‘This is a delightful and amusing novel – and just a little bit savage – for anyone who ever wanted to know the secrets of fame.’ So goes the description of the new novel from Maurilia Meehan, a writer who has been shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year and the Miles Franklin Award. The story begins with the introduction about a narrator with a penchant for arson, who ends up on a cruise liner bound for Antarctica. Read to find out how Clive Palmer and Montaigne influenced 5 Ways to be Famous Now.
How did an article from The Age about cutting a hole in the Antarctic ice for a swim inspire 5 Ways to Be Famous Now?
Physical focus for the novel. Who would have such a desire? In order to find out, I needed a ship, which became The Queen Mary replica, thanks to Clive Palmer’s fantasy of his Titanic replica. Then I needed a Captain with this desire among other, more deadly, obsessions.
You’ve said that you enjoy writing and reading about obsessive characters, such as your narrator, who’s addicted to arty girls, gambling and arson – what are you obsessed with?
Apart from scribbling? Until I recently read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych, I was obsessed with dying. This book reminded me to always pay attention to the present moment. So now I obsess about my poppies. (Did I plant them too early? Climate change alters the rules). Will my online Scrabble partner ever play her turn? Will the colours I have chosen for my crocheted quilt turn out the way I imagine them?
More seriously, I was brought up a Catholic but a thorough reading of church history revealed to me its tendentious foundations. I am thus obsessed with exploring how people cling to unexamined, received ideas. I explore this in my characters.
When we’re introduced to your unnamed narrator, the initial defining aspect of him is that he’s a serial arsonist. How did you go about imagining this character, and does he have any redeeming qualities?
I started researching the particular type of fireworks which celebrate the Queen Mary leaving Hobart. As you know, backyard fireworks have been banned since the mid-eighties, and I heard one of our independent Senators announce that one of his policies was to bring back Guy Fawkes night, which the ‘nanny state’ had banned. From this belief the character grew.
Redeeming qualities? I will let the reader decide.
What did you set out to investigate about fame and revenge in your book?
I investigate a set of characters under a particular pressure. Everyone wants to be famous, including our arsonist, but the desire for various types of fame is necessarily thwarted, because there are always just too many people to impress. The few apparent winners create losers and haters, so fame and revenge go hand in hand. ‘We are all famous to our cat,’ is a wise attitude.
A book is the tip of an iceberg. What lies hidden, apart from life experiences, is every book the author has ever read.”
You begin your book with a quote from Montaigne – how do his ideas influence your work?
Montaigne would have been a blogger like you if he were alive today. In his discursive essays, he explores why he holds the opinions he does, why other people do. ‘What do I know?’ he was always asking. His scepticism included doubts about the limits of reason itself, as mine does.
Which other books or authors have influenced the writing of 5 Ways to be Famous Now?
A book is the tip of an iceberg. What lies hidden, apart from life experiences, is every book the author has ever read. I am not so much a believer in authorial free will.
What’s the latest non-fiction book you’ve read and what did you think of it?
I am reading 30 Great Myths about the Romantics by Duncan Wu. I have only read Byron so far. It is most revealing about how our received ideas about the Romantics are not to be trusted.
Is there a book you’ve read that was brilliant, yet overlooked by other readers?
Christine de Pizan The Book of the City of Ladies, written in 1405, the first work in praise of women. She speaks out against the literary and philosophical rantings of both the classic and her own era.
Can you share a favourite sentence or teaser paragraph from 5 Ways to be Famous Now?
Here is the opening sentence.
Rest assured, you will find me a most reliable narrator. Facts only.
But will this really prove to be the case? Read on and see…
5 Ways to Be Famous Now is published by Transit Lounge, $27.99.