(Featured image: Photo of Fragments 2019 Cast by Jessica Conway, courtesy of The Street Theatre)
With a PhD in philosophy, Maura’s diverse career sees her currently as a playwright and author. She grew up in the Bronx, USA, but now resides in Canberra, Australia. Join us on this rollercoaster ride that includes falling in love with a shearer, working in real estate and creating her play-turned-book-turned-film Fragments, which shines a timely spotlight on mental health.
You have a rich academic background, with a PhD in Philosophy. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I’ve always loved philosophy. I was a very curious child, constantly asking questions. In fact, I was kicked out of Sunday school at a young age for challenging the teachings (it just didn’t stack logically, lol).
I moved to Washington, DC after I graduated from Duke (majoring in philosophy), where I worked for a Congresswoman on Capitol Hill. When she lost her Senate seat and staffers were instantly unemployed, I enrolled at Georgetown University for the M.A./PhD program in Philosophy. This was the ‘80s and bioethics was a newly emerging discipline in the U.S., fuelled by landmark legal cases involving the right to die and the right to withhold life sustaining treatment. The premier bioethics think tank, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, was based at Georgetown – a great opportunity for me to specialise in the field.
My father thought I should have studied something marketable like Russian or economics. But I think philosophy is one of the most useful disciplines today. It teaches critical thinking, logical analysis and argumentation and encourages exploration of fundamental questions: What it is to be human? What is the best life to live? What is the nature of self? What do we know and how do we know it? But despite the great insights and open-mindedness that philosophy can bring, deep thinking can also lead to a sense of existential fatigue. I’ve definitely been feeling that these past few years.
What brought you to Australia?
I was at the dissertation stage of my PhD while working in Manhattan as an ethicist for the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law. It was the first state bioethics commission, exploring ethical and clinical aspects of complex issues like end-of-life decisionmaking, organ donation and determination of death. On a whim, I applied for a Fulbright grant to conduct my doctoral research at Monash University’s Centre for Human Bioethics, headed by Peter Singer. With support from both Fulbright and Peter, I was based at the Centre for eighteen months, working on my thesis on ethical and policy issues in HIV.
The weekend before I returned to the US permanently, I fell in love with a shearer, the brother of one of my uni friends. Still, I had to leave the country ‘for good’. Nearly two years later, my job as medical writer/producer brought me back to Australia, where I saw the shearer again. We recently celebrated our 30-year anniversary.
I moved to Australia permanently in January 1991 to take up a job as the editor of Australian Medicine, the medico-political news magazine of the Australian Medical Association. I had concerns about moving to Canberra. Friends in Melbourne had told me no one went to Canberra unless they were driving to Sydney and ran out of petrol. I can’t say that the national capital was the most exciting place in the early ’90s, but now I can’t think of a better place to live. I love Canberra’s natural surrounds and wide open spaces – it’s called the bush capital for a reason.
So how did you end up in real estate?
When I left the AMA, I opened my own business, a communications company that handled electronic and print campaigns for government and private industry, mainly on health and women’s issues. Kieran had quit shearing and landed a job in real estate. A few years later, we had an opportunity to purchase a small real estate agency, conveniently in the same building as my business. Kieran’s not a tech kind of guy and had no computer skills, so we combined forces.
We had been trying for years to have children. My (Italian-American) mother kept telling me that I needed to eat more and relax, which I found highly annoying. But she was right! No sooner had we given up then I fell pregnant. Then again. And again. Life was hectic with three kids under age four and a thriving business.
I had intended to work in our business for a year or two, just to help get the agency off the ground, but I blinked and it was fifteen years later. Our eldest was starting high school. Menopause was knocking at my doorstep. After so many years playing ‘bad cop’ to Kieran’s ‘good cop’ in business, I was longing to reconnect with my creative side. When I turned 50, I thought it’s time for me to finally focus on what I want to do. I wrote a children’s picture book – The Trouble in Tune Town, inspired by our kids who loved playing music but didn’t like practising their instruments (that’s an understatement). Early competition wins and placements buoyed my spirits, and I kept writing.
How did Fragments come about?
My first taste of writing for theater was in a playwriting competition. My mother had collapsed with a mystery illness, which peeled back the lid on a myriad of issues including anxiety, depression and dementia. I poured my feelings into a play – I tend to write dialogue heavy, so it seemed to be a natural fit for me – and had to pinch myself when it was selected for a brief run in Melbourne in 2014.
I’m a moody writer, I don’t set out with a plan, I just write what I’m living and breathing and feeling, what’s keeping me up at night – and I had far too much on my brain at the time. Not only navigating my mother’s health and memory decline and the tyranny of distance, but Kieran’s sudden illness, which took nearly two years to recover from, and my own health challenges. Meanwhile, our kids were navigating high school, and I kept hearing of issues that their peers were struggling with, which brought me back to my own time in high school. Students are stressed beyond belief with academic expectations, lack of self-esteem, confusion about what to do with their lives, ATAR scores, getting into the right university, let alone navigating gender dysphoria, neurodivergence, eating disorders and social media.
But no one was talking about these issues – everything remained beneath the surface. I had this growing sense that young people were pretending everything was fine, not realizing their friends were struggling with the same issues. So the idea for Fragments was born. I wanted to reach young people through young people. Peers have power and, I believe, are the best conduit for changing attitudes especially for a complex issue like mental health. The dramatic arts (and literature) can help, producing timely, relevant and authentic work where young people see themselves in relatable characters and scenarios.
I was thrilled when I was awarded a small grant from Capital Arts Patrons’ Organisation in Canberra to write the Fragments script. I had grand plans for the work from the very start but often wondered if my ‘pie in the sky’ approach was realistic. I was relatively unknown in arts circles – hardly a seasoned professional – but The Street Theatre, the only theatre in Canberra to produce original work, was highly supportive of my artist’s journey, as was artsACT, which funded the development and stage production.
The work enjoyed a sellout debut season. Then the bushfires hit, followed by the pandemic. My plans to bring the work to schools evaporated virtually overnight, as did options for publication. I decided to publish the work myself, establishing Big Ideas Press (of course) as my imprint. Learning the ins and outs of self-publishing has been a huge learning curve – in fact, 2020/21 has been a time of learning, experimenting and adapting – but so worth it.
Can you please share the blurb for Fragments: Journeys from Isolation to Connection?
I feel like I’m a piece, a fragment that’s missing all the good bits, but I don’t know where to find the rest … the parts I need to work properly. I bet they wouldn’t fit anyway. (Lexy, age 17)
Eight young people navigating high school and beyond, each struggling to hold on – to family, to friends, to a piece of themselves. Perhaps you know them. The bubbly girl who keeps telling you she’s okay. The high achiever who’s suddenly so intense. The young teen obsessed with social media. The boy challenged by communication. Every single day they, and others, are working hard to keep it together. So hard, they don’t see their friends are struggling, too.
Based on conversations with high school students and recent graduates, Fragments explores a range of mental health issues facing young people today. Through the motif of isolation, the eight imagined stories are both compelling and unforgettable, moving from a place of disconnection to connectedness. Themes include anxiety; depression; neurodivergence; social media; gender dysphoria; family dysfunction; bullying; cultural alienation; peer pressure; life after graduation, body dysmorphia, grief and bereavement.
Speaking to the complexity, uncertainty and challenges of our lives today, Fragments is an honest and unflinching work, and a must-read for young people and adults alike.
What key message would you like readers to take from Fragments?
The play features eight interconnected monologues, each inviting us into the interior world of a character. Although I like this ‘slice of life’ approach, I always believed the totality of their stories would be a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The challenge (right up to production) was determining how the monologues should overlap and dissect, to what extent the characters should feature in the lives of each other, and whose journey should sit on top of monologues, driving the action, adding tension and shifting the stakes. To avoid spoiler alerts, I won’t reveal how I resolved this issue. People will need to read the book to find out! But I will say that the story is one of hope, and of the many possibilities that can come from life, even when someone is feeling at their lowest.
On opening night, men and women, young and old, came out of the theater in tears. In the months that followed, people told me how much the work meant to them. A few audience members said they had sought professional support after Fragments when they recognised themselves in the characters. Families told me they had talked about the issues for the first time. That remains my hope and intention for the play – to encourage sustained conversations about issues that matter.
Today, more people are willing to talk about mental health – we can thank COVID-19, and the escalating rates of anxiety and depression for that. But there is still a stigma. When stress at work is too much, people say they’re having a ‘mental health day’ in a pejorative sense. The language we use to describe mental health issues – ‘disorder’, ‘problem’, ‘illness’ – is negative and based on more serious manifestations – a linear, deficit-based view of mental health. I believe mental health needs to be reframed in a more positive way. We all have our up and down days. The goal is not the impossible ideal of perfect mental and physical health but balance, supported by resilience. I prefer to think of mental health in circular terms. Our circles overlap with those of the people in our lives and we can be a salve to each other, drawing strength from connection. If we can speak openly without fear of judgment.
Fragments started out as a play. How did you make the transition to a book?
It wasn’t hard. The book is the play with some tweaks and changes from post-production, mainly things that I believed didn’t work well on stage. The big switch was going from the book or play to the film adaptation. We’ve chosen eight directors for eight short pieces that will stand alone but also be edited as a unified, full-length work. It’s ambitious. Film is very different to theatre, and the challenge will be to create a unified work that hangs together creatively, conceptually and cinematically. Covid has caused some headaches and delays but we’re hoping to shoot in October and to deliver on time by the end of the year.
The film will keep me busy for the rest of this year. October (Mental Health Month) will be a busy month with various events and engagements, including the Fragments book launch. I’m also in the early stages of my next play. Covid has also given me an opportunity to dabble in micro fiction and poetry, which I enjoy though I’m sensing that my natural fit is essay and memoir. And I’d love to teach philosophy. Who knows? Maybe one day!
You can follow Maura on:
Booksales link: https://bit.ly/FragmentsBooktopia; https://bit.ly/FragmentsBookDepository
More information on Fragments: http://www.book2look.com/book/tRzojuTcXE
Next time: an interview with Christina Houen on the Healing Power of Writing and her memoir A Practice of Loss.