Friday 26 April 2019

Striking a balance is hard - people don't always like humour with tragedy

Achieving global acclaim with her number 1 novel Big Little Lies, and its subsequent Hollywood treatment, author Liane Moriarty is not afraid to tackle darker themes in her books. Now, she's turned her attention to the world of 'wellness', as she tells Orla Neligan

Top of her game: Author Liane Moriarty. Photo: Mark Condren
Top of her game: Author Liane Moriarty. Photo: Mark Condren
Hollywood treatment: Big Little Lies starred Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty, published by Michael Joseph

It's 9am on a Friday and Liane Moriarty has already done an early morning TV appearance and looks a little weary as she plonks herself down on the couch in front of me and orders a "strong coffee". She has all the hallmarks of an author mid book tour: a little frayed, weary from jet lag, with a hotel room to match the rock-star schedule. "I just need five minutes to pack and tidy up," she laughs.

At 52, her career is on an enviable roll. Since she published her first novel Three Wishes in 2004, she has earned critical success with seven more books under her literary belt. But when her bestselling novel Big Little Lies was adapted for TV, starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, it catapulted her to global literary fame, so you'd forgive her for being a bit starry. But she isn't. At all. In fact, she wears her fame a little awkwardly as though it's a new appendage. "It's a lot of fun," she says thoughtfully of her new-found exposure. "But I live in Australia, on the other side of the world, and I'm happy to leave it all and go home." Said without a sniff of celebrity notion. The Husband's Secret was her breakout book, she tells me, and is quick to point out that Big Little Lies had debuted at number 1 before there was any announcement of a TV adaptation. Now that each of her eight novels has been optioned for film and TV, she may have to get used to a little more of Hollywood.

Dressed inconspicuously in a black suit, Moriarty is self-deprecating, cheerful, straightforward and maybe a tiny bit self-conscious. But, she knew early on she had talent. "I guess I just loved writing stories," she corrects me somewhat modestly. "It made up for being terrible at gymnastics," she laughs. She recalls a routine of "veering left" every time she reached the vault in gym class. "It absolutely terrified me," she admits. In her last year of primary school her teacher would read out her stories to the class. She still has her creative writing book to remind her where it all began. What followed was an appetite for reading that surpassed most other things in terms of interest: Enid Blyton a particular favourite and the reason she sounded "suspiciously like an English girl" in her "early" career as a writer. The eldest of six, Moriarty comes from a family of literary successes, her sisters Jaclyn and Nicola are both acclaimed authors and all of them 'commissioned' by their dad to write him novels as kids.

Moriarty has often been hailed as the 'Queen of character', a master of observations with razor-sharp depictions of contemporary life. Never one to shy away from difficult, and often uncomfortable, territory, she skewers topics such as gender, class, abuse, death and the complexities of relationships with aplomb. She explores a woman's amnesia in What Alice Forgot, the fallout of relationships in the aftermath of a child's death in The Husband's Secret, and who could forget the multiple-perspective Big Little Lies - a novel about toxic masculinity and female friendship that riffed on schoolyard bullying, malicious gossip and domestic violence.

Hollywood treatment: Big Little Lies starred Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman
Hollywood treatment: Big Little Lies starred Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman

Her latest novel Nine Perfect Strangers, set in a wellness retreat, possesses the same page-turning narrative with thought-provoking exploration of relationships, modern life and a good dose of that Moriarty humour. She writes from the multiple perspectives of different characters but it is Frances, the fifty-something author whose mid-life crisis sees her enrolling in the 10-day Tranquillium House retreat, and Masha, the Russian alpha-female retreat director, that steer the narrative. Frances serves as a sort of meta-commentary on Moriarty's literary world but that's as far as it goes. "My husband said to me, 'You do realise everyone is going to think Frances is you?' and that's why I made her completely charming so there's only that side of me in there," she hoots with laughter. The main character of her last novel was a cellist which proved challenging. "I know nothing about being a cellist so this time around I choose something I knew. But her career is as far as the similarities go," she smiles. Masha, on the other hand, was not necessarily written for Nicole Kidman but when she bought the rights before the book had even been finished, Moriarty knew there was nobody else who could play her with the same dexterity and commitment as Kidman had shown in her depiction of Celeste in Big Little Lies.

For Big Little Lies it was a friend's true story of her child's first day at school and a situation where two girls accused a boy of biting them when they had actually bitten themselves, that invited the idea for the book. For Nine Perfect Strangers it was a trip to a wellness retreat several years ago that ignited the spark. "I used to make this joke about my next book being set on a tropical island and that it would require lots of research," laughs Moriarty. "Then I started thinking, 'Well why not?' The tropical island morphed into a retreat after a friend and I took a 'wellness trip' a few years ago. She was heartbroken after a relationship fell apart and I was desperately trying to have a baby, so neither of us were in the humour to give up caffeine or chocolate and so, we smuggled in some contraband." This inspired the 'rules' and 'rituals' and the rest is what Moriarty does best - a well devised sinister plot unravelled with sensitive characterisation and an ability to temper those difficult subjects with humour. That's not an easy skill and one, I'd imagine, that doesn't always sit well with readers.

"Striking a balance is hard," she admits. "I'm aware that people don't always like humour with tragedy and I work very hard towards treating those issues with the respect they deserve." But 'going there' pays off. "You wouldn't believe the amount of women who email me and say I've written 'their' story - that's very rewarding." She is a working mother and so understands the stress and strains of modern life but for many of her books, the research involves other people's stories, something she is always a little nervous about relaying. "Real life is full of tragedy and drama and that's what I write about. I try to ask myself the question: imagine if that was me? How would I react, what would I do? I do worry that I'm writing someone else's reality and I must do that justice. When I get positive feedback it makes up for that feeling I often have of writing for entertainment."

Surprisingly it is not Celeste being brutally beaten by her husband in Big Little Lies or a parent's grief following their child's death that is the most challenging material to write for the author. "Landscapes," she sighs. "And houses." I raise an eyebrow. "I had a hard time describing the house in The Hypnotist's Love Story. I had to look up 1970s décor online and try to piece it together from that." But when you're good at observing, doesn't it come naturally? "Not really," she answers honestly. "I'm good at observing people but even Tranquillium House was difficult. I leave much of it up to the reader's imagination." The best bit of the process is two-thirds of the way in, when characters are well developed and she knows which way the plot is turning. Having no ending or plan from the outset is a little "terrifying", she admits, but prefers the "organic" method of writing.

Picking up her Big Little Lies characters again to write season two of the Golden Globe- and Emmy award-winning show must have been equally nerve-wracking. "A little," she pauses. "But they're fun characters to write." She even got to develop a part for her favourite actress Meryl Streep, who joins the cast as Perry's mother. "The difficulty was adapting my characters to suit the TV ones following David E Kelley's developments." She does admit that she was tempted to steer them back a bit but considers herself lucky to be "involved" by the producers and is happy to relinquish control to them. "I wrote a story and I trust them to do as good a job with this as they did the first time around." 
There is an earnestness, too, when she talks of the timely release of Big Little Lies and the #MeToo Movement. There's no denying that her book has helped a host of females join the chorus. "I'm really proud of it and the resonance is struck globally," she admits. It was important, for example, that Kidman's character "hit back". As a show about women, for women, starring women, did she ever feel it alienated men? She doesn't. In fact she gets a lot of emails and positive feedback from men who loved the book and the show. There's always going to be the person who doesn't, like the reader who accused her of trying to be "too Australian" because she referenced the (accurate) Aussie term "mate" a few too many times in one of her books in his opinion. This irks her, as does the fact that she has been described as the 'suburban housewife that became a writer'. "Oh that really frustrates me," she says waving her fists in mock anger. "The fact is I'm a terrible housewife," she laughs. "My husband is far better than me and I've always been a working novelist, well before I had my two children."

Since she started out all those years ago her writing has, in her words, come full circle. She admits it's taken some "very dark turns" but Nine Perfect Strangers has a "lighter" more humorous bend while still navigating some dark territory. One could even suggest it's a nod to Agatha Christie, the doyenne of the whodunnit. "Yes, I definitely played with that meta-reference and suspense of nine strangers in a room." At one point there was even a murder in the midst but she decided to take a totally different, more modern turn. For those who haven't read the book, there's a classic Moriarty finale where those deserving happiness are justly rewarded and those who aren't… well.

And for her next instalment? "I'm empty," she laughs, throwing her hands in the air, although she admits that her sensibilities are quite domestic so she'll most likely stick to that. "I try to remind myself to enjoy the moment. As you get older you realise how fast the world goes by. So, I'm off home, back to my family to hang out and decompress. But not for too long," she smiles, "I'm still on contract." She is a bonafide publishing star but there is no ego, no empty platitudes. Just really hard work and really, really good books.

'Nine Perfect Strangers' by Liane Moriarty is published by Michael Joseph at €16.99

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