At home with Emily Maguire

Emily Maguire is the author of six novels, including the Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Award-shortlisted An Isolated Incident. She was a Writer-in-Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre, an experience which enabled her to write 2021's masterful Love Objects.

Emily works as a teacher and as a mentor to young and emerging writers, and her articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely including in The Sydney Morning HeraldThe AustralianThe Observer and The Age.

At home with Emily Maguire


ASTRID: Emily Maguire. Welcome back to The Garret.

EMILY: Thank you, great to be here.

ASTRID: Now, you appeared on The Garret many, many moons ago. However, this year we are talking via Zoom and I would love to chat to you about Love Objects, which is your first novel in five years. Congratulations!

EMILY: Thank you.

ASTRID: Not only is this beautiful fiction, I’m fascinated by the origin story of Love Objects. Now, let me get this correct, you were the Judy Harris Writer in Residence Fellowship at the Charles Perkins Centre at Sydney University, and I remember when you were awarded that because that is new, incredibly prestigious, darn lucrative for anything in the writing and arts sector, and I really would like you to explain that to us because I think all writers should know about it, but also explain what it's like to have writing valued.

EMILY: Yeah. Gosh, it's an amazing, amazing fellowship. So, the year I had it was only the third year, although I was the fourth writer to have it because the year before me, Mireille Juchau and Alana Valentine shared the fellowship, and was Charlotte Wood. So, it's something that I didn't even consider applying to for those first two years because I thought it was just nothing to do with me and my writing. And that's one reason I love speaking about it now, because I think if you just read sort of the short presses of it, it can sound like something different than what it actually is.

So, it's a fellowship, a writer in residence position at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. Charles Perkins Centre is this incredible place that is dedicated to medical research, but with a specific area of interest around so called lifestyle diseases like obesity and smoking, the kinds of things that you might hear people say – not people from the Charles Perkins Centre but other people – they might say the kind of things that people do to themselves through their lifestyle choices.

And so, to think about as a writer of fiction, why would I have a place there? It took me a while to get my head around that, but the kind of thinking behind having a writer in residence position is actually to throw in a creative writer to really like cross pollinate ideas with the various scientists and academia working in the Centre. I decided to apply for it with this idea that I had probably at least a decade to write a story about someone who has an over attachment to their stuff, and use the expertise of the people at the Charles Perkins Centre in not specifically in this area of research in most cases, but to do with that idea of why do people seem to make choices that they know are bad for them? How can social services and health professionals actually intervene? Should they intervene? Should you insist on helping someone who doesn't want help? All these kinds of questions just seemed a really perfect match.

I got the fellowship, I got to spend a year engaging with these experts, a great salary, which I've never had in 15 years as a professional writer and which I got used to very quickly and missed it a lot since it's gone away, and a space to work, which to me was almost as important because for most of my writing career, I haven't had a dedicated space to work from.

ASTRID: When you say engaging with the other academics and the thinkers at the Charles Perkins Centre, what was that like on a daily basis? I mean, were you involved in their research? Was it the lunchtime chats? Was it going and picking their brains until different aspects of the story you already had started to come together?

EMILY: Yeah, all of the above. So, when I first started, I thought I knew what I wanted to know. And so, I targeted particular people there that I thought could help with that, but of course the best thing about any kind of great research is that you realise how much you don't know, you develop any questions. And so I kept sort of chasing different tangents and some turned out to be really important. It was also a great thing about being there that I was welcomed into spaces that I wouldn't normally have access to in terms of sitting in the seminars. And a lot of them I couldn't understand everything that was being said, but where I could, ideas would just come from really unexpected places. Then there was the tea room chats that would happen, a lot of people there were just incredibly curious about what a creative writer was doing there. And it's amazing the number of conversations I had where people would just say, ‘Oh, I wonder if this is related to such and such’. And talk about a different area of research, or actually surprisingly often, surprising to me, was how many people had personal stories to share from their families or their own lives.

And then the third sort of strain of how that research unfolded was I was able to make some connections with a couple of the major hospitals who the Charles Perkins Centre is connected with in their research. And through that connected with one of the frontline staff who deal with these kind of issues, for example, as happens to Nic in the book, if an ambulance is called to their home and they have to be taken away and it's judged that that home is not a safe place physically for them to return to then social workers become involved, this whole process is set in motion, and so being able to actually connect with those people doing that work was also really useful.

ASTRID: I don't normally speak a great deal about money on The Garret, and that's because this is literary podcast, and also because writers don't make a lot of money or are not often paid for their time and their thinking, but I want to just spend a moment here because this fellowship, if I remember correctly, it's 100 grand a year, which is clearly a wonderful thing, that is most definitely a room of one's own to write and have the financial space to have creative freedom. My question is, how did that impact your practise, if at all? I know you were thrown into this whole new environment, which I assume was exciting and where you want it to be, but the idea of literally your time was paid, how was that for you as a writer? Because that is a rare experience in Australia.

EMILY: It's incredibly rare. And actually, it was quite confronting and difficult at first. I spent the first couple of months feeling like, ‘When's the other shoe going to drop? What am I actually being asked for here?’ I felt there must be obligations on me that haven't been explained. I really felt like I was getting away with something, and it did take a while to really relax into that and understand that actually my job that I'd been hired that year was just to write a novel and to talk to these people in there. But it was such a... I mean, it's unique as far as I know, that kind of thing.

I mean, my first novel was published in 2004. For all of the time since then I've had to do other work that's not writing. At the start I was working full-time, more than full-time, to make ends meet, and that's sort of been on and off over the years. It never seemed like a genuine possibility to make a living only from writing, certainly not a good living only from writing. And so, it brought up a lot of things to me as amazingly wonderful as it was. It did actually sort of bring us a lot of things for me where I had to question for all my talk about how much I value books and literature and writing, the fact that I felt so confronted by how much money I was making, it really made me confront that stuff in my own thinking about, ‘Well, why don't I think that has value?’

ASTRID: That's fascinating. I remember when Charlotte Wood became the first recipient of this fellowship, and obviously there was a lot of press around, and Charlotte Wood's name tends to attract press because of her beautiful writing. And I remember being astounded, happy because people were giving money to writers, but confused, and I didn't get the link. But over the years I really have gotten the link. I mean, how are we supposed to understand all of the different aspects of health? We live in a COVID, normal, whatever we describe ourselves these days, Emily, and it's going to be the writers who help us understand, not a scientific journal, as much as we all love them these days.

EMILY: Yeah. And it was one of the best things about the experience completely aside from the money and even my own novel, were the conversations I had with scientists, and they're constantly being told as well, ‘You have to be better communicators. You have to be better communicators. You have to be better communicators’. And many of them are brilliant communicators, but even just the fact that they are the scientists or they are the academics, whatever that label is there, it cuts off a certain amount of the audience that actually can't hear what they're saying, or doesn't want to, he what they're saying.

And so, to have these kinds of collaborations with creative writers or people who would just coming in... I mean, I often sort of phrased what I felt I was doing in terms of what I might be getting back there as asking smart dumb questions, dumb in terms of the actual science, because that's not my background, but hopefully smart questions sometimes pushing their thinking a bit in terms of how they're explaining something or why something might be relevant.

ASTRID: You previously said, Emily, that you had had the idea for this normal for about 10 years, and then you obviously took the chance to write it through this fellowship. Because I have asked a few questions about the fellowship I don't want to obscure the origin story of Love Objects. How did you come to want to write a novel about hoarding?

EMILY: Yeah. I've known a few people in my life who have hoarding behaviour. None of them would self-identify as hoarders, but that's the usual, it's very low rate of self-identification, this kind of behaviour. But because I had known some people with this kind of behaviour, it's long bothered me, but the sort of mainstream, or pop culture and media portrayals of people who hoard are very one note. They're very shaming, they're very stigmatising.

And thinking around this question of whether someone even needs help or wants help or not, say they do, the chances of them actually seeking help is so reduced when they think it's going to be like an episode of the TV show, Hoarders, that there's going to be someone there in a suit, shaming them, all their stuff's going to be put out on the front lawn, people looking on them with discussed, everything gone away. That really bothered me. So that's sort of a real-life thing.

And then thinking about it in terms of fiction, for years, what I've wanted to sort of really dig into is this idea of what stuff means to people, and that goes for all of it, not just hoarders, sometimes people who are very minimalistic have the strongest relationship with stuff, put the strongest meaning on it. I think it's absolutely fascinating that the more I talk about this with people, the more I realise it is just such an intensely human experience to find meaning in our things. Even as many of us would say, ‘I'm not materialistic, I don't care about things’. All of that, objects are like stories when you dig into them and why people have them. And that can be taken to the extreme with someone who hoards, but it is something that's really consistent, and certainly as a novelist, there's just so much to dig into there in terms of what people's things mean to them.

ASTRID: Emily, Love Objects is new and many people listening to this interview when it is released won't yet have read the novel, can you give us the 30 second elevator pitch to Love Objects?

EMILY: Yeah. Love Objects is about a woman called Nic, she's middle aged, she's pretty street smart and tough, she's a lifelong proud checkout chick. She lives a pretty happy, safe, calm life, except for the fact that she does have way, way too much stuff. The level of stuff that she can't get through her front door properly. And as the book opened, she has a little bit of a fall, and that stuff almost literally killed her. It's also about her niece, Lena, and her nephew, Will, who both dodged some serious problems of their own to come and try and help the aunty and clean up the mess. And it's partly about how that actually makes everything much worse.

ASTRID: I don't want to give anybody the wrong impression that this is just a novel about hoarding. There are so many different strands and themes in here. There's loneliness, there's intergenerational trauma, there's family, and the question of what is home and how do we find it, or how do we create it? There's internet abuse. What do we call that, Emily?

EMILY: I think internet abuse, or cyber abuse is a pretty good term. The particular instance in the novel is a massive breach of privacy really, more than anything, which does tie in to just some of the other stuff going into the novel as well. And it's also, if I can just say as well, which I didn't say in the start about the sort of origin story of it too, the other thing that I've wanted to write for a really long time is a novel where the sort of central love story is between an aunty and her nieces and nephews, because that's something that is incredibly important in my life, and I've written about it in nonfiction, and I really did want to write a story, and that is sort of really foundational to my life.

ASTRID: Emily, you just jumped forward in my questions because I...

EMILY: Sorry.

ASTRID: No, don't apologise. I really want to spend some time here. I really wanted to talk to you about the idea of all of the aunty-niece, aunty-nephew relationship. I actually learned a word from you from following you on Instagram. So everybody go follow Emily on Instagram, but the word nibling, which is we have a word for brothers and sisters, siblings, but their word for a niece or nephew is a nibling. And I have niblings, I am not a mother, I am a step-grandmother, that's a different story, but I am not a mother. And being an aunty is really important to me, and my relationship with my nieces is really, really a cornerstone of what I try to be as an adult.

And I never see that in literature. And you explore that in multiple different ways in this novel, there is Nic and Lena, her niece, there is also the story of Will who his relationship ends and kind of one of the reasons why it ends is the woman he was seeing didn't like how close he was with her children because the children really bonded with him like a parental figure, but she didn't like that. I'm now blabbing on here, Emily, because I got really excited to see this explored in literature. I would like to hand back over to you in this interview and tell me how you explored that. And there are a lot of questions that you pose for society about that relationship.

EMILY: I'm really glad that that connected with you as another aunty. Yeah, it's something I do think about a lot in terms of what we owe each other in our families or in our communities. I think there's obvious relationships of responsibility, not that they always work out this way, in fact, they often don't, but I think the parental-child relationships, particularly when close to another adult, that there's a sense of responsibility. If it was your mom or dad that was in this kind of situation that the adult children will come and say, ‘we'll help out’. Siblings as well to maybe a slightly lesser extent.

But once you start extending outwards, certainly in the culture I grew up in, there isn't really that sense that you automatically even have a relationship at all, let alone one that feels like a duty of care. And not just a duty, but a desire of care to have that kind of connection. And that has absolutely been my experience as an aunty, I chose not to have children, but I do find myself now with all of these kids, 14 of them, who are massively important in my life, and my life would just be a completely different one without them. There's no way I could have chosen that, that's completely up to the decisions of my siblings and their partners, but now that they're here, it is something really real and really important.

But there are limits all the time on that, on what you can actually do as someone who's not a child's parents. And I do think that it can be very difficult. I mean, I think I have Nic say in the book at one point that there's nothing more difficult than loving someone else's child. Now, I wouldn't put it quite that strongly, I think there's a lot of things more difficult probably about parenting, but in the particular situation she's in and that Will is in, with a woman he had a relationship with and really bonded with her kids, it's hard to do anything, let alone do anything legal if you sibling moves to another state, that happens to Nic, and takes their kids with her, you just lose those people from your life. And that's just how it has to be or the way it is in our society, but I think that the strength of those bonds can be so strong that it can be an immense loss that you feel a bit silly or crazy, or weird even talking about it.

ASTRID: I agree. I got halfway through that sentence about Will and didn't know if I was going to be able to end that sentence without him sounding like a creepy character who likes someone else's kids, such as the societal stigma that even saying a sentence about a fictional character felt odd to me. I really appreciate that you've gone there in this book. And I like to think that all the aunties and uncles out there will appreciate it as well.

Because this is a podcast for writers, I would like to ask you about your use of point of view. No spoilers, but this is a book where we... It's written in the first person, we inhabit Nic, the aunty, and we inhabit the point of view of Lena, the niece, and Will, the nephew. All three of those characters are alive for me, they are fully realised, flawed, interesting individuals that takes skill, Emily, how did you do it?

EMILY: Many, many, many drafts but it's really the essence of that. The reason I wanted to have those three points of view in there is, it was a few reasons but really the main one that I thought I had to have it in there was part of what I think is going on under the surface of the book, in the sort of thematic and the tension of it is this idea of what I said before, what we owe to each other in family, but also the limits on how well we know each other, even with people who seem really close.

Because this is the thing, this is a family story where there's a lot of conflicts, but there is a lot of love, and these people are really close to each other in most of the ways that we might think of it. But I really wanted to be able to show you the way that, for example, Will and Nic both think of Lena as just off the charts smart and just this total shooting star. Lena is just soaking in shame all the time about how stupid she thinks she is. And how hard she had to struggle to get into a particular course at uni.

And that sort of goes around in each of the cases to, and certainly up until discovering how bad her house has gotten, Lena just looked up to her aunty so much, she's just her absolute hero, she literally thinks, ‘What would Aunty Nic do when she's in tricky situations’. And if you feel that you know someone so well and admire them so much, and yet they could still be holding onto all of this stuff, literal and metaphorical, that's a big thing of what, to me, the book was about. And so, the most effective way to make sure that they are missing each other, missing the point of things, missing those connections was in there.

And yes, to go back to your original question of how I did it, it was many, many draughts, and it was certainly a thing that I had to get to the point with each of the different characters where certain things would really tick me off. So, for example, when Lena is checking out some of Nic's stuff, when I first wrote that I was so angry at Lena because I'd spent so much time in Nic's point of view and I knew what they meant to her, but then I had to really work on sort of getting under the skin of Lena enough to not feel angry at her while I was writing those things. The anger's still there when you get back to Nic's point of view, but to really make sure that I was really sort of internalising those different viewpoints.

ASTRID: As a reader I found each viewpoint a way to understand something that I wouldn't have. I mean we read and that helps us understand, and it certainly builds empathy. And feeling what Nic is feeling about these objects and this stuff that has literally just almost killed her, but still her attachment, her love, her desire, her thought processes around this stuff is something that my mind and my emotions haven't gone there before, and having it so immediate and living it through that first person was quite an experience.

EMILY: Yeah. I just need to point out, it's actually in third person, but in deep third person, it's not in first person.

ASTRID: Oh, god, I just felt like I was inhabiting them.

EMILY: I'm just in love with the fact that…

ASTRID: I'm really embarrassed.

EMILY: ... you thought it first person. I have so many conversations with my writing students about what actually is the difference between first person and deep third person because you are getting that internal experience of that person. And I think at its best most readers won't really think about that question of what point of view it's in, hopefully they'll just get that sense of emotion.

ASTRID: I am going to say for the record that I do teach in a writing course, I don't teach fiction. I am mortified right now, Emily, but also, kudos because that was my experience. I just felt like I was inhabiting their mind and, as a reader, it was really pleasurable so well done.

EMILY: I love that. No, please don't be embarrassed, I think it's wonderful.

ASTRID: I know that you teach as well. And I want to ask you about the experience of 2020. First in relation to what parts of Love Objects you may or may not have been writing or editing during that time, but also in relation to your students. So maybe let's start with Love Objects, how much did COVID, if at all, impact this book.

EMILY: That's really actually quite hard to answer. I mean, my immediate response is that it didn't affect it, but that kind of can't be true because it affected me so much, I mean, all of us, and I did write the final draught sort of through the midst of COVID. So, if it affects the writer in a deep enough way, I think it has to affect the writing in a sense. But I mean, the book was essentially done in terms of the story and the characters at the end of 2019, and then I did do some pretty deep structural edits and some rewriting throughout the middle of 2020.

I do remember having a real... I don't know, you know the kind of panic that sort of is exciting because you think you might be about to have a breakthrough about something? I remember having one of those moments right sort of around this time last year when all the headlines were hoarding, talking about toilet paper and canned goods, and I thought, ‘Is everything I've written about just pointless now because we're in this new phase where everybody's a hoarder?’

ASTRID: Only on certain weekends when lockdown comes.

EMILY: Yeah. I mean, yeah, we've just seen it again in Brisbane in a lesser extent, but I don't know how much it changed on the page. But just sort of, again, even though I feel like I do understand this behaviour pretty deeply, it was this extra thing of really understanding how pretty much anyone has the possibility of becoming a hoarder because the things that drive that behaviour are very human things are in all of it, and one of them absolutely is, ‘What if I need this? What if I need this?’ And definitely the great toilet paper hoarding was an example of pretty much everyone really feeling that, even if they thought, ‘Well, I don't actually need all this now, but everyone else is getting it so we might run out and one day I'll need it’. That is one of, it's not the only one, that is one of the fundamental impulses that drive this kind of behaviour in people who just do it with a lot of other stuff as.

ASTRID: And in your experience of the classroom, the virtual classroom, I assume, in 2020, how did you find your students, if I can ask this, interacting with the world of creativity and writing and reading?

EMILY: Gosh, it was tough at first. I teach with Writing New South Wales and we started the year in the classroom, and when we had to switch just the technology alone was a real challenge for a lot of people who haven't signed up for an online course. And I know that was something repeated all over the place because my students, they tend to be adults, and most of them not just out of school into university adults, but much further along in their lives, and they will also having to adapt to this in their workplaces. There was so much stress attached to that actual transition that for a little while, it was hard for anyone, to actually, anyone in that class to concentrate much on the work. It was just an upsetting time and people didn't know what was going to happen.

Once we all did sort of settle into it a lot of people did express what a relief it was to have writing and creativity time set aside for that every week, whatever else was happening. I don't think anyone chose to write specifically about COVID. There were a few people who were writing things that suddenly things that seemed either too close to the bone or whatever, people who were writing about pandemics and things like that, that was suddenly really questioning whether they still wanted to do that.

But mostly, and it's something that, Covid or not, I come back to a lot of the time in my own writing and the people I work with that, it's just, if you love writing and I go to put some time aside for it, it doesn't have to be your career or your life, like it is mine, but if you are able to put some time aside for it and it's something that you love, it is such a gift.

EMILY: This is going to sound trite but I definitely don't mean it this way. It saved me from alcoholism. It saved me from still being a smoker. So many things that I used to do or have on occasion or sort of sunken into in order to just cope with stuff, I think the fact that I've found writing and found a way to make that my life, or even before it was my life, make it part of my life, it is such a part of me, and that is completely separate having a writing career, but the writing practise is just invaluable to me as a way of actually processing the world and coping with the world, and I think that's true for a lot of my students too.

ASTRID: That is a beautiful way to put it, Emily, just beautiful. One final question for you. What type of stories do you hope come out of this time that we have all experienced? And I know it will take time for art to be made, but what are you hoping to see one day?

EMILY: That's such a hard question. I think what will come out of this is a different understanding of connection and what it means. And I am excited for that because even extreme introverts, like me, suffered under that lack of connection. And for people needing face to face, or face to face connection is even more important to them, I think there was a lot of real suffering involved with that.

But also, the ways in which we saw people be creative and extremely empathetic and creatively empathetic in their response to that. The kind of things we saw in the early days of letterbox drops in neighbourhoods, with people offering to do shopping, or to just talk on the phone, and all those kinds of things, the way that... This human drive to kind of connect, that when we were forced to not do it in the usual habitual way, the ways that that affected us all, I think that is really interesting and profound and hopefully the kind of insights that will stay with us when this bloody thing is gone. Knock on wood.

ASTRID: I am looking forward to reading those stories, Emily. Congratulations again on Love Objects. I highly recommend it. And thank you for speaking to me again on The Garret.

EMILY: Oh, thanks so much, Astrid.