A Guest Essay by Fiona McFarlane, Author of "The Night Guest"
— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection
My editors' pick for our Big Fall Books Preview was Fiona McFarlane's debut The Night Guest. It's a tender novel about old age and a psychological meditation on isolation, all told with the page-turning pace of a mystery. I can't stop thinking about this book, and every time I look at the cover sitting on my desk, I think about calling my grandparents.
If that doesn't convince you to pre-order this book immediately, Fiona McFarlane has penned us a lovely essay about writing from the perspective of a woman in her seventies, which she based on experiences with both of her grandmothers. Read on!
The Night Guest will be available October 1, 2013.
Ruth, the main character in The Night Guest, is a widow in her mid-seventies; I’m less than half her age. For this reason, I’m often asked how I went about writing her, this woman who was born in the 1930s, has grown children, has retired from life, and is in many respects utterly unlike me. I’m young, and childless, and working. Both my grandmothers lived into old age with various forms of dementia, and I knew and adored and observed them, which I imagine helped me approach Ruth with respect and love. Writing The Night Guest did feel, in some ways, like being in their company. But this autobiographical information reveals almost nothing about how a writer goes about creating a character, which is always an act of creative empathy, whether we’re inventing an elderly woman or a teenage boy or a medieval saint or some great galactic queen — in other words, anyone who isn’t ourselves. Making that leap into another life is one of the loveliest and most difficult things about writing; about living, actually, when you think about it. So writing Ruth was no more or less challenging than the novel’s other main characters — moody, majestic Frida, or courtly, pompous Richard.
Still, The Night Guest does privilege Ruth’s thoughts and feelings, and perhaps I did feel some special anxiety about creating the inner life of a woman twice my age. I suspect most writers begin a project with a kind of willed naivety about what it will require, and that was certainly the case here; I began my novel with an elderly woman who thinks she hears a tiger walking around her house in the middle of the night, and this situation so excited me that, at first, I thought very little about the woman, and mostly about the circumstances she found herself in. But Ruth’s circumstances are, after all, a culmination of the way she lived her life: her childhood in Fiji, her missionary upbringing, her marriage to sensible Harry. I didn’t approach the novel thinking, ‘How do I write convincingly about an elderly woman?’ There’s no such thing as a typical elderly woman. I hoped, instead, to write convincingly about a specific human being: a woman called Ruth Field, who is the sum of seventy-five years’ worth of experience, memory, habit, and opinion. The Night Guest is, in part, a novel about how we accumulate an understanding of our lives, and how that understanding might change, even at the very end.
I’m also interested in the representation of older women in popular culture. The first stereotype is, of course, the sweet little old lady, of crocheted doilies and dusty, pinkish houses and little purses carried with both hands. The most common way to subvert this stereotype is to lace the dear old thing with arsenic — to make her murderous. The other two options for an older woman seem to be the magnificent matriarch or the feisty eccentric. Ruth is none of these things. She is a self-consciously ordinary woman with opinions, prejudices, and fears. She is kind. Her back hurts. She swears (mildly) and has sex (carefully). She is unsentimental and irritable and able to laugh at herself. I hope any reader would recognize her as a human being, both maddening and wonderful. -- Fiona McFarlane