Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
What’s your book about, Magdalena?
Set in 1980s Poland and Australia, Home Is Nearby is about the solace of art in politically challenging times.
The novel opens in Poland, where democracy has been replaced by totalitarianism. There is severe economic hardship and social unrest. But people are starting to demand better. This is a nation on the brink of change.
In a small village, a different type of change is afoot. A young woman, Ania, dreams of becoming a sculptor. She wants to study art in the university city of Wrocław. For Ania, there has to be more to the world than her village, with its trademark abattoir and brewery.
After being awarded a scholarship to study art, Ania leaves her small village and her beloved father, Henryk. In Wrocław she quickly befriends a group of bohemians and avant-garde artists who throw wild parties. She lives life to the fullest, makes sculptures and falls in love.
All this changes when martial law is declared in 1981. Ania is forced to make a choice that will change the rest of her life.
A gripping story about art, love and betrayal, Home Is Nearby is about the search to find your place in the world — no matter where you are.
You were born in Poland but grew up in Australia. Did writing about your birthplace feel like coming home, or were you on the outside looking in?
I think that, to write fiction, you definitely need to get inside whatever it is that you’re writing about. It won’t feel authentic otherwise. I’m a compulsive researcher and, as a way of getting inside the world of the book, I wanted to learn everything I could. I researched Polish and Australian history, the underground art scenes in both countries, politics and geography and folk customs — you name it. But in the end, I had to put the research aside and imagine my way into the story.
I absolutely loved being able to step into the world of the novel, particularly as I wrote Home Is Nearby when I had a young baby. One minute I was changing nappies and the next I was at an avant-garde art performance in a Polish forest! While the world of the novel felt quite foreign at first, by the time I finished writing the book, it felt like home. And of course, that was precisely the point at which I had to let it go.
We tend to think of historical fiction as taking place a long time ago, but your story is set in the 80s. Why was this time period significant for you?
Many books deal with Poland in the context of World War Two. However, hardly any examine the aftermath of the war, when a totalitarian regime was violently imposed on the country. This is such a dramatic and significant period in history, so I was surprised to find out that it’s underexplored in fiction. It’s also a period of history that impacted on Australia — thousands of Poles migrated to Australia in the 1980s, my family among them. The connections between Polish and Australian history are something I wanted to explore in Home Is Nearby.
Your protagonist is a sculptor. Do you have any background in art yourself? What kind of research did you have to do to make that world feel so authentic?
I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Poland to research my novel (this was before I had a baby). There, I came across an art exhibition called The Wild West: A History of Wrocław’s Avant-Garde. This exhibition blew me away. It revealed that the art scene in Wrocław, where I wanted to set the book, was wilder than I could have imagined. After that I couldn’t wait to start writing. I’m not an artist myself, so this was my chance to vicariously become one.
You’ve settled in Australia, written about Poland, and launched with a British publisher. What challenges does that present with regards to marketing and publicity?
Before I published my novel, I thought that this international perspective would be a plus. Australia, like so many other countries, is full of people who have mixed backgrounds such as my own. However, as you’ve picked up, it’s turned out to be a huge challenge. For example, it’s meant that the book has been perceived as not-quite Australian and this has made it harder to market. In spite of this, I still believe that migrant stories are Australian stories. Now, more than ever, we need to acknowledge this.
In terms of the publishing aspect of things, it’s tricky to be located in a different country to your publisher. Marketing and publicity purely on social media has its limitations, particularly if you don’t have contacts in the country that your book is published in. This has all been a learning experience, for sure.
Writers don’t usually get much input when it comes to book cover design. What made your experience different?
Impress Books are a hands-on indie publisher and they encouraged me to have input in every stage of the publishing process. When it came time to discuss the potential cover designs, none of the publisher’s suggestions felt quite right, so I came up with my own. I sent through a (very amateur!) mock-up of a cover design to my editor. In spite of the poor execution, she loved it. My mock-up was sent to an illustrator who put together the beautiful cover I now have for the book.
Lastly, where can we buy your book?
Home Is Nearby is available on Booktopia, which is a great, ethical site for buying books online.
Thank you, Magdalena McGuire!
— Nicole Melanson
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