Melissa Ferguson’s debut novel The Shining Wall was released earlier this year. Melissa is a medical research scientist with a graduate certificate in human nutrition. She likes to explore scientific possibilities through fiction. Her short stories and creative non-fiction have been published in lots of places that pay very little money.
When I reviewed her astonishing speculative fiction for Aurealis magazine a couple of months ago, I used words like grounded and observant, accessible and engaging. I was utterly transfixed by the premises in the storyline, so frighteningly futuristic and so devastatingly apt for today’s world. I’m looking forward to reading more from this Australian writer and very pleased to have her on board for today’s Last Word of the Week.
Welcome, Melissa, it’s so lovely to meet you. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Melissa: Access to affordable healthcare (as well as accurate health and nutrition information) are very important to me. I worked in medical research for many years (cancers and infectious diseases) and also completed a graduate certificate in human nutrition. I’ve also been a patient in the public system myself (two babies and Hodgkin’s lymphoma). And I have two children, one with allergies and asthma. The possibility of Australian healthcare being eroded until it resembles that of the United States terrifies me. I see people on social media crowd-funding for their treatment and paying ridiculous prices for medications such as insulin and epipens. I can think of nothing worse. There are many themes in my novel The Shining Wall, but access to affordable healthcare is the most important one to me.
Oh, interesting, because there are so many fascinating themes in your book. I’m a huge fan of the Neo Neandertal/Sapien contrast that you explore, reflecting so many historic instances of some people being seen, and treated, as lesser than others. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
There’s one scene in The Shining Wall where the stories of all three point-of-view characters converge briefly at one of the city gates. The repercussions of that chance meeting have profound impacts on each of their stories. Angling the different threads of the story towards this convergence and then playing it out was a lot of fun and very satisfying.
And it’s really well done, IMHO. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
I think all the characters in The Shining Wall would be quite relieved. They’d probably also wonder why I hadn’t created a kinder imaginary world for them. There’s a lot of weird consciousness stuff going on in the manuscript I’m working on at the moment. Those characters would probably be resigned to the nature of reality being an illusion.
Relieved! That’s an excellent response ! Now, can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
I was always writing as a child. I was very into fantasy stories and fairy tales. I stopped writing to pursue science in my late teens and I didn’t take up writing again until I was in my thirties and had had my first child. The first things I wrote were short misery and motherhood memoir/realistic fiction pieces. Then I found Margo Lanagan’s books (Sea Hearts and Tender Morsels) and I wrote a fantasy novel with witches, selkies, dragons, man-eating trees, fighting bears and all sorts of fun fantastical stuff. While I was writing that I discovered Octavia E Butler and decided science fiction was for me.
Some other books that have influenced my writing include The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, Into the Forest by Jean Hegland, Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, The Power by Naomi Alderman, and Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, The Road to Nowhere series by Meg Elison, and Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.
The character of Alida in The Shining Wall was influenced by some of my favourite female characters in fiction including, Mirii from Marlee Jane Ward’s Orphancorp books, Devi Morris from Rachel Bach’s Paradox series, and Temple from The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell.
Oooh, thank you, there are a couple of new ones there for me. I love to hear about undiscovered treasures to chase. They sound excellent. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Ten years ago I’d just moved from Melbourne to Geelong, had left a job that saw me crying in the toilets on many occasions, was very pregnant with my second child, and very worried about my future career opportunities. If I could talk to that woman now I would say: ‘Your science career is going to fall flat on its face. Enjoy the time with your children and concentrate on your writing because that’s where most of your joy will come from.’ I would also maybe say: ‘No spoilers, but someday someone might even publish one of your books.’
Ooh, now I’m scared that I would adversely affect the future if I told past me too much!
Lucky you don’t write time travel then, eh? LOL. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
By the time I’d finished The Shining Wall I’d written three full-length novels in the space of five years. As a result, I felt the need to take on a more wieldy project. So during 2018 I wrote a novella, set in the world of The Shining Wall. The novella is out on submission at the moment (fingers crossed). I’m currently working on another story set on both a far-future, post-apocalyptic Earth and a distant planet colonized by a cult of humans. My plan is to keep exploring ideas that interest me with the hope that other people find them interesting too.
Lovely to hear that there’s more where The Shining Wall came from! And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I don’t think I could take the adrenaline of being a fictional character in the kinds of books I like to read. I like a quiet life. I would have to read some slow-paced realistic/literary fiction to find a suitable answer for this one (it’s not going to happen!).
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