How writer Melanie Myers makes it matter
Myers’ writing and her performances delve into the mud and slush of human nature, unpleasant stuff, yes. But she reveals the grime of humanity without hysteria and fuss, and with a heartfelt and – dare I say – earnest intelligence.
How do you give it mouth?
This is the funny thing, I don’t get online and start shouting opinions, not very often. For a time I thought I wanted to write opinion pieces about issues of the day, something like Clementine Ford, but somewhere along the line I went “that is not me”.
Why did you think it wasn’t you?
I think I just didn’t want my persona right behind the words directly. I prefer to do it through art, I prefer to subvert through fiction and create a character that does something. I like the subtlety of fiction and I like that when you write fiction you’re working with character, imagery, theme. I like putting all the bits together to say what I want to say.
And it can be a lot more powerful, can’t it?
Well, yeah if you get it right, yes. But getting it right can be difficult.
Do you have any stories about when you have got it right?
The one I wrote for the Scarlet Stiletto last year hit the nail on the head because there’s been so much talk about women losing abortion rights in the States. And to be just another voice and shout it to the wind…there’s already a tonne of women doing that. And I just wanted to play it and say what if, what if, what if?
What’s the logical conclusion of taking away women’s reproductive rights? Well, the logical conclusion is, “They’re murderers” and what do you do with murderers? You lock them up. So that turned into a piece of speculative fiction and I find that more satisfying than just having my two cents.
That’s the good thing about fiction isn’t it? You can take people to those what-if scenarios and in some ways getting people out of their comfort zones like that represents more of an opportunity to challenge?
Yeah. And you can hide behind the fiction, which probably makes me a little cowardly. I’m not cut out for online abuse…it can keep you awake at night…and you don’t look at any of the positive comments, you just look at the one person who’s called you a feminazi or whatever…
Do you think when you’re writing about transgressive ideas that fiction gives you a filter or allows you to take yourself out of what you make?
A little bit. So you can write a character and it’s not like you there in the piece. It’s not like I would never write nonfiction but just at the moment fiction is what I prefer doing.
So tell me about your thesis. It’s about American soldiers at the end of WWII?
Yeah, so what I did first was I researched the Australian home-front novel like Come in Spinner and there are a few others that cover women’s experiences…And I tried to go, well those books were written a long time ago, how has that form of the novel evolved? And then the two main novels are set in Sydney, but…Brisbane had the highest concentration of American servicemen so it’s an aspect of history that has not been explored.
And women did these incredible things during the time, they started working, they started fucking…and I balance that with present-day stories that interact so there’s a theme about how the past affects the present. But also a strong theme about art and performance and theatre as well.
So is it fiction?
There’s a lot of research in it but ultimately I am writing a piece of fiction. I take anecdotal stories or snippets that are true, for example another writer told me a story about a woman who took her five daughters and moved to Warwick in Queensland because she was so worried about Americans. So that will find its way into my work somehow. I’m kind of playing with this idea of apocrypha – stories that become legend in themselves and you’re not even sure of the truth of them. So it is a fiction, but every detail has been thoroughly researched.
Do you draw from your background in theatre in your writing, by using, say, performative narrative devices?
There’s a play woven into the narrative, and two of the characters are actresses. You know theatres such a strong part of what I’ve done that I can’t ignore it.
You mentioned that in some of your writing you’re interested in feminist ideas, especially around the domestic sphere. What other creators inspired you to think about those ideas?
Sarah Waters is a big one at the moment. I’ve just read The Paying Guest and she just does it so well. Margaret Atwood’s always been an influence from way back but even writers like Kate Morton, who’s not literary but I think she does these things really well.
She must be doing something right…
Yeah she’s huge and she writes well.
What is it from these authors you’ve taken onboard.
With Atwood, it’s the way she burrows into characters’ heads, especially female characters. Actually AS Byatt’s another one too who I think does the same thing. With Sarah Waters it’s more about that she does that l’ecriture feminine thing, she doesn’t feel as though she has to do the Ernest Hemingway thing. And it’s a bit liberating to read writing that’s not stripped to its core…I wouldn’t call it indulgent but it takes its time to draw out the interaction between two characters. And Elizabeth Strauss, Olive Kitteridge is another one, and Alice Munro. I’ve got heaps of them actually, when I think about it.
I bet you do. Writers do though don’t they? Don’t we draw on other people’s work as a map for where to take our own?
Oh I’ve had a copy of Olive Kitteridge next to me. Not because I’m writing about similar subject matter, but when I lose the voice and I think I’m veering into kind of bog-standard romance fiction, I read a couple of paragraphs of hers to say “right that’s the style”, and I put it down and start writing again.
That’s a fantastic hint because I think for writers isn’t our greatest fear that we lose our voice and we suddenly don’t know how we’re saying what we’re saying…
Or we’re trying too hard, over-cooking it, faking it, is it overwritten or underwritten?
I find I have to do that because I write into so many different genres, I have to calibrate my voice; that if I’m going to write say a scholarly piece I have to read something in that style to get the voice going.
Oh yeah, and don’t ever try humorous asides in academic writing…
Humour generally is a tricky space though isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s just got to come from the characters.
Let’s return to the idea of theatre and performance. Not only have you been an actress in your career but you’ve also spent the last three years as director of the Reality Bites Festival which is a nonfiction writing festival. The question that came to mind when I was thinking about those two different roles is to do with observing audiences and interacting with audiences. How does theatre differ in terms of the social impact you can generate compared with writing fiction, which is on the page and provides only a distanced response.
Yeah, theatre is so ephemeral, it’s over in a blink but it’s that immediate feedback after a show and making people cry or laugh and …there’s nothing like it.
Can you see the audience when you’re on stage?
Sometimes. No not really, but you never forget they’re there. But you just should focus on the other actors. I think Cruise Control was a little different…it was a satire…and my character was a beaten wife. There’s a scene where the husband hits her and you could hear the audience gasp…it was minor but it had a social impact because they were a well off couple…and people really took that on board.
Theatre creates an energy in the room, doesn’t it?
That must at times feel impactful for you as a creator. What draws you to it, it’s hard work, you don’t get paid much…?
I think there’s nothing like the high of doing it. I left it for eight years and thought ah I got that out of my system then I saw an audition at a show that I loved and thought I’d love to do it and the ball started rolling again and I thought, that’s why I do this.
So what about the Reality Bites Festival, were there any moments there where there was a presenter or something happened on the day that made the hard work worth it?
There were a few like that. One I remember was there was a panel with Anne Summers, Catherine Deveny and Krissy Kneen and I was chairing. It was a big crowd and they were really fired up. In some ways this is preaching to the converted but…this 90 year old woman got up and made a speech saying she’d been doing this stuff for as long as she could remember and it was time to hand over the mantel to you and you’ve got to keep going. And there was a bit of anger there because things haven’t changed enough. So yeah that was a bit of a highlight moment.
It must have felt good to get all those people together and produce it as a festival.
Yes it is very satisfying. Not only when the audience come up to you and say they had a great time, but when the writers themselves say they had a good time and learnt something and you can see them participating in sessions that they’re not in. I think that’s really satisfying.