Kate and Katherine talk to Fiona Murphy

Image: Three women in a Zoom meeting laughing

When poet, author and essayist Fiona Murphy gets in touch, Kate and Katherine re-think a rant they had previously.

Fiona Murphy is an award-winning deaf poet and essayist based in the Blue Mountains, NSW. Her work has been appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Griffith Review, The Big Issue, among other publications. Her debut memoir, The Shape of Sound, was released by Text Publishing in March 2021.

They discuss:

Fi recommends Hysteria by Katerina Bryant

Writers you need to read and/or follow now:

TRANSCRIPT

[STANDARD INTRO READ OUT BY KATE AND KATHERINE]

This is the First Time Podcast. Part reality series. Part writer’s masterclass. It’s a podcast about the first time you publish a book. I’m Kate Mildenhall [change voice] and I’m Katherine Collette. Welcome to The First Time.

[INTRO MUSIC PLAYS]

Katherine Collette: This episode is a little different because we are a three. We don’t often do interviews in threes but both Kate and I really wanted to be part of this discussion. Hi Kate.

Kate Mildenhall: Hello.

Katherine Collette: We’re also here with author Fiona Murphy. Welcome Fiona.

Fiona Murphy: Hi

Katherine Collette: [Reading Fiona’s bio] ‘Fiona Murphy is an award winning deaf poet and essayist, based in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. Her work has appeared in Kill your Darlings, Overland, Griffith Review, and The Big Issue, among other publications. Her debut memoir, “The Shape of Sound”, was released by Text Publishing in March 2021’. It is a beautiful book. Kate is holding it up.

Kate Mildenhall: I’ve already got lots of marks on mine. Scribbled all over it. I’m sorry Fi but it’s an act of love, not anything else!

Katherine Collette: This chat is kind of timely. It’s something that came about from something Kate and I mentioned a couple of episodes back where we were giving advice to privileged able-bodied cis white women to an audience that’s not necessarily that. Kate do you want to talk about the specifics?

Kate Mildenhall: I do want to talk about the specifics. So everyone knows that I got back from Margaret River Writers Festival a little hyper-excited and I got on my high horse. I was really annoyed at the fact that some big ticket authors didn’t seem to be doing the same amount of face-to-face work as other authors. And I got upset and I said that if you get invited to festivals that you’re privileged and you should turn up to everything. And I did do a slight acknowledgement of anxiety and introversion but I didn’t do any more than that. That is what I said.

Katherine Collette: And then Fi, you wrote to us. What did you say?

TIME STAMP 2:10

Fiona Murphy: I sent probably a wordy email but I love talking about these things because I think it was such a great topic. I completely agree being self important is not ideal but I think the idea of being a good literary citizen came up and I think that’s something that should be talked about with a little bit of nuance, particularly around festivals and accessibility. And I had just come off of an experience of my own of Sydney Writers’ Festival. Which I absolutely loved but I found it really striking that you had this real buzz coming out of Margaret River and I was as flat as a tack after the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Not because I didn’t enjoy it but because it was physically and mentally overwhelming as a deaf person to kind of navigate those spaces. And some of the examples that you listed like attending the opening night and closing night and things like that were just physically out of my reach. I just found it a little bit concerning if we’re talking about what it means to be an active and engaged writer. Because it is such a privilege. It’s such an amazing industry. But if we’re talking about these things we should consider and acknowledge that access is an issue and it’s an ongoing issue and it can be a really different experience if you’re a disabled writer.

Katherine Collette: Great points. Your email was such a good email. I think we’re both cringing. Kate – thoughts?

Kate Mildenhall: More than cringing. I was mortified. I was mortified that I had said something that was clearly so ableist and I hadn’t even thought about it. So those were the two things. I was utterly overwhelmed by the generosity Fi that you showed in sending an email which was incredible and also because that had taken you time and labour and you’re a fan of the show and so that was incredible. There’s actually a spot in your book I underlined – there’s one in particular that when I read it I was like ‘aha this is exactly Fi at Sydney Writers’ Festival. This is exactly what she’s talking about’. So I just want to read it out if that’s okay. It’s a bit where you’re talking about the overlooking of disabled bodies and you write:

[TIME STAMP 4:40]

      “Others, with able bodies, experience the world in seamless ways – entering and exiting buildings without friction or calculation because parks and schools and workplaces and homes and even our Parliament house have been designed for their bodies only.” [From Shape of Sound, Fiona Murphy, 2021]

Kate Mildenhall: When I read that I knew that it was something ableist, but when I read that I realised you’re absolutely showing me how privileged I am walking into those opening nights and all those other things that mean that that is a seamless experience for me. So the combination of your email and reading your incredible book, which we will get to talking about in a minute, has been so incredible. Which is why we wanted to get you on. Katherine – your response, because I know you wanted to add something.

Katherine Collette: Very similar. It is a great example of ableism and it’s one of those things that once it’s pointed out it seems very self evident. Something it made me reflect on that’s a bit of a tangent. And I can’t remember where I read this. That when people make mistakes, there’s a real tendency to call them out publicly, so there’s kind of a shaming element to criticism at times. And this article was saying that a counter to that is to call people in and to have an intimate conversation with them. And it’s this was a really nice example of calling people in. Having said that, I think there’s a place for both. There is absolutely a place for calling people out, and for calling people in.

TIME STAMP 6:05

Kate Mildenhall: Fi, do you have to do it a lot?

Fiona Murphy: I do but it’s something I find easier if I’m advocating for other people. And I think something that we do in the disability community is we look out for each other constantly so when I’m asking about access I generally don’t ask always for myself but I’m asking for general access. Because it is exhausting and it is this level of vulnerability when you are asking for yourself all the time because particularly if you have an invisible disability there’s that sort of questioning and sort of ‘oh is she really putting it on? Is that real?’ sort of thing. And that does come out quite subtly through how people engage with you.

But I really like the idea of calling out and calling in as well. I think they both have an important part in creating change. Because I have been ableist for most of my life. All of the stuff that I’ve learned, I’ve learned by being an active member of the disability community and I didn’t realise that I could have access requests until I saw other proud strong disabled people say ‘no, you can ask for equality. You’re worth every other human. You can ask to be included’. And it is a real skill asking about access and inclusion, which is something that we’ll talk about soon about how to gain these skills. I think it should be said. I’ve definitely been ableist and it’s something that I’m working on improving and learning about because I don’t think it’s about getting it right and wrong. I think it’s a journey. Kind of accruing information and having an awareness that everyone’s experience of the world is totally different.

Kate Mildenhall: It’s such a good example. When you said about how you don’t usually advocate for yourself. In fact when you sent that email, it was our request to interview you because you actually sent it with a list of 30 other people who we could interview. We might put a link with some of those names in the show notes as well. You also linked to what you’ve been working on which is a tool kit with Writers Victoria and it’s so terrific. We’ve been looking at it. I know one of the things that I’m aware that we need to do better for the podcast straight away looking at it is asking for access requirements of people we’re interviewing, and also something we’ve known for a while is we need to do more accessible social media. Katherine and I have talked about it. And so you’ve got really clear points in that toolkit. Who is the toolkit for and how do you want people to use it?

TIME STAMP 8:55

Fiona Murphy: So it was a project done and in collaboration with Arts Access Victoria, Writers VIC, along with Jax Jackie Brown and Phoebe Neilson. We got some great funding off the back of doing some disability equality workshops specifically for the publishing industry. So Writers Vic and Arts Access have done a huge amount of work to try to steer a lot of change. Initially the toolkit was targeted towards people working in the industry. So editors, publishers, people in marketing, publicity. But it is quite pertinent for authors as well, or anyone who considers themselves to be a literary citizen, such as booksellers or even readers. And we tried to make the toolkit as accessible as possible by building questions throughout the toolkit. So if you have a question around language for instance of like ‘hmm should I use this or should I use this?’, we try to break it down to give really straightforward answers around the dos and don’t’s and kind of unpacking what ablest language is and euphemisms and slurs. And I think that as writers we do get caught up in ‘what’s the right word? What is the one word I should use?’ and really one of the take-home messages is just ask the individual you’re engaging with ‘how do you wish to identify?’. Because there’s a whole host of different ways somebody may chose to identify and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to try and guess. Where people make a lot of mistakes around access and inclusion is that they try and do all the guesswork when really it’s not rude to ask someone ‘Do you have any access requirements?’. ‘How do you chose to identify?’. They’re actually really welcomed and engaged questions. It’s not rude. It’s just showing that you care and you want to work with that person.

Katherine Collette: Takes a lot of the worry out of it too. It’s such simple stuff.

TIME STAMP 11:10

Fiona Murphy: Absolutely. Because I think a lot of the reason people don’t ask these questions is because a lot of us grew up being told that it’s rude – it’s rude to look, it’s rude to stare, it’s rude to consider different bodies as being different. When really as a disabled individual, it’s taken a lot of kind of courage to talk about being different because that’s always been considered like a taboo subject to talk about. Whereas the one thing the toolkit is really just trying to give people practical skills so they can be a part of a positive change for good. And it’s not about having millions of dollars to improve access. Sure, that would be great. But it’s how to be a good human to other humans. Even kind of really basic things of being a good digital citizen of having captions for your videos, image descriptions is a really quick and easy way of being more inclusive. And things like avoiding all caps or strange fonts and things like that in tweets suddenly makes the Internet more accessible and engaging and you’re being a really great citizen.

Kate Mildenhall: Those examples are so terrific. I can’t remember who shared it last week on Instagram just about the colour of your font

Fiona Murphy: Carly?

Kate Mildenhall: Could’ve been Carly Findlay. Using colours versus white against black, or black against white. And I was like ‘ah – totally didn’t know that’. And I’ve really tried to shift that really quickly because that’s such an easy thing for me to do. Not one that I have to think about how I make a plan to enact that one. That was just so simple.

Katherine Collette: Alright Fi. Let’s get to the juice of it. We really want to talk about your book. The Shape of Sound is a memoir about you keeping your deafness a secret for more than twenty years. It is incredible. I read it in a day which I note puts me in the same place as Helen Garner on the front cover. A huge endorsement. If that’s not enough for listeners I don’t know what is. You talk a little about this in the book but where for you did the writing of it begin?

TIME STAMP 13:21

Fiona Murphy: It began in a really sort of haphazard way. So I’d moved to Melbourne in 2015. I was sort of aimlessly doing things. A little bit lost in a new city. And I had heard about RMIT and the writing course, which I know you’ve both been enrolled in. I ended up doing a few of their short courses and I broke my wrist. I was sort of at a loose end. A lot of self pity to be fair. And I ended up enrolling in the RMIT PWE course – the professional writing and editing course. And having this fun outlet where I wasn’t worrying and fretting about this career changing injury that I acquired. Because I had been working as a Physio.

And it was really during that course. I thought I was just gonna go in, churn out a novel as you do and kind of go on my way. And it was only when I started to write that all these little bits of fragments of my experience of trialling hearing aids a few years earlier just really started coming out of me. Not in an easy simple way. It was more like puling teeth. It was absolutely horrible. But I just kept fixating on this experience and trying to understand it. And it wasn’t smooth clean beautiful writing by any means, but it was writing I really obsessed with. And eventually over many months, I shaped it into something and I submitted it to a literary journal and I didn’t want to think about it anymore. It had taken so much heart to get even 1500 words together. It took thousands of words to those 1500 words. And I was like ‘Right. I’ve done the deafness thing. I’ve written about it. Cool. Moving on to churning out a novel.’

And it got picked up and people started finding out I was deaf. And that was really confronting within itself in a huge huge way. And I started to realise that this wasn’t a little topic for me that could be done and dusted in a personal essay. It was something more complex and more unnerving and life altering than I’d ever anticipated. And I started to slowly, I wouldn’t say snowball, from there, but it was something that I continued to return to again and again.

TIME STAMP 15:55

Katherine Collette: This is really the heart of the book. This extraordinary kind of secret that you keep. Because it seems an amazing thing to be able to do. What impacts did that have on you, keeping your deafness a secret?

Fiona Murphy: I didn’t really recognise the impact until I started to let the secret go because it was so innate into everything that I did for anything from how I engaged with other people to how I scheduled my life to how I like approached things. It was very much being on the front foot as much as possible. So in conversations even if it was one of one, I would always think of ways of asking questions to make sure that I heard things correctly. So if I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t ask people ‘can you repeat that?’ Or ‘pardon me what did you say?’. I avoided all those kind of key telling phrase of mishearing. And I would rephrase and I would say things like: “How so?” “Interesting. Can you expand on that?” “How would you do that differently?” And I found ways of manoeuvring with language to try and get people to fill in the gaps that I was missing. So I became quite flexible in conversations. But then say for example in jobs and things like that, I’m just quite a flexible movable person so I would manoeuvre myself and kind of alter my body to kind of catch words so I’d be very much kind of training my ear to follow conversations but I had to learn how to hide all of this as well so it was secrets upon secrets upon secrets to try to hide this big secret that I had. I didn’t even realise the extent of it until I started to write about it. Holy hell – these are a lot of little habits. And this is really exhausting. And I’m so so very tired hiding it. It’s a bit of a process to let go of some of those habits because I still very much present I believe in most situations as somebody effortlessly engaging and I very much still hide the fatigue.

Katherine Collette: So writing sounds like it was one turning point in how you thought about being deaf. Can youthink of others?

TIME STAMP 18:17

Fiona Murphy: Definitely when I tried hearing aids when I was in my mid 20s that was a real shock. Because I thought I understood what sound and silence was. I thought I understood the very nature and texture of what hearing is for people who have two functioning ears. I thought ‘how boring’ like ‘what are two functioning ears? I have one functioning ear. This is great’. But when I tried on this specific set of hearing aids, it replicated the experience of having two functioning years, then the binaural summation that happens – so it’s very much both sides of the brain suddenly had the capability of communicating with one another – it created a 3-D experience of sound. I hadn’t realised I was experiencing the world with a 2D flat compressed experience of sound. Suddenly the world shot up and out and expanded. I vividly remember walking up the street with the hearing aids in and hearing this skateboard. I could hear it from like 700 m away. It was just obscenely far away, just being ‘God what an awful sound’. I can understand how people could hate skateboarders! I was beside myself thinking ‘get off that skateboard. It is horrific’. So my very neural map of the world let alone my own body just shifted within minutes and I lost my centre of self so I became dizzy and unsteady on my feet. I didn’t know how to engage with other people because suddenly I had access to the whole other space that I suddenly started to realise the way I was living before was quite different to most people, and the amount of effort to bridge the gap was ongoing and extremely physical.

Kate Mildenhall: One of the extraordinary things about reading this book is your capacity to put your reader in that headspace and to be able to understand. Even when you’re saying ‘neural’ and all these kind of brain things, it seems like really dense kind of medical language that we might not understand, but your capacity to put us in the physical space and understand sound and silence. I kept reading things out to my husband who’s a nurse like “Oh my God did you know about this?!” I just wanted to jump in there to say that.

Katherine Collette: The book is a real education. There are a lot of very striking moments and you mentioned this a little already, when you reflect on historic attitudes or prevailing attitudes on being deaf and how you internalised them. So sign language and learning Auslan is one example. How was signing been viewed historically and what has it meant to you to learn it?

TIME STAMP 21:15

Fiona Murphy: Historically, it’s only really recently that its even been considered a language, and that was in the 1960s. A linguist actually stopped and studied sign language and really put together a framework that yes, it’s got syntax and grammar and it’s a whole complete language. And there’s hundreds of sign languages around the world. There’s this real misconception that there’s only one sign language but there’s hundreds.

Katherine Collette: Which is cool. You have sections of the book where you talk about the origin of words in different – that even in NSW and Victoria, words are spoken signed differently.

Fiona Murphy: There’s such fascinating information about Auslan – Australian sign language – that I’m so eager for people to recognise. That we have so many different languages in Australia including Indigenous sign languages. There’s just an amazing amount of information. So historically it was considered quite primal, animalistic, just a series of meaningless gestures, and that idea of being ‘deaf and dumb’ really came from that. Because spoken words were considered to be a sign of intellectual capability. So if you could speak and speak well, clearly your brain was working and functioning. If you couldn’t speak, or couldn’t speak well, at that time you were considered to be inferior, or even sub-human. So there’s a real legacy in history of deaf people being not quite human and not quite there because they were not able to communicate in the same way or with the same ease as people who have access to spoken language. And that is an ongoing legacy and has ongoing impacts.

It’s really evident in how people with hearing loss are still treated with hearing technology and they’re unsupported with linguistic capabilities and sign language. So it’s still very much ‘let’s try and get deaf people to become hearing people and they’ll be fine and they’ll cope’. But really it’s just as exhausting when you have hearing technology because you’re still having to bridge that gap of communication. And that’s something I was hoping to explore a little bit in the book. Not saying that one is better than the other but that it’s complex and people can’t be fixed – they are people with experiences.

And I kind of wish I’d had access to Auslan when I was growing up because I definitely have experienced language deprivation as a result of not having that full access to language. Which has kind of shown up in my writing style, in how I construct sentences, in how words still slip out of my sentences on the page. When I started with writing it’s something I was embarrassed about and mortified. But now I just want my writing to become deafer and deafer on the page because I think it’s a different approach to language – it’s no lesser, it’s different. And I think a lot of deaf narratives – there are more deaf writers being published and I think that deaf style of writing is hopefully something that is more available.

Katherine Collette: And so you have been learning Auslan for how long now?

Fiona Murphy: I’ve been learning it for the last 3 1/2 years. I’m still terrible. Terrible. I do the classic thing of getting excited and making signs up which a lot of people do. Like ‘I’m going to fill up the space with making up gestures!’ I’ve had many Auslan instructors just say ‘Please don’t!’.

TIME STAMP: 25:18

Katherine Collette: Visually it’s such an expressive language. The school that I went to had – from Grade 5 to Grade 12 – had signing interpreters in every class. And all the assemblies and all the rest were all signed.

Fiona Murphy: Really?

Katherine Collette:Yeh it was amazing. But it’s super expressive. Like in a boring assembly, to be watching someone sign is extraordinary. It’s a cool thing.

Fiona Murphy: There’s something I definitely have to learn to do with my face. Because I was so used to keeping my deafness and hiding any effort. Learning to become free and expressive with my face has been really challenging.

Katherine Collette: It’s really part of it. It’s very visual.

Kate Mildenhall: Your descriptions of it are powerful. When people are reflecting back at you: ‘Fi – move your face!’. We can feel you in that moment.

Katherine Collette: Yes! Fi, the book’s about deafness but it also provides a real insight into being a Physio. You’ve got a really extraordinary understanding of the body – medically and physically but also based on touch. One of the ways we see this come out in the book is through your relationship with buildings. Can you talk about the relationship you see between buildings and bodies?

Fiona Murphy: Yes absolutely. That’s something I didn’t think I’d write about at all being a Physio. You know when it’s your bread and butter, it’s sort of like ho hum – how boring is this.

Katherine Collette: I love that though. And most people have been to a Physio. I love that back door kind of aspect.

Fiona Murphy: That’s how I came around to it in the end. Because I started to look – not only was I looking at deafness with a kind of fresh perspective when it radically changed. When I broke my hand – wrist – and needed the tendon transplant, at one point I didn’t know if I could even return to being a physiotherapist. And at that point I was like ‘why do I even like this job?’. And it was really that idea of being intimately connected with someone as a form of therapeutic intervention. I really started to think ‘well this is kind of a weird job’ where you’re allowed to kind of touch people and do things and that sort of thing. I really started to question what makes that profession a caring profession so unique in its aspects of what we do day to day to help other people, but also what it gives us. And the sort of knowledge that we have.

When I was younger I was extremely ableist. I had this real misperception of ‘yep, do your exercises. We’ll get you going. You’ll be super fine.’ And it was a really narrow way of viewing the body. And it was only as my relationship with my body began to change that I started to recognise that disability is part of life and some bodies have ‘disabilities’ that – if we change the world – their bodies wouldn’t experience barriers or that friction and they could just seamlessly be involved and equal citizens in all respects. But the way our world is currently set up, is generally for the norm or for the average body. It’s not necessarily the best body but it’s built on what’s accessible for most people without any sort of forethought or insight into different ways of accessing buildings and things like that. Once I started to learn about the disability community and be a part of it, I started to understand the social model of disability and how we could change the world to be more inclusive. 

Katherine Collette:You have a great example in there of Winston Churchill. Can you talk a little about that and about how he designed a space to perhaps suit his own needs?

TIME STAMP: 29:31

Fiona Murphy: Yeh so when I started writing about bodies and buildings, there was this really key quote crops up often in architectural discourse:

                  ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’

Fiona Murphy: Which in itself is a stunning quote. How he just captured it. But that kind of stayed with me and bothered me and I couldn’t figure out why it was bothering me for a really long time. Until months later after reading it, I vividly remember I was walking through Carlton, on my way to the bookstore, loving the sunny afternoon, and I just thought ‘Huh. That’s something a disabled person would say’. Why would somebody without a disability notice how a building shapes them. Because the world is built for them, it’s not built for somebody with a disability. And the more I thought about it, the thought just popped into my head: ‘Was he deaf?’ I thought of my own body and buildings and I’m always in the corner or along the wall or kind of working with and against buildings and rooms to kind hear sounds and hear people and construct and build my way to kind of figure out the best position I can be in to make a conversation work well. And it really sounded like he was doing that work as well.

So I went home and did some googling and oh my goodness he was extremely deaf – extremely extremely deaf – when he made that statement. Which was in a debate – the comments chamber got completely flattened during the Blitz and they were having a debate: should they rebuild and change to a horseshoe shape say in Washington where its a very open design, or should they go back to the original design which is a very narrow confrontational design, where you can literally see your opponents’ faces across the room. And he was adamant that they were going to stick with the original design because it was good for democracy even though there was no real evidence for that at all because democracy has always flourished in a round. He was like ‘no guys we need to stick with what we know.’ And it turns out he was extremely deaf and that sort of set up’s ideal for a deaf person – you can see someone across the way, you can lip read them, you can position yourself exactly so that you can pick up all of the information.

So I found it really striking that this influential powerful man had kept his deafness a secret as best he could. He didn’t wear hearing aids in public because they thought it was Russian spyware. There was a big controversy around that. It was a big State secret as well – his hearing aids – because he didn’t want anyone to find out. And the fact that he, a disabled man, could literally change how parliamentary proceedings are being run in the UK to suit his body , I just find striking. And if we had more disabled people in positions of power, maybe we would have a more accessible Parliament House which has to be retrofitted to allow people with disabilities to be elected and have positions of power.

Katherine Collette: It’s such a great example. I’ve got so many questions. But one other example I did want to touch on was the military and people experiencing hearing loss in the military. Can you talk about the significance of that? Because it seems like quite an unusual space.

TIME STAMP: 33:25

Fiona Murphy: Absolutely. So Mary Roach wrote a book about what it was like to live in the military and she was interviewing quite a few people in the military about their experiences. And a lot of people were saying that they really wanted to be deaf. Like that was their desire. And the reason why they wanted to be deaf was it was a mark of having experienced active combat, and being near active fire. And troops who were deaf or hard of hearing had obviously been deployed somewhere dangerous and they’d survived. And in that space because so many people have hearing loss, people with hearing loss don’t just leave the military but they try to hold onto them and they look after each other as best they can. And they only start to experience the true disabling aspects of being deaf when they go back home. When they go back to their families and they start to experience those gaps and frictions in conversations because there isn’t that awareness about good communications strategies for that person. And I just found that absolutely striking. Not that I’m pro military at all but just this idea that there’s a place on this earth where deafness is valued in this strange weird way, but it’s also supported so that these people can have jobs and positions and they’re included. It’s something that I just found heartbreaking but hopeful in a strange way.

Katherine Collette: I find it very hopeful. Especially when you contrast this story well. This contrast exists with your own efforts to look for jobs and what sort of things you need to disclose and what you don’t need to disclose. It really talks to that idea that anything is really possible. It is a willingness to make it possible, isn’t it.

Fiona Murphy: Absolutely.

Katherine Collette: Final question from me and then I’ll hand over to Kate. This one’s on language. I read Eve Reece’s memoir last week which is a story of Trans becoming. That’s their term.  Similarity struck me. Eve’s book talks to this idea of gender dysphoria. And that a counter to that is gender euphoria. And your book talks about rather than losing hearing this idea of deaf gain. Language is so amazing and empowering and important. Can you talk to your relationship to this idea of deaf gain?

TIME STAMP 36:19

Fiona Murphy: Absolutely. And I’m really really excited to read Eve’s book. I’m so glad that you mentioned that as a contrast of language. With deaf gain it’s really the concept of coming into a deaf identity. So often hearing loss is associated with this grief at something taken away from you. That you’re lesser than someone with intact hearing. Whereas when you are aware of deafness as a cultural difference and being part of a linguistic minority, it’s a totally different way of viewing not only your body but how you fit into the world as well. For the longest time I only had the medical definitions of deafness in quite a kind of quantifiable way of ‘this is how my body is. This is how my body is different.’ And that sort of language and terminology is really diminishing and it’s also quite a closed way of looking at the body. Quite kind of a final sort of ‘this is your box’.

Whereas when you look at deafness as something where you gain a language, a community, a culture, a way of having a sense of self esteem and comfort within your own body, suddenly the world expands and expands. And it’s literally boundless how you can be within your body and within the world. And it just completely turns it on it’s head. Even within myself – considering myself before I wrote the book and after I wrote the book, I was so closed off to anything and possibility of change. And really fixated on keeping things as structured and the same as possible in this kind of way of controlling my deafness. Whereas now. Just being able to talk about it is just revelatory and exciting and I’m learning more and more and more as I go along that it’s just such a generative space. Sure I hear less decibels but now that I have a language that suits by body. I have a language that I’m not fatigued in when I’m communicating with other people. I think it’s just an exciting way of viewing deafness.

Kate Mildenhall: You can totally hear the excitement in your voice, and I can see it in your face because I’m looking at you at the moment. But I’ve also written down in my notes here when you said before “I want my writing to be deafer and deafer on the page”. Just the way you said it, it’s like you can hear that embracing of it as well. I want to switch a little bit to you and your writing process because we love getting into that. You talk about it a little bit in the book. The writing is so exquisite Fi, and it really did remind me of the way Sarah Sentilles structures her books and I see that she has done a beautiful puff quote for you as well. How did you put those pieces together? The stuff about the body. The stuff about sound. Your own narratives. How did you piece them together?

TIME STAMP 39:40

Fiona Murphy: Messily.

Kate & Katherine Collette: [Laughter]

Fiona Murphy: Really really messily. That fragmentary approach that I had with that initial essay about hearing aids was something that I replicated throughout the entire writing process of this book. It hasn’t come out in a linear fashion and I think that’s because I haven’t understood deafness and my deaf identity in a linear fashion at all. It’s very much been an accrual of different pieces of information. But also I think part of my writing process is just understanding how I think about things. And I’m very much somebody who ruminates and circles around an idea for a very long time. First in sort of a larger circle and then I go in and then I go out again and it’s very much sort of moving in and out of an idea. So that’s sort of how I write on the page as well. Big overarching sort of brainstorming of ‘what are all these different questions that I have?’, and then I get in deep with ‘do I really understand this question? What is this?’ So it is a process that isn’t organised at all but it’s really led by questions more than anything. And the more questions that I have about something, the more heat and energy that I know that a subject has. And the more I can trust that there’s something to write about that. Whereas when I was starting out with writing, I was very much only focused on what I knew as a fact. But I realised that’s not really writing. That’s just making a list of facts. That’s not threading things together an creating an overarching inquiry into something – a topic. That doesn’t really answer your question. A real mulling away there.

Kate Mildenhall: It does. And it reveals so much. The feeling that you have when you finish the book – and Katherine I don’t know if you had this too – but it was like ‘There’s a Masters in here. More than a Masters! There’s a PhD in this book. And I now know all these concepts that I just had no idea existed. And you can see how your curiosity has lead you in and out of all these rabbit holes to all these different places – to Churchill and then to every other thing that you go to. It’s extraordinary. I know that you won awards. That you obviously were at RMIT. When you actually sent the book out, how did it happen? How did it get picked up? Where were you when you got the phone call or the email?

TIME STAMP 42:15

Fiona Murphy: I was at work. In my office. Trying to be really cool.

Kate & Katherine Collette: [Laughter]

Fiona Murphy: I was like ‘ooh! Walked out the door to see who’s around. And nobody at work knew that I was writing at all. So it was kind of this strange series of events unfolding and I’m just kind of floating around the tea room afterwards. But how I actually got there was a tip from a couple of the tutors at RMIT very much around have a look at other people’s careers, see what they’re doing, how they got there. So I kind of would – when I started out with writing, I’d look at my peers, or people maybe one or two steps ahead of me. And I looked at their bios to see what they’re publishing what they’re doing. And I tried to emulate that as much as I could and then when I got that level I looked at the next set of bios and I tried to emulate that. Kind of start to build a bio for myself.

Katherine Collette: You have a great bio. Like when I was reading it out I was like bang bang bang. So enviable! You’ll have a hoard of people who are going to be copying your bio.

Kate Mildenhall: Exactly.

TIME STAMP: 43:47

Fiona Murphy: Hopefully there’s no typos in there. I’m super pragmatic about things. It helps from my Physio background. What’s the sort of X, Y & Z of this? And having that advice of just having small targeted goals was really helpful. So like I was entering like micro fiction competitions and I thought, if I can write 50 words and submit it somewhere, yay for me. I can do this. And then it was 500 words, and then 1000 words, 2000 words. And it was really starting small as possible and just having a crack. And then it was the next smaller thing – or the next slightly larger thing – and going up from that. So it wasn’t ‘how can I write a book?’ it was more like how can I just do the next challenging thing, and the next challenging thing. And then along the way, about two or three years into that process, I started getting emails from people. From publishers wanting to know what I was up to and what I was doing. And that was terrifying. Not that whole these are the emails that you want. Because I had heard about that. But it was very much like ‘oh no I can’t’

Katherine Collette: Because you felt pressure?

Fiona Murphy: Yeh. And I was still – I didn’t think I was deaf enough to be writing about deafness. I still had so many identity issues that I was in this strange position. I wouldn’t call it an enviable position. I wouldn’t envy myself in it. I was so uncomfortable. Really lovely generous emails of publishers saying ‘hey if you have something send it to us’ and my going ‘oh I can’t even talk about being deaf let alone write about it’. So I thought I’d created this scenario where I had runs on the board, I’m doing all the right things, and my goodness this is really scary. This is terrifying.

So what I what I did next was I recognised that I needed people to talk to about this because I had spoken to a lot of people who were non-disabled but it was hard to say ‘look this is terrifying because of this this and this’. Having those really frank open conversations about how to navigate the industry is a little bit different when you’re talking to disabled people because it’s a different industry  when you have a disability. It’s changing but change is slow.

I was very lucky to get a couple of fellowships. I was mentored by Fiona Wright and Jessica White. Fiona Wright has written extensively about her disabilities and experience with disability, and Jessica White is a deaf writer. So to have suddenly a team of people where I could just actually consider what I’m doing as a book project made such a difference, and just kind of work through all those issues of representation and identity. Because I didn’t want to get into the situation of cultural appropriation or harming a community that I was only new to. And I took it really seriously. I didn’t want to stuff up. Because a book is one thing but a life is another thing. I wanted to try to foster a really good life in this community. So it was really having mentors allowed me to build a project in a way that felt comfortable. Not that it was a comfortable thing to write but I felt that I was making the decisions of ‘yes, I’m ready to take it to the next level’ and ‘yes, I can do this and do this’.

TIME STAMP 47:39

How it actually got published was a series of unexpected events that happened rather quickly. So I had entered The Next Chapter fellowship the first year it was out and got Highly Commended. And that really sparked a fire in me like ‘Well I’ll do better next year!’ So really focused on thinking ‘Yep I’m doing a book. This is what I’m going to do’. I was quite structured in my approach as everything I am in life. I’m super structured. And I thought I’m really going to focus on creating a couple of really solid essays. And I used a few competitions as ways of road testing ideas on things. Whether they were sticking or not. And I got together some essays and I entered The Next Chapter the second year around it was available. And I got an email from The Wheeler Centre saying ‘you’re ready to be published’.

Kate & Katherine Collette: [laughter]

Katherine Collette: You’re no longer eligible!

Fiona Murphy: And I was like ‘oh no. I really want that money!’

Kate Mildenhall: You’ve worked all year for this.

Fiona Murphy: Yeh. I was kind of like ‘ugh’. But what they said in the email was you’re ready to be published. This is the development prize. But one of the judges has offered to chat to you if you like. And I was like ‘ok. Sure. Don’t give me the money. Whatever!’ One of the judges – the incredible Ben Law – got in touch and was just an absolute gem. And he just talked me through the next steps. OK – what shall we do to get this published? And I had been in contact with a couple of publishers but he really just spoke me through the process in a way that was just so genuine and so – just such a heartfelt guy. It just felt comfortable. As opposed to before where it was having to do things on my own was just – I was not up for it. And then within a two week period, I had signed with Text, and it was just zoom zoom zoom.

Katherine Collette: So this is an awesome story.

Kate Mildenhall: The best story.

Katherine Collette: Really good story.

Fiona Murphy: Full of nice people. Like it’s a sign of what a good community can be. People helping people.

Kate Mildenhall: It’s a sign of that. But it’s also a sign of your – exactly as you say – your structure, your plan, your persistence in going ‘This is what I’m going to do. These are the small steps I need to take.’ People who are listening to this: Do what Fi did! Only if you’ve got her talent but do what Fi did. Because I think that people are still waiting for the romance of the big deal and all the things that happen. But your pragmatism is just ‘wow’. In terms of your day to day writing process now. Because I’m very much hoping we’re expecting another book from you sometime soon. How do you get the writing done? Where does it happen? When? How?

TIME STAMP 50:52

Fiona Murphy: I work full time so during the week its very much writing at night is the bulk of it. Still doing publicity and things like that. But I aim to do anywhere between 5 to 20 minutes of writing a night, which doesn’t sound like much but it’s enough to keep the characters in my head. So I’m writing a novel next and that is ticking over in my head. I’m just kind to myself now. Like before I would be very much like ‘I have to do an hour and a half’ but that’s not good for a young back – or any back. And I ended up with a lot of Physio injuries from spending too much time at a desk. So I’m just really pragmatic now. Just do even 2 minutes a day is not much but it’s enough and then on weekends I’ll try to do two long sessions of about 90 mins apiece just to sink into the world, swim around in it and then come back out. What I tend to do if it’s a competition or a freelance thing, I give myself as much lead time as possible because I know that I ruminate and circle around things so I build that into my process. I do a brainstorm on my phone and then I ruminate say if I’ve got like a tea break at work I jot in a few other ideas and I just let my unconscious mind do as much heavy lifting as possible.  And then I circle around that, do any sort of reading, and just go in and out of an idea. But I’m definitely somebody who if push comes to shove I could do the night before, but I know better writing happens if I have 2 or 3 weeks to sort of circle and shape the fragments at the end. I try to be pragmatic.

Kate Mildenhall: You’ve already given us so much. I’ve got my pen out. We always ask writers on this show to give advice to other writers. So what advice do you have for First Time Podcast listeners?

Fiona Murphy: It’s a personality quiz. So nothing too scientific or anything like that. It’s called The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Ruben. She wrote I think The Happiness Project. I think that’s what its called. I did the quiz a few years ago and oh my goodness it taught me so much about my personality that it has been instrumental for every section of my life, but particularly writing as well. So what she’s done is she’s created these four personality types so there’s the Upholder, the Obliger, the Questioner, and the Rebel. And I’m an Upholder. Such an Upholder. So I’m the personality type where I respond really well in terms of my motivation if I have an external motivator like a deadline, but I also uphold internal motivations. So knowing myself, if I set really lofty goals, I will be such a punisher to achieve them. So I have to be careful of setting goals of not doing high word limits or really long writing times because I’m just gonna really burn myself out if I do that. So that’s why I do 2 minutes of writing or 20 minutes of writing because I know I’m going to uphold that. Whereas I know if I’m going to do 2 hours a night, I will also uphold that and I will have no social life and I will be exhausted and not creative. So that’s kind of how I’ve built that into my life. I have external goals. I have internal goals. That suits me and my personality. But you could be an Obliger and you could really need those external goals to get you through whatever obligation it is. Or you might be a Questioner where you might need to circle around something and really understand the point of something before you do it. So you might need to understand what is the point of this manuscript before you can get going with it. Or you might be a Rebel and you might say ‘no’ to structure or you might change your work process every second day or every third day because ‘who cares about rules? I don’t care about rules!’. I care about rules! I care about rules so much. But the Rebel personality might be very fast and loose. So I think the kindest thing to do with your body and brain is just listen to what it’s telling you and then just go with it. There’s no point fighting it. Just go with whatever tendencies you are and just kind of maybe put in a few little things along the way and you can end up writing something that is in the way that suits you. 

Kate Mildenhall: That is amazing. And we will be putting in the link to the Four Tendencies and we will also be doing to make sure our process gets better. Before we let you go Fi. I feel like we could talk to you for 2 hours but we won’t. Could you just recommend to us a favourite book by a debut writer?

Fiona Murphy: I really loved Hysteria by Katerina Bryant who is based in Adelaide. This is a stunning memoir slash historical deep dive into hysteria and her experiences of disability and living in a body that is different and just grappling with identity. But the way she does it is through history. It is just absolutely stunning. The way she describes how her mind shifts when she has episodes of seizures. It’s such a gift to have access to different experiences of the world and I think she’s an amazing writer and I really look forward to reading what she has coming out next.

Kate Mildenhall: Talking about gifts and being able to access other people’s worlds, Fi your book is extraordinary.

Katherine Collette: It’s amazing.

Kate Mildenhall: Also you have been so incredibly generous with your time at the outset when we stuffed up. And then continuing with our conversation today. So thank you SO much. Your brain is very very cool and I want to steal it! (Laughs)

Fiona Murphy: It’s such a pleasure talking to both of you and I think I’m just so excited by the idea of all the conversations we’ve had about what it actually means to be part of this community. I think it’s such a great community and we can all play our part in keeping it great.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

This episode was transcribed by Candice Low. Candice is an aspiring writer with chronic health disabilities. She would love to see more podcasted writerly interviews that are accompanied by transcripts to make the content accessible to those who can’t easily consume audio. 

One thought on “Kate and Katherine talk to Fiona Murphy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s