and I think he was right on the money.

  4. 4. Which of the women do you most identify with?

    Oh, that’s too hard to answer! I identify with all of them, on some level. I have felt conflicted, like Ginie, about my desire to be the best mum I can be while also juggling the competing demands of my work – but luckily for me, I’ve never had to go back to an office. Like Made, I experienced deep loss and grief in my family as I was growing up, but had to make some decisions about moving on with my life anyway. A long time ago, I used to be a part-time massage therapist (believe it or not) – so I recognise Suzie’s passion for healing and her slightly ‘alternative’ way of viewing the world. I can relate to how Pippa struggles, sometimes, with reconciling the views and needs of her husband with her own. I have first-hand experience of Miranda’s weariness and frustration as she moves through the routine day of her demanding toddler! And like Cara, I’ve wondered about the ‘sliding doors’ of life – about what might have been if I’d made different choices. In my case, I don’t wonder about my choice of life partner (as Cara does), but about some of my early decisions around study and career paths (and given the chance, I might just go back to university and study medicine!)

  5. 5. What message do you hope readers take from The Mothers’ Group?

    I don’t really have a particular ‘message’ for readers, as mothering is such an individual journey and I’m not in the business of moralising about the different choices we make as mothers. There’s a CS Lewis quote I like: 'We read to know we’re not alone.' That says it all, I think, in relation to this book. Many women can feel isolated at some stage along the journey of motherhood, even when they’re surrounded by others. I hope that readers of The Mothers’ Group will connect with the characters, relate to their stories and, on some level, be comforted that they’re not alone. That said, it would be very satisfying to me if The Mothers’ Group helped to air some taboos, prompted people to start talking about things they might otherwise avoid, and encouraged mothers – and people generally - to wind back unrealistic expectations and overly critical judgements of themselves and others.

  6. 6. What’s the best advice you learnt through your own mothers’ group?

    ‘Just keep going.’ Oh, and never ever take a child into a supermarket after 4.30pm.

  7. 7. Tell us about Love in the Age of Drought.

    Love in the Age of Drought describes my journey as a city girl meeting and falling in love with a cotton farmer, then moving to a small town in rural Queensland (Jandowae, population 700). And doing all this before the television series Farmer Wants a Wife came out, I might add! It’s more than just a romance (although there’s plenty of that); it tracks my ‘education’ as an urban Australian with very little understanding of agriculture, coming face to face with the ethical complexities of farming in the field. Issues like water resource management, pesticide usage and genetic modification, as well as the very real effects of drought on farming communities... and its effects on my farmer (my now husband, Stu). It also looks at the humorous side of living in rural Australia – snakes in the dunny, frogs in the loo, how I accidentally outraged the local CWA ladies by winning a scone-baking competition ... that sort of thing.

  8. 8. What’s harder – writing a memoir or a novel?

    Memoir, because I was always constrained by the truth. I was writing about my life, my husband’s life and the community we cared about – and a whole lot of people would have held me accountable if I deviated from reality. With The Mothers’ Group, however, I was able to take themes I was deeply interested in and explore them in any fictional direction. What liberation!

  9. 9. How did you get into a career in philanthropy?

    It wasn’t an advertised role, that’s for sure. Philanthropy (grantmaking) is a niche area, and there are very few advertised opportunities. I’d been working in the non-profit sector for some years in international development, as well as operating my own small communications outfit. At the time I was approached, I was fulfilling a role at Australian Red Cross. A colleague of mine sat me down over coffee and explained to me that he was involved in a private family foundation that gave away millions of dollars of funding for charitable purposes annually. Then he invited me to a meeting to discuss a position had become available within that foundation. It was all very new to me – I wasn’t aware of such philanthropic foundations at all – but I went along just to explore the idea. The rest is history... I’ve spent the best part of a decade advising foundations and individuals about charitable causes and projects they might wish to fund. Philanthropy is a pretty special place to be – I get to work with committed people, often entrepreneurs who have made their mark commercially and want to ‘give back’ to society. Helping to build fair and vibrant communities is something I’m passionate about.

  10. 10. Which of your achievements are you most proud of?

    My three kids ... but they can’t really be considered an ‘achievement’, can they?! Perhaps it’s better for me to rephrase it: I am proud of being a ‘good enough’ mother to my three children. It’s something I do every day – 7 days a week, 24 hours a day - and that’s an achievement like no other. And there are so many mothers out there just like me. We all need a collective pat on the back!

  11. 11. Do you have another book in the pipeline?

    I have two or three ideas for books that I’d like to explore. They’re inside my head; I haven’t yet started writing them down. Hopefully I’ll feel sufficient distance from The Mothers’ Group soon enough to be inspired to actually start writing again.

  12. 12. Which authors have inspired you?

    So many! I am a bit of a classics nut - Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Nabokov – and modern favourites are Paul Auster, Armistead Maupin, Bret Easton Ellis, Tim Winton, Patrick White and Margaret Atwood. A book I kept returning to while I wrote The Mothers’ Group was Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. She has an acerbic wit and some excellent advice for writers. I was also inspired by the honesty and passion of Jain Sherrard, who wrote a moving memoir entitled Mother, Warrior, Pilgrim: A Personal Chronicle (1980). It is quite raw and lyrical in its treatment of some of the themes that appear in The Mothers Group – issues like maternal distress and rage – and I imagine it was quite radical for its time. These days I find a great deal of inspiration in children’s books. Authors like Pamela Allen, Mem Fox, May Gibbs, Dr Seuss, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis… they’ve all concocted such magical imaginative worlds for kids and adults alike. And I love that they often have an overt values agenda – like Dr Seuss’ environmental themes in The Lorax (‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.’) Wonderfully, in children’s books, good always defeats evil.

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