It's standard operating procedure to start a phone interview with an equipment check. An innocuous question - the weather, what the subject had for breakfast - anything to make sure the tape is working.
"As long as this is off the record," says Liane Moriarty.
It's three Tuesday mornings ago and the world is still relatively normal. I've just asked the bestselling Sydney-based author to set the scene. Where, exactly, is she taking this call?
"I'm actually at the hospital, in a waiting room. My dad's very sick, so I'm sitting next to a vending machine downstairs ..."
But then, she says, her dad does love to get a mention. And then, she says, well, okay - because she could make something up but, "I know you reporters like to be accurate." So we talk about Bernard Moriarty, the man who places value on anything that gives you pleasure and who subscribes fully to the idea that people should be paid for doing the things they love.
"He had an aerial surveying and mapping company," says his eldest child. "When he was a child, he dreamed of flying, so he jumped off the roof with an umbrella and did all those sorts of things to try to fly. So the fact that he got to fly planes for a living - he thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world. And me - and my next sister down, Jaclyn - we used to love to write - to him, it was just natural to think: 'Well, how can we make a job of this?'"
And this, I think, might be the magic of Moriarty. I've never met or spoken to her before, but already I want to bring her chicken soup. Already I know that even if, say, she was chicken-free, she wouldn't tell me. Because she is so nice. She is so normal. She is so in the head of everyone she writes for that journalistic rigour is waning; in its place, a charmed fan.
I distinctly remember the first chapter of Big Little Lies: "Mothers took their mothering so seriously now. Their frantic little faces. Their busy little bottoms strutting into the school in their tight gym gear. Ponytails swinging. Eyes fixed on the mobile phones held in the palms of their hands like compasses ..."
It was everybody I knew. A gilt-edged (guilt-edged?) mirror to the high-decile school gate, to the industriously scheduled lives of middle-class women. Hooked. Just like Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and, eventually, Meryl Streep. Because if you haven't read the book, you have surely heard of the television show. In 2014, Big Little Lies - a domestic drama with a violent, raging heart - was optioned by Kidman and Witherspoon. Then Moriarty was asked to pen a novella the women could base a second series on. She named one of the new characters Mary Louise after Streep's real name - and hoped she would be cast in the role. One media report says Kidman emailed Moriarty: "Ask and ye shall receive."
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In other Moriarty novel adaptation news, Blake Lively has long been slated to star in an adaptation of The Husband's Secret and Hollywood is reporting that Melissa McCarthy will join Nicole Kidman in Nine Perfect Strangers - Moriarty's newest novel.
All this, because of her dad. The hospital visit is not unexpected. He has been unwell for awhile, this man who cultivated Moriarty's earliest writing.
"He used to commission both myself and my sister to write stories for him - 20c or $1, I can't remember. It was a small amount. It wasn't enough to incentivise my own children, I can assure you ... these days, they push a much harder bargain. And I'm, 'I'm not going to give you $10!'"
In 2018, publishing company Michael Jones estimated Moriarty's worldwide sales at more than 14 million books. She is phenomenally successful. She was, until last week, billed as a "special event" at the now cancelled Auckland Writers Festival. She was to have been in conversation with writer and comedian Michele A'Court and she'd said: "I hope they will allow questions - I always enjoy the Q and A part ... Except in Norway. They were shy."
How long did it take Moriarty to get on the festival circuit?
"Oh, many years. I do remember I'd reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list and thought, 'Maybe they'll invite me now?' But they still didn't. I had to do it twice."
When Big Little Lies debuted at number one, it was a first for an Australian author. Moriarty had previously made the top spot with fifth novel The Husband's Secret but it took two weeks to get there. Read the clippings and it's like she came out of nowhere; Australians appeared surprised to suddenly discover this writer was one of their own. But, as journalist Amanda Hooton acutely observed, that obscurity was selective - Moriarty had been making the top of reader review and rating lists for years. And the myth that she was a suburban housewife who had somehow become an international sensation? "I was infuriated," Moriarty told Hooton. "It was so patronising - and also totally incorrect!"
Moriarty, 53, is from a family of six. She grew up in Sydney, worked in advertising and marketing and had her own business before she went freelancing. According to her website, she once wrote the words for the back of a Sultana Bran box. She didn't actually believe real people had novels published. Her sister Jaclyn proved her wrong and, "in a fever of sibling rivalry, [I] rushed to the computer and wrote a children's book called The Animal Olympics, which went on to be enthusiastically rejected by every publisher in Australia". Three Wishes was eventually completed as part of her masters degree. The rest is history you could read at the library if there wasn't such a waiting list. At the time of this interview, Auckland Libraries' database showed 14 holds on the first returned copy of its 166 copies of Nine Perfect Strangers - 18 months after its release.
In that book, Moriarty writes an extremely believable (and very funny) portrait of a menopausal female romance writer whose fortunes are fading. When Frances checks into remote health spa Tranquillum House, she's unaware its treatment methods include micro-dosing hallucinogenic drugs. The story was partly inspired by an article Moriarty read about research into end-of-life anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
"I just found that fascinating - and they were having good results with it."
Has she ever tried hallucinogens?
"No! No! I was so curious but I feel I'm too old, and you know, I've got two children. If I had a doctor friend who could guarantee me ... no, I wouldn't ever. To me, it's a foolish risk now. And I tried really hard to find the balance there, with obviously the horrendous effects of drugs - I didn't want to write a book that said, 'Go out and take drugs everybody.' I just found it interesting that they were having a good result with a drug that is considered terrible."
Moriarty's books have canvassed everything from domestic abuse to hoarding to infertility. At author events, readers tell her those books have helped them make difficult real-life decisions.
"Oh well, it's profoundly humbling and almost frightening," says Moriarty. "In a way it's terrifying to think that people's lives can be changed by a book but obviously these womens' lives have been changed for the better. That's wonderful. It puts everything in perspective. You know, if I obsess over a bad review, or whether my books are 'just commercial chick lit' - this is what really matters.
"What I get far more often is that my book might have got someone through a hard time. It might have just given them light relief when they were sick or when a family member was sick. So that's really special too."
That audience grows with every broadcast adaptation. Moriarty doubts her Hollywood experience will make it into a future book, saying she'd need "to live that world properly ... it was just really good fun for me".
She recalls that when Kidman first contacted her to meet, it was in a cafe. Why not an office, I wonder? A hotel suite? Anywhere even slightly less public. Also, what did they eat?
"I know!" says Moriarty. "I remember afterwards, as we walked out on to the street, I was saying, 'Are you okay?' I was worried, you know - would the paparazzi suddenly appear - and she was just laughing at me. I didn't know if I was just allowed to leave her there but she was perfectly fine ... I think we just had coffee. She paid for the coffee, and I said, 'Oh, are you sure? I thought you might be like royalty and not carry your own money.'"
Kidman told her, "If we option it, get excited," though Moriarty says she was cynical the television show would be made. "These things often go on for years. But they just made it happen and it happened so fast".
On screen, the Big Little Lies action is shifted from Sydney to Monterey, California. Moriarty didn't mind, however, and says she'll probably always set her books in her Australian home town, because, "I don't think I'm actually very good at place. I always feel I only have the vaguest sense of where I am."
She says it's easier to write where she knows. And, perhaps, what she knows. Two years ago, she told a Guardian reporter: "It's a tricky time to be a writer, because you can be accused of not having enough diversity in your work but then if you try to have more diversity, you can be accused of cultural appropriation."
Should writers stay in their own lanes?
"I don't have a ready answer," says Moriarty. "I probably should prepare a ready answer. I don't know, because I would never want people to feel restricted in any way. I absolutely believe in diversity, in the books that are published and the authors being published. I definitely believe in looking at ways to give more authors a chance, and that we're not aware of our prejudices in that regard. One day, when we do have that, nobody will complain. Then we can write about everything."
Moriarty's books are pigeon-holed as commercial and domestic. Popular fiction. "Books for women", like somehow that's a lower shelf at the library.
"I'm just grateful to be published," she says. "I also do think, as women, that's our strength and weakness - that we don't take ourselves too seriously."
But then: "If only male authors were being published and a male author wrote a book about my experience as a woman, I actually wouldn't care how good it was. I would be furious. I would go through the book and I would look for every example where he got it wrong - and, of course, he would get it wrong, I would find things that he got wrong.
"It's true that when you have experienced something, it's much easier to write about it. I think you can see the depth of the experience. If people ask me what advice I would give to a young author, I would say, 'Go out and do a dozen different jobs and then you can call upon all of that.'"
Or you could just perfect the art of being normal. Of knowing that women will stay friends with friends even when they are annoying. ("My husband says, 'Well, just don't see her anymore - and I say, 'What are you talking about?') Of knowing your characters will, ultimately acknowledge guilt, because when you call an ex-police officer to talk through your alternate ending, he reminds you these are nice, normal women and he forces a confession - "from me and all my characters!" Of writing a play at primary school, expressly so you get to kiss the boy. Of not doing much writing right now, because ...
Of having to say goodbye now, because she is sitting in a hospital waiting room next to a vending machine and her phone is beeping. Because life goes on.
THE BACK CATALOGUE: BOOKS BY LIANE MORIARTY
Three Wishes (2003), The Last Anniversary (2006), What Alice Forgot (2009), The Hypnotist's Love Story (2011), The Husband's Secret (2013), Big Little Lies (2014), Truly Madly Guilty (2016), Nine Perfect Strangers (2018).