|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 22, 1997
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
...a royalty cheque arrived and all of my friends were so excited because they had never seen so much money or they had never seen a cheque for so much money, and they said, "oh, isn't that marvellous Margaret, you know now you can buy a refrigerator." And I though, you see, up until that point I had had an ice box, an ice box, er you know with the big block, and the ice man used to come every morning and put a big block of ice in the thing, and it would keep my butter just the way I like it, and it would keep my milk just the way I like it. And I went "Oh why do I need a refrigerator? Is this what I'm working for?" I thought, "Oh if this is success, a refrigerator, really is it all that important?" And then there was a marvellous exhibition came to Australia from Scandinavia and I had visited this artist's studio in Finland and it was a beautiful bird, it was a big curlew, made out of little tiny wee beads, and it was in the running position, and inside were a set of clocks all set at a quarter past twelve, for some reason the magic of this bird the magic of the thing, that is what I felt... I wanted magic. If this was success it had to be something wonderful. And the wonderful thing about this bird is that the, Kaipiainen, is the name of the sculptor who made it, but he had been in his studio and at quarter past twelve he had walked out for lunch, and he was stricken with polio, it was at quarter past twelve. When he was a little boy somebody had told him that a curlew… have clocks inside them so they know when to slice out, and they slice out, and then they fly back in again, you know the clock tells them. So the imagery of this little boy being told that bird have clocks inside them, and then him doing this clock, these clocks inside this beautiful bird, to me, I felt I would write another book if it meant that I could enter into someone else's magic. And you know writing books is... cookery books have you very involved with pinches of salt and bicarbonate of soda or whatever it is, and it is quite hard work, and I would be in the kitchen washing up after the work. To be able to go in and look at this bird and appreciate the flights of fancy of someone else, it sort of was a lovely balance to what I was doing.
There was also some symbolism, I guess, in that you had a running bird, a bird that was taking off but also with a clock in it. Were you conscious of the fact that moments of success have to be seized. That they're not going to last necessarily for ever?
Oh I don't think anything clever like that. Nothing clever like, you know, why I did it, [nothing] beyond the fact that I had seen something that appealed to my sense of imagination and poetry and all of the things that go to make up life. I knew that ... that that bird would enrich my life beyond a refrigerator. A refrigerator, yes, I couldn't live without a refrigerator now. But ... because the ice man doesn't cometh any more, but no, I never thought beyond the fact that this was going to be an enrichment of my life.
Did it affect how you were then thinking about your future career?
I think success really ... I didn't ... I just was happy. Just as if you were playing hockey, you got the ball and you ran with it. I think I was just happy to keep on doing what had given me an enormous amount of pleasure. But what was very interesting at that time was my daughter, who, when I wrote the book, I said, 'Look, you know, it's going to make a difference to family life'. And my daughter, who was sort of seventeen, eighteen, she said, 'Well Mum, I'll do the cooking and look after the house', and my Irish husband said, 'I won't complain', and I thought, well that's a fair enough deal. And then my Scottish father was just looking beaming, and waiting for his mext ... next whisky. What did happen, my daughter started cooking from the book. And she was going to be ... she had ... She was starting on a career as a dress designer and she had been given a range to do, which was marvellous for a young girl. But she discovered she liked cooking. People used to say, 'Are you going to be good cook like Mummy?' and she'd say, 'No, no, no'. But once she started cooking from my book, she discovered she liked it. And she also discovered that the boys - she had a ... the boys, who, you know, were ... began to realise that she wasn't just a pretty face. She ... she actually could cook. And she began to take a tremendous interest in ... in food. And then she said, 'Mum, I've changed my mind. I love food. I love it'. And I said to her, 'Well, I'm such an old bossy boots. Any woman in the kitchen is. I think I better send you to London, to the Cordon Bleu', and she went across to London to the Cordon Bleu. So the success was lovely in that Suzanne, who'd made it possible for me to write this book, I could ... I always felt that when the money started coming in, it had to be shared by the people who helped you make it. And Suzie, as I call her, Suzanne, she went off to London. And she spent two years in London at the Cordon Bleu and she worked in the Cordon Bleu restaurant. And she learnt to ... to cook properly. She got her full diploma, and then she learnt to be quick and professional in the restaurant. She came back to Australia. She married a New Zealand boy, who had met a Cordon Bleu cook as a little wee chap in New Zealand, and said, 'I'm going to marry a Cordon Bleu cook', and when they flatted in London, she was underneath and he was top and he met his Cordon Bleu cook. So I've got a lovely son-in-law, who's realised his dream of marrying a Cordon Bleu cook, and Suzanne's got a lovely husband. And he's got a lovely wife and a mother-in-law he likes. So it's ... success has brought those things, rather than ... Sure the money is lovely, because it did let her go to London. But that's success: to sort of make dreams really ... dreams that you didn't know you had, come true.
Now in balancing then between what you were going to do at the magazine, and presumably thinking then, well you better write some more books, how did that all work out for you over the next period?
Oh well, I was doing what I loved. I was doing what I felt, you know, people wanted me to do. You know, they say when you're hot, you're hot, and when you're not, you're not. And I was hot. People were wanting me to do things. People were wanting me to visit their countries. People were wanting to show me what lovely things they were making and doing. And people ... people wanted me go because basically I was like a sponge, I was soaking it all in. And then I was able to do what people dream about, and that is tell other people what they know, you know. If people want to listen to you, it's lovely to be able to ... to have somebody to listen to you. Or in my case, it was buy my books and read my books. And so I just had a wonderful, wonderful life of doing things that I ... you know, I was ... it was like having a hobby - that you were actually paid to do your hobby and that was lovely.
How did you work out what you were going to do next? I mean, after having done, you know, a major book that included in it many of the things that you'd been thinking about, what was your next book after that one?
Well, people started saying, 'Could you write a book ...'. I was working for Woman's Day. 'Let's do the Woman's Day Cookbook. Paul Hamlyn had got ... trie ... got me to sign up for other books. And with them, we would discuss ... crockpots for example, came in. The electric slow cooker. I wrote a book for the crockpot, because it was an appliance that was being used. Then, of course, they wanted Margaret Fulton's favourite recipes. Then they wanted Margaret Fulton's recipes for entertaining. And it went on like ... like that. Later on, getting titles for books, because at that point, 'Margaret Fulton', they said, sold the books. So it was just ... say it would be Margaret Fulton's very special book. And Margaret Fulton's ... my very last book was Margaret Fulton's New Cookbook. And I said, 'I want this book to be called Cooking For Family and Friends because I felt that that was a nice title. But the big publisher said, 'No, Margaret Fulton's New Cookbook sound right and everybody likes it'. I wrote a book called Margaret Fulton's Encyclopaedia of Food and Cookery. That was cooking from A to Z and that was a lovely, lovely challenge because I had to write right through from abalone to, you know, bananas, to chocolate, to - all of the different things that go in anything from A to Z. And that was enormous fun. I felt that every ... every food I could have written a book, because I could have gone on for ever. It's like once you get that flag and run with it, you know, it's ... it's just so exciting to do research. Then, because at that time it was a sort of a research thing. Before it had been writing what I knew whereas this was a bit of research. You had to give the information about coconut or whatever it was. And I discovered research. I discovered that really, probably if I'd had a life doing research I would have loved it because I think knowledge of discovering things and the truth, is ... is a lovely, lovely, enlightening experience. Before I'd been drawing for myself, from what some Greek woman had told me, or some French woman had told me or a secret that had been given to me. I was writing from my experiences. But the encyclopaedia opened this ... the wonderful world of research.
And made you into a food scholar so you actually now really have quite a big collection of knowledge about the history of food and the philosophy of food, haven't you?
I think one of the big changes that has taken place, and it has been through books like the Encyclopaedia of Food and Cookery, which of course the forerunner of that was Larousse Gastronomique, and it was my publisher, Paul Hamlyn, who first published Larousse, the famous French reference book. He first published it in English. Because he's always been very interested in food. And it was he who said, you know, 'We've got the Larousse Gastronomique, but we feel that it would be good to have Margaret Fulton's Encyclopaedia. And if you look at the books that are around today, they are more in that research. Within the last year there's been a book by Stephanie Alexander, which is a growth from my ... the encyclopaedia. And Charmaine Solomon, we've become very interested in South East Asian cooking. And she's done a wonderful research book on the ingredients. But I think my encyclopaedia was the thing that opened up the way for the new books to go. But then it ... the people who wrote before me opened up the way for me to do my kind of books, you know. Isabella Beeton, who listed ... she ... she listed ingredients. And there was a wonderful cook, Acton - Elizabeth Acton I think her name was - she put them in order, you know. Yes, Isabella Beeton used to write the recipes and the ingredients would be underneath but somebody else brought the ingredients up ahead. So all of these things, we all are a part of a marvellous food chain of food writers who have opened doors for others to come through. And the books that are happening today are just lovely.
How did your books do internationally? You're published with an international publisher. Did they get promoted internationally, as well as in Australia?
Oh yes. Once I was in Italy, in the Uffizzi Gallery, and I'm ... the person trying to sell me a handbag was ... was ... I said, 'You speak Italian with a Scottish accent'. I said it in a funny ... I don't know. And he said, 'You speak ... you're quite a Scot', because I break into Scot at the drop of a hat. And he said, 'You would nae be Margaret Fulton, would you?' And I said, 'How do you know?' He said, 'Oh my wife, you know, has got your cookbook'. She was a Scot. When Bryce Courtenay one time came back from ... he was of course, the [writer of the] Power Of One book. He said to me, 'Oh, Margaret your books are on the black market in ...', some place. It was either Mozambique or some terribly funny place. And my books ... I was at a big book festival recently, and some people from South Africa, they knew my books. Because they always ... 'Oh, your books were always, you know, what we wanted in South Africa because your fruit is a bit the same as ours'. So yes, I've travelled throughout the world. And from ... you know, I hear from the most amazing places about my books.
What about the lucrative American market?
The Americans are very, very much for Americans. A lot of people have said ... now, Robert Carrier, who is an American, but he's known as an English food writer, has said that America ... he's not known in America. Americans like the Americans. And they don't mind letting somebody come in a little bit. It's not as lucrative for a cookbook as it would be for Schindler's List, books that are written in a different ... I mean the exceptional books like that. The lucrative American market is not what, anyway, appeals to me. Because basically I'm an Australian now, and I want ... I feel that doing well in Australia is a very ... is good enough for me.
The English writer, Elizabeth David, did books that had the kind of effect on English cooking in the sixties, that yours did here towards the end of the sixties. Were you influenced at all by her?
Elizabeth David was just ... has become even more loved now that she's dead unfortunately. When I say more loved, she was always loved. She was always ... she opened up the eyes of the English. But she was ... opened up the eyes of then English who were already ready for open eyes. She wasn't bringing recipes that the housewife, the average housewife knew. What ... Elizabeth David was ahead of her time in some ways. Now she's of course the darling of the ... the darling of the ... well, of the world really. Because they all love the way she writes. They're now appreciating the way she writes. Why I'm saying this, and it might sound a little bit odd, I had friends of Elizabeth David, I know. I've met Elizabeth David. But Elizabeth David's success wasn't ... she didn't have what I had: the cheques coming in. People knew her and revered her, but she didn't make a lot of money. She was also very, very, quite definite about what she would do and what she wouldn't do. And she had an integrity that was just what she wanted. Elizabeth David certainly has changed the world food. But it didn't do all that much for Elizabeth David. She was taken down by people. She was taken down by the ... she opened shops everywhere, and it was her idea, it was her kind of things, but it all got out of hand.
Whereas you've actually handled the business side of your book publishing better.
I've ... I've been very lucky in that, because I didn't expect or want much, I got a lot. You know, it just happened that way. People ... because in Australia, people began to know about Margaret Fulton and began to want to buy my books. And one Australian publisher has said that when he ... this was about two or three years ago, things are changing, but two or three years ago, I had sold more cookbooks than anyone else in the world on ... on the kind of level that I had been working on. Now you've got people who are doing television shows and that's boosting sales enormously. I think I'm going to be surpassed very, very soon and very quickly. But well, for a book publisher to say that I was the top selling author ... They agreed in America. They said, 'Oh, I don't think she's the top selling author, but mind you, she must be among the top'. So that was ... that was the okay I got from America.
Before you wrote that first book, you'd had a background in writing, in cooking, and in advertising. Now clearly the cooking and the writing was important in going into the book. How important was your understanding of marketing and promotion to helping the success of the book? Did that come in handy?
Ah, not ... I learnt about marketing, but I didn't ... I began to understand that for a book to be a success, everything's got to be right. I wrote one book and when it was launched, it was out in [Port] Phillip Bay, out of Melbourne. And I ... I learnt that a book's got to be there. It's got to be in the bookshops when it's ... when people are wanting it. For a thing to be a success, everything's got to be right. Distribution's got to be right. Well, but I didn't know ... I didn't know it at the time. I've learnt an awful lot about things. For example, my publisher Paul Hamlyn, I think he was called Octopus at the time, he fell out, or there was some disagreement about distribution, and they started holding my books back and Paul didn't want to bring out a new edition of the book, because he knew that somewhere there were ten or twenty thousand books ready to beat him at his game. I've been the victim of a lot of ploys, a lot of marketing strategies that have been absolutely beyond my control. I've lost a lot of money out of one ... one ... bookshop told me that a publisher told him, 'Sell ... you can have this Margaret Fulton book, because she's not going to get any royalties from it'. I was horrified.
How could that happen?
Just something in the contract. And also because I had once combated the legal aspects of something, and I was torn down by this man - this person who's a big international publisher now. But I couldn't take him on, because he was just so horrid. And there's no ... I felt, well, let them go their evil way. I can't fight evil, or I can't fight ... fight these big business deals. It just is too much for me.
So that you discovered that that commercial side of things was quite complex, didn't you?
It was a very complex thing. And when ... when some people, authors who have been approached by a company to ... a publishing company to do books, ask for my advice, I really want to say to them, 'Look, you're asking the wrong person'. I've never had an agent. I've never done the clever things that ... that perhaps I should have done. But I write books, I'm not a business woman. I've got a good business head. You know, I mean I'm something. But I could have been a lot better off if I had taken a more aggressive interest in my business affairs. It's just been not what I like doing. And I know it's daft. But on the other hand, if you're happy and you've got a daughter and two beautiful granddaughters, a lovely son-in-law, and you know, I mean if you've got a nice life, why want more? I don't understand the greed of the big Alan Bonds and the Christopher Skases and whatever. I don't understand that greed. Sure, I'm greedy. I want to have a nice apple and I want to have a nice meal, but my greed is restricted by what I'm going to eat for dinner tonight.
You were at one stage involved in a Paul Hamlyn publishing scheme, which was a scheme for you to endorse books, that created some grief for you, wasn't it, at the time. Could you explain that to me?
Well yes, Paul Hamlyn at one time, he ... he had been at his printers, and he had a big sheet of paper with printing, with pictures, you know, because when books are printed, they're printed on an enormous big sheet. And he looked at this, and while he was talking to the printer, he's folding this thing up into a shape. And then he put it in his pocket. And then he thought, when he pulled it out of his pocket, wouldn't that be good if ... if we did a recipe book that people could ... simple recipes. We could have a ... he worked it out that you could have a picture on every page and you could go shopping and put the recipe ... put this little book in your shopping basket, or in your pocket, as he did. And he then got his book editors to design, you know, how ... how it should be. And then they ... they ... they sold the idea that they would get different people to write this ... to give the recipes and he'd sold the idea. I think, to Sainsbury's in London took it on. And this was such a good idea and so he asked people to write recipes, or his editor asked people to write recipes to a formula. And this is how it had to be, and this is what it had to be. It was his idea, totally, which I consider, you know, it was his idea. And he got various people to do different things. So somebody would write a book on soups, and somebody would write a book on salads, and somebody would write a book on such and such. And this came out, under the Sainsbury label. Then I think he sold it to somebody else, and it came under ... under a different label. Then he found the Germans wanted it so he thought, well, Sainsbury's isn't known in Germany, or whatever the name that was on the mast. He would give it some local ... local name. And he did this in Japan, he did it in Mexico City. It was a terrific success because it was a new light formula for interesting recipes that were illustrated in colour. When it came to Australia, he wanted me to put the Margaret Fulton ... have the Margaret Fulton label on it. And I was explained that this was imprimatur. 'It's your imprimatur, Margaret, on these books', and I said, 'Well I can do my own books', and they said, 'But this is ...', you know, and because it was part of a seven book deal I didn't really want to do it. But Paul and I, by this time, had become very close ... very good friends. And I ... it's like being married to someone. You can't say no, you have to say yes. And I said, 'Yes'. And in the book, it had on the back, it said who had done the recipes, who had done the such and such. But basically ... and I wrote a little bit to say it's nice to be able to bring these recipes of ... I forget what I put on the back, but it was all, it seemed all above board to me. But one of the people who had contributed to one of these books, one of these thirty books, or forty books as it ended up, said, 'These my recipes and it's got Margaret Fulton's name on it'. And then some eager beaver from Australian ABC thought, ah, we've got ... because I'd been squeaky clean, you see. I was everybody's darling. But somebody thought, 'Right, let's get her', and my life was made very miserable by this person, who convinced, I think, I suppose, the ABC, that he was on to something hot. And he trotted off to England to interview some of the other food writers and they all said, 'No, we understood that the book was ... we understood that we were being asked to provide these recipes. It wasn't our book, really'. Because, you know, they hadn't ... they hadn't done much. Well, they'd done a lot. They'd done the recipes. But what was awful about this fellow, he, he instead of coming back and reporting that it was only this one dissident from New Zealand who had complained about this, that everyone else had said it ... we understood. But he sort of hung around and made my life very miserable.
He ... he was parked outside my back door. And you know, suddenly to become ... everybody's darling to become the villain of the piece, it was ... sort of, took me a bit by storm. Also, because I didn't feel that I was the villain of the piece. It was a ... I understood it was a publishing thing. People in publishing said, 'Margaret, this is an imprimatur. Yes, it's done all of the time', but it didn't help me. I didn't write another book for, I think, ten years. I couldn't ... couldn't face anything.
Really, so it did affect you?
Oh yes, of course it affects you. Somebody making you out, you know, to be a nasty ... you know, a nasty person. When basically ... and I knew that he was being dishonest also, because he hadn't told the whole story. He hadn't said that all of the other people - who paid his fare to London I don't know - but I knew from my publisher in London that he'd contacted these other ... he was trying to stir up things. But he wasn't honest enough to come back and say, well, you know, 'It was just this one person'. And that's ... that's horrible. It's horrible. It makes you ... it makes you not want to work any more.
And was that the only reason why you stopped writing books at that stage?
It was. When you're made out to be a villain and you don't feel you are, you don't ... there's no joy in ... in ... I didn't want to work in books for a long time. I was very ... I was very angry at the whole ... at the whole situation. It took the joy out of doing it. And you know, there's something about a book, a cookery book, any kind of book ... is that you've got to feel good. And that ... what's between the lines. You know, people talk about what's between the lines. And I think there is a lot in that. There is something between the lines, and what was between the lines if I'd written another book at that period, wouldn't have been the joyous, happy, you know, adventurous, full of enthusiasm me.
You had of course, fairly quickly after the publication of your first book, particularly, become a real food celebrity, you might ... might say, and appeared on television and so on. Did you enjoy your relationship with television?
Yes, I ... I ... I loved ... I had been a ... I must say, I had been a rather shy child. I had, but I had learnt, just like when I might say you run with the hockey ball or the hockey stick, once you've got the ball, you know, you run. And I had learnt that you've ... you've got to be ... be equal to the moment. When I sang at a church hall when I was a little kid, and I giggled my through it, and everybody got terribly sick of me singing - two of us singing - Two Little Girls In Blue, and giggling our heads off and thinking it was amusing. I learnt it wasn't amusing to, for people to be watching somebody being quite silly. So I learnt that if I'm on television, I've got to suddenly be bright. I've got to suddenly talk and say things and, you know, do it. I found then ... also it was nice, someone once said to me, 'Margaret, you've got something to say, so say it', and that was a nice thing. So on television I always responded with, 'Well, this is what you do, and this is what you do', and you know, whatever. But I never wanted television to be my main thing. I ... also, my chief at J. Walter Thompson's, the advertising agency, had said, 'Margaret, people make their money out of doing, or are successful at doing what they do best, and then they lose it at something else'. And I always felt, I'll stick with ... Really, the written word is what entrances me. Television, radio, I think is lovely but it's something else. I wouldn't like to stop, totally, writing. You know, I could stop television, and I can stop radio, but I wouldn't like to stop writing.
When you appear on television, often it's with equipment on a set, where you have to make something awfully quickly that looks good and so on. Is that a fairly hair-raising experience?
Oh, it's ... it's like being the straight man to a comedian or something. You the ... There's always someone else that really is wanting to be noticed too. And I suppose I didn't like ... I don't really like sharing the limelight. That's one way of putting it. But I'm not so terribly interested. If I ... My idea of relaxing, for example, is to read a book, not watch television. And yet I know the worth of television, and I know the worth of ... and I do watch television. When I think something interesting's going to be on I love it, and it does enrich my life. But my real ... my real love affair is with the written word.
And how did you decide to do ... You did quite a lot of successful commercial endorsements for various products, didn't you?
I've ... I have done a few commercial things but not a lot. When Leggo's, for example, brought tomato paste to Australia, or they made it big. And I felt it was ...
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