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Author QandA Sorrow and Bliss - Meg Mason Uncategorized

Q&A with Meg Mason

READ CLOSE: Sorrow and Bliss is Martha’s story. Tell us how you came to write the book – how you settled on the narrative voice; the structure and the importance of leaving gaps in her experience for the reader; the decisions you made and how the book changed during the writing.

MEG MASON: Sorrow and Bliss was never meant to be anything other than a Word document, or seen by anyone except me. Because I started it a month or so after quitting fiction forever, at the end of 2018, having spent all year labouring over a book that was horrible to begin with and even worse by the time I’d finished with it. So much time and emotional energy had been wasted producing 85,000 unusable words, I couldn’t imagine ever trying again.

But then. Authors are sometimes asked what ‘makes’ someone a writer, whether its innate ability or something that can be taught or the product of practise and discipline. I just think a writer is someone who can’t help themselves. No matter how hard the work is, the permanent, overhanging threat of it not turning out or ever being published or finding readers if it is, you just have to. You can’t not if you want to feel like yourself and know what you think.

So even though I truly thought my writing career was over, I was compelled back to my desk one day, wanting to put down not even a scene really, just an image that had dropped into my head, of a couple at a wedding going over to chat to a woman who was by herself and having a terrible time with a canape.

For some reason the 600 words or so that I wrote that day, which became the first scene of the book, were a bit flood-gates-y and the rest it just came roaring out. I just had to sit there and type.

The only contributing thing I can identify is my deciding that Martha was just going to say what happened. I wasn’t going to try and make every single sentence clever and novelly, and rammed with verbs and description as I had – so effortfully and disastrously – in the earlier book.

If a character sits down, Martha says ‘he sat down.’ Not ‘he collapsed onto the well-worn, velvet sofa, riven with anxiety, as a sharp wind forced its way through the peeling window frames like ice cold fingers’. If there’s anxiety and a breeze, she’d just say that too or – as to the gaps in the narrative – we just have to figure it out from other things says or doesn’t. That’s why the tone turned out the way it did, sort of flat and prosaic but more the way we really talk, and I think what makes the book a little bit different, and definitely different to anything I’ve ever written before.

Your second novel is concerned with motherhood, and whether Martha could be a good mother, ideas which have also driven your memoir Say It Again In A Nice Voice and your first novel, You Be Mother. Could you let us know a little of your thoughts concerning writing about motherhood and children and why it’s important to you?

I would say, rather than being something I set out to do, my concentration on motherhood was a product of my age and the stage of life I was in when I started writing – 32, with two little children. It’s remained one because all of life is in it – mother and child relationships and particularly, for me, mother and daughter ones. Every emotion and complication and experience is there, so I’m sure there will be a mother and daughter, of some age, in every book I ever write.

If Sorrow and Bliss were to be a film, who would you like to cast to play Martha, Patrick, Jonathan, Ingrid, et al?

Possibly you’d assume the opposite of a writer but I have no visual imagination when it comes to characters and what they look like. I can do you a lovely, detailed living room or a rainy street but the reason there’s barely any physical description in Sorrow and Bliss is because I have no idea how any of them look. Which makes it hard for me to cast them. But if the author is allowed to hover on the corner of a set, I would rewrite the entire thing just so there were parts for Sharon Horgan, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.

Your writing has been compared to Phoebe Bridge-Waller’s Fleabag and Sally Rooney. What writers, films, artists or musicians do you think have had an impact on your writing?

I’ve been amazed by comparisons to both of those writers, and so grateful. But they’re both such millennial voices and I’m squarely Gen X so its writers of my generation, or earlier ones, who have taught me what to do and how, and impacted me most as a reader. Like Rachel Cusk, who writes in such a straight, sparing way that you’re always caught out by the depth and darkness of the material. Hilary Mantel, for the way she combines such detail with such economy. Janet Frame, for beauty and experiment. But most of all, Nancy Mitford for that incredible blending of humour and pathos and – I think – her inventing a kind of fiction that is literary but funny and accessible at the same time.

I Iike to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Sorrow and Bliss to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?

Gosh, I love that idea. I remember when I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation when it first came out, thinking afterwards – or possibly within the first few pages – oh, here it is, the perfect novel! Desperately funny and sad and beautiful, such amazing observation and – incredibly – the whole story of a marriage told in one hundred and something pages. That and Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a sort of boy version of the same, are the two novels I would choose as companions for Sorrow and Bliss if I could.

What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?

I’m not sure why, since I generally tend towards fiction, but I’ve been on a history bender since the beginning of summer and chain-read all of Simon Jenkins’ Short Histories, and Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette and The Six Wives of Henry Eighth. They’re such amazing works for scholarship but they read like novels so there’s no effort involved. But definitely inspiration, for me, in the fact that Fraser had her fifth child in the middle of writing Mary Queen of Scots, 640 pages long, and she didn’t give up or drop dead of exhaustion.

Next, and the second they’re released, in February and May this year, I will be reading Max Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon and Rachel Cusk’s Second Place.

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Book Reviews Sorrow and Bliss - Meg Mason

Book Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss is the second novel by Meg Mason, a New Zealand writer living in Sydney. On the longlist for the prestigious Jann Medlicott Acorn Award for Fiction at the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, it’s the story of a woman called Martha: her hollow highs, her life-changing lows, her depression and suicidal ideation. It’s not as grim as it sounds – Mason’s writing is blisteringly funny, that’s also chic and modern in its execution.

The novel follows tall, blonde, and brilliant Martha through the years around 1994 to 2017, as she navigates life with an undiagnosed mental illness. She’s a classic unreliable narrator, and story moves around in time in fragmented anecdotes, jumping from her fortieth birthday party to her teenage years without skipping a beat, leaving stories unfinished at times, relying on the reader to make the connections and to understand the truth.

Throughout the story, Martha lives in Shepherd Bush with her father Fergus, a failed poet, and her mother Celia, a sculptor. The house is a chaotic nest of love and dysfunction. Martha and her sister Ingrid are close in age, and so alike they could be twins. Their relationship functions as the common twin trope in fiction – so similar and yet so different, so close and yet so disparate. They bond over their anger at their mother’s cold and callous nature, her alcoholic benders, and her sporadic attempts to kick out Fergus before taking him back again. Only there’s something very different about Martha, and it moves her away from Ingrid and everyone else.

Family is important in Sorrow and Bliss, and Martha’s painfully naive about their secrets. Most of the story revolves around Martha’s immediate and extended family: her aunt Winsome, uncle Rowland, and cousins Nicholas, Oliver, and Jessamine. Celia’s sister Winsome has married into wealth and lives in Belgravia, and we come to see the relationship between Celia and Winsome mirrors that of Ingrid and Martha. Each person in this family is in their own way self-centred, shallow, and cruel; although occasionally, they show each other the incomparable tenderness of unconditional love.

However, Martha’s challenges force her family to reassess how unconditional love works. How can you provide support in the face of unrelenting pain and illness? Would it be easier to give up on someone who can’t seem to ‘help themselves’? Many people will read this novel and see the dynamics of the Russell family mirroring their own journey with a family member who requires deep and unending support and understanding. It’s difficult and confronting, but an important story to tell.

While Sorrow and Bliss is about Martha and her journey to understand herself and her family, it’s also about the nature of love and being wanted. Martha lives in a world determined by her relationship to men: her well-meaning father, ill-fated first husband Jonathan, the semi-magical friend Peregrine, the ever-present second husband Patrick. Which men give her what she wants, and which men don’t. Who desires her, and who doesn’t. What an indictment of the way women often live! Finding a way through the patriarchy. Wondering constantly about who is admiring us. Who is loving us. Who might give us what we want. It’s a man who gives Martha what she wants: a psychiatrist, who gives her the diagnosis that makes sense of the lifetime of sadness; and it’s also a man who can’t give her what she wants – her second husband Patrick, who Martha assigns as the demon in her life because of his failure to diagnose her and to see through her lies and make her a mother. At times I ached for Martha to find a woman with whom she could find some peace, yet by the height of the drama, she’s pushed all the women who might support her away.

Patrick is but a shadow of a character in this book: Martha admits as much when she realises she doesn’t once think about his thoughts, his beliefs or his experiences. She’s awful to him, really. Everyone’s awful to him. I couldn’t understand why he continued to be associated with the family. But again, we are only hearing Martha’s interpretation of events. The unreliability of her story comes into play again and again, and it’s frustrating and real and dripping with sorrow as we see characters misinterpret one another.

Because we never hear Patrick’s side of the story, we never understand why he loves her, just that he does, and he’s willing to go through nearly anything to be with her. The love story feels both shallow and so powerful it shatters your heart into tiny pieces.

In a novel with many vivid scenes, Sorrow and Bliss sometimes missed an opportunity to give us more emotional power. A few scenes told in summary or flashback would have had a different impact if they’d been shown as present action. One example of this is when Martha mentions how an email made her so angry she repeatedly slammed the pointed end of her clothes iron into the wall, creating a triangular pattern of dents above her desk. Removing us from that scene, by virtue of mentioning it in only in a few lines during another scene, holds us at arm’s length from Martha and the truth of her lived experience. We’re only given snippets of this fascinating story, and I desired to be let inside the controlled narrative and see what was hidden.

It’s her story, but who is Martha, really? I’m not sure we know her truly, even at the end. We rely on what she’s told by other people, because Martha hides her true cravings and ambitions from the reader and her family. We’re told she’s beautiful – less so than her sister, but in a better way: ‘Father said, ”They might look at her first. But they’ll want to look at you for longer.”’ Several characters tell her she’s brilliant and clever and funny, although there’s little evidence of this in the book. Sadly, due to her illness, her potential is given no room to develop. She’s bounced around from doctor to doctor, provided with prescriptions like a medical guinea pig. What a difference it would’ve made if she’d been diagnosed earlier! Plenty of women can attest to this issue: in reality, women are diagnosed years later than men for almost all illnesses. Lucky for Martha, she has family with money – she’s never homeless, never abandoned. Her autonomy is oppressed under the dictatorship of her illness, but through it all she’s loved and wanted and safe.

Heavy on the sorrow, light on the bliss, Martha is irrational and irritating, heart-warming and relatable. Mason’s writing is fresh and stylish, creating an intimate novel that feels utterly, wonderfully contemporary. It’s bitter and funny with off-hand British humour, which makes up for the times Martha is frustrating enough to throw the book across the room.

Sorrow and Bliss is about legacy and inheritance, the genetic debts our parents pass down to us; it’s about homes and the memories that can be created and misremembered between their walls; it’s about being forgiven and forgiving, about forgetting and about holding each other close. It’s about personal crisis and the damage to those around us, it’s about parents and children and the lives we lead, as opposed to the lives we dreamed of. It’s about desire and being wanted, and about being truthful about what we want in return.