A conversation with publisher and author Phillipa McGuinness about her recently released book The Year Everything Changed: 2001.
1. The Year Everything Changed: 2001 knits your personal experiences into a broader public narrative. Was it difficult to find a rhythm for interweaving private and public?
What challenged me more than finding a rhythm was settling on a tone, or voice, that would allow me to shift register without it being too jarring. I wanted to make the book so engaging that readers would be keen to get back to it. For it to feel like a chore would be a terrible outcome, even though much of what I cover is tough going. I knew from publishing hundreds of books – and reading goodness knows how many more – that an author’s voice is one effective way to carry a reader through lots of different terrain. In this case that includes the very public and the deeply private. I sought to unpick the interplay between both. 2001 is very recent history, and yet . . .
I also wanted to tell a history of that year – what happened, what it meant, why it mattered for me but mainly for the world. But my description and analysis cannot be comprehensive, obviously. So I write about what I see as the ‘big events’ 9/11, Tampa, the inauguration of George W. Bush, the re-election of John Howard (which I interviewed him about), the invasion of Afghanistan, the launch of the iPod. On the other hand, had someone else written this, I can’t imagine her book would include Moulin Rouge, The Secret Life of Us and a partly ethnographic exploration of domestic help in Singapore, not to mention the experience of stillbirth. I had to find a way to be able to write about those things, as well as neo-liberalism and the war on terror, without losing my readers.
The overall arc of the book has been given a rhythm by the events of history. It starts with a sleepy, half-baked commemoration of Federation and ends with me burying my son on New Year’s Eve. The pace picks up from August, when Tampa first appears on the horizon and things get worse from there. The closer we get to September nearly every single reader will know what’s coming on the 11th day of that month. The second half of the book is more action-packed simply because of the chronology of the year’s events, even though the book is broadly thematic.
2. Your book shows what an eventful year 2001 was, both within Australia and around the world. Which events and phenomena from that year do you think will be remembered as history-making in one hundred years’ time?
I can guarantee no-one, except for the most committed historians, will remember the Centenary of Federation celebrations because no-one remembers them now! The event that people are most likely to remember will be the planes flying into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The images of this cataclysm are so powerful and so ubiquitous that they will ensure that the event is remembered. But already many people seem to conflate the invasion of Iraq and 9/11 so it’s probably futile to even hypothesise about how its broader context will be understood. It may well be seen as a cause of the War on Terror in the way that the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand is seen as a cause of WWI. I’m not sure people will be able to appreciate the scale or the shock of the events of that day in one hundred years. Few – if any – of the names of the people who died that day will be remembered except if they remain legible on the 9/11 Memorial. Perhaps figures who seemed so central and so powerful in 2001 – Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush – will be forgotten. Or perhaps if Manhattan is half under water in one hundred years George W. Bush will be recalled as a villain, not because of the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing wars in the Middle East, but because of his refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol. We see history through the lens of our own times, which is very much one of the points of my book.
3. Tell us about the advantages and disadvantages of the ‘slice’ history method. If you were to write another ‘slice’ history, which year would you pick, and why?
Writing about a year is a great narrative device. It sets a perimeter around what you might cover, although that fence expands and contracts: the need to examine contexts, impacts and consequences mean that if you focus strictly only on what happened that year the book would be very dull. How can you write about Ariel Sharon being elected president of Israel without invoking his own notorious history in the military? How could I write about the year 2001 without writing about 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was made in 1968? It allows you to write about all kinds of things without a reader ever wondering what the book is about or what is holding it together. My biography of this year will be different to someone else’s, but we’ll all find common ground because we were there, and we remember.
I don’t think I will write another slice history – I don’t want to be typecast – but on the night Donald Trump was elected I received a message from a friend saying ‘I think you’ve found your next year’. The election of Trump and the vote for Brexit in the same year tells you something was going on. So the short answer would be 2016. But it’s too soon. And I won’t be the one to do it.
4. Academic history is bound by a convention of dispassion, and yet your approach, which shows how personal and public experiences swirl around and mix together to form subjective truths, is arguably more accurate. Do you think that the historian needs to insert herself/himself more prominently in academic history?
Not always and not necessarily. But there is something to be said for writing with empathy. And sometimes readers should know about personal motivation. Why does a historian choose a particular topic? For example, if a historian is writing a history of migration or domestic violence often it is because they have a personal experience and want to make sense of it through historical research. I think it would be rare to find any historian really who doesn’t have some sense of playing the role of an advocate to ensure that the past might help us make sense of the present. Sometimes it might even offer up alternative paths in policy-making, law reform and general attitudes, not to mention cautionary tales.
I do find it frustrating when the author’s personal stake is obvious to me – because I’ve met them and they may have talked about their motivation, or shared a story relevant to their topic – but they don’t reveal it to the reader. I find that a bit dishonest. But it depends on context: a scholarly monograph aimed at a specialised audience, or a journal article, makes different demands on an author than a trade book aimed at a broad audience does. And it’s not compulsory for people to share their own experiences and use the first person pronoun unrelentingly!
5. Has the process of writing the book changed the way you feel about losing Daniel?
The short answer is no. Grief changes over time but the sense of loss never disappears. And grief can rise to the surface with great intensity at any moment. I could write ten books about losing Daniel and it’s still going to be the worst experience of my life. Writing about the experience has shifted something within me however, so it is now possible for me to talk about stillbirth in a way that I could not have imagined even at the start of this year. In an extraordinary coincidence publication of The Year Everything Changed-2001 coincided with the Senate Inquiry into Stillbirth Research and Education, so all of a sudden I had a platform to talk about the Inquiry and the need to think of stillbirth as a public health issue. The experience is isolating and stigmatising. I hope that writing and talking about it can contribute to reducing that.
About the Author
Phillipa McGuinness is an acclaimed non-fiction publisher who has been commissioning books of history, politics, current affairs, biography and memoir, many of them prize-winners, for almost twenty-five years. She is the editor of Copyfight, published in 2015, and has been published in the Guardian, Meanjin and elsewhere. She has appeared on panels, as a chair at writer’s festivals, a keynote speaker, at publishing seminars and media and journalism conferences and has talked about culture, copyright and cities on various radio programs over the years.