Liane Moriarty on Apples Never Fall, a ’year of joy, and her cancer journey

The miniseries of Nine Perfect Strangers, a bestselling novel in Australia when it was published, was released in August and stars Kidman, Michael Shannon and Asher Keddie. And producer David Heyman, who was behind the Harry Potter films, has optioned Apples Never Fall. Liane now counts Kidman as a friend, and she tells a fun anecdote about holding on to Keith Urban’s hand for dear life due to her nerves at the Emmys.

With all that in mind, describing Liane as seeming thoroughly ordinary is a compliment of the highest order. There’s no grandiosity about her purpose as a writer or the role of her novels, no performative presentation or conscious self-fashioning. She’s spent the latest Sydney lockdown enthralled by the reality TV series Survivor and listening to podcasts on meditation without actually meditating. And, just like the rest of us right now, she’s desperate to get to the hairdresser.

Liane, 54, understands the game of book publicity – one that involves a rally of impertinent, sometimes irrelevant questions – and she plays it deftly, never giving too much away at the post-match press conference.

She would usually tour a new novel across Australia, the US and the UK, but travel restrictions means she’s had to cancel, reschedule or postpone in-person events, including attending both the local and international launches of the screen adaptation of Nine Perfect Strangers.

“It gives you a new appreciation,” says Liane. “I do love meeting readers. I love that part of it. And
I enjoy talking to you, too. It’s just afterward that I’m filled with self-loathing, thinking of things I said. But I do love meeting readers and so I’m genuinely sad not to have that part of it. I used to complain a bit about the travel, but now I say, ‘Well, I was just showing off complaining about the travel.’ Really, I loved it.”

And readers love Liane in return, a truly, madly, guilty love (to borrow from another of her novels’ titles). According to Nielsen Bookscan, she has sold more than 2.1 million books in Australia, worth an eye-watering $30.5 million. Big Little Lies alone sold to half a million copies.

“Sometimes it’s almost embarrassing, that feeling of now I sit down and make up a story, but the privilege is that actually is my job to sit down and make up a story. I need to do that.”

Why? Perhaps it’s because Liane’s characters often seem ordinary, too. They are relatable people, with relatable problems. Her novels, of course, are highly readable. But to categorise them as beach reads is to dismiss Liane’s distinctiveness as a writer – the dark comedy, the razor-blade observations, the ever-present sense of aspiration.

“It’s a privilege to know that I’ll be published and that it’s my job,” she says. “Sometimes it’s almost embarrassing, that feeling of now I sit down and make up a story, but the privilege is that actually is my job to sit down and make up a story. I need to do that.”

Once we’ve established that they are indeed rackets not diving flippers hanging on my wall, Liane says she decided to make Apples Never Fall about a tennis family after she started taking lessons to keep up with her son on the court. Her mother and grandmother were tennis players, and they always played socially as a family.

In the novel, the Delaney Tennis Academy is a local institution. The four Delaney children had talent on the court, but none delivered the Wimbledon win their now-retired coach parents longed for.

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But the games they all play off the court are far more interesting. One night, a distressed young woman named Savannah turns up on Joy and Stan’s doorstep with a bloody eye, asking for help. She says she has no friends, money or mobile phone and is fleeing an abusive relationship. “I had a good feeling about this house,” Savannah says. “As soon as I saw it. It just felt very warm and safe.”

But Liane’s regular readers will recognise the warning: in her novels, what at first appears stable is often shaky. There are the thrills and chills, but they are almost incidental to the broader exploration of older couples and sibling rivalry. That latter topic is one Liane knows something about – she is the eldest of six children and two of her sisters, Jaclyn and Nicola, are also authors.

Liane was working as an advertising copywriter and was inspired to sign up for a creative writing degree (it resulted in her first novel, Three Wishes), after Jaclyn told her that her novel for young adults was about to be published.

Jaclyn also inspired her latest book, written during 2019, a year that Liane had determined would be her “year of joy”. (She usually writes a novel every two years, but had decided to extend the deadline for Apples Never Fall.) She had visions of spending the extra time listening to music and reading poetry, but all she wanted to do was write.

She asked Jaclyn to send her a writing prompt and her sister responded with an image of an abandoned bike with scattered green apples. Liane found writing more pleasurable without a tight deadline, although her family jokes that she spent so much time on her novel it became just a rehearsal for what was meant to be her relaxing “year of joy”.

“I learnt that what did bring me joy was still writing a new novel, but I didn’t feel as much pressure with the time.”Credit:Daniel Boud

“I learnt that what did bring me joy was still writing a new novel, but I didn’t feel as much pressure with the time,” she says. “Which was wonderful because it freed me up. I was thinking, ‘If it doesn’t work, I can throw it away and start again.’ It turned out that I didn’t change all that much.”

A more challenging experience followed. Liane revealed in a social media post in August that she had undergone medical treatment. “Earlier this year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. (Just after I had delivered the manuscript for Apples Never Fall. That’s the sort of well-behaved author I am.) Here I am ringing the bell at the hospital on Friday to mark my last day of radiotherapy treatment,” she began, accompanying the post with a video.

She received her diagnosis during a routine check, with the cancer thankfully detected in its early stages.

“It was simultaneously dreadful and perfectly fine,” she says. “It was a confusing time, because obviously it’s really distressing, but at the same time, I knew the prognosis was good. You’re constantly telling yourself, ‘You don’t need to be upset. It’ll be fine.’

“You’re also feeling upset. But you meet lovely people and it’s just like whenever anybody experiences anything medical, any health issue, you suddenly realise, you pull back the curtain on this other parallel world that’s going on while you’re living your life.

“You realise that you are part of a community. And it was actually really special and so lovely that people were saying that it brought comfort to them, hearing of my experiences.”

“The silver lining to me during lockdown was that I had a valid reason to leave the house each day, to go for treatment. And the coffee at the hospital was excellent.”

She felt the love of family and friends – and, thanks to her online posts, of strangers. She had been apprehensive about sharing the news publicly – as she still seems to be while talking to me about it – but the response assured her.

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“I’m so glad I did because of the comments on the posts. You realise that you are part of a community. And it was actually really special and so lovely that people were saying that it brought comfort to them, hearing of my experiences. If somebody caught [their cancer] early then I’d feel really good about that.”

We end our interview where we started. “Thank you for the tennis rackets,” Liane says, always polite. “It’s a great sport, one you can hopefully play into your 90s, like my grandma. She kept it up her whole life.”

Liane hasn’t started writing her new novel yet, so I’ll have to wait and see what my video background will be next time we talk.

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