Tag Archives: Meg Mundell

Wednesday Writers: Meg Mundell

As someone with a foot in two camps, Meg Mundell is exceptionaly qualified to talk about the mechanics and craft of writing. Not only is she a journalist with a proven track record and a huge amount of varied experiences, Meg is also the author of the acclaimed and multiple award nominated Black Glass, one of the stand out spec fic novels of 2011. As someone who has aspirations in both these directions, I’ve always been very interested in hearing Meg talk about her approach to writing, and delighted to discover how generous she is in sharing her knowledge with other writers. It’s always a pleasure to discover that someone you look up to as a writer is also a wonderful person! Whatever you are writing, I think that you will find a great deal of value in Meg’s post and I am thrilled to welcome her to my blog for today’s Wednesday Writer.


Most readers, when they open a book, are seeking something deeper than entertainment. When I dive into a story, I want to be transported into another world: a hardscrabble logging camp in the remote Louisiana wilderness, in Tim Gautreaux’s The Clearing; the sky-skimming exhilaration of mid-air flight, in Claire Corbett’s When We Have Wings; the trauma-steeped corridors of a wartime mental hospital in Pat Barker’s Regeneration; the cabin of a dying space shuttle stranded on the dark side of the moon, in Jed Mercurio’s Ascent – just to name a few recent and memorable reads.

What do I want from a story? I want to slip through the back of the wardrobe and emerge in Narnia; to step through the mirror into Wonderland. To feel the brutality and isolation of that muddy logging camp, to catch the thrilling lift of that thermal updraft, to suck down the last lungful of oxygen in that doomed space shuttle. I want to feel like I’m really there.

As a writer, the same holds true: when writing, I set out to immerse myself in an alternate reality, to disappear into what narrative researcher Charlotte Doyle calls the “fictionworld, the imagined environment in which my characters play out their lives. I want to build a rabbit-hole into which my readers will gladly take a tumble. I want to give them a palpable and satisfying sense of thereness.

To this end, I invest a lot of energy in creating vivid settings. After all, nothing happens in a vacuum: all stories take place somewhere. A compelling setting can serve a story in so many ways: it helps anchor your tale in a specific place and time; it can entice or force characters into taking certain steps, or facing particular choices, propelling the story forward (two teens, lost on a camping trip, must share a sleeping bag to ward off hypothermia); it can shape the way characters interact with one another, the way social roles and power dynamics unfold within the story (a lowly office cleaner, unfairly facing the sack, discovers the manager passed out drunk beneath her desk after-hours); it can evoke mood, provide drama and narrative tension, and reveal a great deal about characters’ lives, emotions and personalities.

But most importantly, a convincing setting helps readers feel like they’re actually there in person, seeing the fictionworld through the characters’ eyes, feeling it with all their senses. Recent neurological studies have shown that when you get “lost” a good book, your brain replicates the sensory experiences of the characters you’re reading about. I kept this idea in mind while writing my first novel, BLACK GLASS, a work of speculative fiction. The book is set in a dystopian near-future world (or perhaps a parallel “now”) ruled by surveillance, segregation and civil unrest. Two of my main characters, young Tally and her friend Blue, are homeless “undocs”, struggling to survive on the fringes of a hostile city, in a society that sees them as worthless.

In bringing this setting to life, I borrowed some of Melbourne’s street names and landmarks, relocated, morphed and re-configured them to suit the tale, and amped up the sense of “there-ness” until it felt convincing. To research some of the book’s crucial sub-settings, I went out “location-scouting” missions – long walks and bikerides through some of Melbourne’s more derelict, forgotten corners: industrial zones, vacant lots, stormwater drains. Like anyone forced to survive on the streets, Tally and Blue must find safe spots to sleep at night, and to depict these hidden corners, I also drew on my time spent working at The Big Issue years ago, as staff writer and deputy editor. The magazine’s vendors showed me some of their own sleeping spots, tucked down back alleys, under bridges and freeway overpasses. With the writer’s natural magpie instincts, I shamelessly borrowed and adapted these locations too.

So much for research. How do authors write vivid settings? There’s no need to harangue readers with long descriptive passages, or tangled strings of adjectives: a few telling details will often do the trick. Does the place have a particular smell? Does it show signs of neglect, or traces of past inhabitants? Are there clues to what has happened here, or is about to happen – an overturned chair, a neat row of children’s shoes, a forest of waist-high weeds, a deck of playing cards splayed across the floor? How do your characters feel and behave in this place – are they at home here, or are they outsiders? Are they trapped, seeking sanctuary, cast adrift, out of place?

I find places endlessly fascinating. They shape our experiences, our relationships, our sense of self, the very course of our lives. Place is so central to how I see the world, when I sit down to write a new short story, setting often comes to me first. I count myself lucky that storytelling – of both the fiction and non-fiction varieties – has given me the perfect excuse to visit some amazing places in the name of research: an old quarantine station, outback truckstops, idyllic riversides, the backrooms of a crematorium, a gigantic factory that prints money. It’s also allowed me to draw on the magic of lost childhood places, to recall those peculiar enchanted sites that were once so special to me.

Writing also gives me a free passport to explore (and invent) places I’ve never visited in real life: spooky underwater caves, a cosmetic surgeon’s consulting room, the slippery deck of a container ship. What’s more, the wonder of stories is that these trips can be shared with others. Author and academic Nigel Krauth suggests that writing and reading involve a shared navigation of an imaginative terrain: “The psychological journey [of] the characters…is replicated for the reader. Poems and stories are…journeys of upheaval from a place left behind into new experience, new vision, new knowledge and understanding.”

When I open a book, that’s exactly what I’m seeking: new experiences, new sights, sounds and smells, a touch of armchair-based upheaval. No two people will read a single story in exactly the same way; our own unique imaginations, values and perspectives always play a part (for proof of this subjectivity, look no further than book reviews). But when we do read the same story, you and I immediately have something in common: we’ve both visited the same fictionworld, seen it through the characters’ eyes, felt it through the conduit of their senses. Sure, it might be an invented place, one that exists purely in the mysterious realm of the imagination. But in a very real sense, we’ve both been there.

Meg Mundell is an author, journalist and researcher based in Melbourne. Her first novel BLACK GLASS (Scribe, 2011) was shortlisted for the 2011 Aurealis Awards (in two categories), the 2012 Norma K Hemming Award, the 2012 Chronos Award (Best Long Fiction), and the 2010 Scribe-CAL Fiction Prize, and Highly Commended in the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award. Meg’s short stories have appeared in Best Australian Stories, New Australian Stories, Australian Book Review, Eureka Street, Meanjin, Harvest, The Big Issue and Sleepers Almanac. Her journalism has been published in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Review, The Big Issue, The Monthly and others. She’s now working on three projects: a second novel, a non-fiction book about outback trucking, and a PhD looking at how authors research “sense of place”.

Website: www.megmundell.com | Twitter: @megmundell | Facebook: www.facebook.com/megmundell.writer

2012 Aussie Snapshot: Meg Mundell

Meg Mundell’s first novel BLACK GLASS (Scribe, 2011) was shortlisted for the 2011 Aurealis Awards (in two categories), the 2012 Norma K Hemming Award, the 2012 Chronos Award (Best Long Fiction), and the 2010 Scribe-CAL Fiction Prize; it was also highly commended in the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award. Meg’s short stories have appeared in Best Australian Stories, New Australian Stories, Australian Book Review, Eureka Street, Meanjin, Harvest, The Big Issue and Sleepers Almanac. Her journalism has been published in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Review, The Big Issue and The Monthly. A Kiwi by birth and a Melburnian by location, Meg is currently working on a second novel, writing a creative non-fiction book about trucking culture, and doing a PhD on how authors research “sense of place”. Website: www.megmundell.com Facebook: www.facebook.com/megmundell.writer

“Black Glass” has picked up a slew of nominations for some of Australia’s most prestigious awards, and has been recognised in both YA and Adult categories. What is about the book that you think resonates with so many people and across so many different demographics?

Thanks for making it sound appealing! (: It’s hard to say, because every reader will take so many different things from a book. BLACK GLASS is set in a dystopian world, but I tried to infuse it with a sense of hope. Maybe that combination was kind of appealing – sinister, but not entirely bleak?

But I suspect it’s the characters that have helped the novel resonate with so many different readers – especially the main character, Tally. She seems to have won people over. I know I love her to bits, although she drove me crazy at times too! Little nutter. So yes, I hope it’s the diverse characters: their motives, their obsessions, and the ways in which they struggle to survive in a tough, sometimes heartless world. That struggle is an old theme, and a universal one.

Maybe the book’s focus on surveillance resonates at the moment too. Our lives are so heavily surveilled these days, both via CCTV and the more insidious and shady realm of dataveillance (case in point: Facebook). While we’re not always consciously aware of this, I think it filters through at some level. So maybe the book tapped into that feeling too – the sense that we’re living in a world of constant scrutiny, where we trail behind us these great, dark, ever-expanding towers of personal data.

Looking at your background in journalism, do you feel that this has informed or influenced your fiction, and if so, how?

Journalism trained me to be practical about my craft: to write to deadlines, to churn out words every day, without waiting for some mysterious muse to descend and wave a magic wand. (Although sometimes I wish she’d do that…just turn up and waggle the wand on cue!) Journalism probably also trained me to look at things from a multitude of perspectives – and I think you can see that in the novel, that idea that your take on reality depends on your point of view, your position in the world.

My time at THE BIG ISSUE magazine, where I spent five delightful years as staff writer and deputy editor, opened my eyes to stories and perspectives that I would otherwise have missed. The experiences of the homeless characters in BLACK GLASS – all of that was heavily influenced by my journo training at THE BIG ISSUE, and my many conversations with the magazine’s amazing vendors.

The journalist character in my novel, poor old Damon Spark, was clearly influenced by my own experiences as a freelance journalist. Although there’s a huge dose of satire there – both in my portrait of Damon, and in the way I’ve painted/twisted the dodgy alliances between journalism, big business and government, within the world of the book. Despite that sardonic take on it, I have the highest respect for quality journalism. I don’t think we value it enough, and if we lose it, we’re really going to be up shit creek.

Browsing your website’s “In Progress” section, you seem to be moving in a slightly different direction, with a “based on a true story” novel and a non-fiction memoir. Do you have any plans for a return to the world of “Black Glass”, or any more speculative fiction pieces in the pipeline?

I’ve always run in several different directions at once. I wish I could channel things more neatly into one stream, but I seem to need the variety. I love writing in all sorts of genres, across lots of different themes. The non-fiction memoir is about outback trucking, and the mythology and romance of roads and highways. But the “based on a true story” book is set in the future! So that’s a speculative project, for sure.

I’d love to dive back into the world of BLACK GLASS. I miss those characters and want to find out what happens to them next. But I’ll have to wait and see. I’m doing a PhD at the moment too, so I need to polish off a few big projects first.

What Australian works have you loved recently?

Right now I’m reading a spec fic novel, WHEN WE HAVE WINGS, by Claire Corbett, and I’m absolutely loving it. As someone who can’t get enough of those flying dreams, it’s really firing up my imagination. I met Claire when we were both on a panel with Michael Pryor recently, at the Gloucester Writers’ Festival. We all just clicked, so I’m both happy and relieved to be really engrossed in her first novel. Michael’s latest book TEN FUTURES is now firmly on my to-read list, too.

I try to read really widely. This year I’ve also loved Tony Birch’s brilliant realist novel BLOOD, which is deservedly shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. For my PhD I’m re-reading one of my favourite non-fiction books, SEVEN VERSIONS OF AN AUSTRALIAN BADLAND, by Ross Gibson. Set along Queensland’s famous Horror Stretch, it’s an astounding piece of work: part murder mystery, part road movie, part dreamscape, part detective story. Damn good.

Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the Australian Spec Fic scene?

I think I’m too much of a newbie to be able to answer this question. I didn’t even realise there was a spec fic scene, until I published a book that apparently fell into that genre! It’s been great to discover this whole friendly, intelligent, diverse community of people who are passionate about the possibilities of spec fic. If I can offer a future hope/prediction, rather than a retrospective reflection, it would be a wish that good spec fic would continue to push through the genre snobberies and gatekeepers’ biases to plant itself more firmly in the “literary” and “mainstream” realms. Good stories are good stories, and readers deserve to hear about them, minus the genre caveats that too often frame or limit the write-ups that make it into lit journals and book pages. Too many assumptions get made on this front. Grandmas love spec fic too!

This interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Aussie Spec Fic Snapshot. In the lead up to Continuum 8 in Melbourne, we will be blogging interviews for Snapshot 2012 conducted by Alisa Krasnostein, Kathryn Linge, David McDonald, Helen Merrick, Ian Mond, Jason Nahrung, Alex Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Tehani Wessely and Sean Wright. To read the interviews hot off the press, check these blogs daily from June 1 to June 7, 2012.

You can find the past three Snapshots at the following links: 2005, 2007 and 2010