Fiona McFarlane, author of The Night Guest (Faber and Faber), is a native of Sydney, Australia. She has degrees in English from Sydney University and Cambridge University, and was a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin.
What inspired you to write The Night Guest?
Fiona McFarlane: I started with the idea of a house haunted by an inexplicable tiger. I’d been talking with a friend about the presence of wild animals in Victorian nursery literature, and it led me to think about the prevalence of tigers in children’s books, from The Jungle Book to The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I was so fascinated by all these exotic, terrifying tigers showing up in the safe space of the nursery, and decided I wanted to write a book in which a woman with some sort of colonial past believes there’s a tiger in her house at night — and is simultaneously thrilled and horrified.
What drew you to writing an unreliable narrator?
FMcF: I love that I’m asked so often about writing an unreliable narrator when my novel is in the third person — Ruth isn’t the narrator at all. But the narrative is very definitely filtered through her (unreliable) perception of the world, and I’m so happy it plays this trick on people. I was so interested in this small space between the first and third person; it’s a space of uncertainty and danger that I knew would be an important element of the larger uncertainties and dangers of the book.
If you were handselling your debut, how would you pique a customer’s interest?
FMcF: People are always interested when I tell them my novel starts on the night my main character hears a tiger walking through her house. I would also mention that The Night Guest is a meditation on age and memory that manages, at the same time, to function as a thriller.
What do you hope readers take away from your debut title?
FMcF: I hope readers are haunted by The Night Guest — and are left thinking about the passions and vulnerabilities of age. A lot of people tell me they call their mothers or grandmothers immediately after finishing the book!
Are you working on anything now?
FMcF: Yes, I’m finishing a collection of short stories that I was working on at the same time as The Night Guest. It’s delightful to spend time in more concentrated worlds.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career as a writer?
FMcF: I seem to have always known that I wanted to pursue a career as a writer. I wrote my first ‘novel’ at the age of six; it was called The Fake God and had 11 chapters, one of which consisted solely of a list of provisions to take on a journey (lots of chocolate).
Were books an important part of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you as a child?
FMcF: Yes, books were a hugely important part of my very lucky childhood — my mother worked in a bookstore and my parents read to us every night. It’s hard to say which book had the most impact. We read the whole Narnia series, a chapter a night; an aunt also gave us a box of wonderful classic children’s books like The Borrowers, Five Children and It, and Swallows and Amazons, all of which I loved.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
FMcF: Right now on my night stand: Madness, Rack, and Honey — the collected lectures of the wonderful poet Mary Ruefle; This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski; and My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman.
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand? (Besides your own, of course!)
FMcF: Elizabeth Jolley is a wonderful Australian writer who isn’t well known overseas. If I were a bookseller, I’d be imploring everyone to read her beautiful, odd Woman in a Lampshade.
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane (Faber and Faber, Hardcover, 9780865477735)
Publication date: October 1, 2013
ABA member stores are invited to use this, or any in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce Debut Authors, in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions (and we’d love to hear if you do).