One Question Quiz
Author (woman) looking off-camera; cover of her novel Sorrow and Bliss
Meg Mason and her brilliant novel Sorrow and Bliss (Photo: Grant Sparkes-Carroll)

BooksFebruary 9, 2021

NZ author Meg Mason just landed a huge US film deal

Author (woman) looking off-camera; cover of her novel Sorrow and Bliss
Meg Mason and her brilliant novel Sorrow and Bliss (Photo: Grant Sparkes-Carroll)

Ockhams-longlisted novel Sorrow and Bliss is set to be a film and we at The Spinoff Review of Books could not be more excited. 

From the press release, which we got our mitts on first due to our abject and enduring public love for this novel:

“New Regency has acquired the film and television rights to Meg Mason’s most recent novel, Sorrow and Bliss, in a competitive auction. Casarotto Ramsay and HarperCollins Australia brokered the deal.

Sorrow and Bliss is a compulsively readable novel — spiky, sharp, intriguingly dark, and tender — about a woman trying to make sense of the mental illness that’s plagued her for decades, combining the psychological insight of Sally Rooney with the sharp humor of Nina Stibbe and the emotional resonance of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

‘Meg is a tremendously talented writer and we are excited to bring Sorrow and Bliss to screen,’ says Yariv Milchan, New Regency’s Chairman and CEO.

Sorrow and Bliss was published by HarperCollins in Australia and New Zealand in September 2020 and will be published across 21 countries and 16 translation territories including in the US and the UK after hotly contested auctions.”

The book releases today in the US and Canada; it’s headed for the UK in June.

No one will say – yet – how much the deal was actually worth but New Regency is a big player: their long, long list of films includes The Revenant, Little Women, and Gone Girl. No one’s talking, either, about who might star, although we reckon Anna Paquin would be brilliant as the complex, charismatic, ferociously clever lead, Martha.

New Regency is very used to throwing around big names so who knows? Right now they’re working on films starring – and this is just a selection – Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington.

Meg Mason sitting at table looking straight to camera.
Portrait of an outrageously talented and successful NZ author (Photo: Supplied)

We’ve been championing Sorrow and Bliss for months, publishing a review by Jean Sergent and an essay by Mason, and a big rave when the Ockhams longlist came out with her on it. We also emailed a few questions over the weekend; here’s that chat, edited for clarity and length. Yahoo!

The Spinoff: Was it a big call for you to sell the movie rights? This feels like a book you might have instinctively preferred to hold close, or at least retain control of.

Meg Mason: A year ago, Sorrow and Bliss was just a Word document, and it was just me writing in my tiny backyard shed. It still feels strange that it’s even a book, on someone’s shelf or in the window of a shop. The fact that it found its way to a studio, the fact it will be a screen production is truly beyond my imagining. Perhaps if these were normal times and the negotiations had involved trips to LA and meetings with studio heads and things, it would have been a more intimidating thing or just felt more real, but it was one Zoom in the tiny shed, and once it was done, I almost put it out of my mind and didn’t tell anyone for such a long time. I just didn’t have any way to incorporate the concept into my everyday life.

But [the studio] know the book so well and they are so concerned for it and retaining its essence, I feel completely able to let it go and let it be theirs and their work.

Please assert your New Zealandiness for the record, eg are you a NZ citizen, do you know all the words to Loyal, do you come here often?

I’m so glad you asked. I am a New Zealander, a proper Foxton-born, Palmerston-North-raised one. I’m always described as an Australian author in the Australian press and I’ve never minded the assumption, because I left New Zealand at 16 and have lived in Sydney since, apart from five years in London.

Mason and her grandmother, Foxton, 1983 (Photo: Supplied)

But just lately, I’ve started to mind so much. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s not being allowed to come back, as we usually would twice a year, and not knowing when we will be able to next. For the first time since my teens, I feel a sort of acute homesickness, not just the always-underneath sense of being Somewhere Else, which comes with living elsewhere to the place you were born.

It was desperate, missing our usual extended family Christmas this year, camping in Otago, the cold river swims, the birds and the very particular fragrance of New Zealand air, waking up in the tent absolutely rigid with cold because it turns out there was a wee bit of snow on the ranges overnight. The cousins, the barbecues, Vogels toast. I’ve literally made myself so miserable now thinking about it.

Woman on horse, facing away from camera, looking at mountain range in distance.
Camping in Godzone (Photo: Supplied)

Anyway, for the record, yes. I’m a New Zealander. I do know all the words to Loyal – I mean, the chorus word-perfect and the verses a tiny bit mumbly because I’m 43 and can only remember verses learned pre-30. But I can do you all of Slice of Heaven, the national anthem in both languages, sundry Crowded House, the What Now theme, Rachel Hunter’s Trumpet commercial, and say The Milky Bar Kid! with the correct inflection. I shouldn’t really need a New Zealand passport, that being so, but to be safe, I have never given mine up.

Where do you live now, and what are you doing for work? What piece/book are you working on now?

I live in Sydney, in a suburb called Balmain, which might be a little bit like Grey Lynn before Grey Lynn got very fancy?

I was at The Times in London in my early 20s, and after my husband and I moved back to Sydney with our first child in tow, I became a freelance journalist. It was a little bit of a shock, having to start all over again because I’d gone to London straight from university and didn’t have any contacts here.

So there was a lot of cold-calling to start with, and then years of saying yes to every single job I was offered, no matter how unglamorous the publication – my thinking being, if Kate Moss can do Rimmell, I can do Human Resources Magazine. Eventually, it became Vogue and Elle, GQ and magazines more of that ilk, but I’m grateful to every editor who ever gave me page space because everything you write makes you a better writer, even 400 words on succession planning in the mining industry.

After I wrote my first book in 2012 (cold-calling publishers that time), I added the slash author after journalist, although the slash really just means writing very early in the morning and late at night and on weekends until you are demented with exhaustion.

Sorrow and Bliss was written that way but after it came out in September last year, and everything became so unexpectedly busy, and then it sold overseas which means fresh work on it and further rounds of publicity, I decided to let myself just be an author for a year. It was physically painful to turn down the first magazine commission I was offered after that because freelancers just don’t do that, but I was a tiny bit burned out so probably best for all involved.

I’m making notes on the next book but it’s truly so strange to write fiction when it’s light outside. It’s not something I’ve done between 9am and 5pm before now. And infinite time isn’t always the friend of a writer. You actually need an opposing force, something you’re constantly working against, because it will show whether you’re sufficiently desperate to write. Desperation, that utterly consuming desire to write and sense of unsettledness and frustration slash hating yourself when you’re not writing, is necessary to the task, and essential to the finishing of it.

Tell us about where you were at in your life when you wrote Sorrow and Bliss. Why that book, then?

Post-hope is how I remember describing myself to a friend just before I started work on it. I didn’t think it was particularly relevant the first time I mentioned it in an interview, but it’s sort of become the book’s USP – that I struggled for a year before to write a book that was an irredeemable disaster and needed to be thrown out as soon as I finished it. I was so devastated by the agony and waste and, not to sound like an artiste, but the death of a lifelong dream et cetera, that I wrote to my publisher and told her I couldn’t fix it or write another one, then or ever, and how does one give an advance back.

But maybe six weeks later, I just edged up to my desk, with an image in my mind that I wanted to write out. And because I was post-hope, it was a bit like – do you remember that scene in Notting Hill where the restaurant has failed and all the friends have one more meal there, the night before it’s repossessed? And all the chairs are up on the tables and they just get drunk and eat a mess of leftovers and toast their friend’s imploded career? That’s the closest to what happened, I just got everything I had, whatever I found funny or sad or true, every observation or bit of conversation I’d never used, and fragments of a story and tipped it all in. It was six months before I told anyone what I was doing, from shame to begin with, and then because the writing-without-caring was such a private ecstasy I almost didn’t want to give it up.

Scraps of paper and photographs.
‘A shoebox of references I had on the wall during the writing of S&B’ (Photo: Meg Mason)

What’s it been like for you to hear from readers? I imagine it’s prompted some pretty intense responses. Do you feel like people get it?

Oh gosh, it’s been the most astonishing thing. It’s always generous of a reader to write and say they like your book – mostly I intend to and never actually get around to it – and notes I’ve had after the previous books have been so kind.

But they’ve been different with Sorrow and Bliss, truly so astonishing – someone said it had changed the way they perceived the adult daughter they care for. Someone who struggles similarly to Martha told me that after reading it they felt seen and entitled to love for the first time in their lives. Someone told me they were going to try and track down a person they dated and didn’t treat well 20 years ago, for reasons like those in the book, and someone said her husband had read it, burst into tears on the last page, and consequently apologised for the first five years of their marriage. I don’t really feel like I deserve their stories, if that makes sense – to be privileged with that information and given praise when their struggle is real and daily and all I did was write a novel. It’s too big a reward. But I prize every single one, while not feeling worthy of them.

Readers who get Sorrow and Bliss absolutely get it and if they love it, they seem to really love it. Also, the reverse.

But because it was released in a pandemic, all the events – the usual author Q&As – to begin with had to be online so I had no sense what anyone thought for a long time. If it’s posted in a comments box, a reader question has to be short, and pre-amble-less which, I didn’t consciously realise at the time, makes it seem quite severe. Faceless BookNut_82 will type “why did you make Martha so unlikeable” and you just have to go from there.

It wasn’t until restrictions eased and we could do real-life events that I experienced the preamble and holy sh*t, people are so generous. And Martha’s occasional unlikeability is a completely different question when it’s preceded by a few minutes of what the reader did like about her or the book, or what it meant to them.

My favourite was maybe a bookstore visit – the assistant told me the manager wasn’t in because she was reading Sorrow and Bliss in the bath the previous night and started crying so hard she pulled a muscle. Her husband was asleep and didn’t hear her calling out, so she just had to sit in colder and colder water, sobbing until he eventually did. I mean, poor her but how ridiculous a book was responsible for that.

Meg Mason walking down path beneath tunnel of trees
Camping in Godzone (Photo: Supplied)

Did you have to make any serious compromises on the editing or marketing front?

If you have a good publisher, you covet notes on a manuscript and you’re desperately grateful for how improving they will be, how much a publisher will save you from yourself. That was my experience with both previous books, so there would have been no reason for me to be against changes the third time.

But then Sorrow and Bliss wasn’t meant to be a book and even when it was finished and I gave it to my publisher, it remained so particular and precious to me that I was prepared to politely take it back and not have it come out at all, if major reworking had been necessary.

But thank goodness, my publisher didn’t want me to change it, or flinch even slightly when I told her I was going to redact the name of Martha’s condition. I was absolutely braced for her to say you can’t, but she was completely fine with that and understood all the reasons behind it, and everything else about it that is peculiar about the book but sort of essential to it.

Are you able to give me any indication of $ amounts for all the publishing deals? 

I read somewhere that Australian novelists earn, on average, $12,900 a year from their books, which is why most of us are also journalists, or teachers, or shop assistants. But some of us are also JK Rowling, so I suppose the range for an author is generally between $12,900 and a hundred million pounds a year.

I emailed you ages ago to rave at you about this book. This was before all the media stuff started, and you said you had a strategy in place to deal with the inevitable question “Is Martha based on you?”. Has it, as expected, come up heaps – and have you managed to brush it off?

It’s definitely become one of the Greatest Hits, question-wise, but authors are lucky if anyone is inclined to ask us anything so I don’t resent it at all. And I understand why it’s something we as readers are interested to know. As a journalist, I’ve put it to authors myself. And it wasn’t so much that I resolved not to answer it, I just knew I wouldn’t be able to in a satisfying way because, as so many authors have said before, it’s always a combination of the lived, the observed and the invented.

If it’s a little bit wearying, it’s because you don’t see it asked of male authors as often. Possibly ever. Almost as though, subconsciously we think a male writer would be more than capable of 350 pages of pure invention, but if a female has written a whole, convincing character, it must be her with a different name. She can’t possibly be capable of that, even though it is the job.

Sorrow and Bliss, by Meg Mason (4th Estate, $35) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

Keep going!