MEG MASON: “I’ve learnt to look for opportunities wherever I am”

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Meg Mason is a journalist and author. She writes monthly for ELLE, is the Ask Megsy columnist for InsideOut and was GQ’s female-affairs correspondent for five years. Her career began at the Financial Times and The Times of London, and her work has since appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Stellar, Russh, Grazia and Cosmopolitan. She has also served as the managing editor of Sunday magazine.

Her first book, a memoir of motherhood called Say It Again in a Nice Voice was published in 2012. Her second novel, You Be Mother, was published in August 2017.


How did you come to writing? Was it something you were always interested in? 

I once read that whatever you did for fun when you were 11 you should try to do in some form in your career. For me, that was cutting up my mother’s magazines (not the National Geographics obviously, they were display-only) and making them into other magazines. I wrote all the features, the editor’s letter, the letters to the editor and handled the glueing side of things as well.

I also turned out one- to two-page novels on my grandmothers’ Brother word-processor. And later, I wrote my high school production turned out to be in a tiny bit formative since I can still exactly remember the warm, sickish, fizzing feeling I got when the audience laughed a joke, and I’ve been seeking to reproduce it ever since.

We’re taught to climb the career ‘ladder’, when in truth it can be more like a rollercoaster. You landed your Dream Job (writing for The Times in London) when you were in your early twenties before life took you on a different path. What was the most valuable thing you learned from having to adjust your plans career-wise? 

Yes gosh, I was 22 and although at the time I definitely realised how fortunate I was, I’ve often looked back and thought ‘oh my gosh why were you such a dick, why didn’t you make more of your time there, you are so weird!’

When I moved back to Sydney I had one baby and zero contacts in media, since I had never worked in Australia before. So I worked the phones like the lifestyle-features equivalent of Wolf of Wall Street and gradually built up a little enterprise.

So to actually answer your question, I’ve learnt to try and look for opportunities wherever I am right now, instead of obsessing over the missed ones and the lost ones. And even though I’d started somewhere prestigious, when I had to start again I decided I would write for anyone who wanted my words. If Kate Moss can do Rimmell, I can do a human resources trade magazine.

I’ve learnt to try and look for opportunities wherever I am right now, instead of obsessing over the missed ones and the lost ones.

As a journalist, you’ve written about so many different topics – do you have a favourite story or one that was particularly memorable to work on? 

I wrote a piece for ELLE this year about the experience of acquiring a scar – as in, an actual physical scar – as an adult woman. Unlike once you’ve had since childhood, a new scar can impact your entire sense of self, social confidence, your relationships and mental health. It’s something that many women have to grieve like a death, according to the experts I spoke to, which is something I’d never heard but had felt when a surgeon made a major dog’s breakfast of my arm, and I felt a bit broken by the whole thing and still do. After the piece was published I received such a beautiful letter from a woman who was in hospital with a hundred stitches in her leg from an accident, and she said she felt more prepared for what was to come, which was madly generous of her and affirming for me.

And as if to prove just what a broad church journalism can be, I also interviewed Joanna Lumley who is the most exquisite human – oh my gosh that voice. I adored her as a teenager – in brackets overweight category – and would ride my bike to the video shop to rent Absolutely Fabulous over and over again. Every time the man at the desk would be like, ‘oh the system says you’ve already hired this’ and I act super nonchalant and be like oh really? Never mind, I’ll still get it again’, until eventually I stretched the VHS. Obviously all of that poured out of me when the interview began and at the very end when I asked her if she ever gets tired of being known for Patsy and she said ‘no, darling because it’s made me incredibly rich and famous but really it’s the girl like you getting videos out of the library that makes it all so fearfully worthwhile.’

We have to ask, what was it like interviewing Kourtney Kardashian?

Oh it’s like dialing an automated phone service that plays a pre-recorded message on loop and you just pick up where it is when you dial. She was warm and funny and happy to sort of monologue, in a nice way, but when you ask, for example, “how do you manage co-parenting with Scott?” she would say something like “yes, I was super excited to collaborate on a line of childrenswear with Target” so that you only come away with what she wants you to come away with. But it’s so understandable, and such a clever trick when you think about it.

In an interview in Lauren Sams’ excellent newsletter Wine Time, you spoke about regretting some of the things you laid bare in your memoir. Many emerging writers write articles and think pieces that are deeply personal in order to hook readers/editors. Given your own experience, is there any particular advice you’d give to these writers? 

Maybe read it over the phone to your mother before you press send? If not to her, then the people you are writing about in the piece. Even if you’ve changed their names and obscured their identity, they’ll know and the private reaction to an ill-considered story is much harder to deal with than public fall-out.

People have such a visceral reaction to having their stories told in print by someone else, especially because their memory of the conversation you had or the event you shared will always be different to yours.

Even parts you think funny and innocuous could be something else for them, and it would be such a shame to become estranged from your sister because of a six point listicle you wrote for a parenting blog that paid you in exposure.

People have such a visceral reaction to having their stories told in print by someone else, especially because their memory of the conversation you had or the event you shared will always be different to yours.

How did you find writing fiction after many years as a journalist?

Physically painful is how I found it, agonising in its complexity, and gosh the emotional self-management required!

A lot of my day as a freelancer is spent giving myself little Liz Lemon-style psych-up speeches to make me feel confident in what I’m producing, but my first draft of the novel made it plain that I am a garbage human who doesn’t know typing and words.

In terms of working with a publisher, was the process of editing You Be Mother different to editing Say it Again in a Nice Voice?  

In so far as Say It Again In A Nice Voice took three months, one draft and a partial edit and You Be Mother took two years, four drafts, one entire rewrite and my throwing out the first 60,000 words and starting over when I had a week left, I would say yes, it was different. But much more rewarding, because to see the manuscript evolving and improving and becoming the thing I’d hoped it would be when it was still in my head was amazing.

 

What are the best/worst parts of life as a freelancer? 

For me the best part is the solitude because I need around 17 hours of alone-time a day to feel basically functional. The worst is that you can get a little up in your head because you’re isolated. If an editor doesn’t email right back, it one hundred per cent means that you’re sacked, not that she is at lunch.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Between features, I am working on the mapping-out of a second novel – now that I’ve learned actually planning your 120,000 words rather than just starting them will save you a thousand hours of unpicking on the other side.


You can read more about Meg and her writing at her website.

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