Excess Baggage: Family inspires Monica McInerney’s literary journey

By Frances Atkinson.

First appeared in The Sunday Age, June 2005. Reproduced here by kind permission of Frances Atkinson.

Family Baggage, Monica McInerney’s fifth novel, is a big book about a big-hearted family. From the outside, the Turners are a tight-knit bunch who run a travel business in the small seaside town of Merryn Bay. On the inside, though, they have more emotional baggage than Elizabeth Taylor. Now adults, Harriet and her siblings, Austin and James, are coming to terms with the deaths of their elderly parents when their foster sister, Lara, suddenly disappears. It’s an affectionate, funny, teary book about grief, love, lies and revelations.

McInerney’s own life could easily start with “Once upon a time. . .” She is the daughter of storytellers and enjoyed a storybook childhood living in the station master’s house, surrounded by brothers and sisters, in South Australia’s Clare Valley. Their father was the station master for most of his working life until his death in 2000.

As the middle child of seven, McInerney grew up with the constant sound of conversation. She has two favourite memories: one is lying in bed listening to the muffled voices of her parents and their friends chatting late into the night, the other sitting at the family dinner table with everyone talking over each other.

Before writing full time, McInerney was a book publicist in Australia and in Ireland and worked with Roald Dahl and Edna O’Brien. She wrote her first novel, A Taste For It “just to see if I could” and on the day she finished the first draft, McInerney came across a competition in an Irish paper that offered the winner a three-book contract. Her book, a light-hearted romance about a woman promoting Australian food and wines in Ireland, was runner-up and was published in 2001. Then came Upside Down Inside Out, Spin The Bottleand the very successful The Alphabet Sisters, a book exploring sibling rivalry, camaraderie, and the shame that comes with being dressed in the same clothes as your siblings.

McInerney insists that while there are echoes of her family in her novels, she doesn’t put them on the page in any recognisable way: “I’m interested in sibling relationships and the different emotional layers that all families have.”

In Family Baggage, Lara is a mysterious, shadowy figure and when a secret about her past is revealed, it affects the entire family. McInerney wanted to know what happened when a character arrived “ready made” into a family. How would the dynamics change? When Lara’s parents are killed in a car accident in Ireland, Lara, only 8 years old, comes to live with the Turner family. James and Austin accept Lara immediately, but Harriet finds life with an instant sister tricky. As an adult, Lara is confident and secretive while Harriet is more self-conscious. After the death of her parents, Harriet is plagued by anxiety and recovering from a breakdown when she’s forced to pitch in to help the family business out of a tight spot.

Despite the humour – or maybe because of it – McInerney said writing Family Baggage helped her to deal with her own father’s death five years ago. “The book let me explore my grief and highlighted how it changed the landscape of my family,” she said. “In a way, I’ve been writing my way out of my grief.” But there’s humour in the novel, too, especially when Harriet agrees to lead an elderly tour group to Cornwall to visit the locations of a daggy detective series called Willoughby. The former star, Patrick Shawcross, agrees to tour with them and provides some unexpected plot development.

McInerney likes to get inside her characters heads and writes an enormous amount of back-story to give them authenticity. “I spend about six months thinking about names, plots, locations – mentally casting different characters and getting them talking to each other”. For Family Baggage she wrote 20 episodes of the fictional Willoughby TV series, including plots and dialogue. “I know almost none of it will ever get in the book, but as a technique, it works”.

McInerney says that, like Harriet, after her father’s death her anxiety levels shot through the roof. “Suddenly there was eight of us where there was nine and that frightened me. All my safety nets seemed to disappear. I used to get dizzy spells, as if the world was literally tilting.” Over time, things improved and McInerney says her family and partner are her greatest supporters. “I think Dad’s death taught us to be kinder to each other. We don’t waste as much time on silly bickering.”

But she says that all families, especially siblings, have the power to wound: “Everybody knows everyone else’s weak spots. It is extraordinary that any family gets on at all.”

Looking back, she thinks each of her brothers and sisters had to clear a path to establish their own space and identity. At some time all siblings have to point out they’ve grown up. “My little brother is 35, married with a child, and even though I know that, I still sometimes think, ‘Isn’t it great the way he can drive a car’!” Each of her siblings are either writers, natural storytellers or both. McInerney’s husband is a journalist.

Now living in Dublin, McInerney found turning 40 liberating. “I love being this age; in fact, I used to tell people I was 40 when I was 39.” Maybe it has something to do with feeling liberated and less self-conscious; whatever it might be, she believes that with each new book, she gets closer to writing about what she “feels, knows and believes” about life’s comedies and dramas.

McInerney misses her family but begins each day checking her email and catching up on the news. “It’s very funny. Because of the time difference, I get to read what everyone’s been up to during the day. A while ago my sister wanted to buy a car and there was a stream of emails about which model and how much. Everyone had an opinion.”

With ideas for her seventh book bubbling away, McInerney’s thoughts turn to cleaning out her study. Every time she starts a new book, she has to clean it out and change things around before she can begin. While she is reluctant to go into too much detail about her next novel, she can tell you this: it’s about something that inspires her daily… family, baggage and all.