All posts by Mary-Lou Stephens

About Mary-Lou Stephens

Mary-Lou Stephens was born in Tasmania, studied acting at the Victorian College of the Arts and played in bands in Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney before she got a proper job – in radio. She has worked and played all over Australia and now lives on the Sunshine Coast with her husband, their dog and a hive of killer native bees. Her meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation has recently been released by Pan Macmillan.

What makes a girl fall in love? And out?

Petersham InnWhat makes a girl fall in love? Even more interestingly, what makes her fall out of love?

It was another great night at the Petersham Inn on Parramatta Road in Sydney, thanks to the enigmatic Duncan who booked the music and was the licensee. (Duncan died last month but his legacy lives on.)  The band was firing and the buzz about them was beginning to grow.  They were a long way from the multiple ARIA Award winners they’d become but all of us in the Pismo Bar sensed we were witnessing a legend in the making.

Now, I’ve been guilty of falling for a few boys in bands myself in the past but I was nothing compared to my friend Angie. All the excitement got her hot and bothered. She’d caught the guitarist’s eye and wanted to move in for the happy ending.  Neither of them had a car so I was coerced into driving them, and his guitar, back to her place. He and I chatted about music while she hung onto his arm and gazed into his eyes.

That was how it started and that was how it was destined to remain. They didn’t have a lot in common so whenever she was going out with him she’d ask me along too. I’d act as a kind of interpreter; they could both have conversations with me but were at a loss when it came to talking to each other. The three of us spent many happy evenings at No Names in Darlinghurst eating spaghetti while I acted as their go-between.

However, there was one area of their relationship where I couldn’t help them. It’s an area that doesn’t require much talking so I assumed everything was ok. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. It became clear that after the initial rush of excitement something was dreadfully amiss. My friend was not happy. She didn’t mind that he was lost for words but she found it inexcusable that he was tongue-tied.

It’s been my experience that ultimatums don’t work but try telling that to someone with a bee in their bonnet. They can’t hear you, the buzzing’s too loud.  She borrowed a friend’s apartment to ensure privacy and cooked an amazing dinner with candlelight, wine and Peggy Lee. Lord knows what they talked about over dinner but I do know what was said at the end of the evening.  He took the “or else” option and opted out of her life.

She didn’t miss him, but I did. I missed our conversations about music, guitars, books, bags and bands. Was I ever tempted to go out with him? No way. After all, this girl could never fall for a guy who didn’t….have a car.

The Sound of Music

As a child I used to sing myself to sleep. I can’t remember what I sang, I just made it up as I went along. My parents had a rule at the dinner table, “No singing” because most of us would rather sing than eat. Recorder lessons, piano lessons, I even made my mum buy me a banjo when I was 11, which I must confess I never learnt to play. The church choir, school choirs, and gathering around the piano for a good old sing along. The love of music is one of the greatest gifts we can instil in kids as they’re growing up, there’s something about it that opens the heart and sparks the imagination.

Mary-Lou Stephens 1984
Me, being a rock star in 1984.

It’s no wonder my mother was horrified when, at 18, I returned home after a year living in Kings Cross wearing black vinyl pants and having found a new vocation, playing bass guitar. I’d seen the Stranglers play live and had an epiphany. The volume from the PA was so loud it pushed my clothes against my skin and rumbled through my chest. In the mix was the most glorious sound, low and powerful, melodic and mysterious. I yelled into someone’s ear, “What is that?” When I heard the answer I knew what I wanted to do.

My mum wasn’t concerned about the whole post-punk, new wave ethos, she wasn’t even worried about me not settling down and getting a proper job, what really frightened her was that I’d lose one of my most precious possessions, my hearing. And she was right. The first band I played in nearly deafened me.

I don’t know who invented the belief that louder is better, it was probably the same guitar player who decided that faster is better and diddly-diddylied us all into an ear-numbing stupor.  I do know that the lead guitarist in my first band was already deaf and wanted to take the rest of us down with him. Back then you knew you’d had a good night out when your ears were still ringing the next day. But what happens when your ears don’t stop ringing?

My mum was a lot happier when some years later I had another epiphany. I discovered Patsy Cline. Out went the black vinyl pants and scowling attitude, in came skirts and a Dolly Parton love of children and small animals. I got an acoustic guitar and a band that even my mother could come and listen to without sticking toilet paper in her ears, except perhaps when I’d yodel!

The Best-Selling Author Who Changed My Life

A couple of years ago I wrote a book. My publisher said they wanted it and then they changed their mind. My agent at the time told me if my publisher didn’t want it then no one else would, she couldn’t sell it.

‘Write me something I can sell,’ she said.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘Women’s fiction.’

‘Oh.’

Up until that time I’d written a novel about a sixty-something woman who was actually an energy being from another galaxy and two memoirs. I knew nothing about writing women’s fiction.

Shortly afterwards I interviewed a best-selling author. I’d interviewed her before, more than once. She’s a prolific writer. After the interview she asked me how my writing was going.

‘Hmm,’ I said. ‘My agent wants me to write women’s fiction and I’m not sure that I can.’

‘Of course you can,’ she said. ‘Come to my masterclass and I will teach you how.’

‘Masterclass?’

That’s how I found out about Fiona McIntosh’s commercial fiction masterclass, the masterclass that changed my writing life. I paid the money (it’s not cheap but it’s worth it), flew to Adelaide  and spent five days having my world turned upside down. Imagine this; you’ve spent a lot of money to be at a masterclass, you arrive on the first day and are surrounded by other keen writers, you await the pearls of wisdom that are going to drop from your teacher’s mouth and the first thing she says is this:

‘Nobody cares. Nobody cares about your writing. Nobody cares about your book. The world does not need your book.’

I felt as though I’d been slapped. I was a writer. I was special. I was a published writer. I was even more special. Of course the world cared. Of course the world needed my books.

I cried, I fought, I struggled and eventually I got over myself and remembered the rest of Fiona’s opening speech. She said, ‘The less I care the better I write.’

At the time I thought, Well that’s certainly not true, she researches her books impeccably, she’s written thirty best-sellers, she cares .

It wasn’t until I was deep into my next novel and struggling with a worrisome chapter that her words made sense. This chapter had to be in the book but I didn’t know how to approach it or how to make it work. Hell, I didn’t even know where to start. Then I remembered, ‘Nobody cares.’

It was if a weight lifted from my shoulders. Nobody cares. It doesn’t matter. This book doesn’t matter. This chapter certainly doesn’t matter. The world doesn’t need this book. Nobody cares. All the stress and worry of the tricky chapter disappeared. I began to write. The words flowed. The chapter sang. And all because nobody cares, not even me. Hooray!

Fiona McIntosh’s latest book, The Chocolate Tin, has just been released and she’s touring the country to talk about it. (You might have seen her in the latest edition of the Women’s Weekly.) She and I will be having a chat at a literary lunch in Noosa on the 25th of November. You can find the details here. And yes, there will be chocolate.

If you can’t make it to Noosa details of her other events are here.

And if you want to change your writing life then you can find out about Fiona’s masterclasses here.

But no matter what you do, whether you’re a writer or not, that simple lesson of ‘nobody cares’ may change your life.

Do The Mashed Potato

dee-dee-sharp-mashed-potato-time-columbia-2My friend Fiona was a career woman. Like a lot of my friends at the time she had a great job, plenty of money, all the perks she could possibly demand… and a part-time man.  There was an era of my life when the latest accessory for the woman who had everything was the no-commitment relationship.  Fiona called one such relationship  “Three Days”. Once a month he’d fly up from Sydney and they’d do the long weekend thing, an arrangement she was perfectly content with.  Many of my female friends longed for the perfect relationship – not true love, commitment and roses, but a man who’d leave them alone to get on with their busy lives and only be around when it was convenient.

Fiona asked me around for dinner one night, at that stage she was going out with a sailor, a Rear Admiral no less, whose home port was San Francisco. How marvellous we all thought, she has a boyfriend she only sees every 6 months, very clever.  She asked me what I’d like to eat; Thai, African, perhaps Japanese.  She was a rather put out by my reply. At the time I was working on average 14 hours a day (a relationship with a hermit living in a cave in Estonia would have been too much for me) and I wanted bangers and mash for dinner. I think the trend for good old-fashioned home cooking, like mashed potatoes, was spawned by exhausted careerists who needed to feel looked after, just for a while, before chaining themselves to the corporate juggernaut once more.

Fiona did her best with what should have been a simple task; boil potatoes until they’re falling apart, drain, add milk, lashings of butter, salt to taste, and then go to it with the potato masher. Worked for my mum every time. Unfortunately a glossy coffee table book detailing these instructions hadn’t been released and Fiona was way out of her depth.  What should have been the pinnacle of comfort food arrived on our plates as grey, lumpy soup.

Fast food, disposable music and no-commitment relationships left me feeling empty and homesick. But I didn’t have time to dwell, there was too much work to do. I was dishing out instant gratification on commercial radio, highly researched and tightly formatted for maximum monetary gain. My head was full of call-out figures, familiarity scores and burn factors, that was what music had become to me.  Slow cooked food, slow music that cooks and a slowly cooking relationship were way too inconvenient. But the day after that dinner I found time to buy a potato masher.

These days my life is a lot slower and I love it. Everything has changed. Who would have thought that the career-frazzled woman I used to be would become a happily married writer? Not me. Now I have time to think and cook  and write a book that’s coming along way too slowly. And that’s okay. Other things have changed too. The Hubby and I no longer eat mashed potatoes but have discovered the delights of mashed cauliflower and it’s just as delicious and comforting. Fast food no longer enters the building and I’m feeling well and truly committed after 12 years of marriage. But one thing hasn’t changed. I still have that potato masher.

The Truth About Tim Winton

I was asked to interview the famous Australian writer Tim Winton for a literary event. With the release of his latest book, a memoir called The Boy Behind the Curtain, he was hitting the road on a book tour. The request came through months before the event and I jumped at the chance, after all it was Tim Winton.

I was given a pre-release copy of the book (an uncorrected proof) to read and loved it – it’s poetic, heartbreaking, funny, informative and gives a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse of his writing life and his writing disasters. Yes, even Tim Winton has writing disasters.

As the weeks rolled by and the date of the event grew closer I became increasingly nervous. Tim is known to be a very private person. It’s also a fact that he’s not all that fond of the spruiking that needs to be done when a new book is released. I’d heard reports of him being taciturn during interviews and a rumour that he once said to a journalist, ‘I’m so sick of talking about this book.’  What would I do if he gave me one-word answers or even worse, didn’t answer my questions at all?

I was also nervous because it was Tim Winton. The Tim Winton. Four-time winner of the Miles Franklin, 28 books and 3 plays to his name, Australia’s best loved literary novelist.  And then there was the note from his publicist, the first of many, saying that Tim preferred an interlocutor to an interviewer. An interlocutor? Quick, find me a dictionary. Turns out an interlocutor is someone who takes part in dialogue or conversation. Okay. So I wouldn’t be asking him questions, we’d be having a chat instead. My nervousness grew.

When I was in radio I’d get asked all the time what the secret was to a great interview. I’d always say, ‘Do your research and then listen.’ As my apprehension increased my research began in earnest. I read the book again, I read reviews and interviews, I read and reread many of his novels and his coastal and landscape memoirs. I wrote pages of questions, re-wrote them and then re-wrote them again. And then, because he doesn’t like being interviewed and prefers to have a chat, I condensed them to dot points.

The chain of emails from his publicist grew longer. The list of do’s and don’t’s. What Tim liked and what he didn’t. It was like dealing with a major rock star. For someone who was already nervous, it was a tad intimidating. And I’ll mention here that I used to interview people for a living. Eighteen years in radio, fifteen of those with the ABC. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, politicians, pundits and yes, authors. Sometimes I’d be nervous but not often, in fact hardly ever. It was my job. I did my research, I asked questions and most importantly I listened. But the momentum around Tim’s book tour was growing. He was on the front page of The Australian, The Review and the Australian Magazine. He is a major star, there’s no escaping it. And I was going to interlocutor with him, in front of a sold out audience. (The event sold out in three days.)

The big day arrived. At that point I probably knew more about Tim Winton than his own mother. I decided I wasn’t nervous. No, not at all. I was excited. I was about to have a chat with an Australian literary legend. I was greeted at the venue by people I knew and liked; the team from Noosa Libraries, Annie and Rachel from Annie’s Books, a member of my book club and a fellow writer from my writing group. I began to relax. And then I met Tim.

I was given the opportunity to sit and talk with him away from everyone else before the event. I gave him a rundown of what we’d be interlocutoring about. (By the way, interlocutoring is not in the dictionary.) I was amazed when he told me I could ask him anything and he’d be okay with it. As we talked I discovered he was down to earth, friendly and funny as all get out. I mentioned how hectic his tour schedule was and he told me he’d rather be busy than melancholy, and he would be melancholy if left to his own devices. I added ‘honest’ to his list of heart-warming attributes.

The actual event was brilliant. He was witty and wise, erudite and earthy. He had the audience laughing uproariously one minute and nodding their heads solemnly the next. And as for me?  I had done my research and now my job was to listen. So I listened. And we chatted. I didn’t even need to refer to my notes. I was an interlocutor extraordinaire. The crowd loved it, Tim enjoyed himself and I think even the publicist was happy.

So, here’s the truth about Tim Winton. He may be a private person and he may be Australia’s most acclaimed literary author but this I know for certain – Tim Winton, the boy behind the curtain, is a lovely, lovely bloke.

Tim Winton & Mary-Lou Stephens

The Famous Author Who Dressed Like a Duck

Recently a friend of mine was talking to me about a writing project she was keen to pursue. Trouble was she wasn’t sure whether to write it as a novel or a screenplay.
‘You could always do a Graeme Simsion,’ I said.
‘What did he do?’
‘He originally wrote The Rosie Project as a screenplay but couldn’t get any interest. So he wrote it as a novel and what do you know, he got a movie deal.’

Graeme Simsion is famous for the massive advance he received for The Rosie Project and fair enough too because the book sold all over the world to the tune of over a million copies. He’s also very well known thanks to Bill Gates who read the book and told the world how much he loved it. But the other thing Graeme is famous for is dressing like a duck. He only did it the once for a conference presentation (to brighten up a very dry topic) but it’s become a thing of legend.

The last time I spent time with Graeme was at The Byron Bay Writers Festival in 2013. He was dressed casually without a feather to be seen. I remember being backstage with him while he was checking his phone for the latest rankings of The Rosie Project. He was very excited to discover that his book had made the best-seller list in Italy. Ah, the joys of being a mega-selling novelist.

Since The Rosie Project’s huge success Graeme has written two more novels, The Rosie Effect and now The Best of Adam Sharp which is being released next month. This latest novel is about love, music and coming to terms with the past. Hmmm, I think I can relate to that 🙂

Recently he got in touch to suggest we do something for The Best of Adam Sharpe. Naturally, I said yes and Noosa Libraries got on board. The result is a literary lunch in Noosa on Thursday 22nd September. You can find the details here. It’s a good excuse to visit Noosa but if you can’t make it Graeme is going to be a very busy man in September with multiple appearances. Perhaps he’s going to be in your town. Here’s his schedule.

I hope to see you in Noosa but if not I’m sure we’ll bump into each other in the virtual world somewhere.

GraemeSimsionLiteraryLunchNoosa2016

It’s All Perfect

I’ve never had a guest blogger on my site before but when spiritual memoirist Mollie Player  got in touch I knew I’d found a kindred spirit. She wrote, Just finished Sex, Drugs & Meditation  today and truly enjoyed it. I wish we lived in a world with more spirituality memoirs!

So here’s to a world with more spiritual memoirs and please welcome Mollie Player.

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Contributor: Mollie Player

Mollie Player writes spirituality memoirs and self-help books, as well as a blog called Suddenly Awesome, which is about how being spiritual makes her otherwise boring life suddenly awesome. Read and follow at mollieplayer.com.

Readers of Eckhart Tolle understand the importance of appreciating the present moment–paying attention as much as possible to the glorious Now and leaving the past behind us. For a long time, though, I was stumped by something: How am I supposed to live in the present and also allow myself to feel the desires that lead to conscious creation? 

What about visualization? What about mantras? What about figuring out what I don’t want so that I can decide what I do want to welcome into my life? 

Then the other day, my good friend (and angel channel) Leta Hamilton talked to me about the importance of acceptance.

“Life is perfect, just as it is,” she said. “You don’t have to want a single new thing to be happy.”

And I knew it was true, because she has four young children and is still the happiest person I know.

So, the following day, I took her advice. I started a new spiritual practice: that of accepting everything that came.

“Bring it on, Universe,” I said. “Do your worst. I’m going to learn to love what is if it kills me.”

And it was the greatest experience. That day I happened to spend most of the sunny afternoon at a park with my two wonderful children. Then that evening I was treated to a massage and a facial. I truly enjoyed these experiences in a way I have rarely done before, without fault-finding and overly critical thinking and too-high expectations.

It was wonderful.

I’m pretty sure the Universe wanted me to have an especially good first try at all this acceptance stuff, because over the following few days things got back to normal. Kids crying till my ears hurt, poopy diapers . . . you get the idea.

But I continued my new-found spiritual practice, and what I noticed right away was that none of the bad stuff seemed all that bad anymore. Because they weren’t that bad. They were the challenges of life.

There’s an amazing quote in The Power of Now (by Eckhart Tolle) about  whether or not we as conscious creators should accept that bad stuff happens.

“Is suffering really necessary? Yes and no. If you had not suffered as you have, there would be no depth to you as a human being, no humility, no compassion. You would not be reading this now. Suffering cracks open the shell of ego, and then comes a point when it has served its purpose. Suffering is necessary until you realize it is unnecessary.”

Beautiful, isn’t it? Sometimes we law of attraction believers get down on ourselves for not having everything we want, not outwardly appearing to be as successful as others we know. As much as I believe in and practice visualization, affirmations and meditating on what I desire, and pray to the angels and seek enlightenment and read books and discuss spiritual matters for hours on end . . . I’m remembering through it all that I am in a process. I am experiencing everything–“good” and “bad”–for a reason.

Truly, it is all perfect.

And here’s the really funny part (that you may have guessed already): Ever since my revelation on acceptance, things are flowing better for me, too. What I need and want comes to me in a natural way, at the right time–often before I consciously know I need it.

If you are a dissatisfied spiritual person, someone who wants to become a more positive thinker right now, I encourage you to embrace this paradox.

Accept first. Then work on your deliberate creation.

Accept.

Mollie Player

Stories From The Journey

StoriesFromTheJourney2016

There’s been a lot of interest in this event. Noosa Library has had to move it to the Noosa Leisure Centre next door to the library to fit everyone in! If you can make it I’d love to see you there.  And my book How To Stay Married fits right in, it’s a travel memoir after all 🙂

How I Discovered One of Australia’s Best Selling Authors

flinders rangesA while ago I was staying with a friend at her house in the Flinders Ranges. I found it hard to understand why anyone would live there, in the driest place within the driest state on the driest continent. Unsurprisingly almost every name on the map was a ghost town. Years ago she and I shared a flat near the beach in Sydney, lots of water, lots of green. Since then I’d spent most of my time living in Queensland, lots more water, much greener. My friend’s choice of surroundings didn’t make a lot of sense to me, literally. My senses didn’t understand it. But she and her husband love the outback and within a few days the colours, the starkness and the flocks of emus began to win me over with their specific kind of beauty.

The bedroom I was staying in was upstairs in their converted church. It had a verandah that overlooked the rocks and saltbush. One of the windows was propped open by a book. I said to my friend, ‘If I find you another book to prop open the window, can I read this one?’ She laughed and said I could have it and she’d find something else to keep the window open in the hope of a breeze.

And that’s how I discovered one of Australia’s top selling authors. (That’s right I didn’t discover discover her, although I wish I had, imagine having a percentage of those royalties!)

The book was Three Wishes. The author? Liane Moriarty. Since then I’ve read just about every book she’s written. I’m saving a couple. It’s always nice to have something to look forward to.

Despite going straight to number 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, a TV series based on one of her books being made in the US by famous people, movie options and more, she’s still referred to as ‘the most successful Australian author you’ve never heard of’ in this recent article. (Worth a look for the photographs alone.)

But in case you have heard of her and, like me, love her work, Liane has released a new book and is touring to chat with people like me in a town near you. Here’s her schedule and if you’re on the Sunshine Coast, or looking for an excuse to come to the Sunshine Coast, she and I will be having a chat at the Surfair in Marcoola on Wednesday 3rd August, thanks to Sunshine Coast Libraries. You’ll need to book and all the details are here. It would be great to see you there.

So, how about you? How did you discover your favourite authors? Were their books propping open a window in the desert?

The Song That Broke The Band

There are some songs that stay with you, not just for the week that they might be on high rotation on the radio, but for a lifetime. Songs are highly emotive creatures. They plug into us for all kinds of reasons.

I was very young when I first heard this song and yet it’s stayed with me through the years.

I was reminded of the song and of the writer, Greg Quill, when I read this article about a new tribute album recorded in his honour – Some Lonesome Picker.

If you know Gypsy Queen you’ll know why it’s such a special song. If not this quote from the article might help.

Gypsy Queen is a song of the road no less than the poem Walt Whitman wrote a century earlier. It was a song about going on an adventure where your horizons would be expanded, and you’d live a larger life because of it.

But for me it has extraordinary significance. Why? This is the song that caused the demise of my band.

If you’ve read Sex, Drugs & Meditation you’ll know how devastated I was when my band broke up. The story behind the story is that we’d been playing together for years, touring and releasing CDs but we’d never really cut through. I had the idea of recording a cover version of this song, it was perfect for us with our line up and stunning harmonies. We’d never released a song written by anyone else – all originals up until that point – but I thought this song was worth it. It was such a brilliant idea that one member of the band quit. Why? Because she knew it would work, that we’d get airplay with it and therefore success and she didn’t want us to succeed. She wanted out. She wanted to pursue a solo career. And thus our band became an ex-band.

Ironically a few years later Adam Harvey recorded a cover version of this song and had a hit with it but by that time I was well ensconced in the world of radio and being a music director I got to decide what got played on radio and what didn’t.

When it comes down to it I’m grateful. If the band hadn’t broken up I never would have got into radio, I might never have started writing books instead of songs and I definitely wouldn’t have the superannuation that enabled me to retire early and have the freedom I now have – to write more books and to pick up my guitar whenever I feel like it.

And all these years later, I still love this song.

“I’m singing for the dark and lonely highway, I’m singing for the rivers and the trees, I’m singing for the country roads and byways, And I wonder as I go, Is there anyone I know, Who’ll sing for me.”