Today we’re talking to Meg Bignell, author of three books, for our ‘Behind the Book’ segment. Meg was a nurse and a weather presenter on the telly before she surrendered to a persistent desire to write.
Since then, she has been writing almost daily – bits and pieces here and there. She has written three short films. She sings a bit too, occasionally writes and performs cabaret, but is mostly very busy being a mother to three and a wife (to one). She lives with her family on a dairy farm on Tasmania’s East Coast. The Angry Women’s Choir is her latest release.
How did you come up with the title The Angry Women’s Choir? Did you develop the title first or the story?
Meg- The title came first. I have had terrible trouble in the past with titles. It’s sometimes really hard to come up with something that hints and the story and catches the attention of potential readers. While I was trying to name my second novel (Welcome to Nowhere River), I swore I’d never get into such a quandary again. I knew I wanted to write about a women’s choir, so that vague premise came first, then the title, then the story.
Was there any particular challenge you had to face while writing The Angry Women’s Choir?
Meg- COVID lockdown was a challenge. I live in Tasmania, and we were blessed with a pretty short lockdown period, but my three children were suddenly in my workspace trying to navigate online school. My working hours were dramatically reduced, and I learnt first-hand how the expectations of women haven’t really changed despite all the glass ceilings that have been smashed. The spotlight shone on how undervalued caregiving is, both as a profession and on the home front. It made me furious, which fed beautifully into my motivation to write the book but almost tripped me up because I had to stop writing it for a while, it was wreaking havoc on my moods!
How much of the story are you? How much do you relate to your character Freycinet?
Meg- I relate to how she feels as a woman who has made sacrifices, but she is way more embedded in obligation than I am. I am incredibly lucky in that my family are very supportive of my work. My husband and children are rarely surprised by my escapades anymore. I generally follow my creative instincts and grab opportunities. So I might be performing comedy cabaret on stage, working on a marketing scheme for a client, or writing my next book. It means a lot more work for me because my priority is family, and work has to fit into the time in between. But I’m not much good at sitting still. Freycinet, on the other hand, has not followed her natural instincts for years, and she is far more talented than me!
Do you worry about the critical response to your novels?
Meg- Yes, of course. But I never read reviews unless they are sent to me, and usually, I’m only sent the good ones. I’m relatively new to the publishing world, and I’m yet to have a ‘break out success’, so my grip on being a ‘career author’ is quite tenuous. I’m as insecure about my work as most writers. We’re all pretty anxious people (as a general observation). There is a horrible silence that happens after the advance reading copies come out and before publication day. I hate that bit. Every day during that time I question whether anyone cares about my books and whether I should just be a full-time farmer.
How different was the writing process for this book as compared to your previous work?
Meg- It was faster. For various reasons, I needed to get this book out of my system. The publishers needed it, but also the work felt urgent. Women’s voices were getting louder and being heard for really vital reasons. I wrote it with my heart in my mouth and pretty much finished the huge structural re-write in ten weeks.
What has been your biggest takeaway from writing The Angry Women’s Choir?
Meg- I researched all of my characters’ stories, their backstories and their encounters with oppression and/or injustice, and I learnt so much from them. Overarching all that is just how bloody lucky I am. The odds of ending up with a life like mine are so very slim. But I know there are ways to make things better for all women. I’ve emerged from my encounters with my choir as a socialist, intersectional feminist who wants to see caregiving and kindness valued above capital potential and economic growth. It needn’t be idealist, I don’t think. There are practical ways to make it work. But that’s all in the manifesto I had to cut from my novel because it was a little dry!
Do you have an unusual habit as an author that helps you succeed?
Meg- I write myself a note at the end of every writing day. At the point where I leave my work for the day (often very late at night), I write myself some sort of affirmation and then a reminder of where my thoughts are and what I might do next. It helps me get my head back into the work far more quickly. Occasionally the note is a rude one, telling myself off for lack of focus, but mostly I try to be kind.
Do you have a particular audience in mind when you begin writing your novels?
Meg- Yes. I have a single person in my head. She is clever, hilarious and has brilliant taste in books. She doesn’t know I write for her, and she will remain nameless. But if she enjoys my work, then I know I’m doing it right.
How do you bounce back when you get stuck in writing?
Meg- The only solution for me is to write through it. I can walk and walk and think and think and give myself all the distance in the world, but nothing happens until I return to the computer. If I can just tap into the place where words and sentences and characters seem to come from nowhere, even for a minute, it will remind me I can get there and the magic hasn’t disappeared.
What process do you follow to develop characters in your fiction narratives?
Meg- I listen to their voices in my head. Dialogue is a strength for me, although that can work against me because I end up having way too much of it. I can hear my characters. And I find pictures of what they might look like from random people on the internet, then I put them on the wall of my study. For this book, I also wrote a song for each of my characters, in their favourite genre, with lyrics and melody. That is extreme I know, but this is a musical book, and although it was so much work, it was so enlightening. Lyrics are so freeform and fun.
Do you follow a solid writing routine?
Meg- If only! I have great intentions, but with three teenagers, there are myriad interruptions. If I get uninterrupted hours between nine and three-thirty, then it’s a good day. Those are my ‘working hours’, and then I revisit the work after dinner, sometimes until midnight, depending on what kind of momentum I’m swept up in. Some days I have to work in the orthodontist’s waiting room or on the sidelines of footy training. Other days I can’t help but work even while I’m cooking dinner. Then there are the times I watch hedgehog videos for an hour and pretend it’s research. I’m human. Humans need to idle occasionally, it’s good for the brain.
Do you have any tips for the new aspiring writers who are working on their first novel?
Meg- Put your bottom on the chair and do the work; that’s the most important thing. Read the work of very good writers, find a reader who you can trust and pay avid attention to the moments that make your heart leap. That’s where you’ll find the magic.
The Angry Women’s Choir was published on 5th July 2022 by Penguin Books Australia. You can purchase the book here.