An interview with R.W.R McDonald

Interview by Samuel Elliott

Clearly you have a lifelong passion or love for Nancy Drew, I wondered if the characters of Tippy and Pike’s love of Nancy Drew mirrored your own – and if this was where the inspiration for The Nancys first came from? 

The idea actually came from back in 2006, I had done a scriptwriting course. For one of the projects, I’d wanted to try a murder-mystery. Because I’d always loved the whodunnits and amateur detectives. When I started writing, this piece of internal dialogue came, which was from a child. 

It was purely like investigating the investigator – like, who is this kid? How come they are investigating the murder? They didn’t seem too freaked out. That’s when I thought, well they’re not going to be doing that with their parents’ blessing. So then, OK, there’s babysitters. So who are these babysitters? That’s when Uncle Pike and Devon appeared. Then it was like OK, this is in a small town that he’s escaped from, he’s also there with his boyfriend. That’s where Devon came from.

As for Nancy Drew coming into it. I really wanted something that was intergenerational, that connected them. Something that would also help them be good detectives. That interest, that passion, in trying to solve a mystery. Almost a role model for them. That’s where Nancy Drew came. That’s where the play for the title came.

I read Nancy Drews, I read Hardy Boys, I read everything as a kid. I was pretty voracious. It was actually doing research for the book, I got to learn more about Nancy Drew. I think when you’re a kid, you just sort of read books, you devour them, but it’s not until you go back as an adult where you pick up on things. Particularly the early visions and for the time, or even now, she was pretty advanced, she had a gun, she drove around, she’s sixteen, getting in everyone’s business with her father’s cases. None of that, could translate very well, to today. 

But I liked that wildness, that sort of almost lack of boundaries – which is again, something I played with in the book as well. 

So you’ve got the Nancy Drew mystery element, but you balance it with some pretty traumatic and realistic themes and subplots as well. I wanted to know, if at any point, when you were writing it, maybe towards the latter half when publishers might’ve been expressing interest in it, if you were ever pressured to, or felt like you needed to pare back or tone down anything. You thanked Jane Palfreyman by name in the acknowledgements, for seeing the story for what it was – so that sounds like you didn’t have any of those impositions placed upon you?

That’s why I’m incredibly grateful for Jane. Because she loved it and she was willing to take that risk. Some of the rejections that I did get before that, were that they had read it, they enjoyed it, but it was along the commercial lines – of I don’t know where this will set on the shelf. For Jane, she loved the characters, she loved the story. So for me, to be able to work with someone like Jane Palfreyman was like – woah! But it was also about the story and just getting the story out there to the readers.

 Even when I was doing the first draft, we were doing pitching to agents and publishers and the constant response I was getting, was along the lines of – it’s an eleven-year-old narrator but it’s an adult book.

But I just wanted to write that story and I wanted to get Tippy’s story out. That was my main driver. I think it was seen as a commercial difficult, I think publishers didn’t think they’d be able to sell it. That it’s a child narrator, but it’s not YA. In saying that, I’d be happy for teenagers to read it if they wanted to. I wouldn’t let my kids read it just yet, even though they are Tippy’s age. But yes, it was a risk. 

When I did get to the structural edit though, it triggered all that stuff around self-belief as a writer and self-worth. All those things that had put me off writing for years. That was nothing to do with any feedback, that was just my own process I had to deal with. What it triggered for me, and it was something I had never expected at all, it was all that shit around writing. When I grew up, I loved writing, but it was drummed into me, pretty early on, that you can’t do this, it’s not a career. You can do this as a hobby. Chances of getting published, blah, blah, blah. All that crap.

I had been lucky up to that point, to avoid all that with The Nancys, but that was the time it all came up for me. The one thing that sort of got me through it, was obviously my writing friends telling me, this will pass, you just got to go through it, it’s normal. But also when I was working on the manuscript, working through the structural edits, I could see it was getting better. It was just getting me to the keyboard. Once I was at the keyboard, the writing was much better. It was a weird process. I hope I don’t have to go through that again. Because it is quite debilitating. 

I understand that you went to Allen & Unwin’s Faber Academy in order to learn how to really write a novel, in particular – The Nancys. How much did your story, and the writing process, and the writing of the novel change during your time and experience there?

So, I had completed those two film scripts. They were rough drafts, but they were whole stories that I had worked on. That was 2004-2005, maybe 0506 around that time. Prior to that, the longest piece I’d written, the longest story, was a 20,000 word novella which was sort of a precursor to Riverstone. It was set around the same sort of place with completely different characters.

But basically, post that, I had no idea how to write a novel. I went into Faber Academy with I think it might’ve been 14 or 17,000 words of this draft, and being a Pantser, those 17,000 weren’t sequential. They were all over the place. So what Faber gave me, for those that don’t know about it, it was 3 months, Tuesday nights mostly, and a couple of Saturdays, and then there’s another 3 months of the same. You do theory and you do workshopping, workshopping the work of everyone else in the class. And everyone’s working on a first draft. It can range from crime, to people doing full-on literary fiction, YA, everything. So what it meant for me, was having regular practice, which I didn’t have before, I was always used to writing when I felt like it. But it was never a routine, it was never regular for me.

This gave me a signpost and sort of guidance towards how I could do this. I found out the way I work best, is having a weekly word target. 

I found out I’m not someone that can wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and start writing, I can’t be that structured. But I can write on the way to work, I can write in my lunch break, I can write at night and I can write in the weekend. Then it was realising once I was into it and into the project, the more I wanted to write, it was that snowball thing. I know that when I’m writing every day, particularly at night, that connections will come during the day, like in the morning, when I’m in the shower I’ll be thinking about things, and that’s how the connections will come. That’s how this and this works. 

I’m a big note-taker on my iPhone, I’ll write down notes. Hats off to people who never write down any notes, that freaks me out. Some of my best stuff comes from doing that. That’s where I make those connections.

So yeah, it was a big learning curve for me. Now, I’m not so heavy on the weekly word count, unless I’ve got a deadline. But the other thing that came out of Faber Academy, the people. We formed a writing group.  A couple of us are still in contact. That for me, having that accountability to other people, really helps drive me as well. It’s too easy to just not do something.  

It sounds like the experience you had at Faber was instrumental in shaping you up, or helping you realise your potential as a writer then? 

Absolutely. I started Faber, not even claiming the title of writer. I thought, I’m not a writer. I like to write. So, it was quite a big journey, just even that side of things, just having the confidence to believe in yourself and believe in your work along with the practical tools. Like how to make a chapter. All those things that you just don’t know until you ask, or until you read somewhere. I guess you’re always learning as a writer, you’re always reading about things, looking things up, even analysing films and television shows, it’s an ongoing thing. We do it because we love stories and we just have to do it. 

With the setting of Riverstone, I wanted to know what it was like for the world building, because it feels like such a real place, you’ve realised it so fantastically well. And if it is indeed based on a real place, did you have any apprehension that real-life residents might object to how it was depicted or represented? 

I chose the name Riverstone as an homage to River Heights, Nancy Drew’s hometown. It is based on Balclutha, in terms of the geography. 

It does happen, I do have people contact me, thinking that the characters are real-life people from that town and I have to assure them that no, they are not. I grew up about a thirty-minute drive in South Otago. I’ve got through that journey. I’m probably a bit more advanced on that journey than Uncle Pike, but I have been on that journey all the same, of wanting to get out, of thinking I can’t wait to get out of this place.

Eventually, over the years of coming back that I’ve kept coming back, and I have because I’ve still got family there, I’ve seen the beauty of the place over time. To the point where I’m now like super proud and really fond of it. 

You run through all kinds of things, I had to be really conscious and actually go onto the White Pages of New Zealand and make sure that when I was naming characters, I wasn’t giving them the same name of people living in that town. 

My dad semi-retired from the farm with my step-mum and lived in Balclutha for about ten years and got to know some of the townsfolk really well and they are just fantastic and they came along to the launch. So, so far, so good. I haven’t had to get into disguise to drive through the town just yet.

I guess I just wanted to see a bit of New Zealand and that part of New Zealand, because we might see a lot of Auckland, Dunedin and Northland, but I hadn’t really seen South Otago represented all that much. So I thought that was a great way to give back at the same time.

Speaking about an underrepresented setting – and not just that – I haven’t ever really encountered a novel like The Nancys before, not just the setting, but the great gay characters, the choice of narrator, the list goes on. So how was it to write a novel that was off the beaten trail, essentially going off other paths that are writers had previously established? 

I wanted to create something original I suppose, but not try so hard. It’s a fine balance. One of the motivators for me as well, to actually prioritise writing and try and write this story was in, 2013 thereabouts, was when Michael Morones was an eleven-year-old who tried killing himself because he was bullied about his love of My Little Pony. I remember reading it and crying and thinking this has got to stop. So part of it was me thinking, what could I do? 

I thought about The Nancys and I thought, part of it is about celebrating camp, and the strength and bravery around that. And also seeing camp characters. I wanted to play on that. That these guys are fantastic at what they do. But also, we can see them doing something else, other than doing a makeover, but might as well put a makeover in there while we’re at it.

That was a motivator and in terms of putting it all together, I guess part of me knew that it was a risk. Again, it goes back to the fact that these characters were in my head for ten years. I knew that if I didn’t write it out, like get their story down, they were going to be in my head for the rest of my life. That was a huge driver. 

Like we mentioned before, you never know if a publisher is going to pick up your work and there was the whole thing of not knowing where this novel would sit on the shelf. By that stage, I’d done a few drafts and I thought – people are either going to like it, or they’re not. 

It really just from that first line of internal dialogue and just kind of grew from there. I guess it was just finding out where the story was and what the story was.

One of the greatest achievements with The Nancys is the authenticity of voice – a child’s voice is never something easy to realise. So how did you go about writing that? You thanked your kids in the acknowledgements of the book, did they act as great sounding boards? 

Absolutely as sounding boards. I made a decision, right at the beginning, that I didn’t want to plagiarise my kids’ speech, or any of the events that had happened in their lives or their friends or anything like that. But, they have been invaluable for running lines – asking them about particular words. Would you say this word? If they look at me blankly and go what does that mean, then I’d pretty much have my answer. They were great, absolutely. 

I think also, had I written The Nancys in 2006, before I became a parent, it would’ve been a completely different book. Being a parent, raising daughters as well, you draw on all of that experience. I think that was pretty critical for me, to be able to write it the way that I had. I think also, for me writing this at a later age as well, all of that stuff, time and place sometimes with novels. It was the time it was supposed to be written. 

So I believe you have a six-month period coming up, strictly devoted to full-time writing. Is that going to be for a new project? What is it you’re working on and how much can you share with us? 

I have a second book under submission at the moment. What I can say about it? What I can say is that for me, even way back in 2006 I always saw The Nancys as a trilogy, because there’s a much larger story at play. Meanwhile, I’m working on a complete standalone novel, nothing to do with The Nancys, just to keep writing and keep me from refreshing my email every five minute. 

The Nancys is available in all books stores and here: https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/fiction/The-Nancys-RWR-McDonald-9781760527334

About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at: http://www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor

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