Wildflower: In Conversation with Monique Mulligan
I am delighted to welcome author and interviewer Monique Mulligan to Treefall Writing this week.
I first met Monique online after a call out for writers interested in forming an accountability group. Called the Lollygaggers, it was designed to, well, stop us lollygagging and instead commit to our writing. It was here that I first began to hear of Monique’s writing project that would eventually become Wildflower, published recently by Pilyara Press. It’s a book that Monique describes as coming from the heart and one she just had to write.
Here, I ask Monique about her writing, the world of Wildflower and the things that inspire her most.
How/when did you discover that writing was something you wanted to do?
I knew in high school that I wanted to write for a career, but it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I felt more of an urge to write creatively. And it was another decade before I put any real time and effort into it. I always felt like I had to wait my turn – wait for the kids to grow up – before I could take that time for myself. Eventually I realised I had to take that time anyway.
What keeps you writing?
I write to find connection – with myself, with the human experience, with the mysteries of life – and to embrace different experiences that will invite empathy, feeling and growth.
Where do you write and how often?
In my office – most of the time. I’m fortunate to have a writing space of my own, but I had to wait for the first of our four kids to move out. When I’m working on a manuscript, I write on weekends and in the gaps of life. Sitting at my desk and getting words on the page every day simply doesn’t work for me. But I’m thinking all the time about what I’m working on (or what I want to work on), while I’m walking, hanging the wash, driving, reading … sometimes even when I’m having coffee with my husband.
What do you do when you don’t feel like writing?
If I’m procrastinating, I clean the already clean house, sort out things that don’t need sorting, make tea, potter around the house, take photos of the cat.
If I’m not in a writing head space, I have no trouble filling my time. I go for a walk. Bake a cake. Cook. Read. Hang out with loved ones. Watch a movie.
And sometimes, like now, I need to take a break to restore balance within myself. Writing Wildflower sapped my energy in many ways – physically, emotionally, mentally. Aside from promoting Wildflower, I’m taking a few months off writing so I can catch up with family across the country now that the borders are open, travel a little, and do some future planning.
What was the motivation and/or inspiration behind Wildflower?
Wildflower began as a short story for a competition (spoiler: it didn’t win) that was inspired by the acacia flower (wattle). One afternoon, looking at a photo I’d taken while bushwalking, these words came to me: Acacia Miller blew in and out of our lives on a warm summer wind. I had no idea who Acacia was, or who the narrator (Jane) was, but from that one sentence a 3000-word story emerged, touching on questions that drew from my experiences of being a mother, daughter, sister, wife, friend, neighbour, and journalist. I asked, “What happens to kids who grow up in violent homes?” and “What happens to kids when their parents divorce?”
Later, these heart-questions turned Wildflower from a short story into a novel (I talk about that more here).
Wildflower deals with some dark themes, in particular domestic violence – what influenced the way you approached this subject?
All I can say is that I wrote from my heart, from a place of deep empathy and respect. Wildflower is the fusion of a lifetime of collected stories, observations, anecdotes, empathy, and imagination. It was important to me to show the vulnerabilities and fears of the characters in a non-judgemental and sensitive way. It was also important to show that domestic and family violence is not only physical and that it can happen to anyone. Above all, I wanted to write about it in a way that did not trivialise the issue or experiences, nor be overtly gratuitous.
Your novel has a dual timeline, with the first one set in 1979 – why that year?
I chose this era because the “mind your business”, “accept your lot” and “it’s just a domestic” attitudes were still prevalent – and it’s also the era I grew up. The ‘70s were also when refuges started to pop up in Sydney, albeit without Government support. During the writing process I narrowed it down to 1979, mainly due to the real-life weather over that summer and wanting to use the movement from one decade to the next to give the sense of hope and a fresh start.
You create that era so evocatively that you took me back to my own childhood – how much of the details were from your own memory and how much did you research?
Thank you! Indeed, there are many nostalgic and societal references that many readers of the same vintage as us will nod at – from songs and TV shows to food and games children played. I’d say the first draft drew more from memory and subsequent drafts involved more research. I looked up old TV guides, magazine covers, music, celebrities, shopping centres, cookbooks, clothes, fashion and so on. The finished novel fuses my memories with that research.
In one of the early scenes, the milk truck is described as coming around in the evening, which I remember strongly from growing up in Penrith, exactly as I wrote it. When I shared a snippet of the scene on social media, my aunt thought I had that wrong. So, I checked with Mum and yes, it did come in the evening in our suburb. If we were out in summer around milk time, Mum would always stress that it would be off by the time we got home.
However, despite using the time and place of my childhood, Wildflower is not based on my childhood experiences.
Why did you choose an eleven-year-old narrator for the first timeline?
I remember in the early days another author told me this was a risky choice. But I wanted to explore how children are affected by domestic violence and telling it (mainly) from a child’s point of view seemed the best way to do that. It was really important to me to show that children take in more than we, as parents/adults, sometimes think (even when we think we are protecting them).
How did you come to decide to keep the identity of the second narrator a mystery for much of the book? (As an aside, I loved trying to work out who it might be!)
Oh, I’m so glad that mystery kept you guessing! Strangely enough, it was only after I’d roughly drafted this timeline that I knew who this character would be – I surprised myself and wondered the whole time if I could pull it off. I wanted readers to see that the women in this part of the story, the 1999 timeline, could be anyone. A neighbour, a friend, a work colleague, someone sitting across from you on a train. We only ever know the surface of someone’s story.
How long did Wildflower take to write and why?
About five years, on and off – if you count the short story. I came back to it with the intention of turning it into a novel while my debut, Wherever You Go, was resting. Then I went back and forth between these manuscripts (and a third one) for the next few years. I’ve learnt that I can only work on one writing project at a time.
How much changed between your first draft and the version that was finally published?
So much! I added about 87,000 words, revised many times and, last year, added a new timeline. When I look at the short story, the gist of it is still there, but now there are so many more layers and so much more emotional complexity.
What project are you working on next?
I do have a manuscript I started a couple of years ago, and I’m thinking that’s what I’ll turn to when I’m ready to write again. It’s completely different to my first two books! I don’t think I like being typecast (pun not originally intended, but then I went with it).
A Few of Your Favourite Things
Who inspires you?
Ordinary people who change the world, albeit in big or little ways.
Who has made a difference in your life and why?
Too many to list! [Insert celebrity Oscar speech voice… “I’d like to thank…”] My husband, my children, my family – they bring light and lightness into my heart. My writing tribe, who encourages and empowers me more than they know. And fellow WA author Laurie Steed, who suggested I turn Wildflower into a novel – without that suggestion, it might still be languishing in a drawer.
If you could write a letter to your 12-year-old self, what would you say to her?
I’ll paraphrase Barbara Kelly from Wildflower here: “Don’t every let anyone treat you like you’re worthless. Ever. Don’t put up with it.”
What’s your favourite book or story?
I always find this such a hard question! One of my all-time favourites is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – it’s haunting, suspenseful, creepy, ambiguous, with characterisation and plotting so skilfully executed that I’m always left awed.
If you could wake up and choose one thing to do all day, what would that be?
Ideally, I would be in Europe, and I’d head to the markets for fresh food, which I’d cook and eat alfresco while the light colours the landscape. I’d have a book or two nearby, and maybe a cat by my side.
What is one thing you’d love to do or achieve in the future?
I’d love more free time to write and create and travel (and then write something inspired by my travel). I’d love to see Wildflower reach many, many readers’ hearts and souls and, if I’m allowed to dream big, I’d love to see it made into a screenplay.
Any final words for other creatives?
Don’t compare your journey with other writers’ journey. Your journey is your own – it can be wild, beautiful, unpredictable, and satisfying (and sometimes, not!) – but whatever path it takes, it’s yours.
Book notes and book club discussion starters for Wildflower can be found in an earlier post on Treefall Writing.