October 2018

Essays

Ceridwen Dovey

The alluring world of Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty. © Nic Walker / Fairfax Media

Australia’s bestselling author isn’t interested in repeating herself

You know you’ve read a great book when it changes how you move through the world. That’s how I felt after reading Big Little Lies, Australian author Liane Moriarty’s sixth and best-known novel (thanks in part to its adaptation as an award-winning HBO TV series starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman). Moriarty’s creative genius in this book, as in all her work, is to scrutinise a group of ordinary people forced to co-exist in an emotionally and morally charged situation.

In Big Little Lies, she keeps the bell jar firmly over a set of characters whose kids are starting kindergarten in Sydney’s northern beaches, observing how they navigate the pressures and pleasures of this communal experience. I think about this novel often while waiting in the playground of my son’s school – along with dozens of parents – for the children to be led out by their teachers at the end of the day. It’s a time of life when, as a parent, you are expected to be as wide open as your children to those around you: there are new friendships to be made and alliances to be formed, school authority figures to obey, teachers to get to know and impress, rituals and ceremonies to get your head around. In the novel, one of the school mums makes a wise observation: “Parents do tend to judge each other … Maybe because none of us really know what we’re doing?”

If I were a character in one of Moriarty’s novels, she would see every part of me, the good, the bad and the ugly, but she would never skewer me. I’ve become a little kinder to the other parents, and to myself, as a result of reading her books. I’m more accepting of the roles we play at different times, more understanding that they’re not some sign of inauthenticity, but necessary for survival in the sometimes savage social worlds we inhabit. Moriarty is alive to the irony that we are often put off by the people who, on the surface, seem most like ourselves, what Freud coined the “narcissism of small differences”. She also has a way of validating the daily dilemmas parents face, acknowledging that while they’re insignificant in the wider scheme of things they can still feel very real, very urgent. At one stage in Big Little Lies, the young single mother Jane – who already feels as if she’s an outsider among all the nuclear families – is beside herself when she loses the class toy, Harry the Hippo. She has intuited, rightly, that the other mums will see this as a symbol of her more general failings as a mother, and Moriarty cuts right to their voices, as if to a bitchy Greek chorus:

“Harry the Hippo had been with the school for over ten years. That cheap synthetic toy she replaced it with smelled just terrible.”

 

“Look, it wasn’t so much that she lost Harry the Hippo, but that she put photos in the scrapbook of the little exclusive group who went to Disney on Ice.”

 

“Those were the last photos ever taken of Harry the Hippo. Harry the Heritage-listed Hippo.”

 

“Oh my God, the fuss when poor Jane lost the class toy, and everyone is pretending it’s not a big deal, but clearly it is a big deal, and I’m thinking, can you people get a life?”

I’ve begun to wonder how the upcoming K–2 kids’ disco would play out if scripted by Moriarty; there have been jokes about supervising parents sneaking in bottles of prosecco to make it bearable. If the climactic school trivia-night scene in Big Little Lies is any guide, we will earn the right to the original title she had for the novel: “Parents Behaving Badly”.

In person, Moriarty is the kind of woman whom I imagine has to fend off wannabe best friends constantly. Despite her fame as an internationally bestselling author (she has sold more than 14 million copies globally, and many of her books have been optioned for film and TV by actors such as Jennifer Aniston, Blake Lively and, repeatedly, Nicole Kidman), she’s more interested in hearing about my life than in talking about her own, and has a gentle sense of humour and a self-possession that is most evident in the sonorous timbre of her voice. Usually she guards her privacy, but she has a new novel, Nine Perfect Strangers, so she’s emerging from the cocoon of the writing life for the publicity hustle. She loves meeting her readers but is less enthusiastic about interviews and appearances; she’s already drawn little balloons in her diary on the date when her American book tour will be over. She knows that by the end of the media trail she’ll feel like a “dinner party guest who got embarrassingly drunk and talked too much about herself the whole night”.

We meet at The Bathers’ Pavilion cafe on Balmoral Beach in Sydney, with a view of the still, clear water of the sheltered bay. It’s a place that has special meaning for Moriarty: the final scene of her first published novel, Three Wishes, is set at the white rotunda on the grass nearby, and she and her husband and two children (aged 10 and 8) come here for a celebratory meal each time she finishes writing a novel. Her sister Jaclyn Moriarty, an acclaimed author of young adult novels, comes to the Pavilion regularly to write – we bump into her later that morning. But Liane has only ever made character notes here, in a very beautiful notebook she spends a lot of time picking out – a fresh one for each novel.

She arrives right on time, wearing a polka-dot blouse, very little make-up, and a small sapphire pendant around her neck that is the same blue as her eyes. She’s 51, and a Scorpio. “Scorpios are very passionate,” she says mock-seriously, “and very good in bed.” Her husband, Adam, an ex-farmer from Tasmania and now a stay-at-home dad, did the school drop-off so that Moriarty could get to our interview. His spousal duties are occasionally more glamorous, though I had to dig a little for these details: she says he stayed protectively by her side on the red carpet at the 2017 Emmy Awards (“There are photos where he looks like my bodyguard, which is hilarious”), and watched proudly as she got up on stage with Reese and Nicole (Big Little Lies won eight Emmy awards overall).

He’d also helped her get unstuck when she tried on something that was too small during the excruciating search for the right dress. “People in the boutiques were ignoring the middle-aged woman looking out of her element. Nobody believed me that it was for the Emmys.” (For the fashion-curious, the dress was an elegant floor-length gown in taupe and cream.)

In reality, though, theirs is mostly a more rooted domestic existence, with a few luxurious perks. They moved a few years ago into a stately home not far from where Moriarty grew up on Sydney’s upper North Shore, and have just bought a second home in Hobart, where Moriarty plans to seclude herself every now and then to write. She is the eldest of six children and is very close to her parents and siblings, most of whom still live in Sydney; when they all got together for her 50th birthday, there were 24 people to feed. In her website bio, Moriarty describes herself in her signature tongue-in-cheek tone as a homebody who likes to eat chocolate, fall to her knees on the sidelines of her kids’ soccer games (“the grief, the joy, the drama!”), walk “around the block to avoid writer’s block”, and read in the bath before bed. Her home office, she tells me, is far from a hallowed place of feverish creation; her husband and kids use the computer as a “hot desk”.

After our coffees arrive – and she’s taken a big, appreciative sip – she makes a joke about being open now to answering the harder questions, so I take the chance to bring up something I’m not sure she’ll want to talk about, given her aversion to name-dropping or bragging. (I’m conscious that things never end well for characters with these bad habits in her books.) What can she share about her experiences on the set of Big Little Lies in 2016, watching her book being turned into a hit TV show, something most writers would give their eyeteeth to experience?

True to reticent form, she says she recently turned down an offer to visit the American set where season two of Big Little Lies is being filmed because she felt it was time to take a step back. While she’d been warmly welcomed on set for the filming of the season one trivia-night finale, she remembers feeling uncomfortably overwhelmed seeing so many people hard at work breathing life into something that had previously only existed in her mind: everyone from the caterers, to the stunt people practising how a body double would fall, to the set designers showing her their early drawings of how the school hall would be decorated on that fateful night.

All that seems now, she says, like a surreal fog. She values the way that Adam and her children keep her grounded, not just in terms of dealing with the hullabaloo of being suddenly rich and famous but also in bringing her back to herself after days spent with make-believe characters, going to places in her fiction she doesn’t always feel comfortable venturing. Her books often have comic elements, but she wants her next book to be a pure comedy, to cleanse herself in a fashion after having imagined her way into traumas such as the loss of a teenage child to suicide, the failure of a marriage, the unsolved murder of a child, infertility, family violence. In her fiction, she tackles these subjects with sensitivity, conscious that she may be seen to be trespassing into realms of pain outside her own direct experience.

Moriarty has been criticised, for example, for “daring” in Big Little Lies to write about family violence, a “serious subject that only authors of literary fiction should be entitled to write about”, as she puts it ruefully. She is not defensive about this criticism; if anything, she’s too open to it. “I can get myself all caught up in that because I do understand what they’re saying,” she tells me, with a worried frown. “If a book’s not well written enough, then you may feel too detached from whatever it’s describing. So I wonder, did that reviewer have a point?”

Her sister Jaclyn, she says, likes to reassure her by asking, “Why should people who read commercial fiction not be allowed to read about tragedy, about bad things that happen to many of us?” Moriarty also takes heart from how many readers have told her that seeing the cycle of abuse Celeste suffers with Perry had given them the courage to leave abusive relationships. (Long before I was assigned to write this profile, a close friend of mine called me up and said, “I’m leaving my husband. If you want to know why, read Big Little Lies.” She literally gave the book out to her friends so that she didn’t have to explain over and over why she was escaping her outwardly perfect but secretly toxic marriage.)

The desire of her critics to censure Moriarty for what she chooses to write about perhaps reveals more about the parochialism and pettiness of the literary world than anything else. Until surprisingly recently, Moriarty was not widely known or celebrated in Australia as a homegrown success, even though she’s the first Australian author to have three novels reach the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list. One of the characters in Nine Perfect Strangers, Frances, who’s had a lucrative career as a romance writer, aims a few sharp arrows at the Australian high-literary establishment, which has shunned or criticised her work since she first started publishing. She’s been told, for example, that she has a weakness for adjectives and adverbs: “Apparently she scattered them about her novels like throw cushions.” It made me chuckle that the reviewer who has panned Frances’s work as “Formulaic. Trash. Drivel. Trite” loses her life savings in a cryptocurrency scam and lives “in a state of quite profound unhappiness for the rest of her days”.

While Moriarty’s novels tend to be described as “commercial fiction”, they’re actually not easy to classify. When I ask how she feels her work should be categorised, she responds, “I honestly could not say where I should be. I cannot see my own work clearly, so I have no idea.” Sometimes she’s claimed as a crime writer (one of the only literary awards she’s ever won, she tells me, was a crime-writing award for Big Little Lies), and has been urged by past editors to keep featuring “dark, dramatic twists” in all her books, making them closer to thrillers. Yet, like any writer committed to her craft, she is not interested in doing the same thing repeatedly; she is led first and foremost by what the project demands. “I don’t want every book to have a twist,” she says adamantly. “And I certainly don’t want the twist itself to become contrived, manipulated into being.” She feels she’s still growing and developing as a writer; she’s still dissecting the books that have come before, analysing what she could have done differently. She believes, for example, that she made readers wait too long for the final reveal in her 2016 novel Truly Madly Guilty.

Moriarty maintains a fierce loyalty to the printed word. For her, being published is the end goal, the true reward. Everything else is “an extraordinary gift”. Now that her books have been translated to television and are in the process of being adapted for the big screen, and she’s had a taste of writing in another format (she wrote a novella that formed the basis of David E. Kelley’s scripts for season two of Big Little Lies), she is sometimes dismayed to be held up as an example of a writer who has “made it” – as if every book’s secret ambition is to become a movie or TV show. Sketching out the season two storylines was “fun and easy”, because she didn’t have “to get the characters from room to room” (she finds describing scenery difficult), but at the end of it, she felt kind of empty, wondering, “Where’s my book?” She’s not sure she would do it again. “Maybe I’m just not a team player. I don’t know.”

All the pain and difficulty of writing a book is made worthwhile by her intense pleasure in finishing it, she says, paraphrasing Zadie Smith. Moriarty actually writes “The End” on the final page of a draft, and feels exhilarated for days. There are a few rounds of editing – made slightly more complex by the sheer number of agents and editors she has around the world – and then, right before the book goes to print, her euphoria is replaced with shame and self-loathing: the affliction of many women writers. Eventually these feelings fade, and then the irritability sets in if she doesn’t get to work on something new.

It’s thanks to her sister Jaclyn that Moriarty took the leap into writing fiction, while working as an advertising copywriter. (Her claim to fame was writing the copy for the back of the Sultana Bran box.) She recalls sitting in her corporate office and feeling time slow when she received the news that her sister was going to be published. Writing books was something Moriarty had always dreamed of doing, and this was the motivation she needed. It wasn’t jealousy – she and Jaclyn joke about their sisterly rivalry in interviews but are each other’s biggest fans. “Once someone you know gets published, it suddenly becomes imaginable, possible, that you might be too.”

When her own first novel, written for young adults, was rejected, she signed up for a creative writing degree at Macquarie University. During that time she wrote Three Wishes. “My main feeling while I was writing it was relief,” she says, her hand right over her heart. “This was what had been missing from my life. And I’d found it.” More novels followed – each set in Sydney and cleverly unfolding around a series of ethical dilemmas and dramatic wrongdoings, often one in the past and one in the present. She has a special interest in creating women characters, but her dissections of modern manhood are just as trenchant. Here, for example, is an observation of Thomas in The Last Anniversary:

It was as though all his life these achievements – home, wife, baby – had been weighing heavy on his mind, and now he’d finally checked them all off he could relax and benignly observe the rest of the world still flailing about trying to reach their own little islands of security.

By the time Moriarty and her husband had their first baby (after several years of battling infertility, a frequent topic in her novels), she had published four books but was still often described in profiles as a bored suburban mum who’d stumbled on novel-writing in her spare time.

She seems more bemused than annoyed that people assume she and her fellow-writer sisters (her youngest sister, Nicola Moriarty, is now also a published author) are locked in mortal combat over who will be the most successful. The only delicate issue, she says, is negotiating who gets to use shared material in their books. There is a scene in Nicola’s most recent book that made Moriarty cross, because she had planned to use it. And she got herself “very worked up” after finishing Nine Perfect Strangers because she suddenly began to worry that she’d been influenced by the self-help theme of a book Jaclyn has been working on for years. “I’m going to beat her to market, and I felt terrible that people will think they see parallels.” Jaclyn read a draft and, luckily, did not have any complaints, except over one anecdote Moriarty had stolen from real life, involving Jaclyn calling another of their sisters on her birthday to leave a loving message and then – not realising it was still recording – saying “Right, that’s done” and banging down the phone. Moriarty does not, however, feel guilty about using it. “To me, that was up for grabs,” she says, with a cheerfully wicked expression. I could see for an instant how much she had enjoyed riling her sister about it.

It is fascinating to outsiders that three of six siblings should have the same writerly impulse, but Moriarty says it’s only because their parents were both storytellers. Her father has that “Irish talent of telling a good yarn”, and used to encourage the kids to tell him bedtime stories because he was so tired in the evenings. Her first publishing advance came from him: as a child, he paid her the princely sum of $1 for a book she wrote called “The Mystery of Dead Man’s Island”. He loved his job as an aerial surveyor, and her mother was fulfilled in her work raising the kids as well as fostering more than 40 children while Moriarty was growing up, so she was fortunate to have parents who encouraged her to follow her heart when picking a career.

Being part of a big family meant she got a lot of practice at observing others and designing storylines. Jaclyn has described in interviews how, during their childhood, Liane used to direct all her siblings, as well as the neighbourhood kids, in elaborate, magical games and plays. While her immediate family was happily tight-knit, the more complicated backgrounds of her foster siblings gave her insights into how much of life comes down to luck. Fortune’s unpredictability is a theme she keeps coming back to in her work, exploring it from slightly different angles.

In Nine Perfect Strangers, for example, among the people who come to the health resort Tranquillum House in the hope of salvation are a young married couple who’ve won a massive amount of money in the lottery. Their marriage is failing, their extended families are feuding over who was given how much money, and long-lost friends keep making “passive aggressive” requests for financial help. They both long to be normal again. During a session of unconventional guided therapy at the resort, the husband, Ben, admits to his wife that he feels the money is like “a great big out-of-control pet dog”, a dog that they’d always dreamed of having but has changed everything about their lives now that they own it:

It’s … really distracting, it barks all through the night wanting our attention, it won’t let us sleep, we can’t do anything without taking into account the dog. We have to walk it, and feed it, and worry about it … See, the problem with this dog is that it bites. It bites us, and it bites our friends and family; it’s got a really vicious streak …

Reading this passage, I found myself thinking that it’s the perfect companion analogy to Emily Dickinson’s poem “Fame is a bee”:

Fame is a bee.
It has a song –
It has a sting –
Ah, too, it has a wing.

I ask Moriarty whether she’s processing through the lottery winners her own ambivalence about the wealth and fame that have landed in her lap; it must feel as if she’s won the jackpot in her professional life. “Maybe on a level I’m not yet aware of” is all she will say. It’s the only time she shifts in her seat and dodges the question, and I understand why: in polite conversation it’s rude to ask another person about their financial circumstances, yet somehow manners go out the window when it comes to curiosity about someone who has become wealthy under the public gaze.

In her novels she is especially attuned to awkward moments like these, encounters where there is a minor tension between (often false) assumptions made on one side and resistance to being pigeonholed on the other. Here, for example, is Celeste in Big Little Lies describing how her peers typically respond to her northern beaches mansion:

She saw it on the faces of people when they saw her house for the first time, the way their eyes travelled across the wide expanses, the soaring ceilings, the beautiful rooms set up like little museum displays of wealthy family life. Each time she battled with equal parts pride and shame. She lived in a house where every single room silently screamed: WE HAVE A LOT OF MONEY. PROBABLY MORE THAN YOU … Yes, they did sometimes sit on that gloriously comfortable-looking couch … But that was also the couch where Perry had once held her face squashed into the corner and she’d thought she might die.

Moriarty rests her elbow on the table, cupping her chin in the universal thinker’s pose. I can see she feels bad for not answering the question more directly. She explains to me that she’s still in that liminal phase where she doesn’t yet have her “spiel” ready for why she wrote the new book or what any of it means. All she knows is that before she started writing it she’d been planning to write about two lottery winners who take their families on a tropical island vacation, but she couldn’t get the story to work. Then she’d started writing about two sisters whose mother buys them each a lottery ticket. The tickets are carried up in the wind, changing hands; only one of the sisters wins. She mimes one of the sisters plucking the ticket from the air, and smiles a little sadly.

A second recurring theme in her work is the taboo of female rage. Many of her women characters are sick of wearing the demure masks expected of them by the wider culture, and are searching for outward release of the fury they express in internal monologues. In Nine Perfect Strangers, the romance writer Frances is menopausal, pissed off about being unlucky in love, and anxious because she has not heard back from her editor about her latest manuscript. One of the other resort guests discovers Frances in her car, having a fit of rage, hitting the steering wheel and screaming. “I’m always fascinated by what we show to the world and what we don’t,” Moriarty says, when I mention the scene. “But what I also love about women is that we can rage one moment and laugh the next.”

It’s almost time to head into the Sydney sunlight: I have to fetch my son from school; Moriarty has a bunch of overseas interviews awaiting her responses via email. Outside The Pavilion, a group of women in activewear are jogging back and forth beside a playpen filled with their babies; nearby a dad is power-walking with his mewling newborn strapped to his chest. Senior citizens who’ve braved the freezing water walk happily barefoot, wrapped in towels, along the promenade. I decide to test out a theory I’ve been developing, and ask Moriarty if she was perhaps inspired to become a writer – hovering above her characters, all-seeing – in part because her father’s aerial survey photographs, taken from his small plane, had given her a taste for the bird’s-eye view.

She laughs and says I’m not the first to suggest it. In August, author Ashley Hay floated a similar idea when she interviewed Moriarty in front of a packed auditorium at the Byron Writers Festival. “I might start using that in interviews,” Moriarty says, with a playful gleam in her eye. “It sounds so beautiful. I could change my whole origin story.”

Ceridwen Dovey

Ceridwen Dovey is the author of Blood Kin, Only the Animals and In the Garden of the Fugitives. Her latest book is Writers on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee.

October 2018

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