The Lord Mayor's Writers in Residence series: France Whiting in conversation with Matthew Condon - video transcript
This page is a transcript of 'The Lord Mayor's Writers in Residence series - Frances Whiting in conversation with Matthew Condon' video on Brisbane City Council's YouTube channel. The video is 1 hour and 3 minutes long. The video was filmed at Brisbane City Hall on Thursday 12 December 2019.
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>> LORD MAYOR: Well, good evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so much for coming this evening, to City Hall. To the Lord Mayor’s Writers in Residence program. The opportunity to meet Frances Whiting, wow! And I want to acknowledge Kate Jones as well, who’s here, Minister Kate Jones. My wife, Nina, The Lady Mayoress, but importantly each and every one of you for being here.
The Lord Mayor’s Writers in Residence program started off in 2012 and it’s been such a well-loved thing that happens now across many of the Brisbane City libraries, right across the city. Brisbane residents are certainly passionate about reading. They’re passionate about their libraries, but the opportunity to meet the authors, to hear the author’s perspective on what they’ve written, to ask them questions and also, afterwards, to get the book signed is something that so many Brisbane residents have loved and appreciated. We’ve had more than 50,000 people participate in these programs, and 10,000 of them just last year alone.
But tonight, is very special because we have onstage two genuine Brisbane local literary legends. Frances Whiting and Matthew Condon. Yes. That murmur in the crowd, that’s a good thing. That’s good. That’s a good sign. So, we’re here tonight to meet Frances Whiting and Nina and I had the opportunity to meet Frances Whiting earlier this year. One of my staff members came in and said, “Frances would like to do a profile piece on you”. This is shortly after I became Lord Mayor and interestingly for most people that’d be like ‘fantastic’. I was petrified, absolutely petrified. I was so nervous. Because Frances has literally, to me, been a legend. Someone that I read and I’ve read all the way through, well not all the way through my life, but through much of my life. And just a part of life where you probably don’t expect to meet them in person and you certainly don’t expect them to be writing something on you. There’s a saying that you may have heard, ‘people may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel’ and so, I was so nervous and Nina was nervous as well, but when we met Frances the one thing that became instantly clear is that she is the kind of person that loves people, gets people. She loves them for how unique they are and appreciates the unique nature in every one of us. But, most importantly she makes people feel instantly at ease. She is a legend, but when you meet her, instantly you feel at ease and you feel like you’ve known her forever.
And so, it was an incredible experience sitting down with her asking lots of questions, delving into your life story basically and then seeing the finished product. And I was literally amazed because I thought, ‘There’s nothing really that interesting about my life. Why would anyone want to read about it? It’s pretty boring and ordinary’. Yet, when I rushed out to see the finished product I thought, ‘How did she make it sound so interesting? How did she weave the story together?’ And that just goes to show the incredible talent and skill that she has.
Now, we’ve seen, just recently, the launch of her new book, The Best Kind of Beautiful and it’s already on the bestseller list for December, and I am looking forward to sinking my teeth into that book, when I get a break over Christmas. So, I’m not going to give you a review, I’m not going to tell you what it’s all about. That’s coming next with the conversation we’re about to have. But what I will say though is Julie, who has worked with me now for 14 years, in the office, when we got sent a copy, before she gave me that copy, she took it home and read it straight away. And I asked her, “Well, what did you think?” And the first thing she said was, “It was a beautiful story, it was a feelgood story and it was a story about a lot of miscommunication and misconception, and it had an interesting twist in it as well, which we all love.” So, the takeaway thing from all of this, was that the best kind of beautiful is the real person behind all of the misconceptions and I guess that was Julie’s take. Julie who works… that was her take on the book. I’m sure Frances will have a different take on what it was all about, but that was her take and it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. So, I said, “I’m looking forward to reading it myself over Christmas.”
But you are all here to hear from the legend herself and you all know her incredible history, her incredible career that she’s had writing each weekend and I think, I understand that she is the longest running columnist in Australia. At least 23 years in a row writing a weekly column. But if that wasn’t enough, she’s writing books. She’s got all of these side projects, and I can only imagine the persistence, the determination and the talent it takes to write a single book, but to write many books, to write several books is just an incredible thing. As I mentioned before, Frances will be joined by her good friend and colleague, and another true literary legend, Matthew Condon. Matthew has been a journalist for more than 30 years and for almost a decade has been investigating the fascinating topic of crime and corruption in Queensland.
As we know, he interviewed the disgraced former Police Commissioner, Terry Lewis. He did that for over 3 years and had exclusive access to the Lewis private papers. That research resulted in the bestselling true crime trilogy, Three Crooked Kings, Jacks and Jokers and All Fall Down. See of hands, who’s read those books. A few of you, okay. If you haven’t, time to go out and get them. But he has also had an incredible career over a significant period of time culminating this year when he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to the community. Ladies and gentlemen, can you please join me in welcoming to the stage, Frances Whiting and Matthew Condon.
>> FRANCES: Thank you.
>> MATTHEW: Good evening. That wasn’t me. Um, it’s so nice to be called a legend.
>> FRANCES: I know.
>> MATTHEW: It’s sort of shorthand for old, but it’s nice.
>> FRANCES: Very nice, I’ll take it. That was really, wonderful Lord Mayor, thank you so much.
>> MATTHEW: I’m really thrilled to be here with my great friend, Frances Whiting and especially in this incredible building. For a number of reasons, firstly it was here that I made my showbusiness debut, Frances.
>> FRANCES: Oh!
>> MATTHEW: In my annual school Christmas concert. For some reason I was dressed as a convict and I sang Ala, the St Claire family, I sang Bye Bye Blackbird.
>> FRANCES: That’s fantastic!
>> MATTHEW: No one seems to love or understand me…
>> FRANCES: No.
>> MATTHEW: nor the hard luck stories they keep handing me, bye by black bird. I still don’t know what it means, Frances.
>> FRANCES:I actually love that song; I wish I would have seen it.
>> MATTHEW: And secondly, why I’m excited is I’ve adored Frances’s writing and her work now for many many years before I even met her and became friends with her, as a newspaper columnist, a feature writer and now especially as a novelist with her incredible debut. If you haven’t read it, you must read it. Walking on Trampolines and now this brilliant new book, The Best Kind of Beautiful. I was just saying to Frances behind the stage, and we’ll come to this in our interview but, in just two books she’s managed to carve a very unique niche for herself in the literary landscape. It’s difficult to pinpoint what it is, I think, because it’s new. And there’s enormous empathy and there’s enormous humour and it’s a combination of those things which make it very unique, but we’ll discuss that. And as a close colleague of Frances’s for many years at The Courier Mail I have been privileged to be a part of that intense agony and ecstasy that is involved with the creation of novels. I’ve actually had a ringside seat to Frances’s enduring pain.
>> FRANCES:Sorry [LAUGHTER]
>> MATTHEW: And, you know, make no mistake it is no easy thing writing a novel. In fact, my friend, the novelist, Carmel Bird said writing is harder than life and sometimes I think she’s right. Now, sometimes Franny would come to work in the grip of some terrible self doubt or a panic over a deadline or fretting over a plot twist. Sometimes you’d come up to her with an urgent piece of gossip which you do in newspaper offices and you could see that she was looking at you and nodding her head at appropriate moments but that she just wasn’t quite there. The eyes were slightly glazed.
>> FRANCES: [LAUGHING]
>> MATTHEW: and you knew she was walking Florence through a forest or she was mixing a Manhattan cocktail with Albert Flowers. Writer recognise when other writers are on the journey of the novel. Once, this is a true story. Franny strode purposefully from her desk at Q Weekend at the Courier Mail office kitchenette, which is quite a significant distance where I was standing and she stood, facing the sink, and then she turned to me and said, “What am I doing here?” And she strode straight back to her desk.
>> FRANCES: [LAUGHING]
>> MATTHEW: That is a novelist at work. And with The Best Kind of Beautiful, Frances has confirmed that she’s a very fine novelist. The two things that have made her one of the country’s best columnist and feature writers is the same qualities to my mind that have elevated her fiction. One, there is always a genuine heart and soul in Frances’s work and to achieve that you have to have a genuine heart and soul yourself. You then need the courage to put that on paper without filter or ego. And the second point is that Fran is one of those few writers who can successfully achieve the extremely difficult art of balancing humour and pathos, of traversing that razor thin line whereby you can be laughing out loud in the first half of a sentence and feel a tear welling in your eye by the end of the same sentence. That is an extremely difficult thing to do, in writing it is a high wire act and the slightest misstep can send the prose into farce or sentimentality. And it is this I think that makes Fran’s work so attractive and satisfying and memorable. And she’s done that again, in spades in her new book. So, Franny, sorry for that long and legendary introduction.
>> FRANCES:No, thank you so much. And, coming from you.
>> MATTHEW: And you can have a copy of this.
>> FRANCES:It means everything, I’m going to frame it [LAUGHING]
>> MATTHEW: You said, in a recent interview, about this book, that the primary characters are Florence Saint Claire and Albert Flowers and this is your quote, “There is a sense that we are becoming less kind to each other, and that the things that divide us are growing stronger than the things that unite us. I don’t believe that’s true, but it’s very easy in this climate to fear that it is. So, through Florence and Albert, so flawed, so funny and awkward at times, I wanted to write a book that reminded people of all the good in us.” Could you just elaborate on that?
>> FRANCES:Thank you, Matty. Absolutely, because I do think there is a sense for all sorts of reasons, social media being one of them, the political climate, that we are, some of us, are behaving towards each other in a less kindly manner. And, that’s the sense but when I meet people, and I’m sure the same with you, Matt… Matt now works for The Australian and writes stupendous features, through my job and through the column, because a lot of people approach me at the supermarket. Usually when I’m looking my absolute worst, but we get past that. My experience is that most people are really really good. As in, they’re kind, they’re lovely, they’re open to experiences, they’re very happy to be generous with you and tell you, you know, their stories and I don’t think we’re seeing enough of that in the general landscape. So, when I wrote Best Kind of Beautiful, in my head, I really really wanted to celebrate most people I meet who are funny, who are awkward, who are flawed and who have just genuinely good hearts. They’re here on earth to celebrate it and just be kind to one another and I think that’s the norm. I don’t think that’s the exception at all.
>> MATTHEW: Do you think it’s become old fashioned?
>> FRANCES:A little. And one of the reviews of this book by a critic I’ve had killed...
>> FRANCES: See I’m not that nice. Said it was a very old-fashioned book. And I don’t know, it probably has a … I don’t mind a bit of old fashioned to tell you the truth.
>> MATTHEW: I think that’s a compliment. And as Eugene O’Neill said of critics, “I love every bone in their heads.”
>> FRANCES: I’ve never heard that, that’s excellent.
>> MATTHEW: There’s some terrific reviews of this book. If I can just quote from one, “The book is wittily told with the lightness that only a skilled writer herself warmed by a love of humanity and cognisant of the frailty of humankind could supply. While writing about human foibles and the pleasant things that people do or think, Whiting retains a deftness in her task that never makes the readers feel put upon or talked down to. The word to describe her writing is genuine. I really like that word to describe you work. Genuine. I think you do that with your column. You’ve done it for many years. You bring an honesty and genuineness to your work and now that’s magnified in your novels. What is it about your work that attracts that sort of description?
>> FRANCES: I’m not sure about the novel writing but say for example the column, I would agree with you, I think it’s genuine if you were to read my column you know me. And I would say that I would hope that I would always be genuine because I can’t see the sense in being anything else and every single time I have tried to adopt a different character at work if maybe I feel I’m too loud or a bit messy or all of those things, it never works out well and I can’t sustain it. I can’t keep it up. [LAUGHTER] So, I think that is really the only way to go. You are the same.
>> MATTHEW: I love that you’re messy though. You should see her desk at work! Oh, my god!
>> FRANCES: That’s not true! That is not true.
>> MATTHEW: But to fit in with what you said earlier, are we losing, communally are we losing a genuineness about ourselves?
>> FRANCES:I do worry, to tell you the truth, about social media, Instagram and Facebook, particularly, I guess, for teenagers. I think it’s a very easy trap to fall into and I think it’s very seductive. And I actually know that because I’m not a social media person, naturally. But, with this book, because of the way the world is changing I’ve had to be far more active on Instagram and Facebook than I really ever have been and I find myself at night, now, and I’m gonna stop, instead of reading I’m scrolling through other peoples Facebook lives and Instagram. [COUGHS] Excuse me. And I can recognise how unhealthy it is, because I’ve never ever bought into it but at the moment I am in that world and I can tell with my own reactions, you know, seeing peoples lives and you think, “Well, why wasn’t I invited to that party?”
>> FRANCES: For one, everyone looks great, they look great, their kids are great, their kids achievements, you know is wonderful but it does this terrible comparison, you know, there’s that, what is it?…Well, my dad used to say me, “Never compare.” And I think that’s what it’s done. It’s created a culture of comparison, which I don’t think is healthy.
>> MATTHEW: I feel a column coming on, Franny.
>> FRANCES: So do I!
>> MATTHEW: I was at an airport two years ago, a regional airport and there were, I counted them, there were 17 people waiting for the plane, including Warren Ench, the politician, and every single one of them was on their phone.
>> FRANCES: Yeah.
>> MATTHEW: Staring at their phone.
>> FRANCES: It’s really…. I did actually write a column once about a moment that struck me. I was driving home from the Courier and I was coming along Petrie Terrace and I was driving past Girls Grammar and Boys Grammar and as I was driving past Girls Grammar, end of school, every single kid was waiting and they’re all on their phones and then there was this one girl hanging upside down by her legs…
>> FRANCES:…from a tree in her uniform with her skirt all, you know, tucked in, which we have to do. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I sat at the traffic lights… I was like, “Oh, look at you!” She was just, you know, swinging away and I actually wrote a column about it because it was lovely.
>> MATTHEW: Let’s go to the origins of this story, because I remember when you first started talking about your second novel, that it was doing a drama set around dinner party or something. Suddenly there’s this beautiful book. What happened?
>> FRANCES: Okay, so you were, from memory, and I actually remember this quite well, Matt was editor of Q Weekend at this stage and you and I were talking, and I said, “I’ve had this idea for a novel.” And I think we were talking about, maybe how do you come up with ideas? So, number one, I was seeing a movie at the Schonell, maybe two years prior, and you know those credits that are credits that are just endless, at the end. I don’t know why I stayed for them but like a lighting technician or someone was Albert Flowers and all of a sudden, I just thought, “That’s who I’m going to write my next book about.”
>> MATTHEW: Wow.
>> FRANCES:I don’t know, because I’m odd, I don’t know, I was just like, “That’s it. That’s the name!” So, there was that and then I said to you, and I remember this, I don’t know if you do? I said, “I’m going to do a novel about a dinner party, and I don’t want to give too much away about this book, and it’s going to be about someone who has a double life and I’m going to call it The Invitation.
>> MATTHEW: That’s right.
>> FRANCES: Do you remember?
>> MATTHEW: Yeah.
>> FRANCES: That was the... that was the seedling and you said you loved it and initially you said - it’s all coming back to me now – we said, I think it was you, “Why not make the actual cover and invitation?” Do you remember that?
>> MATTHEW: That’s right, but that didn’t happen.
>> FRANCES: No, it didn’t.
>> MATTHEW: So how did those little seeds grow?
>> FRANCES: Well, from that, so, Albert Flowers I wanted to be a good man and I wanted to write a book where the male character was as important as the female character. Because quite often, particularly in women’s fiction, it’s very female centred so I knew that I wanted to have a man in there that was, you know, an equal role and I wanted him to be a good man because, again, I have a lot of good men in my life. You know, my father was a good man, my husband’s a good man, my mates who are men are good men. So, there was that and Florence, I’m not quite sure where she came from. But I think the idea for some of the plot, I spend so much time at work, as do you, and there are so many characters at work and I was thinking one day how you’ve, sort of, got your work game face and then you’ve got your real face when you leave work. So, I want to write a novel about people who are in a work environment but perhaps showing who they really were.
>> MATTHEW: Fantastic. Fantastic. Now, please talk about the Saint Claire family. They are immensely lovable but the are a pretty nutty group of people, right?
>> FRANCES: They’re insane, basically.
>> MATTHEW: [LAUGHS]Tell me about the Saint Claires.
>> FRANCES: Well, I always have to preface this, particularly if there’s any members of my own family in the audience and I don’t think there is.
>> MATTHEW: [LAUGHS]
>> FRANCES:[COUGHS]When I was a kid, I grew up in Indooroopilly and I had a very suburban childhood. Which is not to say it was a bad childhood, it was just pretty, kind of, every day I went to school, came home, played, watched Countdown. That kind of life but every now and again I would get these glimpses of people that were different and there was a family in our neighbourhood who were very musical and I was absolutely fascinated by them and I loved to go their house because it was very different from my house in that it was always full of music. It was always full of life. The father would be playing the trumpet, the mum would be on the piano, the kids would be dancing in the loungeroom and I just, I think as a kid, I kind of yearned for that. And the second family, my older sister knew a family in Brisbane, who are a real family, and they were kind of child stars in Brisbane, in that their dad was like a musical director up at the Mt Coot-tha, and they were all very musical and they sang together and they actually had one hit single called Gingerbread Man and, again, they were like foreign objects and I loved to be around them because they were so different from me and my family and they just had this hint of glamour but mostly the ‘other’.
>> MATTHEW: And you were attracted to that?
>> FRANCES: Very. Desperate.
>> MATTHEW: There are two other…. There are two presiding presences. The natural world and music
>> FRANCES: Mmhmm
>> MATTHEW: What role do they play in your actual life?
>> FRANCES: Well, I love both dearly. The natural world I really don’t know a lot about, knowledge wise, but I love to walk in the Australian bush. Now, that makes me sound like I’m out trekking in the Australian bush on weekends, I’m not. I’m actually talking specifically around the Ashgrove, The Gap area.
>> MATTHEW: But it is still native… it’s bush.
>> FRANCES: There are bushy parts!
>> FRANCES: I love that, I love the smell of the eucalypt.
>> MATTHEW: You make it sound like you’re trekking through the bush.
>> FRANCES: Make it sound like I’m a hiker.
>> MATTHEW: At Ashgrove.
>> FRANCES:I wish I was but really, I love it and I find it very calming, and I love the smell, particularly after rain. So, when I wrote this it was very important to me to place them in that Australian bush landscape and because I don’t have a general knowledge, I really don’t, I would walk through the bush and I would do two things. I would use an application on my phone called PlantSnap, where you take a photo and it tells you what plant it is, and I would quickly write that down. And then I spoke to Clare Bickle, who’s the ABC Radio gardening person and also works for U magazine and I described plants to her and then she would tell me what it is and then towards the end of the writing I read out to her a couple of things I’d written specifically about plants that I’d basically gotten googling just to check it was right and she said it was. One of the greatest compliments I’ve been paid about the book is that at a book signing a man came up to me and told he used to be the curator at, I don’t think exist anymore, the old Sunnybank Gardens, and he said to me, “I can tell you really know your plants.”
>> FRANCES:I said, “Yes. Yes, I do!”
>> MATTHEW: I get a sense, only because they’re so warmly drawn, that you get attached to your characters. Mr and Mrs Saint Claire are extraordinary characters. Did you base them on, I know it’s an obvious question, but Mrs Saint Claire with the cucumbers on her eyes and the cream and the jazz legend father?
>> FRANCES: I’m not sure exactly where they came from but Amanda Saint Claire, I love. I’m quite attached to her because at her heart she’s a mother, she’s a working mother. But she has this whole other public persona and probably, in a way I can relate to that. Not to suggest that I’m a glamorous jazz singer but I love that she has this, kind of, wild life where she has to be a certain way but, really, at heart, she just earns for love. So, I like that. And Lucas Saint Claire is just a bit naughty, isn’t he? Just a bit dashing and a bit of a rake. I don’t know where that comes from. I think every single woman in the world goes through a very brief, thank god, stage where she’s attracted to the bad boys. So, maybe it came from that.
>> MATTHEW: Oh, tell us more Frances!
>> FRANCES: No, no!
>> MATTHEW: Getting quite saucy.
>> FRANCES: Not much to tell, sadly, but I’m just saying. There is an element of that that women find quite attractive I think.
>> MATTHEW: But, despite his bad boy reputation, his wife is still, leading up to his death – I don’t want to ruin the book – willing to forgive and madly in love with him and treasures their relationship.
>> FRANCES: And I think that’s very possible. I know and you know, and everyone here knows, what goes into a marriage or a long partnership. You know that old fashioned saying ‘no one know what goes on inside a marriage except the people in it’ and it’s very true. And I think people forgive all sorts of things inside a marriage – big or small – and you do it for all sorts of reasons. You do it for the kids, you do it for the family unit. And you do it because there is always something of who you were when you first met and why you came together in the first place – if you’re lucky. Even in fidelity – and I’ve seen it with friends of mine – even if it hurts, I’ve seen people forgive and understand for the bigger picture.
>> MATTHEW: Okay. Do you sing? Are you a singer?
>> FRANCES: [Laughs] You’re not going to ask me to, are you?
>> MATTHEW: No.
>> FRANCES: Then yes. I’m excellent. I sing to myself at home. But I don’t sing-sing. Although, I have been singing with another girl, Andrea Tucker, just he two of us in her house, in her garage.
>> MATTHEW: Really?
>> FRANCES: So her name is Andrea and my name is Frances, so we have decided when we launch ourselves on the general public, we are going to call ourselves “Frandrea”.
>> MATTHEW: [Laughs] Does anyone at work know about this?
>> FRANCES: No.
>> MATTHEW: [Laughs] Okay.
>> FRANCES: No. No one is ever going to hear up publicly sing.
>> MATTHEW: In the book, Albert describes a girl that he meets at a bar. And he says, quote, “Something about her was slightly off kilter, making her the best kind of beautiful. The almost kind.” This notion of the best kind of beautiful, just take us behind that, how you came up with that.
>> FRANCES: Again, I would say, because the notion of what is beautiful has become amplified over the last kind of decade, very much so. You have a daughter, same age as my daughter. It would concern you, Matty, what they’re being thrown at, what they’re being told constantly – what is beautiful, what is not. And there’s this ideal and, you know, girls – I’m sure men too, but I think more to girls, young girls – getting all sort of procedures done really early. And I think this idea of what is beautiful and what you need to strive for is such a bad sell to all of us. Because, again, we all know, when we meet someone or fall in love with someone we’re attracted to, it’s never because they’re ridiculously good looking – well, sometimes it is – but I’m just saying, what we find beautiful in the person we love can be all sort of things. It could be a feature, it could just be their eyes, it could be their laugh, it could be how funny they are, it could be all those things. This idea of this crazy level of beauty, so few people look like that that it’s an impossible bar to strive for. And when Florence and Albert, it is only when they show their true selves to each other that they find each other beautiful. And that’s what it’s about, when someone show you who they are, that is a very beautiful moment.
>> MATTHEW: In both of your novels, you write really interestingly about fathers. And I’d like you to tell us a little bit about the Whiting family. I’m hoping they’re a little bit like the Von Traps, but I guess that won’t happen. And also specifically about your dad.
>> FRANCES: So, this is interesting. This is why Matthew is suc a good writer and interview, because e picks up on these things! So my dad, Paul Whiting, he was very eccentric. In fact, when I say that we had a typical suburban childhood, we did bar one factor – and that was my dad. He wasn’t wildly eccentric, but he stood out in that neighbourhood of men.
>> MATTHEW: In what way?
>> FRANCES: He wasn’t like the dad who did the barbeque with the boys, he wasn’t at all sporty. He was a great reader. My main memory of dad was him sitting at the kitchen table, with his thick black glasses on, smoking his head off, surrounded by books. And he was a thwarted writer, he wrote lots. I’ve got some of his plays and prose in there. but it never happened for him, I don’t think he ever actually tried, and he was eccentric. And I can only ever say this with love, so please don’t think I’m being mean to him because I’m not. My father had Alzheimer’s 10-15 years before he died. And we never realised he had it because he was a little bit eccentric. So for a long time we thought, well that’s just dad being dad. But no, it wasn’t. But her was great because, okay, I can remember being woken up in the dead of the night by my father and him dragging me in the backyard in my pyjamas, to show me an owl in the tree. He would dance and sing. But mostly I think it was his great love of language that I remember. And he has found his way into my books. With Walking on Trampolines, there are two male characters in that – Harry, and the other whose name I have temporarily forgotten – and it was only after the book that had been out for some time, that if you took this man with no name and Harry, and put them together, they made my father. But I didn’t know when I was writing them separately.
>> MATTHEW: Wow. I would like you to talk about the incredible but very strange numerical connection that you have with your late father. Can you share that story? Because it give me the chills just asking you.
>> FRANCES: I remember telling you at work just recently. Okay. This is a strange tale, but it is true.
We grew up in 34 Clarence Road, Indooroopilly. And I can’t tell you how much my father loved that house, he talked about how much he loved that house incessantly. It had a mango tree, a macadamia tree, and mulberry tree, it was a very Queensland upbringing. And we lived there out whole lives, we never moved. And dad always just used to call the house “number 34.” So instead of saying I’ll meet you at home, we’re going home now, he’d say “I’ll meet you at number 34”. And when he died, the number 34, since then, has cropped up in my life with such regularity, as well as my sister Louise. That it is impossible to not thing it’s my dad. Because not only has it cropped up with regularity, it had cropped up in very unusual places where it shouldn’t be. So, every time I check into a hotel room, it is usual 34 or end sin 34. The two that stand out, the one I told Matthew at work that completely freaked him out – because I was freaked out – was once at my mother’s house, my niece who was only two at the time, we were all in the backyard and she just walked over to the garden and she picked up a piece of paper, it was about this big, and she brought it over to me and I opened it up and number 34 was written on it.
And then at work, I was in the female bathroom, and I washed my hands, and this was only a year ago, I pulled down the paper towel and into my hand came this little piece of paper with the number 34 written on it.
>> AUDIENCE MEMBER: This light here has the number 34 written on it!
>> MATTHEW: Chills!
>> FRANCES: Oh my goodness me. Hi, dad!
>> MATTHEW: When everyone leaves tonight, the only thing they’ll talk about is number 34.
>> FRANCES: Thank you. That’s what I mean, it turns up with regularity but in very unusual circumstances.
>> MATTHEW: Incredible. Okay, moving on from the supernatural now.
>> FRANCES: Yes, okay.
>> MATTHEW: The Australian wrote about your book, Thus, “Whiting is more interested in soothing the sore hearted than agitating past misdeeds and indiscretions. Aside from its ease wit and humour, there is a tenderness in administration to all those in need.” Now, should you have been a nun? Saint Frances of St John’s Ward.
>> FRANCES: [Laughs] I think you know me better than that. I would have been a terrible nun. And I have done equally – I have done terrible things in my life. As I’m sure we all have. Do you know once at the paper, a reader sent me a letter and it was addressed to Frances – in quotes – Pamela Perfect – Whiting. [Laughs] No, I should not have been a nun.
>> MATTHEW: But that comment does go, as I see it, to the heart of your work. The quality and genuine, tenderness and the appearance that this is – and I mean this in the best way – is today almost an old fashioned notion, that of care, of trying to help other, or recognising pain. That is in your books. And I think that’s a great thing.
>> FRANCES: I would say that I’m naturally an empathetic person. And when you’re a journalist or a feature writer, that’s important I think. I think all the best writers are – you are.
>> MATTHEW: But you’ve never become cynical, which is an easy thing to become as a journalist when you see what you see. Which is more than normal people get to see.
>> FRANCES: Yes, but, would you not also say, and your work, you deal with a darker side of life than I ever have, but would you not say, Matty, that even in your work, even in all that darkness, I’m presuming here, that you would have met people who were absolutely wonderful and beautiful.
>> MATTHEW: Oh, absolutely.
>> FRANCES: And who have carried a lot of pain in their lives, or seen things that no one should see, and yet go on and are also not too jaded or cynical. I know you would have met a lot of damaged people, but I think the human condition is naturally inclined more towards wanting to be kind to each other than wanting to be the other.
>> MATTHEW: What I like about St Claire’s is that they all think they’re getting away with secrets but everyone know them. And they laugh about death. It’s just that Australian, classic family ethos. It’s all piled in. It’s okay, we all make mistakes, it’s just a lovely piled in sort of chaos. The abse of it is genuine love.
>> FRANCES: And for me, what I liked about writing that particular family was their more humorous moments between themselves. Because that’s a family. No one can tease you like members of your family can tease you, because they know you so well, and they know your Achilles heal. And I think, thank you for saying that it sounds Australian because I wanted that. I think one of the nicest things is that really one of the greatest ways of showing affection toward each other is by giving each other a hard time. That’s how we show love often. If you’re really comfortable with someone, you can say terrible things to them in love and fondness.
>> MATTHEW: You’re going to be signing books after this, right?
>> FRANCES: I am.
>> MATTHEW: Okay, so I want to read this passage from the book because it’s very pertinent. In the novel there’s a writer called Cat Morrison.
>> FRANCES: Oh yeah.
>> MATTHEW: Whose launching her new book in a book shop. And she whispers to Albert, “I need to get out of here.” She jerked her head toward the glass front door, “Not that way, that’s where they are.” “Who?” Albert asked. “The readers,” Cat said. And then, in the beginning, Cat said she could writer her essays and books and people were happy just to read them. But now people wanted to get beneath the words, they wanted to meet the person who wrote them, they wanted to know how she wrote them, when she wrote them and it was not, she said, her inclination to tell them. So, will you be comfortable signing?
>> FRANCES: [Laughs] Yes. [Laughs] I actually like that part of meeting readers. I really like that part. But, I’ve also interviewed many authors and it’s not their natural inclination, and it’s hard for them. When you interview authors, sometimes it’s hard work because authors by their very nature are solitary people. These are people who spend most of their working time completely by themselves and there’s a reason many of us are attracted to that. Because I would say that most are a real mix of both introvert and extrovert. We love to be by ourselves writing, but when the time comes we can do the other as well. So, I’ll be fine
>> MATTHEW: Correct me if I’m wrong, Walking on Trampolines you took a fair bit from your personal life and experience and family. How did you cope with the cliché of the nightmare second novel? It’s a cliché because it’s true. The first novel you can pour out of virtually anybody – your first and sometimes only book. The bridge to the second novel is a very difficult one. How did you manage it?
>> FRANCES: Well, in all honestly. I do remember being at home one day and thinking to myself, you know what, I am just going to be one of those people who just writes one book. And I’m absolutely fine with that. I remember thinking, I don’t necessarily want that to be the case but that is the case, I’m going to be a one book person. And I need to be very happy with that achievement. And I had kind of come to a place of acceptance. But then, quite sooner afterwards, the characters demand to be writ, don’t they? So it just re-emerged and I kept going and kept going. And I would say that the difficult second album or novel syndrome is alive and well. But, I didn’t feel it so much because Walking on Trampolines was successful, but it wasn’t mega, international – and as much as I would have loved it to be. And I think had I had that, it would have been a lot harder. If your first book – if expectations are up here, it must be extremely hard to think, oh my god the whole world is waiting. I was pretty comfortable with that.
>> MATTHEW: I loved your first book, absolutely adored it.
>> FRANCES: Thank you.
>> MATTHEW: This book, though, technically, is a different planet from the first book. As writers it’s a nightmare because you’re constantly trying to pick apart other writers’ work. How did she make that work? So I’m going to put apart and expose the infrastructure to yourself. How did she make that segue so seamless? You never stop trying to learn the tricks.
>> FRANCES: And I love it when you read someone else’s work and a sentence just stop you in your tracks. When you go, “oh. that’s fantastic.” I love that feeling.
>> MATTHEW: Correct me if I’m wrong again, I don’t think you could have written this book when you were, say 30.
>> FRANCES: No.
>> MATTHEW: Tell us why.
>> FRANCES: Because I do think you get better as a writer. I even know with the column, I look back on columns from when I first started, even now and again I come across columns from when I first started, and I’m genuinely embarrassed. I can’t believe they published it. I think, that’s so bad. And I think we’re lucky, Matt, because feature writing is in long form, so we get to practice our craft everyday. And I just think you get better at it the more you do and you learn what your shortcomings and your strengths are, so you play to them. And I don’t think at 30 I’d had enough life experience anyway to write that sort of book about families. Because I was pretty silly at 30 anyway.
>> MATTHEW: You must think to yourself, over the years, about the column, why does it keep working? What is it about your writing that can sustain? That’s a phenomenal relationship with the readership.
>> FRANCES: I don’t know. I genuinely don’t know, except that I don’t think about it too much, ever, I don’t try and overanalyse it, I don’t let it become too big in my head. I think if I stopped to think, my god this column has been going to long, it would completely throw me. So I treat every week as a new week and I let it come as naturally and I try not to fiddle with it too much. And I don’t know why readers love it the way they do, except that there is something in that writing that makes them fell included.
>> MATTHEW: Beautiful. Novel number three?
>> FRANCES: Yes. So I have signed with Pan MacMillan for two more books. And my lovely publicist Charlotte is here tonight, so I‘m going to say I’ve started. [Audience laughs] And I’m a really long way in. No, I know exactly what it’s going to be which is nice, because you don’t always get that. I don’t know how it’s going to end or anything, but I know what it’s going to be about. And it’s going to be centred around a literary scandal. Because I love literary scandals. [Audience laughs]
>> MATTHEW: I want your publicist to block her ear, because you were going on leave to write was it this book?
>> FRANCES: Both.
>> MATTHEW: And I remember when you came back to work and I said, “so, how far into are you?” And you said, “oh, about eight thousand words.” And you’d been off for six months! But you did get it done.
>> FRANCES: I did. Everyone does it differently, right? [Matthew laughs] How did you do it, Matty?
>> MATTHEW: I don’t want to get into that.
>> FRANCES: You have to be disciplined. Well, I’m a bit stop-start? But how are you -
>> MATTHEW: Well I guess it’s changed a bit over the years. I think the big thing, as obvious as it sounds, you have to finish something first. You can go back and reshape, remould, edit, cut, polish.
>> FRANCES: Just get it down.
>> MATTHEW: Just get a draft done.
>> FRANCES: Agreed.
>> MATTHEW: That’s the biggest journey.
>> FRANCES: Absolutely and learning to let go of “that’s not perfect.”
>> MATTHEW: So what have you done, 1500 words of the new book or? [Audience laughs]
>> FRANCES: I have done many.
>> MATTHEW: I know you’re a very self-facing, Frances. You don’t like to push your own barrow. You’ve got enormous talent, but you’re very earthed. Which is unusual for a writer who has such incredible success. But my question is, would you now call yourself a novelist.
>> FRANCES: Yes.
>> MATTHEW: Great.
>> FRANCES: And Matthew is acknowledged at the back of my book – both books – because, this Is very true. I was at the Sunday Mail for years as a columnist and a writer, but when I came over the Q Weekend, it was like the big leagues. So there was Matthew Condon, Trent Dalton – you know, these were writers that I – you know. So I was pretty nervous, to tell you the truth, and I always doubted myself as a writer because I’d always been put in that box as a columnist only. Because the column is a very double-edged sword. Because on the one hand, column success is great, but on the other half people don’t know you can do other stuff. And Matthew was really good at encouraging me and making me feel – I’m getting a bit teary - like I deserved to be there. [Audience applauds] That was unexpected.
>> MATTHEW: Frances did have this self doubt. And I was editor of the magazine, we came up with an idea to do a story on the dairy industry and the price of milk. And this was a long time ago.
>> FRANCES: Oh, that story!
>> MATTHEW: And we needed to tell the full story of that. And Frances went out onto the land and spoke to these farming families and came back and wrote the most brilliant feature and I read it and thought “where did this come from?” It’s obviously always been there, but you never had the outlet to really bloom and blossom as a writer. You just needed the opportunity to shine
>> FRANCES: Thank you, Matt.
>> MATTHEW: Now you’re doing it as a novelist. We sound like a pair of old legends.
>> FRANCES: We do. [Audience laughs] We sound old, that’s for sure.
>> MATTHEW: Are we having questions? Two questions. Do we have microphones? Thank you.
>> AUDIENCE MEMBER: Will you let us know about the editing process? I’ve wondering which editors you chose and how did you work through editing until they published your work?
>> FRANCES: So, I guess, the biggest part of a novel is the re-write. Because you’re editing it. When you’re fortunate enough to have a publishing company, they have in-house editors. So at Pan Macmillan I had some really good in-house editors, including a lady called Julia Styles, whose brilliant and had edited some really big books and Brianne Collins as well. And that’s one really good thing you have to learn as a writer is letting your ego go when it comes back with the red marks and the question marks. At first you go, ugh, but most times they’re right. In this book, I had an additional whole two scenes at the end. And everyone at Pan MacMillan said “they’ve got to go.” And I fought for them. And in the end, I acquiesced. And I’m glad I did because it would have been superfluous and milking the emotional factor too hard.
>> MATTHEW: They are usually always right. And I always ask for the hardest, toughest editor. They’re always right.
>> FRANCES: Well they’ve read so many, so they know. That’s their job.
>> AUDIENCE MEMBER: I know an interesting story. Chris Scase didn’t get away, he was led away. Would you be interested in writing about that?
>> FRANCES: Chris Scase? Didn’t get away, he was led away? I’m sorry, is this a true-life story you know? I’m not sure how to answer that. But what I will say is if you do know that story and it’s genuine, and it’s bonefied, new information. Then you should 100% write down what you know and get someone to look at it, or indeed if you are a writer or you want to be a writer, I would go to the Queensland Writers Centre and let them help you whip it into shape.
>> MATTHEW: And if Scace is still alive, can you give him my number?
>> FRANCES: That would be the scoop of the century. That would be quite something.
>> MATTHEW: Just finally, Frances Whiting, thank you. It’s a magnificent book and you will laugh and you will cry.
>> FRANCES: Thank you, Matt, thank you.
>> Librarian: Thank you so much, Frances and Matthew for being with us today, I’d also like to thank the Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress for joining us tonight. You may have noticed that we have cameras here tonight. Brisbane City Council Libraries have received a grant from the Queensland Government through the State Library of Queensland to live stream this event tonight. I’d also like to thank Dymock who is selling Frances’ books tonight and also has a selection of Matthew’s books. Frances will be signing copies of her book tonight, The Best Kind of Beautiful. Thank you again for sharing this wonderful evening with us and thank you to Frances Whiting and Matthew Condon.