Melanie Cheng

Posted on Posted in Interview, Literary fiction, Melanie Cheng, Short story, Writer

Melanie Cheng is a writer and general practitioner of Chinese-Australian heritage.

Melanie was awarded the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2016 for the manuscript that would become Australia Day. Australia Day, a collection of short stories, was published by Text Publishing and was awarded the the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2018.

Her writing has also appeared in The Age, Meanjin, Overland, Griffith Review, Visible Ink, Peril, The Victorian Writer and Seizure.

Related episodes:

  • Melanie is published by Text Publishing, and mentions Michael Heyward, her editor.
  • Melanie also mentions the impact The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas has had on her writing.

TRANSCRIPT

Nic: Melanie Cheng's collection of short stories, Australia Day, has been lauded by critics and public alike. In just 18 months, or so, it went from winning the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript to being published and winning the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Fiction. Success can't be that easy, can it? Let's find out. Melanie, welcome to the Garret.
Melanie: Thank you for having me.
Nic: Can you believe what's happened to you?
Melanie: Not really. [Laughter]
Nic: Not really?
Melanie: Since the Unpublished Manuscript Award, it's really just been quite a rollercoaster. But a very good one, of course. But prior to that, it was nine or ten years of just hard slog.
Nic: Tell me about those nine years, and what it involved, and getting published.
Melanie: I started off not really intending to write a book. I think, I found that idea pretty daunting. So when I started out, I was writing stories. I think I started with the short stories, because I thought – wrongly of course – that short stories were easier to write.
Nic: Yes, yes.
Melanie: Not that they're harder to write than a novel, because I'm in the midst of trying to write a novel, and it's still very difficult as well.
Nic: We'll talk about that later. Good.
Melanie: But they are not… They require different skills. They require just as much hard work, I think.
Nic: Absolutely.
Melanie: So initially I was just writing for my own amusement, and to process some of the things I was seeing in my work as a GP. And then I had... you have beginner's luck, I guess.
Nic: So… You say it was to process what you've seen as a GP. Did you consider writing, or wanting to be a writer, before you were a GP? Or are they intricately...?
Melanie: I've always loved reading and writing since high school.
Nic: Ok, ok.
Melanie: It was always one of those things. You get to year 11 or 12, and you... Well, I did. I grew up in Hong Kong, and I did the English school system, and you had to narrow down your subjects and decide quite early on which path you were going take. Was it the creative path, was it the science path? And there wasn't really a lot of allowance to do a bit of both. I did keep doing English literature until the end of school, and loved it. But at some point I had to make that decision about what I was gonna do at uni. And I did really enjoy the sciences as well. So it was a difficult decision to make. I think my Dad helped me a bit by saying, all right, it could be a good...
Nic: Hobby.
Melanie: Hobby, a backup plan. But you really need something that's going to earn a bit of money. He's a very practical, Chinese father. And I'm grateful now, because it has worked out for me.
Nic: You do both. It's wonderful. So tell me then, working as a GP, the inspiration for stories, did they come from particular characters or particular incidents? Or just entering a world populated by these interesting people everywhere?
Melanie: I think, general practice in particular is all about stories. People come in and tell you their stories. And sometimes their stories, they've never told anyone else. And that struck me as quite a privilege, and I don't take that for granted. I don't write about specific patients, but after a while of seeing people, you see some commonality of experience. One thing that struck me in particular was the loneliness. And to be fair, of the people that come to a GP regularly, probably lonely people are overrepresented in that group.
Nic: Yeah. Of course.
Melanie: But I also thought it was a bit of a symptom of the individualistic society we have, in Australia particularly. So I wanted to explore some of those themes, I guess, by writing.
Nic: Ok. So you were writing individual stories. At what point did you try and become published?
Melanie: Yeah. So it started off, as I said, as amusement, and then it became a bit a part of my routine almost. And I found that if I hadn't written for two or three weeks I got a bit agitated. So I felt like I needed it, and then it became a bit of a compulsion, almost. And then I started trying my luck in competitions and journals. And it was probably a strike rate of, I don't know, 1 in 20 or something, that would maybe make a shortlist.
Nic: Strike rate. It's a hard world. Some people would die for that strike, right?
Melanie: So every so often getting that validation was just enough to keep me going with it. So really the idea of a collection didn't really come to the fore until I saw the call out for that Unpublished Manuscript Award that year. And I saw Maxine Beneba Clarke and Jennifer Down were the judges. And I just thought, I don't want to miss that opportunity, those judges are short-story writers and writers I greatly admire, I just really wanted to be in the mix.
Nic: Did you put together the 14 stories you had, the only ones you had? Or did you curate it?
Melanie: I have to say, most of the stories I had went into the manuscript. There were a few that I didn't include because I was too embarrassed.
Nic: [Laughter]
Melanie: They were just not quite up to scratch. But even when I submitted it, I didn't feel completely happy with that manuscript. It was raw, but having submitted to multiple competitions, I knew you got to be in it to win it, and I just wanted to get in there.
Nic: Some of the stories were published along the way, isn't that right?
Melanie: Yeah, some of them had.
Nic: So where were they published, and how did it feel to be published?
Melanie: I think, my first piece ever that was published, was not one that was included in that manuscript, but it was a non-fiction piece about my grandmother, and that was in Peril Magazine. I'd had publications in medical journals and things like that, even reflective pieces, but it was very different to being published in a literary online magazine. And that was a huge thrill for me. Then I had a few pieces published in the Griffith Review, and I think that was my next big break. And again, yeah, I lived off that for months afterwards, and then the rejections came.
Nic: [Laughter] People need that though, don't they?
Melanie: Yeah.
Nic: Those snatches of feelings of worth, because people have obviously enjoyed what you've done, is what keeps you going.
Melanie: Yeah. It's a real... It can be quite a lonely pursuit, because you're just writing, and it's plagued with self-doubt.
Nic: Where did you get support from, other writers? Did you know other writers at that stage? Where did you go for, to know that you were good? Did writing courses play a part? How did you know that it was worth pursuing?
Melanie: I would say I only really had real success after I made connections with other writers.
Nic: Supporting, yeah.
Melanie: I think for a long time I was writing stories, and I'd rewrite them myself. I was a bit too scared or embarrassed to show them to other people. But really, you do need that fresh set of eyes for the rewrite. And it was only once I started sharing my work, and then rewriting based on the feedback, that I started having some success.
Nic: What sort of people give the right sort of feedback? Because you can give it to some people, there's the old rule, never give it to your Mum or to your partner, because they either are going to be really good or really bad.
Melanie: Although I do know writers that do that.
Nic: Some do. Some do. But what sort of person gives good feedback, and what sort of person, without mentioning names, gave feedback that wasn't all that worthwhile?
Melanie: Yeah, I agree. For me personally, family and friends were not the right people.
Nic: [Laughter]
Melanie: I mean, often they’ll ask to read it, and then you'd meet them again, and they never mention your work again. And that was always… Either they haven't read it, or they've read it and they hated it.
Nic: It's one or the other. It's one or the other.
Melanie: So I did a few Writers Victoria courses.
Nic: Fantastic.
Melanie: And I made some connections through them. I felt that, other people are hungry for the same kind of thing. So it was quite mutual, and it was great. Because these are people that you've met as a writer, and you're not really... You become friends with time, but it's writers first and friends later. So you can be quite critical of each other's work, and I found that to be hugely beneficial.
Nic: Were you good at receiving criticism, because it's not easy, is it?
Melanie: I think training in medicine helped, quite brutal in their criticism. [Laughter]
Nic: It could always be a lot worse than just someone telling me my sentence is crap, can't it?
Melanie: Yeah. That's right. I mean, it is hard. And also, you don't have to take all the criticism that people give you. I think you learn also, if you feel strongly about something, then there may be a reason for that.
Nic: Yes. Yes. That's a good point.
Melanie: Yeah. And also, if one person loves it and one person hates it, then clearly it may be a matter of taste. But if you send it around to three or four people and they all feel that there's one particular thing...
Nic: That's it.
Melanie: That's not working, then I think...
Nic: It always is.
Melanie: Yeah, it's a clue.
Nic: And it may well be that you're just not communicating what you think you're communicating, it doesn't necessarily mean the idea is bad, but it could just be that they're not getting what you're intrinsically getting in your mind because you've written it, and you know it and you're assuming, they're getting it.
Melanie: That's right. And what I found was usually, when they pointed out something, it was something that I personally knew wasn't working. So the majority of the time that was the case.
Nic: How long, is there an average time you could say that it took you to write a short story, from the time you sat down to the time it was finished? Is it something that can be done in two weeks or a month? Or does it take eight months for you to really polish it, and...?
Melanie: Yeah, I feel like I'm quite a slow writer. So I couldn't say for sure. Some of the pieces, like the longest piece in the book, the novella, I'd been tinkering with that for probably eight or nine years.
Nic: Yeah.
Melanie: So I'm quite attached to that piece for that reason. For me, none of the stories in it were just something I wrote down in a couple of hours or in a week. There was a lot of work and rewriting for all of them. And what would often happen is, I'd submit to a competition or a journal, I would get rejected, and then I'd think, ‘That's not working, maybe I'll look back at it again’. So, it was this iterative process over months and months and maybe years before the finished product.
Nic: You say you put it in for the Unpublished Manuscript Award. Those awards are usually, in my mind, it's usually for novels, not necessarily collections of short stories. Did that bother you? Did you think, maybe I shouldn't be putting this in? Because it's quite unusual, isn't it? Most people are writing a novel. Or they write short stories and have them published, but don't think they'd put them together as a collection or put them in for something like that.
Melanie: Yeah. I think I was encouraged mainly by Maxine Beneba Clarke's Foreign Soil. I think with that one, I thought, well, maybe...
Nic: The floodgates are open.
Melanie: There is something. No! But there was hope. There was hope, I think. And then seeing those judges being short story writers, I thought, if ever a short story has a chance, maybe it will be for that year. But it is unusual. And even now, I do that thing, and I go to Goodreads and read some reviews, which authors are not meant to do. And a lot of people preface it with ‘I don't normally like short stories’. So people have often made up their mind that short stories are not for them.
Nic: And then short stories seem to be your forte at this point of your career, but we'll talk about novel later. There's 14 of them in Australia Day, 14 wonderful stories. Some people find it hard to come up with Come up with one idea, let alone to come up with 14 stories. Is it solely...? Did they all come from your experience as a GP, or do they come from all sorts of areas?
Melanie: No, they come from all sorts of areas. I mean… My husband read the book, and he will see the things from real life that kind of feature up as little details. And when they occurred to you at that time, you don't even know that they are significant to you or that they might appear in a story later on. It's kind of magical in that sense, I think.
Nic: So how do you recognise that an idea is going to be good for a story? Are there many things that happen in your life every day...
Melanie: Oh, no. My life is rather boring.
Nic: How do you know, which ones… Do you have a light bulb moment to go, ah, short-story idea?
Melanie: I think sometimes you do have, it's often something somebody says to you, or maybe a little nugget that you... I've started writing those kinds of things down. A lot of the other details that emerge as you write, kind of as an organic thing, that's just something that happens in the process. But, yeah, usually there's a seed of a story, and that comes from life, and that'll be just a moment in time.
Nic: Can you give us an example from one of the stories in Australia Day, and where you remember it coming from? If you remember where it came from.
Melanie: For instance, the title story, 'Australia Day', that is loosely based on my experiences as a medical student going to stay with rural GPs, which we had to do during our training. I did go and stay with a medical receptionist on their dairy farm, and at the time I wouldn't have known that was... I didn't know that was going to become a story. But that story is significant also because it's dealing with a cross-cultural relationship, which is between a male Chinese medical student, and who he wants to be his girlfriend, an Australian girl. And my own family came from that relationship, because my Mum grew up on a dairy farm in rural South Australia, and my Dad came from Hong Kong originally, and they met when they were young junior doctors together.
So I guess I wanted to explore that relationship, and coming to a new country, and meeting a family from a local... And the awkwardness around that, and the idea of being dislocated from your home country and what that felt like. And then, you delve into your past a bit then, when you start writing. Then I found that particular experience I had, as a junior doctor in that rural setting, and trying to mine that experience, and remembering what it was like.
Nic: Ok. Are you good at taking that real-life experience and then using your imagination to create a better story from it? Or do you really try and stick to... Pick the events in the stories that just going to make good stories on their own? How far do you let your imagination, the story go, from perhaps where it started? Are you willing to go a long way?
Melanie: I mean, that's the beauty of fiction, really, there's no limits.
Nic: No, that's right.
Melanie: I mean, you want it to seem truthful and authentic still, but I think you can do that and still stretch the story. So it's very hard to say where I end... there's bits of me in all of these stories. I guess you're not limited like you are with a non-fiction memoir piece within the boundaries of what actually happened. So you can enhance and elaborate some of the themes through details, and that's part of the fun of it as well, I think.
Nic: Sure. Ok. Few collections of short stories – that I have read, at least – represent the diversity of Australia so well. I mean, in so many ways you talk about rural, and city, and obviously cultural backgrounds. It really reflects the real face of Australia. Was that always your intention? You wanted to make sure that the book did that?
Melanie: Initially, no. Again, a lot of the stories were written as stand-alone stories. I guess it was just by virtue of the fact that I worked in a very diverse community that I ended up populating my stories with diverse characters. It wasn't so deliberate or premeditated initially. Definitely when it came to editing and adding stories and cutting stories out, that did become a feature and a theme of the collection. So then it became a more deliberate thing. But initially, no. I think I was just writing about the people around me.
Nic: So did other people's feedback prompt you to go down that path? Or was it something that you just recognised yourself?
Melanie: Obviously I chose a controversial title.
Nic: You did. I wanted to ask you that.
Melanie: And I put...
Nic: So tell me why.
Melanie: A controversial…
Nic: Why is it controversial? Tell me why you think it's controversial?
Melanie: Well, the reason I chose that title... it can be taken quite literally.
Nic: Yes, that's right.
Melanie: Because there's the two stories that flank the stories are both set on Australia Day, so it can be taken from that point of view. But obviously, this tension around the date, and what are we celebrating? And what is Australian values, is something that's really gaining momentum in our national discourse.
Nic: And that's why I asked before, because it seems now like the complete package, and it seems as if it was planned that way all along. But obviously not.
Melanie: Not really, no. When I chose the title, that was before all of this momentum had really gathered pace. I mean, the day was always something that was controversial, but it was really quite exciting to see all the changes that have happened. And I wrote this story about the Uluru climb, and then the Uluru Statement came out as well, so it was great to see that we are progressing and making changes as a result of these kind of discussions.
Nic: What sort of changes took place to the stories, either individually or to the collection of them, from the time it won the Unpublished Manuscript to when you filed? You then had the input of editors and publishers, and they were getting you ready for publication. Did they demand... Demand is probably the wrong word, but did they ask for particular changes? Did you then get some feedback on particular stories? Or did it just go, ‘Wow, this is so good, we're just going to put it out there, word for word?’
Melanie: Oh, no. Not at all.
Nic: I didn't think so. Publishers don't do that.
Melanie: No. I really enjoyed the editing process actually.
Nic: Ok.
Melanie: I'd heard horror stories from other writers, and things, but I really loved it. I think, all I'd been craving for so long was an editor. As we discussed, I'd show it to writer friends. But as people get busy, it's a favour they're doing for you by reading your work and taking time away from their own writing. So to have an editor that's paid to read your work, and make it the best it can possibly be, was really wonderful. And I feel that we were on a very similar wavelength.
Michael Heyward, the publisher, he didn't give too much direction, really. He gave me more freedom. In our meetings he'd say, ‘You're no longer constraint by word count’. I guess he knew, having submitted to competitions and journals, that there's often a word count. And that can be quite an arbitrary or limiting thing to a story. Really, you should finish the story when the story finishes, not just stop at 3,000 words.
Nic: And then find the competition to put it in.
Melanie: Yeah, exactly. But of course, realistically, we often find the competition first, and write to it. So he gave me that freedom to say, ‘Look, write some long stories. We like your longer stuff. So see if you can write a few longer stories and have freedom with it’. So that was really liberating, and I really enjoyed that. So for instance, 'Fracture', which is one of the longer stories in the collection, that was initially a very short story. It had Deepak in it, but none of the other characters, and I actually wanted to scrap it in the editing process. It was my editor who said, look, there's something there. At that point Deepak was interacting with another migrant, but not Tony, who's in the story now. And she was saying a really good point, which I hadn't thought of, that we don't get a lot of stories of migrants interacting with other migrants. It's often...
Nic: Good point, yeah.
Melanie: It is often a story of a white Australian interacting with a migrant, and it's about that. But realistically, on an everyday basis, we're all migrants interacting with migrants. So I liked that, and I did always like Deepak as a character. So it was through that editing process that that story came into being. It was really just a little, tiny seed.
Nic: So, the original manuscript had how many stories?
Melanie: Oh, gosh, now you're testing me. I think, probably similar. It might have been 15 or 16 stories, and it did include some flash fiction.
Nic: Ok.
Melanie: I kind of threw a lot of things in there. And when I went back and read it because there wasn't a lot of flash fiction, it just wasn't fitting, it was jarring. There was a couple of stories about elderly widows, for instance, and I felt like they weren't adding to anything that the Muse story had, for instance. So there was a bit of redundancy there, so I scrapped those stories as well. And again, most of the time my editor, when she came back and said, ‘I'm not sure about including this one’, it was usually one that I was thinking as well, it's not so great.
Nic: So in the past when you've written stories, how many stories have you started and thrown away? And is there a common thread, any reasons for rejecting them? Or does every one of them become a story?
Melanie: I think I often will finish a draft of stories. And at that stage, when you go back to rewrite, you may abandon them at that point. But often it takes a lot longer for me to realise that a story is no good. [Laughter] So I might rewrite it quite a few times, I'll submit it quite a few times, and then sit on it for a while, come back to it, and it's with that passage of time that you really get that fresh perspective. And there's some stories that, I'm just embarrassed frankly.
Nic: But how heartbreaking is it to do all that work...
Melanie: I know.
Nic: And that’s what it’s about, with writing the hardest thing is to get rid of the parts that you've spent time on.
Melanie: Kill your darlings.
Nic: It's harder to kill your darlings than to write, isn't it?
Melanie: Yeah, it is painful. But I think you're always learning through the process of the writing. That's the truth.
Nic: Sure. That's the nicest thing. That’s how you justify it…
Melanie: Well, you don't know. I think, for instance with this story 'Australia Day', I've written lots of other stories about overseas students. I'd even started a full-length manuscript of that and abandoned it after about 10,000 words. So it was clearly something that interests me.
Nic: Right. Yeah, of course.
Melanie: So I think probably I learned through the process of writing those other failed stories how to write Stanley's character, for instance.
Nic: Yes. So the question that lots of people are going to want to be answered is, how on earth as a GP and a Mum you find time to write? When do you write, how do you write? Do you have a daily word limit? Do you go days without doing it? I mean, wow.
Melanie: Yeah. I'm asking myself that question lately. I think before I was published it was pretty easy, because...
Nic: There's no pressure.
Melanie: [Laughter] There was no pressure, so it was kind of a release for me. But certainly after being published it's much more difficult, and there is more pressure. But it can be easier in some ways, in that you feel justified in the time that you take to do it. Friends and family respect it when you say, ‘Can you please babysit for me this night, because I have to do this writing event?’ It's different now that I'm a published author than when it's just a ‘hobby’, in quotation marks. And I have carved out time that's kind of protected writing time now.
Nic: Daily or when you can, daily?
Melanie: I have a day a week where I'm not working. I work part-time at the clinic, so that's okay.
Nic: Oh, that makes it easier. I'm only a part-time doctor. [Laughter]
Melanie: It does. So, yeah. I have a writing day, and a couple of afternoon sessions where I can write as well.
Nic: And you write at home?
Melanie: I try not to write at home, because I find I get very distracted with cleaning, or other things. I don't know why.
Nic: Sure. That's terrible. That's the last thing in the world I'd get distracted by.
Melanie: Oh, really? I find, with other writers as well, I love writing, and I get agitated when I don't write. But then I find all these other excuses not to write.
Nic: That is true. That is true. So where do you write?
Melanie: Libraries and cafés.
Nic: Tell me what you can about the novel you're working on. And you mentioned before, there is a difference between working on short stories and novels. What primarily are those differences?
Melanie: I think particularly the time. With the short stories I found having a couple of hours here and there was quite fine for short stories. You can reread your story in 10, 15 minutes, and get back to where you were at. Whereas with a novel, it's quite different. I was finding, I'd want to reread, to get myself immersed in it, and then my time was up again. I wasn't making much headway at all.
Nic: Then you forget so much the chronology is going to be totally wrong.
Melanie: Yeah. So I found that's a bit more of a blind faith with the novel. And I took advice from other writers about that, and just get the words down. So I reread the last few paragraphs of what I've written and then try and get into it quickly, and then extend the manuscript, because I do write in that kind of linear fashion. That's the way I've always written, scene by scene. But I find you do need longer stretches of time with a novel, and there is that kind of blind faith, that with short stories you have a better idea of how things are going.
Nic: Of course. Yes. I guess you probably need to know with a short story... It's probably more important to know exactly where you're going than it is with a novel. Is that right? Or do you find you need to know for both? Or maybe you don't need to know at all.
Melanie: Normally when I write... In all other aspects of my life I'm a planner, but when it comes to writing, I'm a bit of a pantser.
Nic: Oh, really? That's surprising me. Okay, there you go. You've surprised me. Nice to hear.
Melanie: I might have a sense of an ending, for instance, and I have an opening scene, but in between I don't have much idea. I think that's what keeps it interesting for me. I enjoy that finding out what's going to happen as it happens.
Nic: So when you're writing a novel, and you looking for – let's say, in your work as a GP – are you looking for stories to put in there? Are you looking for characters? Oh, that character, that story, that's fantastic. I can use that.
Melanie: No, not so much. It's just happened that in the novel I'm writing there is a character not dissimilar to Stanley, who's an overseas student. And it just happened... I'd written the synopsis and everything and submitted it to Text, and something happened at my work, where I was previously working at Community Health, and I decided it wasn't for me. And I've subsequently moved to the University Health Service, so now a lot of my patients are overseas students, and it seems deliberate, but it really wasn't. But it has been great, in that I have now insight into that world, which is really helping with the development of the character.
Nic: At what point did you have the idea for the novel? Was it before you wrote some of these stories? Is it an idea you've had for a long time, or did it spring from one of these stories? Or just subsequently to this you came across another Stanley?
Melanie: I'd like to say that it has been brewing in my mind for ages. But the reality is, with my agent that I acquired after the award, she said, ‘It would be really good to have a novel idea to submit with the short stories when we go to publishers’. So within a night I wrote the synopsis, and I haven't told Text. You heard it first on The Garret podcast.
Nic: Oh, wow. Is that agent Clare Foster?
Melanie: Yes. [Laughter]
Nic: I thought it might be. Thank heavens for agents, or curse them.
Melanie: Look, I had had this kind of idea, but either didn't know whether it was going to be a story, or a novella, or whatever. So I sat down and nutted it out, and it gave me this urgency to nut it out. I know, from synopsis to novel, sometimes people change quite a lot, but actually mine hasn't that much. So perhaps it was a good thing that I just blurted it all out onto the page and it wasn't hindered by too much thought. It just kind of flowed. But I don't know, it might be terrible. I need to go back and read it.
Nic: I'm sure not. What's the worst part of writing for you, the thing you find the hardest?
Melanie: I think, that first draft is so hard to get down, I think.
Nic: Why is that?
Melanie: I like rewriting.
Nic: Okay. That's interesting.
Melanie: I enjoy editing and rewriting. I just find that first draft is just painful.
Nic: I've spoken to writers for whom that is the pleasure. They're just like, this is the creative process...
Melanie: Oh, wow. Really?
Nic: And then it just comes down to hard work. So that's interesting.
Melanie: I think, perhaps because I've got perfectionist traits.
Nic: And you need to. If that's what you have, then that makes total sense.
Melanie: So I enjoy the perfecting process, and when I'm writing the first draft, I know, this is a bit rubbish, this is a bit rubbish, but I just got to get it down. So the messiness of the first draft, I find that the most difficult thing. Once I finished it, I look forward to going back and finessing it.
Nic: And do things change a fair bit? I mean, as you get to know your characters more, are there instances where you thought, oh, they wouldn't have done what I've got them doing, so I've got to change this completely? Does that happen?
Melanie: Yeah, definitely. A lot. And I've learned so much from my editor actually, how thorough you have to be. And I'm finding when I'm writing the novel, it's almost like I've got an editor's voice in my head now that I didn't use to have. There's a scene in the collection where someone is watching Apocalypse Now, and my editor was saying, ‘Well, that movie wouldn't be on at eight o'clock. That's not the right time. And that movie goes for this length, so when you say, the movie finished at...
Nic: My goodness.
Melanie: This time, it would be this time of evening.’ When you're writing, you don't think of these things. You're kind of just going with the flow. Just that thoroughness, I didn't realise so much went into editing a book.
Nic: Those things matter, because for readers, if they read something that is inconsistent such as that, you've lost their trust at that moment.
Melanie: Oh, yeah. And I've had that experience myself reading books, especially with medical things.
Nic: There you go. Exactly. Whatever you know.
Melanie: I'd be reading something, and then something was inaccurate anatomically or something, and then it just jars you.
Nic: Totally.
Melanie: And it totally brings you out of the...
Nic: Totally. You lose faith in the writer.
Melanie: Yeah, because you are on this... It's this magical thing, and you're suspending belief for a little while, and then it's very jarring to remove you from that. And suddenly you're very acutely aware that you're just reading a piece of prose.
Nic: How far into the novel are you now?
Melanie: I've got the first draft.
Nic: You've got the first draft done.
Melanie: So I'm doing the more fun part for me now, going back and rereading and rewriting.
Nic: And tell me about that pressure, that added pressure, more the work pressure. And you hear it all the time, a writer might spent six, seven, eight years on getting their first one published, and suddenly their damn agent and their damn publisher want another one within two years. Do you have to change your process to try and deliver on that? Because it'll be great to have another eight years, wouldn't it? But you don't, right?
Melanie: No, exactly. Yeah.
Nic: So what changes had to be made?
Melanie: I think it was just a matter of incorporating some really fixed scheduled writing time instead of just taking it when I could, which is what I used to do. I think that's been the main difference. But writing to a deadline is very different.
Nic: We have some wonderful authors in Australia, of which you are now one of them. One of the celebrated award-winning writers. Who are some of your favourite Australian authors?
Melanie: From a short-story point of view, obviously I love Kate Kennedy, and Jennifer Down more recently. When I was growing up my Mum was terrified that I wouldn't know – because I grew up in Hong Kong – she was terrified I wouldn't know anything about Australia or Australian culture. So she bought me lots of Australian books, the classics like My Brilliant Career, and Nevil Shute books. So I grew up reading them, and loving them as well. But when I came to Australia, it was not that Australia that I saw. So Christos' The Slap was a big book for me to read, because it was, ‘Oh, wow, someone is writing about the Melbourne that I'm seeing in my work’. And I found that quite inspiring, really, because I hadn't seen that Melbourne represented.
Nic: It's interesting you say that, because Alex Miller described Christos as the Charles Dickens of Australia. When I asked him what that meant, he said, he writes about the world, the place we live in now, and the people that inhabit that place. So you found that, you did reflect.
Melanie: Yeah, definitely. It was kind of a light bulb moment for me. Obviously I'm writing the characters that I see, but I wasn't seeing them necessarily winning short-story competitions or other things. It was often still rural narratives, or bush narratives and things like that. And there is obviously this compulsion to just emulate that, so you can win something as well.
Nic: It doesn't work that way. You've got to write from the heart.
Melanie: Yeah, exactly.
Nic: Finally, and maybe you've mentioned one of these books. I'm going to say to you that you have just three books to take to a desert island. Which three books would you take, and why?
Melanie: You mentioned Dickens, and one of his works that, as a teenager I read and just loved for the immersive experience, was A Tale of Two Cities. That was a huge book for me, I think I read it at the right time. And one thing I really miss nowadays is that real immersive experience of reading that I had as an adolescent, which I don't really get anymore, because I can't just read constantly. There's so much of life to attend to, whereas obviously as a teenager you can in school holidays just read, and that's basically all that you do. So I remember that as a beautiful experience for me.
Another one, was also sentimental, but also is beautifully written is, is Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou. My best friend at high school bought me that book, it's a tiny little book. So that has a special place for me.
Nic: She can write so sweetly. I mean, she's just, the images she can conjure up are just extraordinary.
Melanie: And the rhythm of her words, beautiful.
Nic: Melanie, thank you so much for giving us some of your time, and most of all, telling us all about the way you go about writing these absolutely beautiful stories. I can't wait to read a novel. The one thing about the collection of short stories that annoyed me, is that each one left me wanting to know more about the characters and their lives. So a novel's going do that.
Melanie: Oh, thank you.
Nic: So thank you so much.
Melanie: No, no worries. It's been a pleasure, thank you.
Nic: Thank you.