Congratulations on your debut book, The Very Last List of Vivian Walker. Tell me a bit about the journey from when you decided to write this book to getting a book deal with Hachette.
Thank you! Well, I didn’t really set out to write a book. I had a friend who was in palliative care, and I spent a lot of time with her until she passed. After she died, I found myself in the writer’s group I’m in now. At first, I was just writing little pieces, and eventually I realised that they all kind of fit together.
I ended up taking a few works in progress, including the beginning of The Very Last List of Vivian Walker, to the CYA Writers and Illustrators Conference. It’s an opportunity to submit your work to publishers and agents. One agent was like, “oh, yeah, I really liked it, but I’d change this and change that and I’d like to hear the son’s voice…” Then I went to see the Hachette person, and they said they loved it and would like to sign it! So, I submitted what I had, and then heard nothing for about a year.
One of my friends ended up starting a literary agency and became my agent. She got back in touch with the people from Hachette. It had got lost on someone’s desk somewhere, but the editor who picked it up loved it. Around the same time, I got shortlisted for the Banjo Prize and had to decide which publisher to go with. I went with Hachette because they offered me a two-book deal, which is great in theory, but then you’ve got the pressure of writing a second book, which I hadn’t really thought through.
I was really lucky because I had beautiful reviews about The Very Last List of Vivian Walker. Lots of people even contacted me who were terminally ill or had lost someone. You just realise how people feel like they can’t talk about these things to friends and family, because if they could, they wouldn’t be coming up and telling a perfect stranger. But they could tell that I understood because, in the writing, it was obvious I’d been through it myself. So, I didn’t really get many negative comments, which is obviously fabulous, but then you’ve got the pressure to do something equally good again…
What is your writing process like? Are there any particular habits that help you write?
I’m a pantser. For example, this morning I woke up with an idea and just started writing. I do now have a kind of discipline with my writing, but I still find that the best stuff comes at the most inconvenient times.
The number one thing that helps is being in a writer’s group. Meeting every week and reading your work aloud is a great way to hear your own writing. It also gives you a deadline. The main thing is just having a place and a time to write.
Sometimes that’s locking myself at home, sometimes it’s out in the world. Coming from a big family, I kind of like having a bit of noise around me while I work. And sometimes you’ll see something out of the corner of your eye and it ends up in your story.
When I know I’ll need to write something the next morning, I often say to myself before I go to bed, “okay brain, what are we going to do with this bit?” I’ll give my brain a job to do at night in my sleep. I find that helpful for me because my subconscious is much smarter than my conscious.
Also, lots of chai tea helps. Drinking copious amounts of chai. Proper chai tea, mind you, not that syrup rubbish.
What was it like seeing your book get turned into a stage production and performing your original music in it?
Look, again, it just kind of happened. I’d done something similar with my novella years ago and I bumped into Madeleine West, who’s an actor, and went, oh, I’m thinking of doing this, what do you think? And she jumped in and did it. It was amazing having someone act the part of my characters. It was a one-woman show and Madeleine literally went from playing a man to playing a kid to a dying woman. It was so amazing to hear my words being spoken. And she just embodied the character, Vivian, so well—even at the times when Vivian is a crazy, psycho bitch. And she could go from that to sobbing to being angry to being soft. She’s a real chameleon. So, it was a huge privilege, but it was also a lot of work. My husband and I ran the whole thing and performed in it. But it was lovely being on stage and having people come up at the end and tell me their stories.
We’ve got someone who’s taking a film option on it, so that’s going to be pretty exciting too. It’s beautiful seeing your characters come to life and hopefully, I’ll be in the writer’s room for that.
The other great thing about performing music in the play was that Madeleine would act a scene and set the audience up for our performance. When you do gigs, sometimes you really have to work to get the audience listening and engaging. Whereas, when you do it as part of a play, we’d just pick a song to perform that matched the mood everyone was already in.
The other thing I loved was that you’ve got a captive audience in the theatre. Performing in a theatre is very different to playing in the background somewhere in pubs and clubs.
It’s inspiring how you’ve combined your passions for music and writing in your career. Did you always know you wanted to do both? How did you start out?
I did an English degree, and then I did my Master’s in creative writing. And then when I had just started my career as a journo, I went for a singing lesson, and my teacher said to me, “what would you be if you could be anything?” And I realised I’d actually love to sing. My dad’s like, “oh, great, five years at uni to become a singer.” So then I guess I just used journalism to pay my way to be a musician because it’s pretty hard to make a decent living as a musician.
I always wrote though, and I think for me, writing is a kind of therapy. It’s a way of just brain-dumping. I just kind of accidentally fell into combining music and writing in The Very Last List of Vivian Walker. Hachette sent me some books to read, and every so often I’d see one with a QR code on the back so you could listen to a playlist. I loved that, and I thought, if I’m going to do it, I might as well have a playlist of my own music. The great thing about having a playlist is that it keeps you connected with the characters, even when the book is finished.
Have you ever felt obligated to write a certain way or subject matter because of your identity as a First Nations woman?
That’s a good question. Well, I didn’t feel obligated to write a First Nations story for my first book. I wrote it because it felt like my dead friend Rebecca was making me—I needed to write that book for her. Death goes across cultures, so I wanted the character, Vivian, to be “every woman”.
The next two books I’m writing do have First Nations characters. I used to work as a journalist in Aboriginal media and that was all about showing the amazing things that First Nations people are doing, and if I can continue to do that in my books, that’s great.
As a First Nations author, it is always in the back of my mind, but ultimately, I write what I want to write. I don’t think I should only be allowed to write political Aboriginal stories or be put in a box. I think Anita Heiss is a good example of that—she can write serious non-fiction like Am I Black Enough for You? but then she also writes romance and chick lit. I want to be able to write whatever ideas end up coming through.
Tell me about the PhD you’re working on.
It’s about how First Nations authors use humour as a way to talk about difficult subjects. So, the novel that I’m writing is called Ten, and it’s about how we lock kids up in jail at ten years old. It’s black humour, which is what I do. I tend to take difficult topics like death and incarceration and try and make them funny because I think it opens the door for people to want to talk about it.
There’s always humour when mob get together, and I think that’s what keeps people sane. Even during trauma and hard stuff, like funerals for example, regardless of culture, there are often people telling jokes. It’s kind of a release valve. And so, I’ve been looking at people like Melissa Lukashenko and Anita Heiss and how they’ve done that in their books and trying to figure out how to use humour to make it palatable for people to read about a little boy being locked up in jail. The comedy comes from the fact that as a kid his world view is simple, so in his innocent mind it’s okay that he’s about to be locked up because he wants to get on reality TV, and being locked up will give him a good backstory.
Even though humour can be different from culture to culture, we all have some form of humour. And I think if you can get people to see humour, then maybe you can get them to see people they wouldn’t normally relate to as humans just like them. I want people to see this little boy not as an Aboriginal kid, but just as a kid.
Your characters often have very flawed, almost unlikable personalities. Is that deliberate?
I want people to connect to my characters and love them, but yes, I don’t make them easy to like. For me, that’s realistic because we all have people, especially in our families, that we love, but don’t like. So, I try to write characters that maybe we’re not meant to like, but that we can understand why they’re the way they are, and see the beauty beneath the ugliness.
What’s your new book, The Tuckshop Lady, about?
I’m still working on the title, but at the moment it’s The Tuckshop Lady’s Apprentice. The book is about a CWA woman in a country town who works at the school tuckshop, and an Aboriginal woman from the city comes back to the town she grew up in when her daughter starts school. She takes a job at the tuckshop when her daughter starts being bullied as she wants to keep an eye on her. It’s about the clash of cultures between city and country and between generations.
Megan Albany is a multi-talented author and singer. Her acclaimed debut novel The Very Last List of Vivian Walker was shortlisted for The Banjo Prize in 2020 and is part of a two-book deal with Hachette. The novel is a black comedy and follows Vivian Walker, a mother with terminal cancer who just wants to get through her to-do list before D-day. Megan is currently studying her PhD in creative writing at QUT. Megan has worked as a journalist, editor, scriptwriter, songwriter, and composer in New York and Europe, and now lives in the Northern Rivers of NSW with her family.
Interviewer: Jasmine Lewers is an emerging writer in Brisbane who studies creative writing at QUT. She is passionate about gender theory, domestic noir, and the violin. She is currently working on a murder mystery novel that combines all three.
Editors: Suzy Darlington