Scribe, March 2011
In Meg Mundell’s dark and stylish debut, two sisters and a cast of characters from different tiers of society fight for survival, recognition and connection in near-future Melbourne. The novel is in some ways about maintaining some kind of hope or dreams in a fractured, controlling cityscape – whether those dreams are getting home, finding the person you’ve lost, or ‘making it’ with dignity in media or entertainment. Like all good spec-fic, the novel subtly comments on and exaggerates issues and potential issues of our time; and like all good fiction it also has strong characters, is expressed imaginatively, and elements of the world it paints – casinos and carnivals, backstreets, department stores, a run-down pension, a rooftop, the CBD – are vivid and memorable.
Meg has previously been published in The Age, The Monthly, Meanjin and more. Meg is also a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney, in the Writing and Society Research Group – we began at the same time and met on the bus out to Bankstown. I got in touch with Meg to ask some questions about Black Glass…
A: There’s a huge range of vivid settings in the novel, and the way city space is governed is one of the book’s themes. You start out in ‘the Regions’ and on the open road, and then the reader enters the city at the same time the characters do. Can you tell us about building this near-future Melbourne? And those smaller spaces within it: a casino, a rooftop, an abandoned glass factory, and so on?
M: I’ve always been fascinated by places, how we imagine and respond to them – and vice versa, how they affect us. Black Glass could be set in any near-future city, but I chose Melbourne as a way to anchor it in a specific setting. I kind of overlaid my own mental map of Melbourne onto the story, inventing and distorting things as I went. I drew this quite detailed map, too, with all the key locations on it.
Another thing is that I love exploring, finding hidden or strange sites, places with an interesting atmosphere. You might climb fences and sneak into industrial zones, or hang around in the casino, or it might just be a glimpse out the train window. Some of those places stick in your mind, get mixed up with ideas and images – about gambling, flight, broken mirrors, or whatever – and turn up as settings in the book.
A: Tied in with these settings, you raise interesting ideas about space, particularly with the character Milk and his profession as a ‘moodie’. I really enjoyed the sections where he is ‘tuning’ an environment. Can you tell us about him and why these ideas are essential to the novel?
M: With the tuning I wanted look at how space is controlled and manipulated on a subliminal level, and how this might play out, or go wrong. As a moodie, Milk gets paid to tinker with the atmosphere of spaces, to covertly influence people’s behaviour. We’re already seeing this in real life, with marketers using certain aromas and audio to influence our spending decisions, plus the rise of surveillance and its growing ties with commerce. So I wanted to magnify that and see where it could lead.
Milk is a bit of an enigma. He sees himself as an artist, but like most of us, he’s also vulnerable to flattery and coercion and the lure of money. So his role is quite conflicted, and things don’t always work out the way he plans. I suspect this moodie idea came partly from working as a DJ, which I used to do. You’ve got the room under control, everyone’s dancing, then suddenly you pick the wrong record, the mood slips and you struggle to fix it. Yikes! Only in Milk’s case, the stakes are much higher.
A: The main characters are the sisters Grace and Tally. Their quests thread through the narrative, though many other events and characters also propel it forward. Through them you’re partly giving a face to a kind of growing marginalisation that is occurring in the world of the novel – by showing the kinds of things they have to do to stay fed and alive. Were Grace and Tally there from the beginning of the novel? How did their story form?
M: The sisters were there from the start. They always came through very strongly for me, especially Tally. As a sister myself I value that bond – nobody better mess with my sis! – and that’s what drives Tally. Daily survival becomes their first priority, but that bond, and whatever might threaten it, is what really pushes the story along.
Having a homeless main character wasn’t a conscious decision, but was probably influenced by the years I spent at The Big Issue [as deputy editor and staff writer]. The editorial team shared a building with the magazine’s vendors and we got to know a lot of them. Their resilience and humour, the tough things they’d been through and how they’d survived, made a big impression on me. The line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is a very thin one.
A: The novel is written in a fragmentary style – notebook pieces, bits of narrative from different points of view, conversations. How did you make it effective? Was there more that you wrote and abandoned? How did you choose which fragments and points of view were essential?
M: That fragmented approach fitted nicely with the idea of surveillance, one of the book’s main themes. So you get snatches and glimpses, like you’re an eyewitness, but certain information’s missing, stuff happens out of frame. Sometimes you’re spying on the characters, but that voyeurism doesn’t automatically reveal the full story. The reader has to fill in the blanks and piece things together themselves.
While writing I didn’t throw much out, it was more a case of revising repeatedly, and filling in gaps, until the puzzle pieces came together. To balance out the different voices and narrative modes I imagined a piece of music, where you have various instruments or melodies playing, and you bring them in and out to form a pattern that is hopefully harmonious and compelling. The more important voices, like Tally’s, have solo parts. The minor ones are just samples, overheard snippets.
A: I think many people have an idea of spec fic or sci-fi these days, forgetting that so many classic ‘literary’ writers wrote speculative stories, from Nabokov, to Janet Frame, to Kafka and of course Orwell and Huxley. When writing, did you think of the novel as fitting into a specific genre? Are you a reader of speculative fiction? Or did the genre simply fit the themes?
M: The genre fit the themes this time, I think. With Black Glass I didn’t deliberately set out to write ‘speculative fiction’, it just happened that way. But I do like the possibilities it offers a writer – you can put your characters in extreme situations, really explore that ‘what-if’ element. Although even ‘realist’ fiction is not truly ‘realistic’, it just works very hard to conceal its artifice. In a way I guess all fiction is speculative. It’s all made up!
I don’t have a favourite genre. I’ve done historical short fiction, journalism, memoir, the odd poem. Early on, like most kids, I didn’t think about genres, I just loved reading. Certain ‘literary’ works: To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime and Punishment, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies. Some sci-fi and fantasy too – Orwell, Huxley, Wyndham, Wells, Tolkien, CS Lewis, Lewis Carroll – and some classic popular or genre stuff: Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew mysteries, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King. My tastes are more ‘literary’ now, but that early mix made me a pretty open-minded reader. And I still read trashy magazines!
A: I just re-read your piece ‘Tumbleweed’ in Harvest: Issue One. I always liked it. It’s from a book you’re writing on trucking culture, right? Can you tell us about it?
M: Sure, the trucking book is called Braking Distance. It’s non-fiction – partly memoir, partly a collection of ‘road stories’ about trucking life. To research it I spent three months travelling outback Australia with long-haul truck-drivers. It was amazing, despite a couple of dicey moments. Right now I’m doing a PhD on sense of place in literature, but I’m about to take time off to finish the trucking book.
A: This is your first novel and in it, characters struggle to hold onto their hopes and dreams in a difficult world. What are some of your hopes and dreams, as a person and as a writer?
M: Umm… personally I hope things go well for my loved ones, that’s important. And I want all that deceptively simple stuff, like feeling happy and fulfilled and useful. Writing-wise I want to publish more books and stories, keep learning, and maybe do a screenplay one day – I love films. As for dreams… I have lots of flying dreams, but you have to be practical. So I’d also like a hot air balloon, please.
Thanks so much Meg.