Whole-hearted lovers and layers of history: an interview with Mardi McConnochie, author of The Voyagers

Viking, May 2011
(Aus, ebook)

Stead, a sailor, arrives in Sydney Harbour in 1943. He hasn’t seen Marina for five years, and yet he can’t forget the three days they spent together prior to the war. Some undeniable connection had been forged. He finds out she failed to enrol in the music school she was going to in London, and has been missing all this time. Stead and Marina’s stories unfold against the backdrop of history in this satisfying, tender and well-paced love story. Prior to Mardi McConnochie’s appearances at Sydney Writers’ Festival this weekend, I asked her a few questions about the novel.

There are different things a novel can do, and it seems to me that yours aims to send tingles up the reader’s spine, and to give pleasure. Can you tell us a bit about why ‘a love story’ (as the cover calls it) is the kind of book you’re drawn to write?

I think one reason why I was drawn to write it was because I haven’t written one before.

As both a reader and a writer I’m interested in stories about women which aren’t about the love plot – as a writer I’m interested in women artists and the tug between art and life, the satisfactions of the inner life of work, and the demands of the outside world.

The genesis of the novel came a few years back at a meeting of my book group, when one of the women asked us if we could suggest a contemporary novel that was a satisfying literary love story – and we all struggled to think of one. (I’ve thought of some since then: Cold Mountain, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Possession, The English Patient. All more than just a love story, but the love story is central to them all.) But our collective failure to think of any made me think – why aren’t there more good novels that are good love stories? And – could I write one?

So why don’t literary novelists do love? Literary novels tend to resist the warm fuzzy comforting reassurance of the happy ending, partly because ‘they both lived happily ever after’ is just not true, and partly also because it doesn’t seem very grown up. In literary novels love stories tend to end tragically rather than happily: it means as a writer you get to mess around with the big emotions, without having to deliver the payoff. (Mr Ondaatje, I’m looking at you.) There’s something about a big fat happy ending that signals the difference between a serious book and an entertainment. Disappointing, ambiguous and unresolved ending = serious book. Happy union = fluffy entertainment. I remember reading Memoirs of a Geisha when it came out and really liking it, but at the same time thinking as I was reading it, ‘If she gets together with the bloke at the end, this is not really a serious book.’ (They do get together. At the time, I thought, Not serious. Now, well, whatever. I still remember it.)

So as a writer I had to try and work through my own resistance to the not-serious happy ending in order to write a love story, and also to create characters who are whole-hearted lovers. When I started thinking about endings I remembered the moment at the end of The Shipping News when one of the characters comes back from the dead at his own wake, and how wildly satisfying that was, because it was so unexpected, and you don’t care that it’s basically magic because you want it to happen. One of the other reasons it works is because you believe that the author could just as well have gone the other way and left him dead, which makes the stakes higher: in a world where bad things are the norm, the miraculous is that much more astonishing.

If I had a model for my literary love story though, it’s probably Jane Eyre. It’s often caricatured as a heaving-bosom romance full of clichés, but to me it’s a singular and strange novel about a young woman in an extraordinarily hostile  environment, struggling to define herself on her own terms and find a place for herself in the world. The love plot is obviously important, but it’s not the only thing going on in the novel. What I love about J E is the sense that these two people meet and are driven apart and then must become someone new in order to find themselves again. Which is more interesting than meet cute/obstacles/happily ever after.

The stakes are certainly high for your characters, Marina and Stead. They end up all over the world, mainly by force, because of personal circumstances and because of the war. How did you go about recreating some of these places – wartime Sydney, London, Shanghai, Singapore?

Reading: some history, some memoirs, some fiction. I found a rather charming memoir of a young woman living in bohemian Chelsea during the first years of the war which gave me some nice details; the diary of a young American sailor which gave me a sense of day-to-day life on one of the big naval ships, and another diary of a teenage girl interned in Changi, which similarly gave me a feel for day-to-day life in the camp, and also a feel for the tone in the women’s camp.

I also spent some time a few years ago in Shanghai, which is an amazing city. Shanghai’s International Settlement was a wild boom town, especially in the years between the wars; then after the revolution nearly all the westerners were expelled, and Shanghai itself was shunned by the powers that be in China because it was seen as tainted or corrupted by its westernised past, so there was very little investment in Shanghai, which means all the old western buildings were simply left intact rather than being knocked over and replaced by something newer or modern. So the Shanghai of the ’30s still seems quite close when you walk around the streets, although a lot of it is fairly dilapidated (it’s part of the charm, although some aspects of the dilapidation – the giant rats in the apartment buildings, for instance – are less charming). Today, the city is booming again and the westerners are back too – it’s a wildly exciting place to be, and you can still get a sense of how exciting it must have been back then. Although if you don’t read or speak Chinese, there’s a whole lot of levels to the life of the city that you’re simply unaware of. I’m told that it all feels much more Communist and much less go-go capitalist if you can actually read what’s on the banners and the signs on the walls. I did, and do, feel slightly uneasy about going to a Chinese city and looking for the things that make it like a Western city – it seems like a kind of colonialism, or something – but I think one of the things that’s interesting about a place like that is its complex history. There’s a building which is used now as a flower market; in the ’30s it was a stadium where they held (I think) greyhound races, and we went to visit it in the spirit of revisiting old Shanghai; we discovered later that it has a darker history for Shanghai people, because during the Cultural Revolution it was where public denunciations were held. The layers of history.

And part of writing something based historically, too, is the social mores and conventions of the time, which do help to create interesting tensions for the characters. Marina, in particular, comes up against different conventions (and expectations).

Marina is not a conventional young woman of her time (characters in novels rarely are). She aspires to become a concert pianist, which was unusual although not unheard of for a young woman then. I did have a reasonably well-thought-through back-story about who Marina is and what kind of family she comes from, although I don’t think much of it actually intrudes into the novel.  But the interesting thing about the arts in the interwar years is that it was a surprisingly good time to be a woman artist, largely because of the carnage of the first world war. So many young men had died in the war, so you had a real gender imbalance between men and women, and this had a number of different effects: it meant there were a lot of women who didn’t marry, and also that there were fewer men who became artists. The Great War also, of course, set in motion sweeping political and social changes which had their effects through the whole of society – shaking up family structures and gender roles as well as bringing down old empires and redrawing all the borders. Particularly in the visual arts, you saw a generation of young women coming through and making careers as artists. Marina, of course, is younger than these women, but I imagined her as the child of that generation of women – middle class, artsy, childless women who nurtured her talent and encouraged her to excel. (And yes, there is an element of wish fulfilment in all this, but I’d point to my favourite book from childhood, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, published in 1936, which is precisely about a world of women living [mostly] without men, the economic difficulties inherent in this, and which shows all these women working and finding fulfilment in various professions, from the arts to academe, and bringing up the girls in the care so that they can have careers and be economically independent – being ballerinas and actresses in Hollywood, except for the tomboyish one who goes off to be a mechanic.)

The thing that was interesting about the war years was the way in which they released women, albeit temporarily, from a lot of rules. Women were mobilised into the workforce, which meant many of them left home for the first time, and the movement of so many troops away from home and in and out of major cities meant that some of the rules of social conduct were relaxed too, for women as well as men. (Somewhat.) In places like Sydney, the opportunities to go out and have fun were greatly expanded once the war came. Of course, the end of the war saw a lot of that freedom come to an end: young women married, went home, and started having babies in droves.

None of this really has a direct bearing on Marina’s story, since she spends a lot of her war in a camp, but it was nonetheless a very interesting time.

Music plays a large role in the novel, evoking memory, emotion, connection. Do you see music as being a kind of symbolic thread through the narrative, and how did that come about?

Although I’m a writer, and what I do is all about constructing arguments, constructing ideas and images using this very rational, analytical, thoughtful art form, I’m attracted to forms that create their effects in other ways, like dance and music. Music seems to speak to us in ways that bypass the rational – you don’t respond to music with your head, you respond to it with your emotions or your body. When I set out to write a love story, it seemed important to write about two people who were more in tune with their hearts than their heads; they’re feelers, not thinkers. (If either of these characters was a thinker there wouldn’t be a story, because any sensible person would simply give up. ) Music is something that comes from a place that isn’t rational, and their love comes from the same place. Music speaks to both of these characters and so it connects them, across the quite wide gulf in their backgrounds and circumstances, and becomes an emblem of the connection between them.

But it also has a personal dimension for each of them: Marina has been practicing every day for years and years, and music is a part of her identity, but as part of her process of maturing into adulthood across the course of the book she has to discover a new way of playing music, understanding music, coming to a deeper sense of what it means to her, and making it part of her life again.

For Stead, music represents Marina’s world of culture, a world he doesn’t know much about but would like to join; but it also relates to his deeper sense of the world as a place that’s unfamiliar, strange, ever-changing and dangerous, but also beautiful and exhilarating. Music is like the ocean speaking to him.

Thanks so much Mardi.

Mardi McConnochie will be appearing, and will be launching The Voyagers, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this weekend. The sessions are ‘A Question of Character’, ‘The Voyagers’, ‘Au Pairs’ (with her partner, author/critic James Bradley) and ‘Over Here’. You can find all the details here.

2 thoughts on “Whole-hearted lovers and layers of history: an interview with Mardi McConnochie, author of The Voyagers

  1. Pingback: Mardi McConnochie on The Voyagers « city of tongues

  2. Pingback: The Voyagers wins FAW Christina Stead Award | city of tongues

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