Joanita Wibowo


5 minutes with author Maggie Joel

5 minutes with author Maggie Joel

In 5 minutes with authorOver60 asks book writers about their literary habits and preferences. Next in this series is Maggie Joel, a British-born writer and an operations manager based in Sydney. Her historical novels have been published in Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK. Her latest book The Unforgiving City is out now.

Over60 talked with Joel about writing while having a full-time job, Virginia Woolf, and the experience of reading evocative books.

Over60: What is your best writing tip?

Maggie Joel: Definitely show not tell. I’m always surprised when writers tell us what their characters are feeling instead of showing us. It was drilled into me in every creative writing class I attended that the skill for the writer was in working out ways to show us the character’s emotions whether it be by mannerism, physical description, dialogue or whatever. Simply telling us they are scared or delighted or anxious is breathtakingly lazy almost to the point of disrespecting the sophistication of the reader.

What book do you think more people should read?

Little Boy Lost by British author Marghanita Laski. In the ‘60s and ‘70s Laski was a well-known author and TV pundit in the UK, but she is all but forgotten now. This novel, published in 1949 and set in France in the months following the end of the war, appears to be a simple enough tale of a man’s search for his child – but don’t be fooled, this is a masterpiece of storytelling. I have never had such an emotional response to a novel before or since. It is a little gem.

What was the last book that made you laugh?

Probably the biography of Muriel Spark by Martin Stannard that a friend loaned me a few months ago. She was such a confident, witty and often quite savage observer of life and people that I’m sure I laughed out loud at various points in the book. To have that kind of confidence in your abilities and such utter contempt for the abilities and frailties of others is joyous to read. I relished it!

What do you think makes for a great historical fiction work?

I think it all boils down to one thing: creating an emotional response in the reader. When I look at the books with a strong historical setting that have influenced me – The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh – they’re all books that look back, both fondly and critically, on the recent past, and where nostalgia for a bygone era plays a major role. They are incredibly evocative works, utilising research and literary devices to generate an emotional response within the reader.

What does your writing routine look like?

I work full-time, so my writing routine means weekends. If I am in the throes of a new novel, I will be at the computer by 8am Saturday morning and will work all day, and all-day Sunday. If I have managed things well, I take a few weeks of long service leave from work and that can make a huge difference in getting that first draft down, really in a matter of weeks. All my books involve a substantial amount of research which I try to fit in around the writing and in the evenings when I get home from work.

Do you deal with writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?

When I had writer’s block – for two years about eight years ago – I didn’t deal with it. That is to say, I tried everything and nothing worked. In the end I gave up trying, gave up reading even, and admitted I was no longer a writer. It was awful, like giving up a part of myself, but looking back I think I needed to reach that point, to start living a life that no longer involved writing, no longer involved books. After a year or so it just lifted, almost overnight. I haven’t suffered from it since. But really, if the book I am writing is not so utterly absorbing to me that I am compelled to write, then the book isn’t worth writing.

What trope grinds your gears? Alternatively, is there a cliché that you can’t help but love?

Diaries! That handy little journal that your character conveniently finds secreted away in the victim’s or suspect’s bedroom at exactly the right moment and that conveniently fills in all the blanks that the character otherwise could not know. And then we have to suffer page after tortuous page of italicised excerpts from said dairy. Dear God! Save me from it.

Which author, deceased or living, would you most like to have dinner with?

Oh, definitely Virginia Woolf. Cliched I know, but I’d be lying if I gave any other answer. Her life and writing have inspired me more than any other writer, I come back to her time and time again. Having said that, I can imagine her being a rather reticent, if not so say, prickly dinner guest who would sit there the whole evening contributing absolutely nothing then coming out with some pithy and piercing observation right at the end of the night that leaves the rest of the company speechless and slightly offended – at least I hope she would!