I first met Fleur McDonald about four years ago, not long after the publication of her second novel Blue Skies. She was then working on her third novel Purple Roads, and if anyone was following the maxim to ‘write what you know’ it was Fleur, who lives on an isolated 8000 acres on the south-east coast of WA, with her family, 400 angus cows, and 7000 breeding ewes, and writes big stories where the setting is almost its own character.
Today, her outback novels are devoured by readers around the country (Fleur was voted in the top 50 in Booktopia’s Australia’s Favourite Novelist poll) and she has ridden the wave of the popularity of ‘rural romance’ or Farm Lit from the beginning (Fleur’s fourth novel Silver Clouds is out now). So I was thrilled when I was able to coax her into the Fibro to answer a few questions about her genre and the reality of ‘rural romance’.
Rural romance or Farm Lit has emerged as a definite genre in Australian publishing – why do you think it’s so popular?
Fleur McDonald: “So many people ask this question and I really don’t know the answer to it. What I believe is that most Australian have a love of their history and a fascination with our land. Most Australians know of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, The Man from Snowy River and, more recently, McLeod’s Daughters and Wild Boys. The recent TV programs have done incredibly well, so there must be a deep love of our bush heritage, and this translates over into the written word as well. When there is a bit of fun to be had, wonderful sunsets and a sexy farmer, well, then, who could resist?!”
Beyond the romance factor, you explore a lot of the reality of farm life in your books – and it’s not always romantic. Is it difficult to marry those two things?
FM: “No, I can honestly say that farming or any type of life on the land is not romantic. Of course it has its moments – when the sun is setting and your bloke gives you a kiss … But, to me, the romance is more with the land – it’s beauty, history and stories. And that’s actually how I see my stories – not as a romance, but as a story from the land – and when I look at it like that, no it’s not hard to marry the two together.
“I like to tell it how it is, which is much more realistic, too. If people recognise themselves or things things have happened on their farms, then I’ve done my job.”
Is the setting as important as the story in your novels? How do you go about bringing it to life?
FM: “Yes, the setting, I hope, is what paints my picture. I live it so I believe I can write with authenticity about the way we live, our animals and the land. I love showing people how incredible this life is, people who wouldn’t otherwise get to know about the little things; the way the wind indicates change in weather, the way the native Christmas Trees flower, the way the sheep graze into the wind. So I watch carefully.
“When I’m writing I shut my eyes and remember what happened to me when I was last doing the job I’m writing about. I see a mini movie in my head and just write what I see in that movie. With my latest novel, Silver Clouds, I took photos when I was last crossing the Nullarbor, so I had a visual to refer back to.”
You live the life you write about, living on an isolated property in WA. Does the isolation help or hinder your writing career?
FM: “I think it’s both. I find that it’s difficult for me to get away from the farm for tours and so forth, but the isolation also helps me sit down and write. The biggest distraction (which I think is the same for most of the writers I know!) is the bloody internet!
“But it’s a necessary evil, because it’s the internet that makes it possible for me to have interaction with my readers (I always answer every message I get) and to be in constant contact with my editors and publisher.”
Any tips for writers who’d like to have a crack at this genre?
FM: “Hmm. Well, my first thought is the market is already very crowded and that’s impacting on both advances and sales. Personally, I would try another genre, because this one, as popular as it is at the moment, is likely to take a nosedive any day now.
“However, if you really think this is what you are born to do, then get your skates on, make sure your manuscript has a distinctive voice and a unique story, then cross your fingers and hang on.”