An Interview with M.J. Reidy
M.J. Reidy is an award-winning writer from the Central Coast of NSW. Her stories have appeared on the page and been performed on the stage, in: Award Winning Australian Writing (2016), INK3, Monologue Adventures Voices of Women Project, Australian Poetry Slam NSW finals and the ABC. In her spare time, she likes to paint, draw, mosaic and try her hand at anything creative.
M.J. Reidy took the time to have a chat with us about what fuels her creativity, her writing processes, and how her different careers have influenced her writing career.
As a writer of short fiction and poetry, what draws you to writing in each form? What came first to you: short stories or poetry?
I am drawn to writing short stories because I’ve always adored reading them. Often a good short story will stay with me for days, there’s such power in their brevity of form. I’m quite in love with the work of Ryan O’Neill, Karen Hitchcock, Julie Koh and Chris Wolmersley. I think being bowled over by a short story leaves a lasting effect on you – and as a reader you wonder, could I do that to people? Could I leave them breathless or keep them awake with a beautifully rendered sentence or ending? I guess that’s how it started for me.
I have written briefly for the stage – for Australian Poetry Slam back in 2014 and also a comedic monologue for the Voices of Women project in Sydney earlier this year. But I definitely don’t consider myself a poet! Both monologues and short stories are similar beasts – both require you to be very savvy and efficient with words and narrative. The monologue stuff came to me much later than short story writing. I started to become quite curious about the difference of writing for the page as opposed to the stage, and I loved the raw power of slam poets. In 2014, I saw that they had the slam heats in Wyong and went along and performed. I was so nervous – but I loved the intimacy of it, how I could actually make people smile and laugh and see people’s reactions. As a writer it’s a much more subtle and ‘passive’ experience when your work gets published – mainly because you have no idea how people react to your work or whether its being read at all. Monologues are so much more immediate – and I particularly loved that poetry slam was this really political tool, people speaking out about all sorts of social justice issues and using it to enact change.
“Both monologues and short stories are similar beasts – both require you to be very savvy and efficient with words and narrative.”
You have worked in a number of different fields; from basil picking on an organic farm to working with children with disabilities and working in mental health. How have your different careers shaped you as a writer?
I think it’s great to try lots of different things and experiences, and that curiosity about the world and people naturally lends itself to the attributes of being a writer. I’m quite an unstructured writer, so I don’t plan anything that I write – but an idea or an image or a question might come to me, and I’ll dive into that and see where that story is going to lead me. I think working in different jobs introduces you to different settings and ideas and sub-cultures – and I’m a terrible thief when I write, so I might overhear a line of conversation or subliminally be absorbing new information from a job and then that stuff will find its way into my stories.
The longest career I have had was working in mental health. I did a Social Sciences degree before that and I think that career shaped me enormously as a writer. I learnt a lot about psychology and sociology. I was fascinated with why people behave in certain ways in certain situations – especially how trauma can irrevocably shape people. I am always drawn to write about grief and loss issues, and having a good understanding and curiosity about people’s behaviours/psychology can only help you when you write – especially fleshing out authentic characters on the page and making their actions believable.
There is the old adage, write what you know, but what happens if you want to write about something that is foreign to you? For ages I’ve been wanting to write a short story about a male character prawn fishing (mainly because I see prawn fisherman from my verandah at night and its such a poetic image and the process looks so meditative) – but the only way I’m going to write it is to actually experience it and go and buy a net and all the gear! I have to feel what the character feels in order to tell the story and sometimes that means I’ve got to throw myself into their mind and body for a bit, learn new things and see where that takes me. Sometimes there’s a story in it, sometimes not.
In 2014, you won a writing residency at Varuna. What was your experience like there? What did you learn from it?
That was a really interesting experience. I was working alongside some incredibly talented and experienced writers and a playwright and I actually got stage fright! I felt like I didn’t deserve to be at Varuna House. I have read other writers suffer from this imposter syndrome but I didn’t know what it was at the time. I was literally starting out in my writing career and had won a couple of small awards but I was, and still am, relatively unknown. I literally knew nothing about professional writers, let alone sit in a room with them and critique stuff.
But aside from that, it was a great experience. We worked with Siobahn McHugh, the ABC producer and documentarian and spent our days listening to audio around the blue mountains and then at night, drinking wine and listening to radio plays and critiquing them. At the time, I was really interested in lifting my words off the page for sound for live storytelling and radio. There was a fantastic program on the ABC called Radiotonic that I just loved, but I think its folded now. I found performing to be a terrifying but incredibly powerful experience – so much more intimate than writing for the page. When I went to to Varuna, I guess I was just following that passion. We learnt to put stories together for radio and I spent a couple of days wandering around the back streets of the Blue Mountains recording splices of sound. It made me realise how 10 seconds of sound can create mood and atmosphere, in a way that it can take a whole book to reproduce. That astounded me but it also opened my mind up to different ways of storytelling.
“I found performing to be a terrifying but incredibly powerful experience – so much more intimate than writing for the page.”
Your short story, “This is how a voice sounds” was selected to be included in the 2016 Award Winning Australian Writing anthology. Can you tell us about the writing process of “This is how a voice sounds”?
Most of my stories seem to take a long time to write. When I went to the Blue Mountains for the residency, I literally had that sentence rolling around in my head for weeks. This is how a voice sounds. This is how a voice sounds. It was quite strange – it wouldn’t leave me be. It was this really repetitive voice, a child-like voice, almost Irish, sing-songy. At the time I was so fascinated with voice, the power of voice to transform women and landscapes. I was listening to different birds voices in my backyard – and just becoming really obsessed with sounds and voices, even listening into people’s conversations and trying to see how their voices formed images in my head. So with that story, I was writing scraps on paper about a girl who had no voice but nothing was really happening with it, not in a cohesive sense.
I put those scraps away in a drawer and then a few months later I was doing a short writing course at Sydney university and had to submit the first chapter of a novel. Suddenly I had a deadline and I was forced to hole myself up for a few days writing this story. It was very intense to write, almost like writing poetry – because it had such a distinctive rhythm and the voice felt really strong. So the story came out over the span of about 9 months. I had beautiful feedback from it in my course, people literally coming up and shaking my hand and I’d never had that experience before. That feedback made me realise that I had to keep following that voice and story. So a short story became a novella. And then the novella became a novel. And that novel is now at a publisher – fingers crossed!
You’re not only a writer, but an artist as well! What fuels your creativity and does your art influence your writing (and vice versa)?
I’m not a terribly good artist – mainly self-taught. Definitely more skilled as a writer! Back in 2010, when I was working in mental health I had the opportunity to go to art classes with some of our clients. It totally changed my life.
I’m not sure if my art influences my writing (or vice versa), although sometimes I will finish a story and think that I’d like to paint an image from it. I had a story published in Elle magazine about a woman’s relationship with a kookaburra – and that story really opened up doors for me. I haven’t done it yet, but I’d love to paint a picture of a woman with a kookaburra sitting on her shoulder. I owe so much to the character of that kookaburra, so art would be a way of paying gratitiude to that. Sometimes a short story can start with a single image in my head and I just follow it, unsure of what the crux of it is about.
As a writer, I am a very image driven person. I guess its about seeing beauty in the ordinary, then making it extraordinary or unique through words and images and voice. Sometimes, when I get bogged down in a story or am having problems with it – my motto is to keep it simple: follow image after image after image and it will form a narrative. As I write I tend to see flashes of images, so my brain is perhaps wired that way. It’s taken me a while to trust that and instinctively follow it.
In 2017, M.J. Reidy’s short story ‘Nulliparous’ was the winner of Elle magazine’s national short story competition. In 2018, her short story ‘Dachshunds on antidepressants’ was a finalist in the Newcastle Short Story prize. In her spare time, she likes to paint, draw, mosaic and try her hand at anything creative.