When she sat down to start Sorrow & Bliss, her Women’s Prize shortlisted novel about art, families, and mental illness (with a lot of jokes), Meg Mason felt that she was finished writing books. She had spent a year writing a manuscript that she knew wasn’t up to scratch and sent to her publisher, a few days before it was due, with an apology note, saying she had tried and couldn’t try again. With no deadlines on the horizon, sitting in her garden shed, Meg created Martha, a dynamic, depressed woman with an unnamed mental illness whose devoted husband is about to leave her. It is, in large part, a comedy. Meg and I met at a café in London and ended up sitting in the Chelsea Physic Garden, talking about rituals and failure, the Mitfords and “Reading Teas.”
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
We’ve been walking around Chelsea this morning with coffee and a squidgy bag of banana bread. What would you be having for breakfast in Sydney if you weren’t on this book tour?
Acai bowls. I’ve become totally addicted to them. It’s quite a pretentious breakfast but they’re so delicious. You just fill them full of avocado and peanut butter then you feel like if the rest of your day goes completely off the rails, food-wise, you at least had all those nutrients in one go.
What does the day normally look like for you?
I get up at six and walk the dog. We go down to the harbour. I’m so lucky, we live on this peninsula part of Sydney, so you’re only ever five minutes from the water and you can walk around the whole thing. It’s beautiful. So I take him for a walk and have a little piccolo at home. Mercifully, my children are old enough that they don’t require any assistance in the mornings and they’ll be out the door. Then I have a tiny shed in the garden where I write.
Is it a shed-shed? A real shed?
It’s a real shed. We built it when we bought the house and it's a little weatherboard thing, painted a smoky grey colour. I tell people it’s small, and they’re like, ‘oh right okay.’ And then they come and see it and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I say to my husband that you would not want to go in there with anyone you were not in love with. It’s maybe six feet by four so perfect for one lady.
But I’m really grateful to have somewhere to go that’s separate from the house. In my career, I’ve worked at the kitchen table, I’ve worked at a little desk shoved in the corner of our bedroom. There was one point where we had a cupboard in the hallway – like a big linen cupboard – and we just took out all the shelves but one. And I would type in there. You can do it anywhere if you want it enough. But now at this stage in my career it’s amazing to have a space.
What time do you get to the shed?
I try to be there by 8:30am but usually something will happen to derail that. I’m still that person who can’t sit down to work with dishes in the sink, or if everything is filthy and I need to put the washing on. So I do that and I always try to imagine it’s part of the ritual. You’re preparing yourself, doing that bit of nesting. Then it’s normally more like 9am.
When you’ve been a freelancer for a while you learn how to protect your writing time. You have to be overly scrupulous about boundaries because you are the one that people will think of when someone needs a ride from the airport at one o’clock in the afternoon. Or your lovely friends will be like, ‘Let’s go out to lunch,’ and I have just learned that I cannot. It has to be an absolute no to everything that’s not work in that space because otherwise you will lose your day. I’m quite protective of it.
For lunch I sit on the back kitchen steps because it’s always relatively warm and because I read somewhere that you should practice looking far away, if your whole day is at a screen. Every hour or so you should look into the middle distance and trees. We have this little backyard and on both sides our neighbours have these enormous Jacaranda trees that come over our garden like a canopy. In November they just explode with these purple flowers and they start raining into the backyard. So I sit on the steps and have a salad and look at the leaves and then get back inside.
It sounds peaceful.
I try to never look at my phone. I will either look at what’s around me or I will read, but I find that if I have my phone, that’s another way that your day can be taken over. I’m quite rigid about that distraction. I can’t have my phone with me in the shed either. I have to put it somewhere that’s really difficult to access. The glovebox of the car is good. Phones have sort of broken our brains. I have a lot of rules.
I stay in the shed until 5pm or 6pm and then have a little dog walk and make dinner. Obviously, the dog has been with me all day, mostly asleep under my desk.
What kind of dog is he?
He’s a half Labrador, half Cavalier Spaniel which is called a Cavador. He’s like a microscopic Labrador with a depressive expression on his face. He’s perfect in our family because he’s a sad Labrador. He looks extremely pensive all the time and he is so needy. We called him Alfie but then my daughter decided he was actually more of a Christopher. So he’s Christopher which just speaks to us. It’s the weirdest name for a dog but he just suits it.
I was never a dog person before we got him and now I am totally codependent. I’m so much less strict with him than I was with my own children. I was such a strict mother when they were little, and with him, he just gets everything he wants. He runs me.
Is it an enjoyable part of the day, making dinner?
You know, it’s just always dinner time again, every day, isn’t it? It’s a horrible surprise. My husband Andrew always got home so much later than me that it became something that I do, and it’s fine. But the amount of time! Just the thinking of it, and going to get the ingredients and things, is this relentless cycle.
It does feel good to have that connection. I haven’t made it a rule that we all have to sit down but it is a lovely thing that does organically happen. So we do all sit down. And I mean, I have like five things I make on a high rotation, so it’s not a thrilling array. If Andrew isn’t home yet it’s just me and the girls, and we’ve been doing that for years. Because you know, when you’ve got little children, you end up eating at five o’clock with them, and you’re like, I guess I’ll just have these little bowls of pasta and pesto too.
So the girls and I have been doing that since they were babies, just the three of us, and now we’re still doing it at 15 and 18, which is really nice. I can sort of picture them at every stage, you know, like when their chins only came up to the table, and there was a high chair, and a baby throwing a plate against the wall. And sometimes we’ll have what we always used to call a Reading Tea where we all sit at the table and read our books.
That’s all I ever wanted growing up
Yeah, but it’s strange to me that they’re such readers, because I never was. I really didn't start reading until I was at the very end of high school. My mother used to offer to pay me to read, because she was bookish and I never was. She was worried because she obviously assumed she’d have a bookish child and I was absolutely resistant. I think she paid me 10 cents a page to read The Railway Children and I still didn’t finish.
Do you remember which book eventually hooked you?
Yes, and I remember why I was hooked, which was that I had moved countries with my parents at the beginning of year 12. All of these girls [at the new school] had been together for 12 years and I just turned up. So I went from having this enormous, wonderful group of friends in my hometown in New Zealand to this new city in Australia, where I was utterly lost and completely friendless.
Until then I had always dodged reading any set books for school and I'd managed to sit tests without actually having to look at the book. I don’t know how. I was such a waster. Anyway, in my new school I was like, I guess I’ll read them because I’ve got nothing else to do. The book was Emma. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I can see what everybody's been talking about, that you could read this for pleasure.’ And then it just became this gateway and, you know, once you get to Jane Eyre, then you realise that you're absolutely in it.
And then it must have been really rapid because the next thing I knew I was enrolling for university and did English. So it was quite quick, from there, that I realised that was what I wanted to do. I remember reading the Mitfords, and that was just everything.
We’re sitting in a part of town where lots of sundry Mitford action takes place. Are you still a fan?
Of course! It’s actually so special and something that the girls have taken up as well. Particularly my younger daughter. She was very into the audiobooks and she listened to them very early. When I was about to come to London for a month on this trip, she started singing this song she made up about her mother leaving her and it reminded me of that song, you know, the little houseless match [from Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love]. And it occurred to me that if you stuff a child chock full of Mitfords it will turn around and come back to you in slightly cruel, passive aggressive, but very charming songs.
We’ve talked a bit about the reception of Sorrow & Bliss in the UK, which you wrote in Sydney, though it’s set in London. How has it felt seeing the book take off here?
It’s beyond my dreams. The novel came out in September 2020 in Australia. In February it had started to sell [to foreign publishers]. It sold in the US and then lots of countries in Europe, but it didn’t sell in the UK. And I think that having spent some formative years here – we spent our first five years as a couple living here – I’ve always felt a connection to London that is probably out of proportion to that time. So I suppose [the UK] felt like the most precious or significant market to me personally—“market” isn’t the right word, but it was the place where I most wanted the book to sell. And so when it didn't, I was like, ‘Oh, that's okay. That’s okay.’ But I was convinced it was because I had written the book authentically enough to convince an Australian or an American that it was truly authentically British, but maybe the reason it didn’t sell here was that a real British person could tell that it was not. That I had not managed to hoodwink them.
And then it sold. And the loveliest thing was when everybody was surprised to learn that I wasn’t British. So yes, the fact that it did come here and this is where it's done the best in the end, it was so thrilling.
Was there a sense of remove, being in Sydney while it became a bestseller in the UK, and not being able to travel during the pandemic?
Yes. And also, I think being so far away, you have a sense of what's happening because your publisher is telling you, but not really. I’m also not on social media, having quit in 2018, so I don't see that. I've been quite protected from [the success] in a way which has been really helpful because I think it would be almost overwhelming to have been here and watched it happen. I was obviously heartbroken that I couldn't come over when it first came out because you do want to see your book in the window, especially having been here my 20s and had this ambition and put it to one side. But then to come back 20 years later and visit Daunt Books again, it was really personally meaningful. I find it really difficult to put words to it because there's no precedent for this for me.
There’s probably little precedent for anyone
Yes, exactly. And I think especially having started where I did, thinking all hope is lost, having written it alone in a tiny shed. And then for it to just, I mean, to have found audiences so vast and all over the world...
I’ve heard you talk about the book you wrote before this one, which you and your editor decided wasn’t working and wouldn’t be published. Did that make the experience of writing the book that came after [Sorrow & Bliss] different?
Yes. Because I was writing with total freedom and total abandon and it was that sense of this is for me, I'm doing this for whatever reason, I didn't even know why. I don't know why I was even drawn back to my desk because I really thought it was over. I didn't mean it in a dramatic way, a sort of, ‘Oh I’m quitting and it’s a disaster’ but secretly thinking it wasn’t. I really, really knew it was over.
So when I started to write again, I just didn’t care. When you’ve trained as a journalist, you’re always writing with a reader in mind. Instead of doing that, I just wrote whatever I thought was funny or sad, or that I'd seen or felt or read or collected and held back thinking I would use it somewhere else. And now I had no reason to keep anything back, so everything that I'd ever collected in 20 years is in there. Even though the novel is not autobiographical, it's everything that I know.
That's the part of me that's in it, that I've put into Martha and is so intensely personal. I think the best thing about it was to realise that actually, those years [writing the earlier book that didn’t work] hadn't been wasted because there must have been something in it that was setting me up to be able to do this. And if I'd had been perfectly happy there would have been no rage to go in there and no despair. And I think, you know, that's the story.
Interview by Jo Rodgers.
Photographs by Dunja Opalko.
Meg Mason's novel Sorrow and Bliss is shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, 2022.