Pillow Talk with Melanie Cheng

Love. It stirs our creative spirits, brings us to our knees, inspires songs and sonnets and paintings and volumes.

In the spirit of this year’s Festival theme, When We Talk About Love, we’re asking authors and artists to share the passions that underpin their work. This week, we chatted to writer and general practitioner based in Melbourne, Melanie Cheng. Melanie’s debut short story collection, Australia Day, won the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. Room for a Stranger is her debut novel and second book.

Q. Love is a complex, multi-layered thing. What kinds of love do you explore through your writing or art?

My novel, Room for a Stranger, is primarily concerned with familial love, and all the trappings that come with such love—devotion and piety, guilt and obligation. But the book also touches on other types of love, including the confusing, all-consuming love of a new relationship, the essential but often elusive love for oneself, and the unique, unforgettable love for a family pet—in this case a magnificent looking African grey parrot called Atticus.

 What is the most beloved book in your bookshelf, and how did you fall for it?

The favourite book on my bookshelf is the poetry collection, Phenomenal Woman, by Maya Angelou. It was a gift from my best friend when we parted ways at the end of high school and it remains a touchstone—something I turn to when I’m in need comfort and inspiration.

 If love were an object, what would it be?

If love were an object it would be my daughter’s toy bunny, Bella. Bella’s fur was once white but is now more of a soft grey colour. Every so often, the surgical wound on her neck opens up and some cloud-like stuffing spills out. She is fading and shrinking and yet, my daughter loves her more than any of her newer, fancier, electronic toys. Her favourite thing is to bury her nose in Bella’s belly and breathe her in. If this isn’t love, I’m not sure what is.

If love were a song, what would it be?

I love Billie Holiday’s song, I’ll be seeing you. I think it speaks to the way a place can evoke memories of a loved one long after they’re gone.

 Pen us a haiku to your heart.

You are sparrow-like
But also a hot clenched fist
Caged and yet untamed.

Q. Snog/Marry/Avoid, literary edition. Which three book characters would you choose, and why?

At high school I would lust after boys like Connell from Sally Rooney’s Normal People. These boys were unattainable for a bookish, brainy girl like me and I could safely project my fantasies onto them. So in a nod to my adolescent self, I would choose Connell for a snog.

One of my favourite books is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and so I’m going to choose Sydney Carton for my literary husband. He’s a tortured soul, I know, and he does have an alcohol problem (nobody’s perfect), but he also has a brilliant mind, is incredibly loyal and is prepared to put his life on the line for a cause he believes in.

The character I would avoid getting romantically involved with would have to be Maxim de Winter from Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel, Rebecca. Like Sydney Carton, he is a tortured soul, but unlike Carton he has no redeeming features. He is emotionally unavailable, deceitful and, of course, prone to fits of murderous rage.

Find Melanie at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival.