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Writing the Domestic

Published 25th June, 2018 in MRP Guest Blogger
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By February next year, I will hopefully have my first book, After the Party, out in the world. I still find it hard to believe and, occasionally, I look at my signed contract with Harlequin to confirm that it’s true.

When friends ask what it’s about, I give them my elevator pitch. ‘It’s about a five year old’s party that goes terribly wrong.’

‘Like The Slap?’

‘Like The Slap meets I Don’t Know How She Does It.’

In other words, After the Party is nothing like The Slap, except that there’s an incident with a child. It’s also nothing like the short stories I’ve written which could generally be termed literary fiction.

After the Party is fun. There’s romance and mystery. The characters are larger than life. I wrote it to entertain – both myself and an audience. It contains situations and settings that I know and understand.

It’s the story I should have written five years ago, instead of wallowing my way through two other manuscripts which, quite frankly, were quite sad and serious and deservedly went nowhere in the publishing world.

They weren’t me. I wrote them because they were what I thought I was supposed to be writing.

In my last post, I wrote of how valuable the study of creative writing was to me. The degree focused quite heavily on the short story, a form which I’d never read much before. We studied the greats – alive and dead – Barth, Lawson, Joyce, Munro, Proulx and Hemingway. They were both illuminating and intimidating. Easy to admire but difficult to relate back to my own life, rooted, as it is so heavily, in the domestic sphere.

My ‘a-ha’ moment came when I read Peter Goldsworthy’s ‘Jesus Wants me for a Sunbeam,’ the story of two parents, struggling to deal with their daughter’s terminal illness.

I can count on one hand the number of times a book has brought me to tears. This story made me weep. For all aspiring writers, it’s a masterclass in restraint. For a parent of young children, as I was at the time, it’s a completely gut-wrenching read.

From here, I set about discovering other contemporary Australian short story writers and my search led me straight to Cate Kennedy, and her short story collection Like a House on Fire.

Just as Goldsworthy had opened my mind to the possibility of a ‘big’ story in a domestic setting, Kennedy’s stories awoke in me a fascination with the small moments. Her ability to elevate micro-events into fine literature, full of pathos and worthy of note, is unsurpassed.

Suddenly, I realized that the ordinary could also be the sublime, and that my small, domestic life and its preoccupation with parenting was worthy of literary representation and exploration. It was simply a matter of trying to see it with fresh eyes.

At that point, I was still very much hooked by the idea that, to be affecting, fiction needed to be serious.

Then I read Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.

A wise university lecturer once told me that, for an aspiring writer, a beloved book could be a treasure and a best friend. For this lecturer, that book was Carol Shield’s Larry’s Party, a novel she dissected it word by word to work out how it succeeded so well.

For me, that book is Big Little Lies. I like to consider myself an early-Moriarty-adopter. I’d read her work a long time before Hollywood came knocking and the books attracted global bestseller status. While her books are set firmly in the domestic realm, they are enjoyed by women and men alike. Moriarty addresses serious subject matter – domestic violence, assault, single parenthood, bullying – but she does so with a light touch. Her characters have extraordinary depth, thanks in part to an abundance of back story which is usually considered a no-no in popular fiction. The social commentary is spot-on, yet it never comes across as mean or snarky because Moriarty comes to the page with empathy and compassion.

So far, I’ve seen little media analysis of how Liane Moriarty has changed the landscape of Australian fiction, but I have no doubt that she has. For one, it has made publishers aware (again) that fiction with a domestic Australian setting is not necessarily a barrier to international success. In 2015, Moriarty had three books on the New York Times Best Seller List – a feat achieved by no other Australian author.

But what genre is it? Domestic suspense? Mystery? Women’s fiction? Comedy? It has elements of all these, again, smashing the conventional notion that fiction must be neatly pigeonholed in order to be marketable.

For me, the Moriarty phenomenon has had a more personal effect – it’s been a sense of gaining permission to be myself as a writer, in all its contradictions. Funny and serious. Worried about Syria and Saturday’s netball game. A fan of ‘The Voice’ and ‘4 Corners’. Pragmatic and romantic. A woman who believes in happily ever after, but not love at first sight. A lover of literary AND commercial fiction. (Yes, publishers. We do exist).

And now, a writer of both, too.

Cassie Hamer is a Sydney-based writer whose short fiction has been published by Black Inc, Margaret River Press and Mascara Literary Review. Her debut novel, After the Party, will be published in 2019 by Harlequin. For more, go to CassieHamer.com.

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