The Stella Interviews: Fiona Kelly McGregor
Congratulations on being longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize! What does it mean to you to be included on the list?
Amazing to make the longlist of such a competitive and prestigious prize! I feel super lucky.
Your longlisted novel, Iris, has been described by Declan Fry (Sydney Morning Herald) as a “brawling, picaresque book by one of our foremost cartographers of settler Sydney”. What would you say are some of the central ambitions or themes of your work?
To uncover a person hitherto demonised due in large part to her sexuality and gender, and give her humanity and complexity. To interrogate the system she was formed in, showing the reader what we come from. Iris asks, What is a criminal? Although the legislation in NSW only officially outlawed queer men, women were hounded and persecuted too, along with many other communities.
I’m also a writer of place, with Sydney my most abiding character. I think Sydney is still a penal colony, incarceration central to Australian culture; we are still heavily policed and regulated. It’s a city built on shifting sands, constantly denying its own history. There are so many untold stories. It’s an exciting time to be (re)writing history, with so many previously unheard voices coming to the fore. I want to help change the national narrative. To tear down the statues of noble white men struggling worthily in rugged rural settings, and centre people from margins in stories of the city.
Can you tell us about the process of writing and researching the book? How long did it take from start to finish?
I first came across Iris Webber twenty years ago in an exhibition on Australian LGBTIQ history, and began initial research. Then I was diverted by the writing of Indelible ink (2010), Strange museums (2008), A novel idea (2019), various performance art projects, producing parties and activism. I then did a doctoral thesis, completing the historical research. I wrote the novel over a nine year period, alternating it with the long personal essays and cultural critique that make up Buried not dead. (2021). So it’s hard to say how long it took. In a way, twenty years, but much less if you subtract all that other work (and that’s not counting the teaching and journalism).
What draws you to historical fiction as a genre?
Nothing specifically. I’m drawn to books by story, style and content. Sometimes these elements align in novels with historical settings. I read widely, often taking in history via fiction. Four favourites: The book of night women – Marlon James, Billy Bathgate – EL Doctorow, Alias Grace, and Wolf Hall.
What’s on your reading pile at the moment?
I’ve just read a slew of fiction by young and debut writers. It’s really impressive and broad-ranging. Also reading/looking at art books – David Wojnarowicz, Derek Kreckler. Poetry – Audrey Lorde, Sharon Olds, Toby Fitch. The Bay of Noon – Shirley Hazzard. Soon: Chanson douce – Leïla Slimani. Galgut’s The Promise.
Find out more about Fiona Kelly McGregor’s 2023 Stella Prize longlisted book, Iris.