The Spilled Ink-quisition – An Interview with Maggie Mackellar

Helen Roche

This week Helen interviewed Australian author Maggie Mackellar.  Maggie has published two books on the history of settlement in Australia and Canada and two memoirs, When It Rains and How To Get There.  Her latest book, Graft, is out on 23 April.  In this latest memoir, Maggie gives us the land she knows and loves, the lambs she cares for, the ewes she tries to save, and the dogs and horses she adores. Graft is a thanksgiving for a place and a moment in motherhood, and a reminder of the inescapable elemental laws of nature.  Maggie lives on a merino wool farm on paredareme country on the east coast of Tasmania.

Helen: What is your writing process?

Maggie: I try and write a sentence and then another sentence and onward. I know that sounds simple but that is literally the only way I know how to get something out. If it’s a short piece, I get to the end of the draft and then revise. If it’s a longer work, like a book, then I try and get it all out and then go back to the beginning. For Graft I had a lot of fragments of memoir, diary and observations of birds and it took a long time to work out how they all fitted together.

Helen: Did you always want to be an author?  What did your early career look like?

Maggie: No, I wanted to be a vet, or a professional horse rider. Then I thought I would be a mountain climber. Eventually I became an academic. I did a PhD in history at Sydney University and taught in the history department there. A PhD is a great writing apprenticeship because your work is being read all the time and you have deadlines. You get used to defending your ideas and be open to criticism. I loved it.

Helen: Where do your ideas come from?

Maggie: The weather (I’m not joking). Also, from observations of daily life on our farm and my interactions with the animals here. And reading – especially poetry.

Helen: What are you currently working on?

Maggie:  I am currently working on turning my newsletter, The Sit Spot, into a book.

Helen: Do you experience writer’s block and if you do how do you overcome it?

Maggie: Yes, I really struggled with the early drafts of Graft. I did a virtual writing retreat with American writer Sarah Sentilles (The Word Cave) and working with Sarah and the other writers participating on the retreat got my confidence back and the words flowing.

Helen: What risks have you taken with writing that have or haven’t paid off?

Maggie: Graft is a bit of a risk – it is not straight memoir – I don’t know if it will pay off in obvious ways – eg selling well, but it has already paid off because I am a better writer having written this book.

Helen: What are common traps for emerging writers?

Maggie: Hmmmm, I’m not sure – I think giving up your day job is a mistake.

Helen: What’s on your reading list at the moment?

Maggie: I’m really looking forward to American poet Maggie Smith’s new memoir You Could Make this Place Beautiful.

Helen Roche is an emerging writer of short stories, poetry, and novels, with a particular interest in themes surrounding the beauty and frailty of humanity.  She is passionate about travel and has had a wealth of life experience in her nearly 60 years travelling around the sun.  She is in her third year of studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at QUT and is very excited to be on the newsletter team of ScratchThat this semester.