When Deborah Mackie wrote her flash fiction story, ’A Letter to Her Husband’s Girlfriend,’ there was one particularly important person she forgot to tell - yes, you’ve guessed it.
Only when the Australian writer learned her story had won our latest ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ (WAWA) and rushed to tell her beloved the good news, did she realise.
One can only but imagine his first reaction.
“Bruce was as excited about the win as I was, but he did a double take when he saw the title,’ Deborah recalled. “He looked from me to it and back again with a bemused expression. I just grinned, walked away for a few minutes and left him to read. When I returned, he hugged me, laughed and said, 'Gee, Deb, you had me there for a minute.'”
In celebratory mood, the couple who have been married for 12 years are now travelling around New South Wales and Queensland in what Deborah calls their boat-a-home “having an amazing time.”
Curious to know more about Deborah and her approach to creative writing, we asked her a few questions. Here’s what she said.
Q: Tell us about yourself.
A: I’m 63 and live in the Australian capital, Canberra. I grew up in the small country town of Cowra in New South Wales, later moved to Sydney before settling in Canberra. My working life was spent as a journalist and in marketing before I decided, at age 40, to study law. I worked as a senior paralegal in property and probate law for many years before retiring.
Because I have been lucky to travel extensively in my retirement I decided to combine it with my love of writing, and so I reinvented myself as a freelance food and travel writer. I had just started out on that journey when Covid struck, so it is only now as the world inches towards some type of normality that I’m now establishing myself in this field and enjoying some success.
I heard about the 'Wild Atlantic Writing Awards' as a member of the International Travel Writers Alliance which posted a piece about the competition. While it emphasised the opportunity for written pieces with a travel focus, I saw there were other options in the flash fiction genre.
Q: How did your winning story originate?
A: The idea came from discussions I’ve had with many people over the years about what we would want for our partner if something happened to us, how people react differently to situations because we are all unique, and how what we think we might do in a situation could be completely different when the time came. I’ve always been a keen people-watcher and I love observing human behaviour. Our tendency to jump to conclusions is a good example.
Q: Describe your ‘writing process’ in completing your story.
A: With creative writing I always like to turn everything over in my mind for as long as possible before starting the actual writing. I did it with this story. For three to four weeks I imagined Carla in the room and tried to get inside her head. I imagined lots of things that aren’t in the story and couldn’t be because of the word count. Sounds, smells, furniture, lighting, feelings, breathing, movements, thoughts etc etc. I only had enough words for a small intro to set the scene because there was so much to say in the letter, so I had to really employ those ‘show-don’t-tell’ strategies. I found this to be the most difficult aspect of the writing. Then I just wrote the letter and said everything I thought she would want to say.
Q: How much editing was involved?
A: There wasn’t a lot. I’d say I only reduced it by about 25 per cent to get in at my 499 words. But there was a lot of very difficult fine-tuning when I got to just over the word count. I think it’s a lot harder to find one word to replace three, or two words instead of five than it is to cut whole pieces from a draft.
Q: How did you choose your title?
A: I chose the title because not only does it accurately describe the content of the story, but it opens the door for the reader to adopt a certain mindset from the beginning. It’s the mindset that comes naturally when you think of a wife writing to her husband’s girlfriend, and it’s a mindset that encourages the reader to interpret things in a certain way. Only later will they hopefully question their assumptions.
In the absence of a chance to actually read the story (pending publication) friends, family and colleagues have been bombarding me with questions. It seems to be a source of great anticipation and humour. Is it really a fictional story? Or is it really about my husband? Have I named names? What does my husband think about the story? Is it a juicy tale?
Far from being annoyed or offended, I couldn’t be happier. It’s exactly what I wanted and I hope that all readers will have the same reaction and think along the same lines.
Q: What were your initial feelings upon finding out you had won?
A: It was the last thing in the world I was expecting so I almost didn’t get the news! I was checking my emails on my phone and couldn’t see the whole screen so all I saw in the subject line was “Congratulations you’re the winner!”. My first thought was that it was a scam. I’d just have to give the sender my bank details and they’d send me my million dollars! I was just about to delete it when I saw the sender’s name and opened the email.
I was completely shocked and had to read it several times before it would sink in. I then went in search of my husband Bruce to tell him the news. That’s when the second shock happened because I hadn’t told him that I had written the story or entered it in to a competition.
I am so humbled and grateful to be chosen the winner. Putting yourself out there to be judged in anything is extremely difficult for most people, but when it’s something that you’ve nurtured and created yourself, when it’s a little piece of your own heart and soul, it makes it even more so. I had read entries from the previous competition and knew that I would be up against some amazingly talented people. It’s the first time I have ever entered a writing competition so winning is an unbelievable feeling!
Q: What does it mean for you to be part of a writing community?
A: When I decided to take up writing professionally I undertook courses run by the Australian Writers’ Centre. I’ve found that to be invaluable – it’s not just the courses, but it’s the benefits you get from being part of a community of writers. The support, feedback, mentoring, resources and cross-fertilisation of ideas is what makes the difference. And, it’s what gave me the confidence to enter the WAWA competition.
Whether it’s a writers’ centre, a retreat, a group or a festival, being part of a writing community is what can turn dreams into reality. I now know this first hand.
A Letter to Her Husband’s Girlfriend
by Deborah Mackie
Her breath was jagged in the silence as she struggled from the bed and shuffled to her desk, the room lit only by the glow from her laptop. Swatting at tears she started typing …
I’m not sure where to start, how to do this. There’s no rule book for writing to your husband’s girlfriend, especially in these circumstances. I don’t even know your name. But I know you exist - the fact that you’re reading this is evidence that you do.
But you wouldn’t be if I had any say in it. But I don’t. The decision’s been made for me.
By now you have my husband’s heart. You’re feeling all the things I felt when I met him. Yes, he’s handsome, sexy, intelligent and so gentle. You know so much about him and his family and background, about his likes and dislikes. But there are things you might not know yet, things that take time to find out. They’re important things. If you’re the one he wants to be with, then there are things you really need to know.
He’s a crier. That’s because he cares, because he’s touched by people and events.
He can get really quiet at times. There’s nothing wrong. It’s just him.
He doesn’t always answer you when you speak because he’s immersed in whatever he’s doing. He’s male. He doesn’t multitask well.
There’s a reason he hates broccoli.
You already know about the snoring and farting.
You know about me too. I know Joe well. He’ll talk about me and the life we once had. The life that’s gone now. Even though he’s moved on, I’ll be in his thoughts sometimes. He might even say my name by mistake, and there could even be a little photo of me somewhere.
I know it’s weird but I have no ill feelings towards you. I wish you only the best. And you have the best – you’ve got my husband. So cherish him. Be kind to him. Understand him. Look after him because I obviously can’t.
Pushing ‘Print’ she opened another document. She just needed enough strength for one more letter, one much harder to write.
My dearest Joe. Please forgive me but I can’t fight anymore. I can’t take the pain or any more pointless treatments. I know there’s nothing else the doctors can do. I have to go. I know you can’t see it now, but one day you’ll feel deeply for someone else and your life will become a new normal. I know you’ll never forget me and I’ll always be in your heart, so please don’t feel guilty for moving on. It’s what I want for you. She will be a very lucky lady. I’m jealous already. The only thing I ask is that when you know she’s the one, give her the letter I’ve left in the other envelope. PLEASE do that for me. I need to know that you’ll be happy again one day.
Forever yours Carla
Keep your quills polished and poised, we’ll be launching a special summer edition of the ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ within the next few weeks.