About The Author
Fiona McFarlane was born in Sydney, Australia. She has degrees in English from Sydney University and Cambridge University, and was a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Sydney. Her stories have been published in Zoetrope: All-Story; Southerly; The Missouri Review and Best Australian Stories.
Her debut novel, The Night Guest, lyrically and grippingly explores the perils of old age and its often attendant isolation. We chatted to Fiona about her 'sideways' approach to the subjects of ageing and dementia; the flexibility and ambiguity of an unreliable narrator and the complex presence of the tiger in her novel.
Questions & Answers
What made a young, debut novelist want to tackle the difficult questions of ageing and dementia?
I came sideways at these questions, really. My starting point for The Night Guest was the image of the impossible tiger stalking an ordinary night-time house; then Ruth became the owner of the house and Frida her carer. If I'd told myself, from the very beginning, that I was going to write a novel about ageing and dementia, I may have been too frightened to do it. When I found myself in the territory of age and mental decline I wanted to write about these things with compassion and humour and beauty but without sentimentality, and I hope that by the time I reach seventy-five I'll feel I did them justice.
What are the challenges of having an unreliable narrator, yours not in the first person but filtered through Ruth's experience, not to mention the difficult-to-achieve balance between the real and the fantastic?
The close third person is a kind of liberating, legitimate cheating - I get the wonderful ambiguity of the unreliable narrator along with the flexibility of the third person. It's important that The Night Guest is filtered through Ruth's experience - trying to judge what Ruth does and doesn't understand is, I hope, one of the pleasures of the novel - but the slight distance of the intimate third person allows for changes of mood and style that mean we always remain slightly outside Ruth's mind and can observe changes she might not register herself. The element of the novel that took most of my energy in revision was the structural shaping of Ruth's consciousness and how it alters. I wanted my narrative mode to be both unreliable and precise. The balance between the real and the fantastic is bound up in the narration, because it has everything to do with Ruth's perception of events and how that perception is manipulated by confusion, longing and Frida. Deciding exactly when and how the tiger should make each of his entrances was another important element of revision.
Ruth's sons' neglect of their mother seems depressingly familiar. Do you think the problems of distance and a faster pace of life have led to the elderly becoming more abandoned than ever?
In certain ways, yes. Families - in the way we understand them in a certain version of the West - tend to be more fragmented now, and it's much more likely that parents won't live in the same country, let alone city, as their adult children. Australians tend to be enthusiastic expatriates - I moved home a year ago after a decade of living abroad - and there are definitely consequences for ageing parents. Our post-war faith in the nuclear family certainly lets us down when it comes to aged care, and our youth-obsessed popular culture tends to pathologise age or render it invisible. At the same time, I know plenty of older people who've found community and connection through modern technologies, which can provide an incredible conduit to the wider world and also facilitate memory in extraordinary ways.
Is there some middle way, perhaps still to be found, between the kind of loneliness Ruth experiences and people's desire to remain independent?
I think there is a middle way and that many people have found it in their families and communities, and in assisted living situations. Ruth is a particular kind of elderly person who has made the decision that with independence comes loneliness. She suspects she may be suffering from depression without quite believing in it, which is common in the isolated elderly, and she is determined - as she has been all her life - not to make a fuss, which is part of why she doesn't insist that her sons take better care of her. Her loneliness is also instrumental in her acceptance of Frida: it provides Frida's Fijian nationality and much of her glamour. The decisions Ruth has made about her life as a widow, along with her mental decline, make her particularly vulnerable to the Fridas of the world.
Frida is quite a complex character; did you know from the outset where the line would be between her humanity and her cruelty?
I always knew what Frida had planned and also that she wouldn't be a straightforward villain, but understanding the contours of her character definitely took time. I don't think there's any clear demarcation between her humanity and her cruelty; or if there is, she certainly doesn't identify it. I had a great deal of fun writing her, in all her magnificence and absurdity.
How concerned were you with the point at which the reader grasps what has actually happened?
I wasn't especially worried about it. Of course you hope to guide the reader's sense of discovery, but in this instance I was much more interested in Ruth's changing understanding of her situation and Frida's role in it. Some people tell me they were onto Frida from the start and others that her treachery came as a complete surprise, and I think either experience of the novel - and all the ones in between - is fine and, I hope, rewarding. I don't think of The Night Guest as a novel that relies upon a surprise ending or a twist in the tale.
The tiger is a potent image in literature, especially from the Victorian period. Can you say more about its presence in The Night Guest?
There are so many literary tigers, aren't there, and yes, many of them are Victorian - I was first drawn to the tiger by Victorian children's verse, which is full of exotic beasts, particularly tigers. I was fascinated by the idea of the safe space of the Victorian nursery being invaded by all these colonial felines; I began to imagine a modern, safe, solid house visited by an uncanny tiger. I wanted the tiger to stalk the home of a woman who'd had a colonial upbringing, and so Ruth became the daughter of missionaries in Fiji (it was always important to me to have Ruth grow up in a country in which there aren't any tigers). But my tiger was never meant to be a neat symbol of the colonial, the sublime, death, age, terror or the uncanny. He's all of these things, and also an old woman's fancy. He's urgency and consequence - a quickening of the blood - and he also brings news about the end of things. He's both desirable and terrible, and Ruth's response to him is never straightforward.
Did you have to fight against giving Ruth a happy ending, for example, tucked up cosily with her first love, Richard, whom she has only recently re-encountered?
I always knew what was in store for Ruth, but actually writing her final scene was very hard for me. One of my dear friends knew I had gotten her under the tree but was putting off writing what happened to her there; every time I saw him, he'd ask, 'have you done it yet?' Eventually I couldn't put it off; I wrote her final scene in one sitting and have changed very little of it in subsequent drafts. I was never tempted by a cosy hearthside with Richard for her - and I didn't want their reunion to be overly snug, so that this option wasn't too overwhelming - but it was difficult to end things as they do.
Among the writers who have inspired you, Flannery O'Connor's name stands out. Can you say something about her influence on your book?
I love Flannery O'Connor's work - its beauty and specificity and humour and horror - and I particularly admire the way she wrote about faith and our encounters with its sublime, terrible and ordinary manifestations.
You've previously written short stories and are currently at work on another collection. Is The Night Guest to be your only foray into the longer form?
No - I'm already researching my next novel, just as I was writing the stories for my collection as I worked on The Night Guest.