I first met Meg Mundell during last summer’s Australian bushfire crisis – a virtual meeting as we looked around at the devastation of the land, livelihoods, homes, habitat and wildlife, and the deaths. We engaged in a group called Writing for the Environment. Now I’m speaking with Meg again, in the early stages of another unprecedented, life-changing event, this one the global Covid19 pandemic, now so close to everyone’s home.
Meg Mundell is a writer and academic. Born and raised in New Zealand, she lives in Melbourne with her partner and young son. Her second novel, The Trespassers was named Readings ‘Fiction Book of the Month’ for July 2019, and has been optioned for a TV series. Her first novel is the critically acclaimed Black Glass (2011), and Things I Did for Money (2013) is her debut short story collection.
Meg also runs the project ‘We Are Here’, using creative writing to explore understandings of place with people who have experienced homelessness (www.homelesswriting.org). She’s the editor of We Are Here: Stories of Home, Place & Belonging (Affirm Press, Nov 2019), a world-first collection of writings by people who have known homelessness.
A fascinating guest!
Welcome to Last Word of the Week, Meg. Can you tell me why writing is important to you?
MEG: Writing helps me to make sense of the world – the whole strange, confusing, wondrous and mysterious mess of existence. I also enjoy the craft of knocking out words, with all its frustrations and small satisfactions: the feeling of making something. Putting letters on the page, wrangling with a line, breathing life into a character, hacking out a parallel universe using the beautiful tool of language…it makes me feel alive.
How wonderful – great writing images there. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
It wasn’t a conscious decision, more something I just knew from very early on. There’s one vivid memory. When I was a preschooler my parents would sometimes take me to work with them, and at my dad’s workplace there was this room full of typewriters. I’d sit there for ages banging out misspelled words, just enjoying the sight of the letters slamming onto the page. One day my dad’s workmate poked his head in. “You’re very busy,” he said. “Are you going to be a secretary when you grow up?” I remember the question annoyed me. “No,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer.”
A secretary, LOL. How much research is involved in your writing?
A lot! I love research. But it’s easy to get sucked down wormholes. Sooner or later you have to stop researching, just dive in and write the damn thing. Working on my latest novel, The Trespassers (UQP 2019), I spent hours researching sailor’s tattoos, sea monster myths, marine pollution, Irish and Scottish slang, future fuel scenarios, pandemic containment strategies, bioterrorism, the psychology of germophobia… My browser history looked so dodgy: how long does a body take to rot at sea? What drug stops hallucinations? How do you kill someone with a crowbar?
Early on in the research process, I also visited the Point Nepean Quarantine Station, on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It’s an amazing site – beautiful, idyllic, but with this undercurrent of trauma, grief and sadness. Echoes of all the suffering this place has seen, especially in the immediate aftermath of its creation back in 1852. Visiting that site was a key moment that inspired me to write the novel.
Perfect preparation for the world we live in, too. I love your search history. What five words would best describe your style?
Vivid, pacey, voice-driven, multi-layered, empathic.
Great words. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
Crewed a boat from New Zealand to Australia in my 20s, with zero sailing experience and a sleazy cowboy of a captain who refused to let us wear life jackets. Two friends invited me along. For the whole nine days I was seasick, and so heavily dosed up on Scopolamine that I started hallucinating: I heard mermaids singing and had long conversations with flying fish.
Each of us did an 8-hour watch, steering over these huge ocean swells, 8 or 9 metres high at times, with only a thin wire clip-line connecting us to the boat. Out on the open sea, you’re nothing. Steering up and down those waves, trying to keep the boat upright, was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Sheer terror, but hugely exhilarating. That trip planted the first seeds of The Trespassers.
That sounds absolutely terrifying, but what a fantastic basis for a story. Congratulations on the TV option for The Trespassers, too. A thrilling achievement What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
Figure out a plan for my next book – non-fiction, I think. Publish some academic articles, a couple of essays, maybe some long-form journalism. And like always, write some dubious poetry nobody will ever lay eyes on.
It’s great that you have something just for you. I believe writers have private voices too. What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?
Covers matter a lot to me: my brain really latches on to images. So far I’ve been extremely lucky to have been allowed a lot of input on this front. I love the cover we ended up with for The Trespassers: that jellyfish is so eerily gorgeous, almost otherworldly. Menacing, but delicate too. It suggests so much.
Yes, it’s absolutely perfect. Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?
Places: their different moods and atmospheres, the things they’ve witnessed. Human beings: their words and actions, their hidden selves, the things they come up against and how they cope. Love and compassion: the way they’re thrown into stark relief during dark times. Injustice: things that make me angry. Dreams, memories, poems, photographs, paintings. Exploring old abandoned buildings. Glimpsing other lives through a train window. Words and phrases, mysterious patterns. A certain slant of light, a strange doorway, a word carved into a tree. A funny incident. It all goes into a big compost heap in my brain. It’s a mess in there, but there’s always material if you dig around.
That’s a beautiful piece of writing in itself – a prose poem about inspiration. Thank you! Do you write in more than one genre?
Always. In my fiction I like to plunder elements from different genres – literary fiction, thriller, crime, spec fic, even historical fiction. I tend to resist rigid categories, and enjoy playing with genre conventions – using those tools to create something slightly off-kilter, something fresh and hopefully surprising.
And succeeding. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Meg, and more power to your pen.
Buy links for Meg’s books:
Readings bookshops (free local delivery during pandemic: Carlton, Doncaster, Hawthorn, Malvern and St Kilda, VIC): https://www.readings.com.au/products/27274538/the-trespassers
Sun Bookshop (free local delivery during pandemic: Yarraville, VIC): https://shop.sunbookshop.com/details.cgi?ITEMNO=9780702262555