Q&A with Emily Maguire
Set mostly in steamy Hanoi, Emily Maguire's latest book centres on 35-year-old Mischa, an expat who has escaped the abusive husband that she married at a very young age. Surrounded by other expats who can't seem to function properly in their home countries, Mischa has been carving out a new life for herself. Albeit a celebate one. But that was until Cal, her friend's gorgeous 18 year-old son comes into the picture. What follows is a complex study of desire, relationships and finding yourself.
1. Mischa was abused in the worst possible way by her husband, and yet still believes that he loved her. And that sometime love hurts (disproving the common thought that if you truly love someone you won’t hurt them).What did you want to show about love, trust, relationships in the book?
I didn't set out to show anything in particular, but I'm always trying, in my fiction, to get to the guts of what it means to love someone. I don't only mean romantic love, though that's certainly a big part of it. But friendship and family are important here too. We all want to be loved and accepted, to feel known and safe and cherished, and yet so often the people we love hurt us or we hurt them. And it's rarely out of malice or cruelty. People inflict terrible damage on those they love through holding on too tightly or neglecting them at crucial moments or through simple carelessness. It's too simplistic to say that if someone hurts you they don't love you.
2 In a recent interview the author of How Should a Person Be, Sheila Heti, was asked about the graphic and often jarring sex in her book. Heti’s
response was that sex is sometimes very jarring and so the writing should be so too. The sex in your book is also quite graphic. Was it important
that the sex was more ‘real’ than say in a romance novel? The sex is obviously an important part of the book, at what point of writing the novel
did this become apparent?
This is, in part, a story about a woman jolted out of her complacency by sex. It's easy to forget, when not in the grip of a new or intense sexual attraction, that sex can turn a calm, sensible, morally righteous person into a greedy, dishonest, irresponsible one. Mischa finds it easy to be a good person until she meets Cal and then there's suddenly something she wants very, very badly and she's forced to admit that she might not be so moral after all.
Given how important sex is to the story, it would have been ridiculous to have cut away after the first kiss and then come back in the morning after. It's be like writing a story about someone changed by war but leaving out all of the battle scenes. As for how 'real' it is, well, the book is narrated by Mischa and so the sex has to be as she would describe it. She's a thirty-five year old woman who has survived a violent marriage and then been all but celibate for five years. If she sounded like a teenaged virgin in a romance novel or a cynical, worldly femme fatale it wouldn't ring true. She's equal parts vulnerable and predatory, lusty and guarded and I hope all that comes through.
3. Is it hard to write about sex? Why/why not?
No more difficult than writing about anything else. I mean, the mechanics of it can be tricky to describe, just as it can be tricky to describe a basketball match or fist fight without repeating the same few nouns and verbs over and over. But the which-bit-goes-where is only the scaffolding. There are layers of experience — physical, emotional, spiritual, historical, political — that contribute to our experience of sex and all those layers can go into a sex scene. They don’t all have to go into every sex scene, but they can. As a writer it’s really satisfying to take everything that a person is, all of their contradictions, all that is wonderful and all that is awful, and then smash that up against all that is awful and wonderful about a different human being.
5. You represent desire in a complex way in the book, it is sometimes ugly, sometimes overwhelming and sometimes beautiful. Why was it important
to write about desire in this way? Especially desire in an ‘older’ woman in an ‘unconventional’ relationship?
Again, it was important to stay true to the character of Mischa as it's her story. Her experience of desire is complicated; it's led to such unhappiness for her in the past. But also, this particular situation is a complicated one. Thirty-five in Australia is not old, but living in Vietnam, where almost half of the population is under 25, and with one marriage behind her, Mischa has come to think of herself as past it. She's also quite judgemental about the Western men her age who date much younger Vietnamese women. So on the one hand it's incredibly thrilling to her to be having all this hot sex with a gorgeous young bloke, but on the other, she's confronted with the vision of herself as being like those men who she sees as immoral or exploitative.
6. The sense of place in the book is deeply felt and astutely observed. Vietnam seems to be close to your heart. Why is this so? And why
do you think places move us so deeply? Is it memory? Connections made there? Associations?
I fell in love with Hanoi while on a three-month literary residency in 2008. I've travelled a fair bit and always find something to appreciate about wherever I am, but I've never felt anything like what I feel for that city. It makes no sense at all and yet there it is. I return as often as I can, and I keep expecting my passion to cool but it just deepens. I can't explain it though. It's wonderfully shocking how mysterious we sometimes are to ourselves.
7. Many of the characters in the book are something of broken birds.They are expats in a foreign country because they don’t function well at
home. Do you think choosing to live away from your home country (and speaking of first world countries in the main part) can be indicative of a
failing somewhere in your person/relationships with other people?
I think it can be a way of avoiding responsibilities or getting away with behaviour that wouldn't be acceptable if you weren't rich and foreign. But having said that, the characters in all of my books are messy, broken types because those are the kinds of people I find most interesting as a writer. There are plenty of respectable, responsible, perfectly lovely expats in Vietnam, but they wouldn't have been nearly as much fun to write about.
8. What does home mean to you? Is it a sense of belonging? Is it people? Connections?
I think about this a lot. I don't feel particularly attached to Australia, but it's home because most of the people I love are here. Home is an accident of birth, I suppose, and I'm aware that I got incredibly lucky there. I have a loving home in a peaceful, prosperous country and am pretty much free to come and go as I please. Such incredible fortune to even be able to consider making a home somewhere else with the knowledge I'll probably be welcomed there and missed here.
9. Beyond your fiction, you have written often and deftly about gender politics and feminism. Where do you think feminism is at today? There seems
to be a sense that feminism has achieved its goals, but it seems there is still much to do.
I am excited about where feminism is at right now. Daily, I'm inspired and challenged by the amazing work being done here and around the world to end gender-based injustice and oppression. You're right that there is still so much to do, but there are so many smart, determined, courageous people out there doing it. What's wonderful about the feminist movement is that it is so huge and so diverse, and there's widespread acknowledgment that it's impossible for any one person or organisation to represent or address the issues and concerns of every woman. So we have feminists working at getting women into positions of economic and political power, and we also have feminists working for those women who will never be – out of choice or circumstance – at the top of the professional, economic or political heaps. We have feminists working within corporate and political and academic spheres, and we have feminists working in the community sector. And it's a truly global movement. There are incredible people working on every continent, at every level to end gender-based oppression and injustice.What unites all of these different people working on all of these different issues is the understanding that sexism and misogyny are real and powerful, and that the injustices stemming from them must be addressed.
11. Does feminism inform your fiction? I am thinking here on the character of Mischa, a woman who has been broken but is slowly rebuilding herself.
Feminism informs my worldview and influences the things I notice and the questions I ask about the world and human relationships. In that sense, everything I write is informed by feminism. However, while my non-fiction writing is often unashamedly polemical, fiction is a different thing all together. In my experience, beginning with a political point in mind and then moving the characters around until they somehow prove that point is not the way to create a compelling story. And if the story isn’t compelling, then few readers are going to stick with it long enough to get your point and those who do will likely feel manipulated enough to reject it, so it’s failed as art and as propaganda.
This is absolutely not to say though, that politics - however you define it - has no place in fiction. Indeed, I’d argue that if you’re writing about human beings living in some form of society then politics is impossible to avoid. What I’m saying is that there’s a difference between exploration and instruction, between provoking thought and demanding agreement.
12. What did you enjoy most about writing Fishing for Tigers?
Being able to immerse myself in my beloved Hanoi and call it work was heaven. I also loved writing Mischa. Her voice came to me very early on and stayed strong and clear throughout. I've never had so much fun writing a book.