Meaghan Delahunt, a small sunburst of a person, meets me on a cold mid-March morning in Edinburgh with a smile and a joke about elbow-bumping, softly deflecting the viral threat of a handshake or hug as only an avid reader of that day’s online news would know to do. On the train and in the streets, mainstream social behaviours are noticeably unchanged; the populace of central Scotland still unperturbed by the silently spreading Coronavirus. It would be the following week before the UK crisis response ratchets up through the gears, shuttering doors and halting all travel, leaving this conversation as the last literary engagement either of us will undertake for some time.
Though Delahunt is outwardly hard-headed about the news of book industry cancellations emerging around the globe, the timing is unmistakably disheartening for someone whose new novel is due to be published in Australia within a fortnight – ‘now I’m thinking, I wonder if the Coronavirus will disrupt this’. Her professional resilience undoubtedly stems from experience:
I think when you are a younger writer all you want to do is be published. Nobody ever tells you how difficult it is to stay published. How do you deal with all the things that go with a writing life? How do you equip yourself to see the world? Be open, be receptive, be out of your comfort zone. These are the things that equip you for the life of a writer, not whether you can do a plot.
She has published three other novels since 2001 and written a fifth, and in 2015 a collection of previously broadcast and printed short stories was published by Word Power Books1, spanning two decades of acclaimed literary output. Yet this book release is different; though Scotland has been home for many years, and she has lived in Greece for two other extended periods of time, Delahunt was raised in Melbourne and retains a giveaway twang of Australian in her otherwise soft accent. This new novel is her first to be published and promoted in her native Australia, rather than distributed there under rights agreements ‘like a foreign coffee’, shelved separately and treated as a sub-category in awards.
This book, The Night-Side of the Country2, was emailed to me as a proof only days ago and I am eager to discuss this ‘avowed feminist novel’ and all its complexities. The irony of the location I secured for our meeting at the Edinburgh Central Library, starkly and officiously named ‘The Boardroom’, only occurs later when I reflect on the nature of our conversation. The room has a private bathroom, an enormous fireplace, intricate coving, and ten masculine leather seats spaced impressively around an imposing table. We sit at a corner, taking up a fraction of the available area but facing no competition to be heard. The Boardroom is ours for the moment and there is much to discuss.
The Night-Side of the Country tells the story of M, a writer whose novel stalls when she is ‘triggered’ by the constant media revelations of systemic misogyny forcing her to revaluate her past, and her subsequent encounter with a possibly imaginary character named B who battles with her own moment of reckoning after speaking out about a violent political organisation called the ‘Movement’. It blends fiction, memoir and essay because Delahunt is ‘playing with the novel form – what it means to write a novel and what it means to write a novel about these kind of issues’. Trauma and gender violence are the primary examples of the issues to which she refers – ‘the gradations of micro-aggression to full blooded violence’ – along with the reliability of female voices, truth-speaking, the narrative ‘I’ in storytelling, political and social change. There is a lot to unpack.
‘It’s a short, sharp, shock of a novel,’ she tells me, after I note how visceral it feels to see these themes compacted into one literary form. ‘That’s the word that keeps coming up with this book! I’m hoping that women and men will find it moving and visceral. I know it’s really intense. Some people will come away feeling as if they’ve had a blow to the stomach. The publisher read it overnight on a flight from Perth to Melbourne, which is three and a half hours, and offered for it the next morning because it was so intense, so visceral: the structure and the language. She loves that it topples all the sacred cows.’
The publicists have referred directly to the #metoo movement in the blurb and I ask if that risks being reductive or whether it is necessary to place it within that wider social movement:
It’s dealing with female experience that’s existed as long as patriarchy has. Until patriarchy as a system is really challenged and dismantled, then I think the book will have relevance.
Women have been telling these stories for centuries – the way rape is used in war. Domestic violence is a violent crime and the streets aren’t safe. We’ve been saying this since recorded history, from Homer onwards in literary history too, but we haven’t been believed. We’ve been the unreliable narrators of our own lives, so I wanted to play with that. The whole novel could be seen as saying believe me, believe this. Believe these things happen. Believe the world is like this.
By another coincidence, Harvey Weinstein’s 23-year jail sentence was announced a day ago, mere hours after I finished reading the novel, compounding my connection of the two. She asks how I felt on hearing the news and I describe an unexpected sigh of relief, a long exhale. She understands the blurred boundaries between media, writing, and lived reality, reflecting that ‘it affects all our lives, whether you’re a Hollywood woman, or you’re just getting by in your life in Edinburgh or walking along the street in Sydney’. When I ask about her own reaction to Weinstein’s sentencing, she smiles triumphantly and says, ‘I punched the air’. We ponder how many others reacted seemingly in private, unknowingly joined in the moment.
Our conversation travels around my prepared talking points, revealing a shared repertoire of articles, essays, news items, trusted sources. We both know the urban legend of how ‘mansplaining’ emerged as a modern word, with Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ credited as a precursor to the term despite her initial denials3. It’s another example of a common language built from reading, and I wonder aloud if some of the refrains from Delahunt’s novel could be similarly adopted. ‘I’d love it if some of the things in that book became common language,’ she says, and there is no vanity in the statement, only desire to contribute to the cause. ‘Every time I hear something else has happened, I think “it’s the time of the felled men”. I say that to myself. These were some of the things I was writing in my own journal at the time that #metoo was taking off, but it’s the everyday things I would like us to have a common language for.’
So is language being reconstructed by women to tell stories on our own terms?
The book is about language and how we use it. Who’s narrating it? Who’s telling whose story? What’s the language we’re using to tell our stories? Do we tell it in the I or the you? I’ve always had an issue with the ‘you’ and the way it’s used. I wanted to play with the intimacy and the distance of you. At a certain point, when we’re talking about gender and violence, the ‘you’ is the ‘I’.
I ask about her inclusion of modern words, so commonplace in online discourse but fresh-faced in works of literature, and posit that Virginia Woolf did not have words like triggered, groomed, predatory, or gaslighting at her disposal:
I had fun with ‘grooming’, a word once used to describe what you do with pets or personal hygiene. That word wasn’t even available to Monica Lewinsky. And ‘triggered’, that’s a psychoanalytic word that has become very mainstream because of the times we’re living through. A lot of women were triggered by the Weinstein trauma and continue to be because every day we get new updates. I was really conscious of taking these words that up until even five years ago weren’t used in these mainstream ways, and exploring them. What does it mean to be triggered?
That may be a deeply personal question for many. Our discussion is weighted by the profound knowledge that there are so many stories, so many experiences, so often carried through life as hidden burdens, the essence of #metoo. Within the book, initials are used for names and collective entities are called ‘The Organisation’ or ‘The Movement’. I ask whether this abstraction gives the reader permission to overlay their own experiences onto the characters and situations:
I knew that these are things that we all experience on some level. X was very deliberate: every woman knows an X, every woman has an X in her life. In terms of the two women, I wanted that to be more playful. It’s playing with notions of how you write a novel too, and about creativity. Or that a writer knows anything about her character.
This conceptualisation of creative, purposeful play repeats throughout our discussions: play with language, play with themes, playfulness with the very form of a novel. ‘When I realized what I was doing with this I thought, can I really have the character talking to the writer? Why not?’, though she concedes that it can be ‘scary to play’. Delahunt is certain that there is no formula for novel writing, and play is a requirement of the artistic process. ‘Each story will find its own form,’ she assures me. ‘All I know is that I can finish something. I don’t know what the next thing is going to look like.’
I mention her forthcoming contribution to Imagined Spaces, a collection of essays being published this autumn by The Voyage Out Press, and she talks of a non-fiction book in progress about the death of the mother, and her own mother’s death, and exploring what that means culturally and personally. Does essaying give more freedom to explore?
I do really like the form because it is also really playful. I love how the essay can start out in one place and literally dump you in another. I’ve always written essays and, in fact, the first things I ever got published in my late twenties were essayistic pieces in newspapers in Australia.
I can tell that the labelling of any form, be it novel or essay, still seems restrictive. She agrees that combinations are needed to tell new stories in new ways:
New forms, new genres, new ways of looking at fiction and new ways of looking nonfiction. I’m interested in those kinds of boundaries. I always have been. The importance of the fragment, the importance of the transitory, how all of that can tell a story.
In this way she describes writing as the work of an artist, leading our conversation towards the teaching of creative writing as something optimisable and rules based, rather than artistic, or playful, practice. She asserts that ‘creativity has been hijacked by a notion of academia. So-called scientific methods applied to creative mess? It’s a messy private process, and it’s a messy thing for your psyche.’ I’ve read about her own process being holistic, making use of meditation, yoga and methods attributed to Zen Buddhism. ‘It’s also very physical,’ she explains. ‘It’s like sculpting on the floor. You can’t be full of yourself if you’re on the floor with scissors and sticky tape.’
This approach to writing as an embodied experience may jar for traditionalists but explains how a writer reaches for the dark and intimate places that interpret lived experience and make for a potentially ‘discomfiting read’. She poses a series of questions, teaching me as she talks:
How do you sit with difficult emotions before you even get to the desk? How do you deal when stuff comes up on the page and then you step away from it? With writing, you have to go close to it, go into the places that scare you. How do you prepare to go into these places? How do you deal with rejection? How do you deal with rejecting yourself? How do you step away from the computer and get distance from that?
Delahunt’s methods require more than simply time at the desk, though she acknowledges that this is also necessary. The process she describes includes a breaking point, a moment of ‘collapse’ during every long-term project that sounds disastrous but frees her to step beyond the work to be ‘more playful and allow what is really underneath to come up’. She starts writing one thing but is actually writing another. Again, by speaking about her latest book, I find a difference:
It was magnified because of the nature of gender violence and living as a woman in this world, the age I am and the experiences that I’ve had. It was more dramatic for me. It was not a pleasant time, and I thought I was not going to be able to go on.
At some point in this raw and open conversation I refer back to a line in her book that reads ‘fiction is not the same as lies’. ‘Much like M in the book,’ Delahunt explains, ‘I realised the only way out of this is to write my way out. I’m going to continue to write about things and speak about them. I think that is the only way out.’
How difficult this terrain is for female writers especially, so often accused of writing only from their own biographical experience. She acknowledges being ‘very fortunate because my novels to date could never have been categorised like that. They’ve got broader political dimensions and are said not to be “just” domestic novels.’ She laughs and reels off a list of male writers whose work she deems to be as domestic as any other. It feels permissive, delightful even. I keep the list. ‘When a woman writes a voice or experience that seems close to hers, it’s seen as biological not artistic.’
Yet for all the geographical and political variety throughout her work, I can still identify strong feminine perspectives. I highlight the first short story in her collection as thematically connected – ‘the young girl wanting to fly’ – she interjects knowingly. She gives other examples, like Lena in her novel To The Island4 who internalises the belief that women are ‘too nice’, and the thought sits with her momentarily. ‘I think it does run through all of it, it’s an ongoing humming preoccupation,’ she decides. So do her published works represent a fluent journey or discrete projects that indulge particular interests at the time of writing?
By the time you get to the end of a writing life, whenever that is, everything forms a whole because it’s all your own preoccupations and obsessions and interests. Each book, each story, each essay that you write is a reflection of your broader worldview, and also your psyche at the time, your spiritual interests, what’s going on politically. I see it on all those different levels, but in the day to day writing of it, I don’t think I’m creating a magnum opus. Each book is a product of obsessions that are running under my life for many years, and I have to dredge them up to the light.
This blend of worldliness and spirituality is not the only contradiction I observe in Meaghan Delahunt. She is lively and engaging, while also intellectually rigorous. She is self-assured, but not immune to self-doubt. She radiates warmth, yet burns fiercely against injustices. I find myself very grateful for the depth of our conversation.
There is an urgency to our discussions, but we do not rush. At the point of finishing, we tidy The Boardroom and leave it more or less as we found it, because we are nice women. For now. We wave goodbye, from a safe social distance.
 Delahunt, Meaghan, Greta Garbo’s Feet (Edinburgh: Word Power Books, 2015)
 Delahunt, Meaghan, Night-Side of the Country (Perth: UWA Publishing, 2020)
 Valenti, Jessica, Mansplaining Explained (The Guardian, 2014) [accessed: 10th March 2020]
 Delahunt, Meaghan, To The Island (London: Granta Books, 2011)
Meaghan Delahunt on ‘The Night-Side of the Country’ Fiction (April 2020) – UWA Publishing: