Mary’s top tip for aspiring authors: Find the best editor you can, and who suits your writing/genre.
Mary Garden has published widely in journals, magazines and newspapers, including The Humanist, The Australian Financial Review, The Guardian, The Northern Times, New Zealand Geographic, and Journalism: theory, practice & criticism.
She is the author of two books: The Serpent Rising: a journey of spiritual seduction, a memoir of her years spent in India in the 1970s entangled with flawed gurus and yoga teachers. It was first published in 1988, and reprinted in 2003 and 2019. Her latest book is Sundowner of the Skies: the story of Oscar Garden, the forgotten aviator, forgotten aviator, which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Award 2020. She holds a B.Ed. and a PhD in Journalism.
Born in New Zealand, Mary now lives in Maleny, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, with her dog Ivy and cat Elsa.
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Why do you write? I’m compelled to write. To tell the truth, to shine a light on things.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I did train to be a schoolteacher, and have taught for short periods, but teaching does not suit me. I like the solitariness of writing, so I’d probably be an artist.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? My ignorance and lack of research. I should have read the ‘bible’ – Rhonda Whitton’s A Decent Proposal: How To Sell Your Book To An Australian Publisher. After a string of rejections, I emailed Sean Doyle at Lynk Manuscript Assessment. He rang me and said do you have a marketing proposal, endorsements, etc.? I said, ‘What are they?’ Within a week, I managed to get a marvellous endorsement from Trent Dalton (just before he became a literary celebrity!), as well as a few other authors.
How involved have you been in the development of your books? My first book was self-published, so I was very involved. With my latest book I was also very involved. There was not much editing, although the editor wanted much of the last two chapters left out. I fought back and we reached a compromise, and the result was perfect. I gave feedback for the cover and was given a choice with the photographs: whether to have more in-text or less photos in a glossy section. I spent a month writing a damn blurb, and then they used Trent’s endorsement for the blurb itself!
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Can I have two? I just love hearing from readers of my books or articles. I never write to authors and am gobsmacked by the letters and emails I receive. In fact, the feedback from readers of an article I wrote, inspired me to write my latest book. And I just love it when words come out of nowhere and they are perfect.
—the worst? My deluded mind. Those times when I think what I have written is great, and it is not. I spent a month working on a creative non-fiction essay and did multiple drafts. I sent it to my editor friend who said it was terrible and that it read like a report. I was crushed. Then, out of nowhere, the first few sentences appeared in my mind. I rewrote it within hours, and re-sent it to my friend, who said that’s more like the Mary I know.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I’d like to think I’d be more disciplined and sit down every day and write. My brother-in-law, Maurice Gee, is a celebrated author, a household name in New Zealand. He went to his den every day to write and my sister went to work! Mind you, they’ve struggled financially, whereas I’ve gone out and done other things. For many years I’ve worked part-time in our family bicycle business.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I did not set out to become an author or a freelance journalist. I just felt compelled to write. I can’t honestly think of anything I wish I’d been told. Except, don’t do that creative writing course at university. That, for me, was such a waste of time.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Just write. Anything. Do a dump.
How important is social media to you as an author? I only use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I did have an author’s page on Facebook but deleted it, as I was not doing regular posts. I prefer Twitter, as I did my PhD thesis, in part, on Twitter. But I’m using Instagram more lately, and just cross-posting to Facebook.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? Yes. I don’t do anything. I just don’t write.
How do you deal with rejection? Pretty good. I pick myself up quickly and try again. If I get good feedback, that is almost as good as acceptance. I was thrilled to bits to get a rejection from Catherine Milne, HarperCollins. She was the first person to read my manuscript, and really enjoyed it – she said it was ‘elegantly written’ – but could not convince the sales team. I knew then that my writing was not crap and it made me determined to find a home for my story.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Easy to read
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? Helen Garner. I would like to know more about her writing process. How does she know when something is good? How often the muse comes and sits on her shoulder.
In the early morning of 16 October 1930, a young man taxied his tiny Gipsy Moth across the Croydon aerodrome in the grey light and, with a wave of his hand to the only person there to farewell him, took off. On his feet he wore carpet slippers and he had half a dozen sandwiches on his lap. His plan was to fly to Australia, which was sheer madness as he only had a mere 39 flying hours under his belt.
Miraculously, he survived in spite of several forced landings. When he landed at Wyndham in 18 days later no one was expecting him. The press dubbed him ‘Sundowner of the Skies’. Sundowner describes an Australian swagman who arrives unexpectedly out of nowhere on sundown, and disappears the next morning.
His flight – the third fastest after veteran aviators Bert Hinkler and Charles Kingsford – captured the world’s imagination due to its casualness. With a lack of fanfare, he had given the impression he had just set out on a short pleasure trip, instead of the most formidable feat in aerial navigation.
The casual flyer was Oscar Garden (1903-1997). Remarkably, he was one of the few survivors of those early years of long-distance flying – most died in crashes – and went on to a career in commercial aviation in England. In 1940 he delivered the luxurious Short flying boat Awarua to Auckland for Tasman Empire Airways Limited. In 1943 he became their Chief Pilot, but left suddenly in 1947. He became a tomato grower and never flew a plane again.
Sundowner of the Skies is a deeply personal study told by his daughter Mary Garden. This book is her journey of discovery. Until recently, she knew little about her father’s life as an aviator. As well as digging up his amazing flying adventures, she uncovers his tumultuous childhood in the far north of Scotland, the ghosts of his past, which he could not escape. And shines a light on the intergenerational trauma that impacted her own life.
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