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Magdalena McGuire on her short story collection Born For You and writing motherhood

We were lucky enough to chat with Magdalena McGuire about her stunning short story collection, Born for You (Ultimo Press, 2023). 

The collection explores the many faces of motherhood, exposing women’s inner lives and pressure points. It is also a reflection on fear, memory, and the conundrum of loving others fiercely and unconditionally when we don’t love ourselves like that all the time. 

Born in Poland and raised in tropical Darwin, Magdalena now calls Melbourne home. Her writing has won and been nominated for numerous awards, including the Mslexia Short Fiction Competition, the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers and the Deborah Cass Award. 

That first story in your new book, ‘Pause, Remember?’ is one of the first I have read about motherhood during the lockdowns in Melbourne. How did COVID-19 and the lockdowns affect your writing process and the stories in this book? 

The pandemic intensified absolutely everything – including motherhood, and including my writing process. My situation was perhaps different to some other writers in that I wasn’t expecting to get any writing done in 2020. This is because I was due to have my second baby in March 2020 and I knew I’d be busy. I wanted to give myself a pause during the early days of motherhood and not put pressure on myself to produce work. As it turned out, the whole world was put on pause for a while! This meant that, in some ways, I felt like I was in sync with everyone else. Everyone was staying home, scaling their lives back. Then, something unusual happened. Even though I’d told myself I wasn’t going to write for a while, I felt compelled to do so. Everything about motherhood, and about the world we lived in, felt utterly urgent. This sense of urgency fueled my desire to write. Whenever I had a spare minute, I would rush to my room and scribble down some notes on the backs of receipts and other random bits of paper. I recorded the world around me, and my responses to it, in real time. Some of these notes then became the basis of some of the stories in the collection, such as ‘Pause, Remember?’. 

The act of becoming a mother and what we do to become one are key in some stories in Born for You, particularly the one that lends its title to the collection. Current crisis, and the ethics of becoming a mother today also permeate this book. What was the hardest part about writing these 12 short stories? Did your vision of motherhood/mothering change after finishing it? If so, how? 

Honestly, the hardest part about writing the stories came down to logistics; that is, just finding the time and energy to write. All writers know that time is precious. It becomes even more so when you have caring duties and you’re not necessarily in charge of how you spend your days. I know that this is an ongoing challenge for all writers who have caring responsibilities. For my part, it took about eight years to write this collection – and sometimes it felt like I’d be working on it forever. Now that it’s out in the world it feels really good to finally be able to say: ‘it’s done.’ 

I once heard someone say that writing is a form of research, and I love that. Writing this collection has given me the chance to think deeply, over an extended period, about motherhood. Translating motherhood into literature has been deeply rewarding. It’s made me re-examine my received notions about what constitutes worthy subjects for literature. Unfortunately, there’s still this lingering idea that writing about motherhood and the domestic sphere is somewhat trivial. There’s this idea that the domestic sphere is separate to the public sphere, and to the masculine domains of war, economics, politics and pandemics. In this collection, I wanted to explore the relationships between the domestic sphere and the public sphere. I wanted to show the ways that motherhood is not separate to the public sphere but is in fact intimately part of it. In this way, writing the collection has strengthened my belief that motherhood is in itself an intellectual and creative act.  

‘Frog Song’ is such a powerful story. The relationship between mother and daughter, the memories of the father and this line ‘everyone told her that when she had a baby she would be flooded with love. What they didn’t tell her was that life’s traumas would resurface too,’ which I find so true. What inspired this short story?  

It’s so lovely to hear that the story resonated with you. This story ultimately sprang from my own experiences. When I became a mother for the first time, I found that my past – with all its complicated joys and losses – came rushing at me in full force. Before this, I didn’t know that having a baby would involve confronting myself in the deepest possible way and, in a sense, remaking myself. No one really tells you this stuff, do they? Even today, motherhood is represented as something that’s natural and therefore easy. And maybe for some people it’s like that. But for me, it was such a huge transition in terms of both identity and the practicalities of my life. It feels like I really can divide my life into Before Motherhood and After Motherhood; they’re such distinct periods.  

What books about motherhood have you read recently that you’d recommend to other writers who are either researching the topic or writing about motherhood? 

There are so many good ones! Recently, I loved Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage, which explores international surrogacy and the different paths that two sisters take when it comes to motherhood. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is a page-turner that dramatises the ways in which motherhood intersects with race and class. And one of my favourite books about motherhood is No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Ok, so this last one is a little leftfield. Most people think of it as book about the internet. For me, the book really takes off halfway through, when the story twists in on itself and becomes something else (I’m keeping it vague here: no spoilers!). This is when I fell in love with the book. It’s an amazing account of love, and of a narrator who, while perhaps not a mother in the traditional sense, is transformed by the act of caregiving.  

You’ve won many awards, and received many honorable mentions, amongst them, one for the 2014 Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers competition. What advice would you give to those entering the competition this year? 

The key thing that I’ve learnt about entering competitions is that, behind every win, there are a tonne of rejections! That’s just the way it is. So, entering competitions involves the usual things like polishing your work until it shines, following the submission guidelines, and hoping that your work resonates with the judges. But, beyond that, it also involves knowing that just because your work is rejected (or ‘declined’ as I prefer to think of it), this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not good. So the big trick with entering competitions – and with navigating the writing life per se – is trying to maintain a sense of resilience, and the energy to keep going even when things get tough. To this end, I would say that having a support network is key. And Writers Victoria is great at fostering these networks!   

What’s the most valuable piece of advice on writing (or writing prompt that you have used again and again) that has been given to you? 

The advice that I go back to again and again is this: look for the false notes in your writing, and get rid of them. Try to seek the truth in your work – that is, your own truth. If you look at your writing and you see the truth in it then you know you’ve done a good job. This is regardless of whether other people praise your writing or not.  

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