Friday, 13 February 2009

Magdalena Ball: A Voice in the Wilderness - Part Two

Part Two

The road from New York to the outback and writing success was a winding one.

She said: “When I was an English major at CCNY, a counsellor suggested I apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. I didn’t get it, but in the process, I became enamoured of the idea of going to Oxford, especially since I’d just finished studying Jude the Obscure and those spires were as appealing and seemingly distant to me as they were to Jude, so I applied anyway and got in. I went, but the college I got into (St Cross) didn’t have any permanent accommodation for me so I had to find a place to live.

“I did find something at Crowley; a cute house which was being sublet by an even cuter guy with round glasses like John Lennon, and who, despite his gentle demeanour, was wearing black leather trousers and had some amazing looking motorbikes parked outside the door. It didn’t take us too long to fall in love. When I moved in, Martin had just quit his DPhil in Philosophy to do a PGCE teaching certificate and then did some teaching of French and History. His BA was in French and Philosophy.

“I was totally awed by Oxford and had the silly idea that I could write something new about James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and WB Yeats. The bulging bookshelves already full of theses on these authors, as well as my own lack of linguistic capability made it quickly clear to me that I was off-track. But I knew I wanted strongly to write about the limits of language and how these three authors were able to move beyond those limits. Although I passed my qualifying exams and a VIVA – the little thesis I wrote for that was pretty much all I was able to do on the topic using academic prose. I tried a few different supervisors but it was clear that I had nothing more to add to an already bulging canon so I left.

“I was also working at a language school, waitressing (research for Sleep perhaps, though I didn’t know it at the time) at a restaurant called The Crypt, and eventually got a secretarial position at a biotechnology company. And there was my advancing relationship with Martin, who was an active member of Oxford University Motorcycle Club. We had a reasonably strong social life, so leaving the university wasn’t that difficult. It just began to assume less and less of a role in my day to day life until I decided there was no point continuing to pay fees.

“Though I hate not finishing something I’ve started – my thesis topic is, in a way, covered by the themes in Sleep, so I feel like I’ve now finished it. I even sent a note to my old supervisor telling him. Being a Yank I’ve never had much notion of protocol.

“So we were bumbling around in Oxford. Martin was teaching and I was doing secretarial work, both no longer tied to the university, and we decided to get married. After the wedding and a wonderful honeymoon in Brittany, we knew we wanted to buy a house, but house prices in the UK were high.

“As Martin’s folks had migrated to Australia some eight years prior, and Martin had just returned from a long visit when I met him, and loved the place, we decided to apply for migration. I had never been to Australia, but what the heck – I was young and adventurous. It sounded remote and exciting.

“It took over a year though for the application to be processed, points tallied, qualifications assessed, so we decided to try our luck in the US for a bit first, ending up in North Carolina, which completely cured me of any desire to return to the US permanently. It’s hard to go back. When the Australian migration came through, we went, staying initially with Martin’s parents who are still within walking distance from where we currently live.

“And now this is home and our three children were born here. They’re all gifted; charming, gorgeous, challenging, and outrageously and sometimes terrifyingly intelligent (I’m not exactly objective). My daughter, for example, yesterday asked me to explain to her how liquid nitrogen could be ‘boiling cold’ – and she was only satisfied when I looked it up on the Internet and gave her the appropriately specific scientific answer. My eldest son has been reading her passages from Sophie’s World and he asked her if she understood it. She said, ‘I understand all the words you’re saying and can picture the scene and the girl, but I don’t quite get all the rubbish about existence.’

“My children are certainly my biggest inspiration as a writer. Dom is a pianist and he was practising Dvorak’s Largo while I was writing Sleep – which is exactly why I used the music in the book.

“One of the things I love about Martin is how engaged in the family he is because my parents were divorced so early in my life; before I was one year old. The whole missing father thing in the novel is a key element in my life, although my own dad has always been around – seeing me on weekends, taking me to the zoo, planetarium, etc – all that paternal stuff Marianne’s grandfather took her to.

“Martin has, on occasion, criticised me for being a wee bit secretive about my writing – doing it on the sly and not talking about it much. I guess I’m conscious of it being something of an indulgence (maybe having a novel out will change that – giving me a mandate), and also conscious of the juggling act in my life. I try to focus on whatever I’m doing at the time and not let anything suffer too much from the diversity of my roles. And I’m still turning a buck at a steady day job. I kind of like to hedge my bets on the Hopeville thing – doing it while earning at something that has no element of hope in it.

“I do have to combine writing heart wrenching life or death scenes with ironing. I do sometimes burn dinner because I’ve had to write something down. My typical afternoon could easily involve the following simultaneous activities: breaking up fights between my children, making dinner, writing a scene from novel number two, working on a poem for a competition, fixing up a spreadsheet error for my day job, assessing someone’s manuscript, and talking on the phone to the rural lands department about the fox that keeps eating the chickens.

“I court busyness and I do suffer from guilt when anything goes wrong or if I feel I’ve been neglecting the children by working too much. There are a lot of balls in the air. I chose to be a juggler so I’m not complaining. But sometimes someone throws one extra in there and they all fall.

“I could build my Ithaca anywhere now – having my family with me makes anywhere a home. Australia feels safe – clean air, space, peace – I can let my children go out and play and not fear for them (except for the snakes and spiders – another story!).”
  • Part One
  • Part Three coming soon
Interview by Alexander James

Interview first appeared in Twisted Tongue Magazine

Read an excerpt from Sleep Before Evening

Listen to Magdalena Ball read an excerpt of Sleep Before Evening

View the Sleep Before Evening book trailer

Click here for Magdalena Ball's biography

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