Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic.
Her first poetry collection, Knuckled, won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award.
Her book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger won the 2016 Nita B. Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for non-fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the NSW Premier’s Douglas Stewart Award.
Her second poetry collection, Domestic Interiors, was shortlisted for the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for Poetry.
She also published a second collection of essays, The World Was Whole, in late 2018. This was longlisted for The Stella Prize in 2019.
She has a PhD at Western Sydney University’s Writing and Society Research Centre. Her poems and essays have been published in the Australian, Meanjin, Island, Overland, The Lifted Brow, Seizure and HEAT.
ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Fiona Wright.
FIONA: Thank you so much for having me.
ASTRID: Fiona, you are an awarded poet and essayist. You have published two poetry collections and your poetry has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals around Australia. You have also published two collections of personal nonfiction, including the highly acclaimed Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. That work won the Kibble Award for life writing, the non-fiction award in the Queensland Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Congratulations.
FIONA: Thank you.
ASTRID: And you've also just released The World Was Whole.
ASTRID: Your writing is intimate, personal, and although this is the first time that we've met, I feel like I know things about you. Do you ever feel exposed with your writing?
FIONA: [laughs] Sometimes, but not that often. I have had some kind of embarrassing moments where I've told someone I've just met an anecdote and they're like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that one. Yeah, you're right about that.’ And I was like, ‘oh yeah, I did too.’
ASTRID: Well that does mean they've been reading your work.
FIONA: Better come up with some new stories. [laughs]
Yeah, it's funny though, I sort of have two thoughts about that most of the time and one of them is that I recognize that it is a properly strange thing to both live with a condition that's kind of … one of the things that underpins it is this kind of sense of wanting to shrink away, wanting to disappear, wanting to take up less space in the world. How that co-exists alongside writing openly and personally and taking up more space in the world…
FIONA: ꟷBut I also sort of think, one of the things that happens when you have a mental illness is that you spend a lot of time ꟷ like once you enter treatment ꟷ you spend a lot of time talking about those very deep, dark personal parts of yourself and it becomes much easier. I sort of think that people who've gone through that are much less reticent about their lives than people who haven't because you've had to be. Yeah.
Astrid: I agree. Our previous interview was with Sam Twyford-Moore who also writes personal nonfiction. In his case, he writes about mental ill health and bipolar disorder and mania specifically. Sam actually mentioned you specifically, Fiona, and he credits his ability and confidence to write about ill health because of your work and specifically Small Acts of Disappearance.
FIONA: It's so lovely. I mean Sam, I think he's such a smart man and such a smart writer. You know, I don't think I really knew or realized what I was doing with Small Acts until after the fact … I just knew that I needed to write about this thing that I didn't properly understand. And that my experience of was so different from all of the narratives I'd kind of internalized around me.
ASTRID: Fiona, for the listeners who haven't read Small Acts of Disappearance, can you explain your collection?
FIONA: Yeah, I used to always very kind of cagely call it a book about hunger because my condition kind of resists diagnosis in many ways. So, I developed a very rare stomach condition when I was about 19, that means the muscles around the top of my stomach kind of misfire often and I throw up without wanting to and without choosing to. And it took a very long time to get a diagnosis because it's so rare and there are a bunch of changes that happen in your body and your brain when you're malnourished, regardless of what the reason is. And it turns out I had all the personality traits that make a person vulnerable to disordered eating.
So, at one point that kind of tipped into an eating disorder and I don't know what that point is, but it was, I'd kind of ... it took me a really long time to go into treatment because I didn't think what I had was anorexia; it didn't look like those stories that I'd kind of heard in the past. And I didn't think I was one of those women, a person like that, when in fact when I entered treatment I was like, oh, I'm exactly like the sort of person who gets this kind of thing. I just had the wrong idea of who that person is. But what it did mean was that I had to kind of look back over my own history, think about myself, my character a lot more and try and kind of understand what was going on and what had happened.
ASTRID: So, with Small Acts of Disappearance, when did you decide that you would write it? And how long did that take?
FIONA: It took four years. I'll answer the easier part, that question first. And I did it while I was doing my PhD, which was a different thing entirely.
ASTRID: I wanted to ask you about that, but we'll get to your PhD.
FIONA: It was like, you know what I need? More work.
But I started it shortly after the first time I entered a hospital day program and that was the first time I'd met other people with my condition and it rocked the foundations of my world because I'd gone into the outpatient clinic before that being like, ‘oh, well you know, I'm fine. I just need you to help me put my body back together.’ And they were like, ‘yep, sure, yeah.’ And kind of always maintained I'm not like people who normally end up here, I'm different, I'm different, I'm different and then I met these other men and women, it was all women in that case, but have since met a lot of men and was just floored by how similar we were and how similar our stories were and how kind of smart and kind and caring these people were.
And you know, that dissonance was really interesting to me. And I also had the sense that before I went into the hospital I had no idea what it was going to be like and didn't have any narrative for that and I was very aware at the time that I was seeing something that not many people ꟷ I don't want to say are privy to because it's really not a privilege ꟷ but that not many people kind of encounter. Um, that's not true, while a fair few people do encounter it in their lives, not many people talk about it.
ASTRID: It's not a common public narrative.
FIONA: That's right.
ASTRID: So, the decision to write I mean, at what point did you think... Did you start to take notes?
FIONA: The first essay I wrote is the first essay in the book, which is about working as an intern journalist in Sri Lanka and I actually got a prompt to write that one. One of the literary magazines had an issue that was about travel writing in a postcolonial age. And I was like, that's really interesting. I think I had, you know, I'd loved my time in Sri Lanka, but I felt I had this really kind of interesting and strange experience there because I was so sick and not really able to fully connect with the place and the people because so much of our kind of social interactions with anyone are cantered around food and it's kind of weird and awkward when you have to keep saying no.
So, I sort of wrote that one first and performed it at night in Bankstown and I'd never kind of performed anything quite so personal before. And it was this incredible experience because the room... I mean I didn't warn anyone, probably should've warned my parents in advance. Sorry, Mom and Dad. And because it's material that people don't talk about a lot, I think the audience was a bit shell shocked, but they were silent and I've never had that before. And you know, it happens sometimes, but it's very rare and I was like, these people are with me, they're coming with me, which I really hadn't expected. And it was after that performance, that Ivor Indyk, who's my publisher at Giramondo. He was in the audience with Evelyn the co-publisher and they both came up to me separately and like, ‘You know, that should be a book?’
ASTRID: Oh, that's lovely.
Astrid: What an experience
FIONA: Yeah, it was special. Yeah.
ASTRID: So, you never thought of ever publishing anywhere else after that kind of experience?
FIONA: No, I mean, by that stage I'd been involved with Giramondo in their wider projects for a good six years in a number of capacities, as a writer and as an editor as well.
ASTRID: A poet.
FIONA: And a poet, yes. And there are wonderful publisher. I think they do books that are ‘stranger’ and kind of break the rules a little bit more than a lot of other publishers and I knew that this book wasn't going to be a memoir, or like a straight memoir … that I just wouldn't be able to write like that.
ASTRID: What genre do you classify your first non-fiction as?
FIONA: That's funny, I always called it essays and it is technically classified as memoir and that was the publisher's doing. He said to me, ‘you know, where are the bookshelves going to put it on the shelves? There's no essay section. And I was like, ‘no fickle.’
ASTRID: Do you want to sell it?
FIONA: And at the time I think one of the reasons I was resistant to the idea of memoir was that I didn't know enough about it as a form and again, had all these preconceptions. I thought it had to be narrative, I thought of, you know, Cricketers Diaries and you know, Justin Bieber's, ‘I'm 19, here's my memoir kind of thing.’ And after I finished writing the book and started looking more into the genre and reading more of it, I realize that I was completely wrong and there's so much more that it is and does and can be.
ASTRID: Talking about genres, you mentioned a phrase at the end of Small Acts of Disappearance, ‘sick-lit’ and that fascinated me. I feel like I can't continue talking to you … if you know that I also have a chronic illness. I have Multiple Sclerosis. So although we have very different conditions, I'm not getting away from mine anytime soon.
Much of your writing does resonate with me and I thought a lot about ‘sick-lit’ and when you put it in print, I just have to ask, what do you define it as? Because yours is certainly not what I define ‘sick-lit’ as.
FIONA: Yeah, I think I was thinking then of the kind of ... and at the time that the sort of stories, they’re kind of quite generic stories in a way. That they start out with the person, and their normal happy, healthy life, and then they get sick, and if it's a mental health memoir, they're going to do a whole bunch of really terrible and destructive and self-abasing things because it's what we do. Until they suddenly hit ‘rock-bottom’; also a term used all the time ꟷ realize they have to change, and then magically change at the end. Or they're these kind of stories of inspiration, where there's a sick person who's sick, but look what all these incredible things they do anyway, aren't they inspiring, aren't they amazing? And I think they're both really problematic narratives, I don't think they're written with people with chronic illness in mind, and I think they damage people who live with chronic illness.
Now, I talk about this a bit in the second book, but I had this idea that I was going to get better eventually, had to get better eventually, so I had to keep trying everything in order to do so. And in actual facts, the thing that has made the most difference to my mental health in recent years has been to stop that and start thinking about my condition as chronic and something that I live with and work around rather than something that I'm always bashing my head against.
ASTRID: And you also write about the difference between a person who is a writer finding themselves with an illness and writing about it or a person who's not a writer trying to write about it and not necessarily explaining it well and therefore...
FIONA: Yeah, and kind of only having those narratives to rely on. And so, kind of falling into that. I think I was thinking in general of those books that … there are so many books, not just not just sickly books, but they get published because something incredible happened to a person and people want to read about it and that's fine, but it's not a genre I have any interest in.
ASTRID: So, tell me about your writing process and is it different from poetry to your personal essays non-fiction?
FIONA: I am a very … I really like routine and I worked from home since I was in my kind of early, mid-twenties, mostly work from home with other little bits here and there. And so learnt very quickly that without set routines in place, I had a tendency to get up, take the two steps from my bed to my desk, start working and then finish when my housemate's got home at 7:30 or whatever and poked their heads around my bedroom door and said, ‘are you still there?’ Which is very bad for you and very bad for your health.
ASTRID: Yes, it is. Were you effective in that time? I mean, was that time spent writing or was that just kind of time spent at the desk?
FIONA: Yeah, bits of it were writing and I was doing a lot of freelancing and other jobs then and in hindsight I don't really know how effective I was because I was so anxious and wired that I was quite out of my mind. So, I like to have a really good routine in place, I normally write in the mornings for a sort of a two-hour pop in a cafe. Yeah, I love working in cafes because it's nice to be in a different space than my bedroom, which is also my office and it's nice to have people around and to feel like you're a part of the world even though you're just hanging out inside your own brain.
I make sure I get a little bit of exercise in because it's good for me and I save all of my admin tasks until the afternoon because that's when my brain is mush.
ASTRID: Yes, yes.
FIONA: It's interesting to me that everybody's different in that sense that I have some writer friends who know that they really kick into gear at 3:00 pm or that like midnight is their special hour. And to me, that's horrifying. To me like early mornings are you know, the…
ASTRID: Sweet spot.
FIONA: Peak brain. Yeah.
ASTRID: So how does your health impact your writing, if I can ask?
FIONA: Yeah, it's complicated. I had a- what would you call it? A moment, I guess towards the end of this book where I was like, this is a really stupid job for an anxious person and this is a terrible thing to do to yourself because I'm like a proper perfectionist, I'm not saying that lightly, like I've been completely hamstrung by it at times in the past, you know, unable to move on and move past things. So I get very anxious about making everything absolutely right and of course it's never absolutely right.
But I know too that a lot of the same impulses are involved, which is not to say that, you know, I think my writing and my work is dependent on the illness. I don't think that at all. I think I'd be a much better writer if I weren't sick, I'd be able to do it for longer at a stretch and be more active, and go to more events than I physically can but I think a lot of the same ideas about wanting to make sense of the world, wanting to find order there and patent it, the same kinds of striving for better or for worse. And the same kinds of ... my editor calls it kind of self-consciousness, but that sort of sense of yourself and how you move through the world and being acutely aware of small interactions and things like that.
ASTRID: I have a quote that you wrote, it's from The World Was Whole, your second essay collection, it's about writing. “I'm writing up my desk one morning and it's one of those times that the process, as it's so rarely does feels joyous and easy as if the right words are exactly where I need them for a change.” It's lovely and I think a lot of writers, including me, can relate to that.
ASTRID: But how difficult is finding the right words in writing for you?
FIONA: It's hard and there are moments where it's a complete joy and it's flowing through you and you feel really powerful and in control of what you're doing. But most of the time it's a lot of slog and it's grunt work and you know, I write really slowly. Listening to the podcast, I've heard people say, ‘oh, I write a thousand words a day, I write 2000 words a day.’ I'm like, ‘you know, if I get 500 words out, I consider that awesome.’ Because I do agonize over single words and I'm getting better at using like substitute words for now and coming back to them, but sometimes I’m just stuck on one word and can't move on until I've got the exact right word, which is terrible. I sort of envy people who write streams and streams and then edit it back.
ASTRID: So, what's your editing process if you kind of have a very good first draft say, how do you critique yourself?
FIONA: I tend to write and rewrite as I go, so I'll start reading again and each time I'm about to put a new bit in and kind of fix things out and write in these little very slow chunks. So generally there's not much work at a line level that I need to do but the sort of structural stuff, often it's a case of there'll be things in there that don't actually belong, but I was just really interested in wanting to put in there anyway, you know, the ‘darlings killings’ as everyone's familiar with and making sure it has a shape, you know, your work does need a structure and sometimes that happens organically as you write and other times you've got to shift things around a little bit and figure it out.
ASTRID: Actually, I had a question about some of your essays. Most read as traditional narratives I guess, but there are some in both collection that are a little bit more fragmented and I found those fragmented sections very powerful but I wanted to ask how did you know they were going to... I mean how did you know they were going to have that impact on the reader?
FIONA: I'm really excited about the fragmentary essays in The World Was Whole. It was something I hadn't really tried much before. Totally stole the idea from Helen Garner but if you…
ASTRID: Stealing is good in literature?
FIONA: Yep. And if you're going to steal, you know like steal from the best; but you know, adapted and adopted to suit my own needs, of course, it's not a straight rip off. And I think one of the other writers ... That I was also reading a lot of Vivian Gornick and she writes a lot about walking in New York and having these encounters with people and the encounters makeup these little fragmentary bits that are interspersed with the narrative. I think also Sara Sentilles' wonderful book, Draw Your Weapons, last year that kind of uses fragments to draw all this different material and then make it talk to each other. I also think I was being cheeky because I think of those fragments as little prose poems, but I'm passing them off as prose.
ASTRID: You can do whatever you like, it's your collection.
FIONA: Yeah but I wanted them to be ... they are small encounters and interactions and just moments in time and in the world and I wanted them to be the kind of concrete illustration of some of the ideas that the rest of the book talks about, where the book talks about illness and what it means to live with the illness, for example. And I'm like, well, this is what it means on a day to day basis, this is what it feels like, this is what it looks like. These are the small things that are very difficult for me to do that most people won't think twice about, so I wanted them to kind of be a different sort of data as it were, and then I put in a whole bunch of poems because I'm always reading poetry and just have little lines that ... I think one of the wonderful things about reading poetry is that you just end up with all these little phrases and lines that live in your head forever. So pulled those in too.
ASTRID: It's probably an impossible question, but while you're smiling at me, you're beaming right now. Who is your current favourite poet?
FIONA: Oh, my current favourite poet, that's hard. I will misinterpret your question wilfully. One of the last books of poetry I read was Keri Glastonbury's Newcastle Sonnets, and I was just delighted by them. They're so vivacious and funny and naughty and sort of unlike anything I'd ever read before. I really loved those.
ASTRID: Who do you share your writing with before publication?
FIONA: I'm very cagey normally, you know, I often don't have the sense of … especially when I'm writing essays that are designed to bang a couple of ideas together, it can be hard to get to the end of the essay and have a sense of whether that's worked or you've just been banging ideas together that shouldn't be banged. You know, just there's like these things don't belong together, what you're doing here is foolish.
If I do have a good sense of a piece, often I send it somewhere to a journal and see what happens. You get an idea if it's any good that way. And I'm very fortunate, I've done that with a lot of essays, sent them to the Sydney Review of Books and I think Catriona Menzies-Pike who's the editor there is a really great editor and a really great reader and has been a very big supporter of my work. More recently though, I have started a prose, well, I didn't start it … a prose kind of writing group has started around me, just sort of four or five writers of about my age in Sydney, in about the same area. It's only been going for a few months now, but I've been finding that's so helpful and so rewarding to both to like share work and to read other people's work.
Astrid: So, what makes a good writers group?
FIONA: Got to be able to be rude to each other.
ASTRID: Do explain.
FIONA: Well you know, you've got to be able to not hold back when you need to, but also do that within reason. I've been involved in lots of writing groups over the years and they've all had kind of various levels of brutal honesty and it can be a tricky thing to be honest enough, but not so forthcoming that you damage a person or damage the work before it's ready. I think having a good sense of who the other people are and what their work is like and what they're interested in helps. I think wine helps and there's always wine. And yeah, just to kind of... I think they're really interesting too when people have really diverse and different styles because I think that's the way you learn so much about writing in a way that you probably wouldn't otherwise.
ASTRID: So how often do you meet and also what's the logistics, do you all share your work beforehand so people have read it or do you bring a printed copy?
FIONA: Yeah, we've been doing that, I've been sharing it a week before and meeting every month or every six weeks because you know people are busy and that seems to be working. I've worked in workshops in the past where we haven't shared it before and just read the work out loud to each other, which is challenging but really interesting too because I think often you get different ideas and different nuances from work when it's read aloud than when you read it on the page, sometimes it makes much more sense. Yeah, so I don't think there's a set formula. I think it's just whatever works for whichever group of people.
ASTRID: Now, tell me about your PhD, obviously it's very, very different form of writing than both poetry and your essay collections. What was your topic?
FIONA: I was writing about poetry in suburbia, so like two of my favourite things and I was looking at the work of Gwen Howard and Dorothy Porter who were both … at the time I just chose them because they were both poets that I knew I loved and that I knew wrote about cities and suburbs and domesticity in very different ways, but I also realized pretty quickly that one of the things I loved about them was that they both wicked, wicked women. You know, rule breakers, and cheeky, and funny in their poems, and they both had kind of really interesting and complicated relationships with suburbs and with the idea of domesticity.
ASTRID: So is that where you got some of the ideas or the impetus for The World Was Whole, which in a way it felt to me as a reader, very place-based and exploring the world around you yet still intimately tied to you.
FIONA: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's funny that I've always had that interest in suburbs and in place and I think in The World Was Whole, I was really trying to understand why place and homes are so fascinating to me. You know, in the PhD I was looking more I think at the ways suburbs are written about in Australian literature. That I think they're really interesting that people tend to either talk about them as these terrible places of conformity, and gossip, and dullness, stultifying houses all the same in a row or as these really honourable, beautiful, lovely places and there's not much complexity to either of those pitches. So I was kind of interested in looking at things that sort of messed about with that. And in a way, I think that comes from growing up where I did in the southwest of Sydney, which is a strange part of the world. And the early work I did as a writer a lot of the very first kind of ... t he first writers group I was involved in and a lot of the first kind of mainstream literary publications, if that's not completely oxymoronic were around this kind of project that we were all doing there of writing in and about and from western Sydney, and that projects continued and there's been writers like Luke Carmen, and Felicity Castagna, Peter Pilates come out of that sort of work and it's continuing on with new generations and focusing especially on kind of more marginalized people, which is terrific. But yeah, I think that really kind of ... so much of what we were doing there was centered in place and so it's kind of been this ongoing fascination for me.
ASTRID: All of your work is very personal. Do you tell people that you've written about them?
FIONA: This time around I tried to. Yeah, I still don't know how to manage that properly. You know, I think it's such a fraught thing and I think I learned more about it each time. You know, some people love it, some people love being written about, some people would really rather you didn't, you know, and my approach has always been that you can't censor yourself while you're writing or you just won't write at all. You've got to do that work afterwards. I've tried to be as careful as I could and I tried to think through every single possibility that I could, but I can never tell if that's as exhaustive as I've hoped it is.
ASTRID: So, for those listening to us who might be writing memoir or a creative non-fiction with people that they know, what do you recommend they consider? Like how do you go about this?
FIONA: Yeah, I make sure I'm never nasty, which is actually, you know, it's not a hard thing because I'm not a vindictive person or at least don't like to think I am, and I try to think of particular sensitivities that I know people in my life have and to sort of stay away from those. I have a point of everyone’s pseudonymous anonymized and they're composite characters and change details and all that sort of stuff. So plausible deniability. But I think it's also really great to have conversations with people. It's very hard to do. I find it incredibly hard to do because it makes me feel much more vulnerable. And the other thing, which is also a garnerism I think is that I'm probably much harder on myself than I am on anybody else, and that's not really an ethical position. It's more to do with the sort of person I am, but I like to think that I don't subject anyone to the sort of scrutiny or gaze or anything like that, that I wouldn't also do to myself.
ASTRID: Do you talk them through it or do you literally show them the words?
FIONA: I've showed people bits of it, I've talked other people through it, sort of depending on person to person.
ASTRID: My final question, and I guess it's a long one; you now have this experience of writing well, we can summarize as memoir, although it's more complicated than that, that does put you out there. For writers thinking about doing that, I guess, what are the ramifications that they might want to consider before they do?
FIONA: Yeah, that's a really good question. My top tip on that front would be probably don't put your face on the front.
ASTRID: So for listeners Fiona Wright's face is on the very front cover of a Small Acts of Disappearance.
FIONA: And that meant that people would recognize me, not in a kind of famous sense, but like, people in bookshops, people who work in bookshops will be like, ‘oh, I know who you are,’ or like people who are writers specs and be like, ‘oh, I know who you are.’ And it kind of was a bit disconcerting. Some of the effects of the books have been really great in some respect that I think in Small Acts in particular, a lot of things it says were things that I wasn't actually able to say and that clarified things for a lot of people in my life which was really great, they just sort of got it in a way that they might not have before hand and that was really exciting and really useful.
ASTRID: So, that was, I guess the positive. In terms of the negative I mean, is there anything you want to take back?
FIONA: I don't think … I mean there's things I'd do differently, things I'd write differently, but that's always the case, right? Like there's always things you'd change but I've been lucky I haven't really had negative experiences with the books yet. But I mean, you know, which is great and I feel very glad that's happened. I think yeah, when...
ASTRID: I didn't mean to ask a leading question, I was just generally...
FIONA: Yeah I know I was just trying to think ... I mean I had a hard time after Small Acts came out, but a lot of that was just about being too busy for my own good and kind of, I like to call it ‘being promoted.’ Being promoted from an emerging writer to, I guess an emerged writer or a developing writer or whatever it is at the next step, but it felt like I knew how to do emerging writer very well. And then developing writer was a whole new ballgame and I didn't quite have the same grounding in that and it's taken a while to figure out how to play by those rules instead, which again, is a lovely consequence but it was confusing.
ASTRID: So, what's the difference?
FIONA: At first it was mostly sort of people were asking me to do things rather than me constantly asking people if they'd pay me to do things. And you know, I think your confidence builds with that too, that's really lovely. Part of that of course means learning to say no to more things. Yeah, just the sort of hustle side of things becomes easier, which is really lovely, and I wish it were that way from the very beginning.
ASTRID: So, Fiona what's next?
FIONA: Oh, I don't know.
ASTRID: You don't know?
FIONA: It's funny I've got some friends who always have like three or four projects on the boil and like, ‘I might write this book or I might write this book, or I want to write a book about this’ and I'm like, I just put all of my ideas into a book and I'm going to read in the sun for a while.’
ASTRID: That is a fair call. Fiona, thank you so much for coming on The Garret.
FIONA: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.