Clare McFadden, 35
Lives in: Boston
The loveliest thing about speaking with Clare McFadden is that she’s genuinely surprised at how life has panned out for her. I’ve known Clare for a little while now; we kept crossing paths at writers’ festivals when Clare’s first picture book, The Flying Orchestra, was published back in 2010. I’d rush about in a classic publicity flap and every so often catch sight of the unmissable Clare McFadden curly hair on stage with 100 or so students happily clapping along with her. There was delight in the air.
At some point, she let it slip that she’d been accepted into Harvard for a Masters in Education and we got talking about why she loves education, and getting along with the, sometimes messy, business of following your heart. She had Friday Best written all over her.
Now, several years later, Clare is shrugging at me from her home in Boston, telling me that going to Harvard isn’t that fancy! Maybe it isn’t (I confess, I’m still starry eyed), but I’m still fascinated by this girl who got sent off to drama class because she was swallowed by shyness and then drew her way into the world of children’s books and promptly knocked the socks off the folks at Harvard. If this all sounds super accomplished, well, ahem, it is! But the funny thing is that Clare still feels like someone could pull the rug out from under her at any moment. Who am I, she thinks, to do all this? Can’t they see who I really am? She feels all of this so deeply, but just goes on, as she says, watching out for the next step to be revealed to her.
Clare McFadden, tell us about how you got to where you are now…
Ha! I feel like I’m on Andrew Denton!
It’s interesting because at home I was a very enthusiastic kind of child. I would do things like dress up as different people and answer the door. I was a performer at home but at school I was really painfully shy, like crippled by shyness. My grade one teacher said, and I think she taught grade one for more than 20 years, that I was the shyest student she’d ever had. I felt things very deeply. I still do, but you kind of get the faculties to deal with them in a better way when you’re older.
This was in many ways one of the main reasons
I wrote The Flying Orchestra—remembering
that feeling of being so filled with joy or so
wracked with grief before the age of five.
One piece of research which I think is so interesting in terms of children’s development, and which made me understand my childhood a lot more, explained that children’s thoughts, before the age of about five, are driven by their emotions, but after that age it’s the thoughts that drive the emotion and we learn to monitor our responses. So, as a child, you just have these full sensory responses to things. And this was in many ways one of the main reasons I wrote The Flying Orchestra—remembering that feeling of being so filled with joy or so wracked with grief before the age of five.
You know, shyness has actually been a really common theme with our Friday Best guests. Did you feel like it improved as you went through school?
I look back at my photos and think, You know, I was quite a cute little kid. I wonder why I was on the outer? I think my class was very sporty and I was the one who was artistic and I think there shouldn’t even be that divide made but classrooms are things where there is [that divide]. By high school I think I’d really come into the fore.
Why was that?
I went to such a lovely high school. It was this little convent school, very unassuming, yet everyone was very much cherished there. We had a school cat. We could go and have a cup of tea with the teachers in the staff room. It was lovely and so nurturing without being wanky at all. It wasn’t any special education system. I think the thing is that they did just actually really care about every one of the girls that went there.
And what happened next for Clare McFadden?
Well I had tossed up between doing visual arts or drama at university. I’d actually started doing drama lessons privately because mum was so worried about how shy I was.
I was sort of wondering why I
would go to university to learn
how to come up with ideas. Because
really, you can’t “learn ideas”,
I think you can more so learn
how to think with ideas.
I was going to say, that’s an interesting choice for such a shy kid!
Yeah, so I was booted along to that and I ended up doing drama because I had become quite disillusioned by visual art (although I’ve now come back around to it!). I was sort of wondering why I would go to university to learn how to come up with ideas. Because, really, you can’t learn ideas, I think you can more so learn how to think with ideas. So I actually did drama as an undergraduate and from that I guess I became more interested in doing set design, which I thought was a good amalgamation of my interest in drama and visual arts.
I worked as an assistant designer for several years and did some of my own sets, too, and worked on some film sets. I really loved that work but I think with set design I had a different idea of what it would actually be. I thought it would be about really creating these worlds on stage. And I think it certainly can be that, but it’s also a lot of going out and buying trousers—at least at the level I was at.
It was interesting when they made The Flying Orchestra into a show for Out of the Box (an early childhood festival). I was thinking to myself that through that I had sort of achieved everything I ever wanted to with set design in terms of creating a world and then having that world come to life on stage.
So at what point did you begin working on The Flying Orchestra?
I think one of the big turning points in my early career was getting a studio at Metro Arts. It’s this wonderful old heritage listed building in the heart of Brisbane, which has been converted into artist studios. It was great for me to be around other artists particularly because I had never done any training in visual art. So I started working there on set design and some of my neighbours would say ‘Oh, we’re having an exhibition, do you want to put something in?’ And from that I kind of got the idea to do a project as a book.
I really believe in creativity
which is something not quite
from this world but also as
something which doesn’t
belong to an individual but
belongs to a community.
I sometimes feel like the book just arrived at me. I remember going on this walk and the first page of the book just coming to me. I really believe in creativity as something not quite from this world but also as something that doesn’t belong to an individual but belongs to a community. I think in some ways I felt like I was a bit of a (and also sounding a little bit wanky) conduit.
And in terms of the execution, you might be blessed with this inspiration but then you’ve got to go and write it!
Clare’s debut picture book, The Flying Orchestra.
Did you feel like you were capable of making the book, without any formal training? Did you ever feel like a fraud?
I have felt like a fraud my whole life! Have we talked about Imposter Syndrome?
We have and I find this fascinating about you because you’re a published author, a Harvard graduate and you were accepted into a PhD at Cambridge but you feel like you will be caught out at any moment. Tell me a little bit more…
[Laughs] I was in the advanced reading group in grade one and I remember thinking they’re going to catch me because I can’t read. And thinking that I couldn’t read because I was just memorising the shapes of words rather than doing what I thought reading actually was. I’ve subsequently found out that’s how children actually do learn to read.
I think as young women we have limited role models in terms of women who have done the kinds of things that we’re now doing and so we still think of being intellectually bright in a very male way.
So with something like going to Harvard you think Who am I? Who do I think I am? I think maybe that’s part of it. And I think that’s why it’s so important for people to have role models from their own culture, from their own gender, so you can imagine yourself in that role.
But despite having this sense of being a fraud, do you feel like you still have a good sense of self worth? Do you feel successful?
For me, I think that I will never really feel successful until I have my own family. I do feel successful in terms of my career.
But you’re just hungry for a bit more…
Yeah I think so. I have wanted to have children since I was like six!
What do you think of motherhood now?
Wow, that’s a big question, Steph Stepan! I think we’re at this very interesting point in our society where it is no longer necessary, at least in our culture, to reproduce for the survival of the species. But I think what’s still lingering is a lot of social pressure for people to have children. I still wonder why the questions everyone always asks are: when are you going to have children? Do you have a boyfriend?
I think we’ve got to ask people different questions because these are often not things that are in people’s control.
We have to stop saying,
‘This person is just a mum’. Well,
you couldn’t really have a more
important job in terms of raising
the next generation!
Families have become so individualised, where you are sometimes the sole person bringing up the kids, sometimes even without grandparents. What we have to do is make a place in society for people who don’t have children so they are still part of it if they want to be, so we’re bringing up children as a community.
So there are two things. Firstly, we have to value people who are mothers and choose to be mothers—people who choose to be parents—we have to stop saying, ‘This person is just a mum’. Well, you couldn’t really have a more important job in terms of raising the next generation!
Also I think it’s about valuing everyone and their role in the community—it’s funny because we’re not valuing mothers / parents but then we’re not valuing those who are not mothers either. So it’s kind of a very weird situation to be in.
I totally agree. It comes down to how we judge one another. How do you reckon we get comfortable with what we’re doing and stop comparing?
I think you just have to trust in your own path. And trust that if you’re taking the next step that’s been revealed to you, it will work out. At school I got really irritated at goal setting. Where are you going to be in 10 years? I really hate those sorts of questions, because then you’re limiting yourself to your own imagination.
There’s that lovely little Leunig poem, ‘Let it go, let it out, let it all unravel, let it free and it can be a path on which to travel.’ And I do think you have to let it go. And I obviously should listen to my own advice because I get very anxious about all these things!
You do think these things like: are things
ever going to work out? Am I ever going to
have these things that I’ve always held on to?
How does where you are now compare to where you thought you would be?
I never would have thought I’d go to Harvard! Even in my undergraduate degree I was so sloppy! I did well enough at school but certainly never would have thought of myself as someone who was academic. And I also had a terrible idea of what the US was like and thought it was probably the last place on earth I wanted to go.
I just think we all have to try and be brave. I always thought that my life would go exactly how my parents’ lives have gone. And you do think things like: are things ever going to work out? Am I ever going to have these things that I’ve always held on to?
I know I’m not alone in that thought. But at the same time, because of the social pressure we have, particularly as young women, I think sometimes you do feel very alone because everyone is kind of saying to you, you should have been married by now.
So even though the world has moved on, all those old things from our parents’ generation are still placed on us.
Are there any other philosophies or advice that you keep coming back to?
I guess my philosophy is going back to that idea of letting things unravel. I have never really wanted to make a lot of money and I don’t think you should ever be driven by financial incentives but I guess another philosophy is not to have too many things. I see a lot of people now defined by their things. What we’re consuming is just crap. Terrible food. Terrible clothes. Not having so many things, having more high quality things, and making time to do things that are meaningful.
Elizabeth Cline, who has written about this terrible, cheap fashion and the ethical cost of it, says that American women in the 1930s owned about nine outfits—now we buy more than sixty new clothing items each year! You know those terrible sack dresses?
Ha! I do! Don’t know who pulls off those things.
In life, you can operate from
a place of fear or from a place
of love—and it’s education, and
perhaps reflection too, that takes
you to this place of love.
Let’s skip back to education for a little. It’s obviously very dear to your heart. What is it that excites you about education?
Well, in life, you can operate from a place of fear or from a place of love—and it’s education, and perhaps reflection too, that takes you to this place of love. One of my big heroes is Loris Malaguzzi, and he talks about children being born researchers, and being the bearers and constructors of their own intelligence—this is so true. Children want to learn, we all want to learn—it’s a joy to learn.
So, through this joyful process we can reach a place of love. That sounds good to me! This is what real education is, and it’s what every person deserves.
Clare at home in Brisbane. Photo credit: Alex Vaughan
And in doing your masters in education, at Harvard no less, how did it influence your perspective on education?
I think doing the masters at Harvard really changed how I thought about myself. It gave me a lot more confidence and I think it was also the first time that I thought of myself as much a writer as an illustrator. I think prior to that I’d really thought of myself as primarily an illustrator.
I think it was wonderful for me to have this period out of practice and looking at fundamentals and ideas of why we do the practice that we do. In Australia we’re so focused on delivery and practice. I think we’re more doers, and we’re really good doers, and we have good ideas but I think we could really benefit from some more reflection and contemplative time.
We need to honour the gentle,
the tender, the nurturers, the
emotional and the vulnerable.
Honour these things and listen
to these things.
What are you most looking forward to next?
I’m looking forward to finishing my next book, and I’m looking forward to the next stage of my life.
One last question…what do you think we should talk more about?
I think we should talk more about honouring the gentle. I wish more young women and men could identify some of the very aggressive and patriarchal ways that decisions are being made on a local and global level and challenge those.
I think we need to start honouring some qualities that have traditionally been associated with the feminine, and by this I don’t mean that they are the sole realm of women either. I think we need to honour the gentle, the tender, the nurturers, the emotional and the vulnerable. Honour these things and listen to these things.
Thank you, Clare McFadden!
Things I Love
I set The Flying Orchestra in Brisbane
because, when I was growing up, a great
deal of the picture books I read were set
in the UK. I thought that’s where the ‘real’ life
was and, at the same time, where the magic
happened. I didn’t think anything magical
could happen where I lived!
I love a flattie. What I love even more,
is that pretty much wherever you go
in Australia, a lovely person will make
you a great one.
I agree with Lana Del Rey here.