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Five minutes with author Rose Hartley

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Rose Hartley lives in Adelaide with her 1962 caravan, Cecil, and her cat, Doris.

We spoke to Rose about Maggie’s Going Nowhere, her debut novel about a hot mess who’ll do anything to avoid growing up.

Maggie’s Going Nowhere is a little in the 1950s screwball comedy style. Are you a fan of the genre or did you draw inspiration elsewhere?

No one has pointed that out before, but I think you’re right. Maggie’s Going Nowhere has a lot of that screwball banter and slapstick humour. But I actually haven’t watched many (or any) classic screwball comedies and I think I took more inspiration from film noir in a funny way. I studied 1940s and 50s noir films in my undergrad degree—and the neo-noir resurgence of the 80s—and I think it has a bit in common with screwball comedies in that the female protagonists are pretty stroppy and there’s a lot of sharp innuendo-filled banter.

In the classic noir films the femme fatale is always either punished or “rehabilitated”—she either dies or is married off and turns into a good housewife—but in the 80s reboots the femme fatale was more likely to win in the end and stay bad.

I think Maggie might be a bit of a dropkick, unemployed neo-femme fatale. She stays “bad” in that she never becomes monogamous.

Maggie is equal parts hopeless and gorgeous. How do you strike the balance in writing a character like that?

That was the hardest part of writing the novel. I knew Maggie was never going to be “likeable” in the usual sense of a rom-com protagonist—she’s lazy and selfish, she borrows money she never intends to repay and has a history of cheating on her boyfriends.

So my aim was to make her lovable rather than likeable, and I think the only way to do that is by making a character funny and self-aware. It took many drafts to achieve the balance. She started off very extreme and gradually mellowed over time, but there was a point at which I had to stop softening her or she would have lost her edge.

But through it, all the thing that keeps her human is her genuine love for her best friend, her mother and her cat. Without that, no one would side with Maggie.

Writing comedy must be hard—how do you go about it? How much work is it?

I never intended to write comedy. At university, I was convinced I was going to write very serious high-brow literature with a capital L, but despite those intentions, I kept creating characters with odd contradictions.

I’d sit down to write an emotionally heavy scene filled with beautiful metaphors and instead blurt out trash banter, a food fight or an accidental sex injury. I never studied comedy, so the only thing I know for sure is that you have to use surprise. Without surprise, there is no comedy.

It is difficult, though, to keep up the humour throughout an entire novel. It means paying great attention to details. You can’t just write a scene to move the plot forward—you have to think, now, how do I also make this funny? And if I make it funny does that mean there’ll be no emotional payoff? And so on.

One of the best novels I’ve read recently that is consistently hilarious but with great emotional depth is Less by Andrew Sean Greer. One day I’d like to write something that made me laugh and cry as much as that book.

Female friendship plays a large role in the book—how important was that to you?

It was incredibly important to me. There was a study done, I should try to find it again, a study about happiness.

The finding was basically that while money, love and health all have impacts on a person’s happiness, the only way to know from a young age whether a person will be happy in their old age is their ability to make and keep friends. That’s it. Even people going through a serious bout of ill health like cancer tend to maintain a reasonable level of contentment if they have good, solid friendships.

It frustrates me a lot, then, that girls are brought up to consider romantic relationships the central function of their lives, when it’s our friendships that often bring us the most joy, comfort and safety.

While teenage boys focus on their own ambitions, hobbies and friends, teenage girls are conditioned to constantly think about how other people perceive them and whether they’ll find that One Person who will love them, and this preoccupation continues into our adult lives. So many straight women spend the bulk of their time with friends discussing who they’re dating instead of what they’re doing.

It’s such a lost opportunity to focus on our own skills, desires and ambitions, because instead of working on becoming good at something we’re focused on becoming good for someone. If we took a little of that romantic energy and poured some into our friendships and some into our life dreams, we’d get a lot more return on investment.

I could rant forever but long story short, the friendship between Maggie and Jen is central in Maggie’s Going Nowhere. It’s not always the healthiest friendship but it’s pretty rock solid, the only permanent relationship in Maggie’s life, and it’s where she finds safety and acceptance. Men come and go, but Jen is always there with snacks.

Rose Hartley. Credit: Angela McKinnon.

Maggie has an important caravan in her life, but tell us about your own caravan, Cecil?

I bought Cecil, a 1962 12-foot aluminium caravan, off eBay about ten years ago. I was wanting to find a way to lower my living costs so that I could write full time, and I thought that if I lived in a caravan and didn’t pay rent that would make it possible.

The only problem is that I’m a bloody princess. As soon as I picked up the caravan and realised that not only could I barely stand up straight in it (I’m quite tall and it’s very small) but I could not deal with the lack of privacy and the very basic issue of it having no bathroom.

So I never lived in it, but I took it on a few mini holidays and it, of course, provided some inspiration for the novel. Sometimes being a dreamer comes in handy.

What are some of the books you drew inspiration from in writing Maggie’s Going Nowhere?

Writing the novel (and getting it published) was such a long process that I’ve actually forgotten what I was reading when I began writing Maggie. But I know I turned to very “voicey” novels to teach me how to maintain a strong voice throughout, like Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre.

Another influence was How to be Free by Tom Hodgkinson, a non-fiction manifesto for surviving the absurdity of modern life and bureaucracy.

If I was looking for inspiration now I’d be turning to a couple of recent funny books, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. I’m drawn to high-stakes, ridiculous satire as well as low-level, everyday black humour.

I have an unshakeable love for “unlikeable” female protagonists, especially if they’re inclined to criminal activity or dropping out of society.

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