Fleur McDonald is an author with her feet firmly on the land that she loves working with. Beginning her farming career straight out of boarding school, McDonald found herself working one hundred kilometres west of Esperance in Western Australia within a year.
While working there, McDonald met her now-husband, Anthony. She says, “It’s a funny story, how we met; I was filling in rabbit warrens in a swamp and he was contract clover harvesting on the farm where I was working. Somehow, after three months of living a hundred kilometres from town, I managed to wangle an invitation to the pub from him… the rest, as they say, is history (although he still reminds me, it was ME that asked HIM out!).”
The couple now live together with their two children on an eight thousand acre farm near Esperance. McDonald works on the farm while the kids are at school each day, although she says no day is the same.
“It really depends on what time of the year it is. I’m not always needed every day but if it’s a busy time of year like hay making, lamb marking or harvest, I put the kids on the bus at an earlier time and head straight out into the paddock.”
So, how did this farmer become a writer? McDonald says she has always loved reading (she loves crime, detective/mysteries, psychological thrillers and contemporary rural fiction) and used to write stories as a child. She was also a great letter writer at boarding school. “I guess it has always been there in some form or other,” she says.
Most people would be unaware that it all began for McDonald with children’s stories. “We were told that our son was at high risk of autism when he was eighteen months old. We had huge issues with concentration and other autistic features, but I decided to work on the concentration for a while.”
She began to pen stories for her young son, writing about things like tractors and farm animals – all the things he was familiar with and loved.
“My mentor, Jeff Toghill, told me my children’s stories were exceptional and I should try to get them published. That was when the idea about becoming published was sown.” McDonald was able to secure an agent for her kids’ stories, but nothing ever came of the submissions to publishers.
By the time her contract with the agent was up, she had a publishing deal for her first novel, Red Dust, so she put the children’s stories aside.
The story of McDonald’s novel being accepted for publishing is somewhat of a fairytale.
She sent her submission to Friday Pitch day, an initiative from the Arena imprint of Allen and Unwin.
“My first submission was rejected but in the rejection email, the publisher wrote ‘your writing is strong and commercial.’ That was enough for me re-jig the first three chapters, wait a little while and send it back in.” One week later, McDonald was told her submission was being taken to an acquisition meeting. Two weeks after that, she had a publishing contract.
Writing a novel was a huge learning curve for McDonald. She says, “When I wrote Red Dust, I was flying blind. All I wanted to do was write a book that I would like to read. I don’t even want to think how much money I wasted on ink, paper and printouts! I think I printed the whole MS probably ten times, let alone every chapter about six!”
Her second book, Blue Skies, began the same way. About halfway through writing it, though, McDonald realised the timeframes involved in the plot didn’t match up. “It was then that my best mate and critique partner sat down and actually planned out chapter by chapter. It was the best move I’ve ever made. The last ten chapters were the easiest for me to write.”
Blue Skies gives readers an insight to life on the farm, both good and bad, touching on issues such as rural depression. McDonald describes the drought that farmers experienced as she was writing the novel as a huge inspiration for writing about this side of farming life.
“I saw farmers who were usually happy, cheery people, not able to smile. Just putting one foot in front of the other was hard work. I don’t think anybody who hasn’t fed sheep or cattle in a drought situation can understand how soul destroying it is, for farmers to hand feed day after day after day.”
Amidst all the farm work (which McDonald considers her day-to-day job), how does she fit writing in?
“I actually don’t write every day,” she says, before adding, “It’s okay, I know some of you other writers will gasp in horror!” To her, it’s simply a matter of time, with the constant juggle between work, family and her writing. “I write every Friday for two hours, at my accountant’s office, on my weekly trip to town to do the grocery shopping. If I get any other time during the week, that’s a bonus.”
That doesn’t mean she isn’t thinking about her latest manuscript at every possible moment. McDonald says ideas often hit her at inopportune moments – like 3am, when she has to get up and write them down – and she spends every spare minute planning and jotting down notes with a pen and paper.
The author’s inspiration comes from everything around her: “When I walk outside and draw a breath of fresh, clean air, see a sunrise or hear a lamb calling for its mum. Every single piece of farm and country life inspires me to want to write about it.” McDonald says it’s important for people to realise how great farm life is, and to understand where the food they buy originates.
All this planning – often for up to a year – means it only takes about six months for McDonald to pen each novel, even with her limited writing time. “I’m pretty certain of the way it will pan out so it doesn’t take me that long to get it down,” she says. “I’m pretty lucky that when I do sit and write, I don’t change much. But sometimes, the characters don’t like the way I’m heading and I have to head in a different direction… that causes me some grief at times!”
Life as a writer isn’t always easy, though, and McDonald cites her lack of belief in her ability to write as her biggest challenge. “I’ve found it difficult to understand that people actually like what they read of mine and to see my name next to other authors I admire,” she admits. The people around her, including her editor and best friend, help out when she has what she calls her “meltdown moments”.
McDonald is now working on her latest book, Purple Roads, due for release in April 2012. Following that will be the second of the two book deal with Allen and Unwin.
The author has certainly learnt from the experience of writing her first two books, with planning being the key to Purple Roads.
“I’ve used butcher’s paper and coloured textas to plan each character’s path. It’s been much easier, although I have noticed my wall seems to have spots of texta on it, from where it has soaked through the page!”
She would also love to see her dream of writing for children come to fruition. But, as always, McDonald is down to earth about it. “It’s a very hard industry to break into and if it doesn’t happen, so be it!” she says.
Whatever happens, McDonald says that as long as she has a happy, healthy family, life is pretty perfect.
Find out more about Fleur and her work at fleurmcdonald.com.