I first met Margaret Morgan online, way before she wrote her first book. She friended me on Facebook and we figured out we had a lot in common, especially Led Zeppelin. The first time we met up, when she was visiting Melbourne, we shared a jug of Amaretto Sours at Madame Brussels on Bourke Street and it has been uphill since then.
On Facebook, she began talking about this novel she was working on, and I must admit, I didn't pay a lot of attention. Who isn't writing a novel, right? Still, I should've known better given her history of achievement in a range of areas: if anyone was going to write a successful novel out of the blue, it was her. And so it proved to be, and that story is told below. The book is now being made into a TV series, and we talk about that too.
The following interview took place over several months, via single-question emails, with lots of follow ups, in the usual style I use here when I do these deep-dive interviews. We managed to cover a lot of territory.
We talk a lot about Margaret's work, but I took advantage of all her expertise to go off at what I think you will find to be interesting tangents.
My questions/comments are bolded; Margaret's answers then follow. (I've edited for clarity and length.)
Ok, so let's start with this: you have a complex and interesting work background. Can you tell us about the jobs you've had, the work you've done, the degrees you've accumulated?
At the end of high school when it was time to choose what to study, I was utterly torn between the arts and the sciences. My parents had left school young (working class children of the Depression), and we knew no one at a university. I was urged by teachers to study law (because I was good at English and was in the school debating team – perhaps not the best indication of aptitude for a legal career), but I was still drawn to science.
The only scientists I was familiar with were the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, and Professor Calculus from Tintin (both early crushes) and the only lawyer was Perry Mason. Not exactly accurate role models.
So which way did you go?
I enrolled in Arts/Law. I majored in English literature and drama for the arts degree and immersed myself in the university drama society, acting and directing, and took up with a revue troupe (The Fabulous Flying Zucchinis – I was Ardmona Zucchini) playing in pubs. I performed and wrote comedy sketches with them, and also wrote short stories, poetry and plays (all execrable and happily since lost). The thrill and fulfilment of creativity and performance were transformational.
But then it became time to become Sensible.
The last few years of study were purely law, and I started working as a part-time paralegal and as a volunteer at community legal centres, so I gave up the writing and theatre. When I graduated, I felt obliged to practise in law, the load of expectation after all that study making the momentum feel inevitable.
After a few months working in a suburban law firm dealing with conveyancing, neighbourhood disputes and family law, and realising that TV lawyers had indeed rather misled me (was there ever a scene showing them doing paperwork?!), I moved into prosecuting criminal law and later worked in criminal defence, hoping that crime would, at least, be more stimulating.
It was indeed stimulating, perhaps excessively so. Rape, murder, armed robbery, assaults. And police who could have someone put away on the basis of an unsigned record of interview, with magistrates and judges outraged at any implication that confessions might be fabricated.
I think you were married around this time too, weren't you?
Yes, by then married I had married my first husband, the composer Andy Ford. He was lecturing and composing, and on days when he was working at home, he’d watch me putting on the Sensible Lawyer Clothes in the morning and say it was like I was putting on a strait-jacket. He was right. I was miserable.
I was writing at night and submitting short stories to literary magazines. They were getting published, but my day job was simultaneously burning me out and boring me to tears. Andy’s example and encouragement helped me realise that a creative career was indeed possible. After six years of lawyering, I escaped. Enough of Sensible.
So what does post-Sensible look like?
I followed various casual jobs in arts administration as I concentrated on finding a way to write professionally. A friend of mine from university theatre days, Tim Pye, was by then working in the script department of a TV drama series, having worked his way up from the studio floor.
The show featured a character who was a solicitor, but none of the writers had any familiarity with courtroom procedure. He invited me in to give a workshop to the writers’ room, and I managed to talk myself into a full-time job, first as a legal consultant, then as a script editor and script writer.
Over the next fifteen years, I worked in-house and as a freelance screenwriter on a number of TV dramas, including A Country Practice, GP, and Water Rats.
Meanwhile, I collaborated with Andy on various projects: my words, his music. Together we wrote a song cycle for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and music theatre. The work I was most proud of was Night and Dreams: the Death of Sigmund Freud, which was commissioned by the Adelaide Festival for the tenor Gerald English and which toured Australia’s major arts festivals and was subsequently recorded for broadcast and CD.
Andy and I divorced, amicably, after a decade or so, and my early involvement with TV ended a few years later.
Why stop doing television?
Television in Australia was changing dramatically with the emergence of reality TV – a far cheaper way for the networks to fulfil their local content obligations. Apart from in soaps, there was little employment for screenwriters.
By then, I’d had a baby with my second husband, and was ready for a change. My interest in native plants led me to take a few plant identification courses, and that led to a TAFE horticulture course. It wasn’t quite science, but it was nudging in that direction.
After an internship at the National Herbarium of NSW, I took the plunge and enrolled in a degree in advanced science, majoring in biology. My initial area of interest was plant science, and while I studied, I found work in the greenhouses researching flowering triggers in native rice plants.
Over the years of my study, I worked in a range of labs researching brush turkey mating habits, effects of elevated CO2 on plant growth, the genetic relationships in skink communities, and as a sessional tutor in ecology. It was wide-ranging and utterly fulfilling work.
At the end of the degree, I was at another cross-roads.
A PhD seems the obvious route?
I was tempted to stay on and do a PhD, perhaps in the field of symbiosis and evolution, but something else was bubbling in my brain. I’d had an idea for a science fiction novel, sparked by my studies of parasitology and genetics. Much as I’d have loved to stay in research, my real interest is in synthetising broad ideas and looking at the big picture. Scientific research, by definition, requires narrow, deep exploration. So, I set to writing the book.
And that was The Second Cure?
Yes. Five years later, I finished The Second Cure, pitched it to Penguin Random House and landed a publishing contract. It was released in July last year and has done pretty well, with nominations for a couple of literary prizes and some lovely reviews.
That's quite a journey.
In my more self-critical moments, I think I have a short career attention span! The more generous version is that I’m a bit of an intellectual omnivore. All my life I’ve loved learning and have tended to get pretty passionate about whatever has captured my interest. My earliest obsessions have stayed with me: music, creative writing and science.
Because I am hopelessly uncoordinated, none of the instruments I’ve attempted to learn (piano and violin, tympani and blues harp) ever worked out, but I’ve been lucky enough to be able to study and work in both writing and biological sciences, and in recent years found a means to combine the two. I think I’ve finally worked out what I want to do when I grow up.
I just want to pick up on something. You talk about your lack of ability with musical instruments (an inability I share), but you are obviously musical. You understand music on some level, and indeed, music is very important in The Second Cure. Christopher Hitchens was once asked why he'd never written a novel and he said, he never had the ability and he thought it was tied to his lack of musical ability:
'I was very lucky in meeting people who [wrote novels] passionately and devotedly, and ...I thought now wait a minute...there’s an X factor in what they can write that I don’t possess. And I have in my book (his Bio) a theory as to what that is, by the way. I don’t know if you remember it, but the distinction between people who can write prose and fiction and poetry, and those who can, should stay with the essay form, I think is this. All my friends who can do it have musical capacity.'
You apparently disprove this theory, but putting on your science hat, I wonder what you think of a theory like that? I mean, as you indicate, there is this cultural tendency to separate us into those who do science and those who arts, but it is just a cultural bias, isn't it? Or do our brains lean one way the other, science or arts? Essays or novels?
How interesting! I remember that fabulous quote from Hitchens along the lines of ‘Everyone has a novel inside them and in many cases that’s where it should stay.’ If a novelist said that, you’d think ‘What a wanker’, but of course Hitchens was essentially talking about himself. He could be a lot more self-deprecating than much of his image suggests. I miss him.
But to the question...I am not sure I do disprove his theory.
There is a difference between being unmusical and being unable to play an instrument well. To play requires physical dexterity as well as an inner musical sensibility. Musical capacity is more than the mechanics of performance, and vice versa.
I know composers with the most extraordinary musical inner life – who can sight-read a piece and ‘play’ it, note for note, with full orchestration, in their minds – but who cannot play an instrument to save themselves. While I don’t have that degree of musicality, I do have perfect pitch (a source of deep envy from Composer Husband Andy! What a waste!) and can ‘listen’ to long and complex pieces in my head if I’m sufficiently familiar with them.
I think my inability to play instruments is more related to motor function, akin to my hilarious incapacity to dance. (A friend once described my dancing style as that of a diaphanous praying mantis. It wasn’t a compliment, but it was fair comment.)
(Sidenote from Tim: I so strongly relate to this, and it is particularly weird given my son is now a professional dancer, and the most graceful creature you could imagine. Brings to mind that line from Thus Spake Zarathustra: 'What the father hath hid cometh out in the son; and oft have I found in the son the father's revealed secret.' I know he wasn't really talking about physical attributes, but still...BTW, dancing is central to Zarathustra.)
On the broader issue, yes, I do think there is a correlation between musicality and creative writing. Both are a form of storytelling. Not in the obvious sense of programmatic music that seeks to render a specific narrative, but in terms of manipulating emotion over time. They both use sound and pitch and rhythm. With creative writing, even if the words are never spoken aloud, they are written aloud in the head of the writer. The feel of the words in the mouth, the way they fit together – it all feels deeply musical to me, whether I’m reading or writing fiction.
And the science of this?
The neuroscience underpinning this is no doubt fascinating. I don’t mean facile pseudoscience like ‘left- or right-brained’, but how the brain works when it creates, and what the shared neural involvement of various brain structures is with musical and literary creation. I’d be astounded if there weren’t a cross-over. There is also, of course, that extraordinary correlation often found between musicality and mathematical ability. Think of the mathematical intricacy of, say, Bach’s fugues. Music is a mathematical language.
So I do I think people have a physiological predisposition to particular talents. I don’t think it’s all socialisation. The more we know about ‘neurotypicality’, the more we realise it doesn’t exist. The variations within ‘normal’ are vast.
But brains are plastic. They’re affected by environment, some innate abilities are reinforced, others suppressed. Professional musicians who learn from an early age and practice for hours each day are strengthening the neurological underpinnings, literally growing certain parts of their brains. But without a pre-existing capacity, could they achieve mastery? I very much doubt it.
So we really do talk ourselves into going down one path or the other, with no good scientific reason?
Personally, I believe the idea of creative arts and science being at opposite ends of a spectrum is very much a social construct. I see no reason why the rationality of scientific thinking is incompatible with the imagination entailed in creativity. One definition of creativity is the capacity to combine multiple apparently unrelated ideas, transforming each by the synthesis. That is exactly what a lot of science does. The big scientific conceptual leaps come from that. The deliberate ignorance of science and technology among some in the arts is as irksome as the dismissal of the arts as soft and irrelevant by some in science and technology. I loathe it.
I'm tempted to go off on a whole other tangent related to this, namely the so-called 'interoceptive turn', the idea put forward by people like Antonio Damasio that our sense of self comes directly from our perception of our bodies, particularly our interior bodies. This seems to me hugely relevant to the arts and the relationship between not just body and mind, but science and the arts.
And not coincidentally, much of the work I do on the future of work involves exactly this (constructed or otherwise) duality, the idea that the jobs of the future will rely on 'human' skills as much as they will on technical ones, and so our education system has to reflect that merging, rather than work against it in the form of the traditional university practice of siloing the arts and the sciences in separate faculties.
Instead of going down that rabbit hole, let me ask specifically about the impetus for your novel and another central idea in it. The other driving force of The Second Cure is politics. It's a very political book, deeply rooted in current developments. Were you looking at the science and thought, oh, with a bit a tweaking, that would make a great story, or was there more of a desire to tell a political story? How front-of-mind was contemporary politics in the urge to write the book?
A number of thoughts were coalescing in the initial conception of The Second Cure.
The germ of the idea came to me when I was studying symbiosis and thinking a lot about the flux between parasitism and mutualism over evolutionary time. There is no species on Earth that doesn’t have a symbiotic relationship with at least one other species, and in many cases, they’re obligate: that is, one or more of the species requires the relationship for survival.
You can almost think of an organism like a human as a mobile home with attached restaurant for all the species we support, many of whom pay rent in the form of helping us digest food or protect us from pathogens.
In fact, there are around the same number of bacterial cells in our bodies as our own cells, and we are constantly learning just how crucial that microbiota is to our health.
Beyond that, if it weren’t for symbiosis, plants wouldn’t have emerged from the oceans, multicellular organisms wouldn’t have mitochondria to power them, plants wouldn’t photosynthesise. Life on earth would never have evolved beyond the most basic structures.
Symbiosis links all our planet’s biota in a fundamental sense. I don’t mean in the hippie-shit 'Gaia' Mother-Earth sense that it’s a single organism with quasi-mystical properties, but there is no question that seeing life in this way is awe-inspiring and transcendent.
I can see how this might all come together.
I started thinking about biological symbiosis as a metaphor for political power and power within personal relationships, but the real trigger for the novel came from studying host-behavioural modification. This occurs when parasites actually alter the behaviour of their host to ensure their own reproductive survival. Examples abound – for a particularly gruesome case, Google the trematode, Leucochloridium paradoxum. But maybe not over lunch.
At this point it might be helpful to give us an outline of the novel.
In The Second Cure, I take such a parasite (Toxoplasma gondii) and tweak it.
T. gondii is a protozoan that infects cats. They’re its primary host – the one where it reproduces.
Its life cycle is straightforward: the cat excretes the parasites oocytes (a little like fertilised eggs) which are then inadvertently eaten by cats’ prey such as rats and mice. Once inside the prey animal, the oocytes hatch and the protozoa develop, form cysts in its tissues, and then another cat will eat the rodent and it becomes the new host. Humans can also become infected, either through handling materials with contaminated cat faeces (like kitty-litter!) or through eating the undercooked meat of livestock that have ingested oocysts.
Now, what makes all this so interesting is that T. gondii can alter the brains of rodents that are infected. They not only lose their fear of cats, they are actively attracted to their scent. An infected rat will scamper up to a cat, and, unsurprisingly, will likely get eaten. By manipulating the rat’s behaviour, the parasite ensures that it has a new cat host where it can reproduce sexually with other organisms, resulting in gene diversity and transmission.
Infected humans, in this process, are a dead end for the parasite – it can’t reproduce inside them and cats certainly aren’t likely to eat them. Infection can cause harm, though.
A pregnant woman becoming infected could suffer miscarriage, or the baby might be born with deformities. And if your immune system is suppressed, the infection can lead to serious illness and death. For most people, though, it’s not a problem, and a large proportion of people – particularly cat owners – are infected without ever knowing it.
Here is the kicker though. As with the rodents, infected humans can have behavioural changes. These include an increase in recklessness, clumsiness and neuroticism...
That led me to one of those ‘what if’ moments.
What if T. gondii mutated and jumped species, making humans the definitive host? What if it were transmitted between humans sexually? What if the new mutation killed infected cats? All plausible, scientifically. Another strong interest of mine is the neuroscience of belief, religious and political. What if the parasite affected the brain structures responsible for those?
So in The Second Cure I invent Toxoplasma pestis. My variant has a range of effect on humans, depending on where in the brain it takes hold. It can cause a lessening of fear, which in turn affects political persuasion. It can lead to massive synaesthesia. It can lead to increased sexual activity. It can erase religious belief. For some it is a blessing, for others, a curse.
Once T. pestis takes hold across the globe, I explore the consequences, personal and political.
Conservative religious forces see it as an existential threat to their power, while infected, increasingly progressive regions embrace it. Far North Queensland secedes from Australia to become a Christo-fascist dictatorship.
Against this background, my characters play out their own conflicts, as the parasite shifts relationships and power dynamics. My protagonist, a parasitologist, is torn between her research in finding a cure and her recognition that her work is being used for harm. Her journey encompasses, among other things a reckoning with the role of science in a time of crisis. And a few other meaty issues like... free will.
As you say, politics do indeed pervade the novel. There is probably more than a little wish-fulfilment involved, borne of frustration over the sheer lack of compassion among so many political leaders and their supporters, and their inability to empathise with the demonised ‘other’. If only there were a way to put something in the water to change their heads...
Ok, so I am going to be really careful if I ever come to your place for dinner.
We've talked a bit about music, and music is really central to the book. In fact, when I was reading it, I would yell out to our Google Home to play the piece that you were currently writing about, so it added a whole other dimension, kind of emersed me in the story even more.
The thing that strikes me about the music is the same thing that strikes me about the science in the book, namely, that there is a level of authority in how you deal with both that becomes vital to the believability of the fiction.
Your musical tastes are obviously eclectic, but I was wondering how you chose the pieces of music you highlight in the novel. Did you have particular pieces you wanted to include, and then made them fit, or did you get to a point in the story where you needed a piece and then looked around for something appropriate?
(I notice also that in your Acknowledgements you say that Andy critiqued some of the music sections, so how important was that sort of help?)
The pieces I chose were essentially pure self-indulgence! They’re pieces I just adore. The Rite of Spring is one of the most affecting musical works I know. It overwhelms me whenever I listen to it and I actually have to restrict how often I do because it exhausts me emotionally.
So when it came to finding a piece that would magnify (my character) Richard’s perceptions and unleash his synaesthesia, there really was no question what it would be. I downloaded the full score to study the part I would use and get the description of it as close as I could. It’s quite a challenge to describe in words the subjective experience of music and I found it exhilarating.
For other pieces, the choice was more prosaic. The lyrics to Honeysuckle Rose are out of copyright! But of course they are also fabulously filthy and just perfect for my characters to dance to when they’re falling in love and lust.
Don't buy sugar/You just have to touch my cup/You're my sugar/It's sweeter when you stir it up/When I'm taking sips from your tasty lips/Seems the honey fairly drips/You're my sweet goodness knows/Honeysuckle rose/Oh my.
Andy double-checked that I wasn’t making an arse of myself in my use of technical musical terms. Plus, of course, back when we were married and later when we collaborated I learned a lot from him about music and about the process of composition. He broadened my knowledge considerably.
(During this exchange, Margaret sent through this link to a Spotify playlist of all the music in the book. Worth a listen!)
So let's talk about getting published. Although you've had success in other areas, this is your first novel. I remember you talking about it on social media and, to be honest, so many people talk about writing novels, that I didn't really give it much thought. Boy, I didn't know you that well, did I! So accept this as an apology for not paying more attention. Then the next thing I know, you are announcing you sent it to a publisher, one of the biggest in the country, and they had accepted it! I mean, it's like every writers' dream, isn't it? Does it seem a bit surreal to you, or were you always confident it would be published?
Yes, the getting-published process was completely surreal and still feels that way to me. As my author friend and former teacher at the Australian Writers’ Centre, Pamela Freeman likes to say, ‘This isn’t the way it normally happens...’
And please don’t apologise!
You weren’t the only one to doubt, and why wouldn’t you? I totally get the ‘Oh look, another person on social media writing a novel.’ I had confidence I’d finish it – I’d written enough major works to know I had the staying power. Confidence in it getting published? Absolutely not. Huge aspiration, but I knew all the horror stories.
But as it played out, the process was rapid and painless and it still leaves me breathless.
I pitched the manuscript to Lex Hirst, then of Penguin Random House, at drinks after a writing event.
It felt completely audacious to introduce myself to her and I remember my anxiety churning as told her about my novel. But she’d said earlier that day on a panel what she was looking for in manuscripts and it seemed that mine might fit her criteria.
One of the things you’re told is crucial for such moments is to have prepared your elevator pitch. Predictably, mine completely evaporated from my skull as I talked to Lex.
Still, whatever I said (to be honest, I can’t remember what it was!), it worked. She asked to see the full manuscript and I emailed it to her that night. This felt like an enormous achievement. Getting your manuscript in front of a publisher’s eyeballs is a major step, so I was thrilled beyond measure. I had no real expectations at that point. Just having pitched successfully felt wonderful.
Three days later she messaged me to say she’d read the first hundred pages, loved them, and wanted to meet for coffee.
We did that later in the week, when she’d finished reading it. She wanted to commission it, but first, of course, it had to go to the dreaded acquisitions meeting.
The Second Cure was accepted, and soon I had a contract to sign. I honestly can’t express the joy I felt. Still feel. Having a novel published has been a dream of mine since I first realised that books were actually written by normal people and such a thing was possible.
And of course, this is where the fairytale come sometimes come undone, as authors, especially new authors, go through the dreaded professional editing process.
Working with Lex during the editing process was smooth and satisfying. We were absolutely of a mind. She identified areas that needed more attention, characters that needed deepening, and left me to find the solutions for myself. She was perceptive and receptive, fiercely analytical, and was as invested in the characters as I was.
By the time it went to print, the novel was around 30,000 words longer. One of the publicists at Penguin Random House felt a bond with my novel and specifically asked to be part of the team. She was just fantastic, pushing for gigs and interviews. It made me realise how much of publishing a novel is about the relationships.
Publication was just over a year ago. Reviews that literally made me cry with delight that someone really got what I was trying to do, interviews and coverage on Radio National, a book tour and events that connected me with readers, the Wheeler Centre, appearing at Adelaide Festival Writers Week, a couple of major literary award nominations, and now the option being sold for a miniseries and my returning to screenwriting? Damned bloody right it’s surreal! Wonderfully, stupidly, brilliantly surreal! I’m not sure when the pinching myself phase is going to end.
I also feel, having listened to you talk about the process, there was a real communal aspect to writing and publishing this book. We all need help, people who will offer advice or open doors––publishing is such a cloistered industry––but we still have this image of the writer-in-the-garret, toiling in isolation to produce the sui generis work. It seems to me, though, you took a much more open approach, seeking advice, talking about it on social media, attending classes, doing the Varuna residency. Can you take some of the mystery out of 'being a writer' for us and address that aspect of your process? I find it really fascinating.
The writing process can, of course, be garretish and solitary, but it doesn’t need to be.
I applied to do a course at the Australian Writers’ Centre in Sydney, a six-month one-night-a-week class called, ‘Write Your Novel” with Pamela Freeman. I’d written about 30,000 words when I began, and had maybe two-thirds written when it finished.
It was an excellent way to get support from other aspiring writers and practical craft advice on vital issues like point of view, structure and narrative pacing.
A few of us from the class joined up to form a writing group, meeting regularly to read and critique each other’s novels. Our run rate is pretty good. From five of us with five novels, two are now published and a third has won a writing award that includes publication. There’ll be another that should be snapped up any moment now.
And tell us about Varuna?
While I was working on the first draft, I applied to Varuna, the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, for a residential fellowship. Being granted that opportunity was just fantastic for my confidence. It felt so affirming, like I might just be a real novelist. I was there for two weeks with four other writers. We’d write all day in our rooms then eat the evening meal together and talk into the night over red wine in front of the open fire. It was blissful to be in a place purely devoted to supporting writing. We catch up whenever we’re in each other’s cities and are now firm friends.
I also found a community of fellow writers online.
It’s staggering to me what a warm and welcoming bunch of people they are. So much generosity, so much genuine caring and support. Writers really are fine people, in my experience. Sure, there are gobshites among us, but they’re such a minority.
My best advice to aspiring writers is to find your tribe. Get advice, share experiences. Respect the niceties. Don’t be pushy, don’t be too demanding of others’ time – and especially don’t expect published writers to leap at your invitation to read your manuscript. Wait for the offer. Don’t forget that many writers supplement their writing income with paid writing and editing advice, so don’t ask them to do it for free. But join writing organisations, go to festivals, and if you are working in a particular genre, seek out its events.
If you limit your writing process to the garret, you’ll potentially miss a lot. But of course, being a writer often entails crippling introversion, so there is that. Do what works for you.
You said earlier you forgot your elevator pitch for The Second Cure. Any chance you can dig it up?
'A common parasite mutates and brings cats, domestic and wild, to the edge of extinction. It infects humans, changing their neurology, perceptions and behaviour, and ultimately society itself. Leading parasitologist Charlie Zinn works on a cure, but when she becomes infected, she wonders if the plague might be exactly what humanity needs...'
Thanks. And, yep, I'd publish that!
I want to move onto something else. I remember talking to Robert Drewe years ago, not long after his book The Bodysurfers had been made into a series by the ABC, and I asked him about the difference in writing for the screen. He said he didn't actually write the script for the TV show and he said, you either involve yourself in writing the teleplay/screenplay and have all the fights about maintaining integrity with the book, or you hand it over to someone else, let them make it in the way they see fit, politely take the money and walk away.
In a way, the novel has brought you full circle, hasn't it? I believe you have sold the rights and are working on a teleplay? How did that come about, who will produce it, and when can we expect to see it on our screens? And which app will I have to use to watch it? In other words, who will broadcast it?
Drewe was a being a bit flip, of course, but there's truth in what he says. I think you've chosen to be very hands on, so can you tell us about that decision and about what your actual role will be in the series production?
When I negotiated my book contract with Penguin Random House, I made sure I retained the screen rights because I wanted to have the opportunity to write any adaptation rather than just hand it over and hope for the best.
Maybe if you’re an author like Drewe who’s had a swag of books published you don’t feel as protective of your characters and story, but the thought of taking the money and walking away was never an option for me. I’d rather it not be made than made in a way that isn’t true to its essence. That might also be a function of age and experience. At my point in life, I’m not trying to prove myself, but really now aim just to do and create what satisfies me.
Another thing I'd say is that an adaptation doesn't need to be a dramatised version of a novel. There really is no point in that.
One of the great delights of film and TV drama is that a single story is told by so many different voices: screenwriter, director, cinematographer, actors, designers, editors... Internal monologue and indeed a lot of dialogue can be replaced with an actor’s expression and body language.
Tone and atmosphere are expressed through sights and sounds. The pacing of prose is converted to the rhythms of camera shots and editing. Even the narrative structure can be transformed.
It feels like I’m throwing the novel into the blender, breaking it down to its constituent parts and putting it together again in a way that requires the glue of all the other collaborators. Very exciting process, not least because all the strong visual and musical elements of the novel will translate so powerfully to the screen. I think I’d forgotten how much I love writing drama and love that creative collaboration.
I know you are limited in what you can say publicly about the adaptation, but maybe you can tell us the story without giving too much away?
Last year I applied to do a residential workshop in Kangaroo Valley (south of Sydney) for female screenwriters and directors with genre film or TV projects.
It was funded by Screen Australia as part of its Engendered program, and hosted by Bunya Productions. Bunya is the production house behind some extraordinary work, including Mystery Road which garnered them a swag of awards.
So I received lots of invaluable one-to-one advice, including from the two international guests, director Jeremy Podeswa (Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Six Feet Under) and writer and showrunner (Jessica Jones, True Blood). It was so stimulating to be among a diverse range of energetic and creative women for a week and I finished it with a burning need to turn The Second Cure into television.
I subsequently pitched the idea of a six-hour miniseries adaptation to Bunya, they bought the option, and we’ve got early development funding from Screen NSW for me to write the bible and outline. There is a long way to go – there are bucket-loads of people who have to say yes before it can be made – but I am determinedly optimistic it will. Where and when – way too early to say. And yes, I have indeed drawn up my secret wish-list for casting!
After so long away from working in TV, I’ve felt like I’m dusting off an ancient me. TV drama has evolved so far from the days where a program (like A Country Practice) would churn out forty weeks a year of two-hour self-contained stories. Cable and streaming have transformed it, freeing it from the tyranny of ad breaks dictating structure, advertisers not wanting their products associated with particular themes or characters, producers terrified to take creative risks.
Writers who once worked solely in film have moved to TV, with directors and actors following them. The international platforms mean that niche projects can be financially viable, whereas once Australian producers were constrained to the small Australian audience. It’s a brilliant time to be screenwriting and I’m so glad to be back.
A quick question, based on the above, and then one longer one. This has been great, so thanks again for doing it.
First, what is a 'bible'?
A production bible is a comprehensive document used in the development of a TV series or a movie. It covers a range of aspects of the proposed production, such as character breakdowns, stylistic, tonal and thematic concepts, synopsis, episode breakdowns, locations, etc. It’s an important part of selling the proposal to co-producers, funding bodies and distributors, as well as getting the other writers, the producers, the directors and the design people all on the same page.
Was there much difference in pitching the television series than in pitching the original book? Obviously with the series, you can point to the actual book, and it exists and has a track record. But did you have to tailor the TV pitch in a particular way, differently to how you pitched the book?
I framed it differently, yes. To sell the idea of a TV series, you have to convey how it would work visually and dramatically. That The Second Cure has a lot of plot probably helped, because it lends itself to dramatisation and it’s easy for a potential producer to see how it could adapt to an audio-visual medium. That obviously isn’t the case with many novels. I also had the advantage of being able to include reviews of the novel in the pitch, which I think helped sell it. It’s so much easier having other people say nice things about your work than having to pump it up yourself!
I'm also very interested in how you have found the whole process of suddenly 'being an author'? (This is different from what we discussed above, the stuff about expectations of 'getting published'.) Is the whole process, from signing the contract to doing promotion, pretty much as you'd expected or quite different? I mean, in terms of the concrete things you have had to do, not just in terms of how you felt about it.
The difference between 'writing' and 'being a writer' is vast.
From solitude and living quietly with one’s ideas, to a public persona. From being the person in the audience at festivals and panels, to being on stage. Talking about the book to booksellers, on radio and video, in interviews, podcasts, to reading groups. It requires a completely different skill set and it’s taken me a while to get used to it. I suppose it was broadly what I expected, but it has been pretty draining, emotionally.
I think that’s the case for many novelists. We tend to be introverted and the publicity aspects of book promotion can leave you wanting to scurry back into your own private world. Publishing these days requires authors to be substantially involved in promotion, a change from the old days.
Fortunately, I’ve been an enthusiastic participant in online communities since the mid-nineties, so I didn’t have to do anything as artificial as setting up a profile and launching into self-promotion. Cringe-making stuff.
Have you learned any lessons about the industry that might cause you to approach things differently with the next book?
One aspect that I hadn’t anticipated is just how gratifying it is when complete strangers approach you to tell you that your work has connected with them. Of course, when you’re writing, you have an image in your head of some sort of idealised reader out there in the world, but it’s pretty abstract and for me at least, my primary audience when I was writing was me. I was writing the sort of book I wanted to read. That it is what others also want to read is obviously the goal, but discovering that is so and that your intentions have hit home, is probably the most rewarding aspect of the whole business. Better than good reviews, better than award nominations. It’s the essence of the entire process: that intimate communication between writer and reader.
Another lesson I’ve learned is how important it is to form relationships with booksellers. When the ARC (advanced reading copy, a short print run of the almost-final version of the book) came out, I was taken on a book drop with the team from Penguin Random House. We visited a dozen or so bookshops in Sydney where I was introduced to the booksellers, talked to them about the novel and me, and generally schmoozed.
That sort of relationship can lead to them recommending it personally to customers, placing it prominently in the store, inviting you to come and do author talks and signings, selecting the book for reading groups and profiling it online. It’s invaluable. Making a connection with libraries is also useful. Book talks I gave at Woollahra Council's two libraries resulted in me being invited to run a workshop for writers, so it's led to paid work.
And let me ask an age-old writers' question: do you see any value in having an agent?
I don’t have any regrets about not having an agent this time round. In Australia, there are relatively few literary agents because there are few authors to sustain them, so it’s commonplace for writers to approach publishers directly, as I did.
In other markets, like the US, it’s virtually essential to have one.
I did have help in assessing and negotiating my contract with the publisher, though, and that’s something I’d advise any debut novelist to do. Getting your head around the legal aspects is an enormous task and one which new authors mightn’t be wise to attempt when they’re high as a kite because someone wants to publish them. Slavering gratitude isn’t a good place to negotiate from!
Some agents now will work on a short-term basis to assess and negotiate contracts, rather than representing the author for the duration of the book’s life, which is an excellent compromise.
I do have an agent for my screenwriting. Being at arm’s length from that side of things means I can concentrate on the actual work. Whether I’ll get an agent for the next novel, I haven’t decided yet. I’ll work that out when I’ve finished the manuscript and have an idea of what its market is likely to be. It’s not going to be in the same genre as The Second Cure and I suspect it might have broader appeal. We’ll see!
Margaret, thanks so much again for doing this interview. I want to finish up with the obvious question: What's next?
Obviously the TV series, but do have plans for a new book? Will it be in the same genre, or have you actually been secretly getting a degree in some other thing -- Medieval cheesemaking? -- and will write about that? Also, I'm not quite sure how it would work, but would you consider/are you considering writing a sequel to The Second Cure.
Yes, I’m working on the next novel, but mainly just jotting notes down at the moment as thoughts occur to me.
The miniseries (providing it gets funding and distribution... you can take nothing for granted in this industry!) is going to keep me occupied for some time, so everything else is on the backburner.
It’s not going to be science fiction this time, but a contemporary thriller, set in Australia. I have had ideas about a sequel to my novel, but probably not as a book. If the miniseries works out, maybe a second season would be a possibility, set further in the future. I would love to delve into the world set up at the end of The Second Cure and tackle the ethical and philosophical questions it raises. That’s just at the random musing stage right now, though.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I am now financially secure enough to follow my imaginative nose. I don’t want to do any more formal study, and feel I’m in exactly the place, creatively, that I want to be. That’s the payoff of having worked in so many fields. I’ve got plenty of experience to draw on. When I was a teenager, I remember wanting so much to write a novel but feeling like I had nothing to say. I was right. I didn’t. I do now, though, and having the opportunity to do it, to tell stories and explore ideas, is profoundly satisfying and exciting. It’s a joy.