Author interview with “word hustler” Catherine McNamara

Catherine McNamara

Catherine McNamara

I haven’t made a practice of doing author interviews on my blog. In fact, the only other interview I’ve presented was one the now defunct magazine Wet Ink did with Nigel Featherstone. However, when Catherine McNamara asked whether I’d be happy to host her as part of her blog tour, I was more than happy to oblige. Authors published by independent publishers work hard to get their name and books out into the public domain – and Catherine is no exception.

As I wrote in my review of her first book of literary fiction, Pelt and other stories, Catherine is an Australian expat currently living in Italy. She’s led a rather peripatetic life since she went to Paris as a student a couple of decades ago, including working in an embassy in Somalia, and co-running a bar and traditional art gallery in Ghana. Clearly she’s seen much and thought a lot about people and how they relate to each other – and loves to hustle* words in the service of her stories. Catherine has been a regular commenter on this blog for a couple of years now. I’m sure that’s partly about getting her name out there, but it’s also obvious that she loves talking about books and reading. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to “know” her. Promotion may be part of her game – and who could blame her – but she comes across as genuine, thoughtful and a lot of fun.

Anyhow, enough from me. You can decide for yourself when you hear what she has to say …

You clearly love writing short stories. What attracted you to this literary form? Can you tell us your favourite short story writers?

I do love writing stories and fortunately they seem to be appreciated a little more these days, with more and more collections receiving positive coverage, lots of competitions and a rise in small publishers less averse to this “risky” form. I think it’s a wonderful moment to be a short story devotee.

When I was young I fell in love with Katherine Mansfield’s stories – as many do. I also loved Joseph Conrad’s long stories set in the south seas. I published quite a few pieces with Australian Short Stories initially, received encouragement, and found it quite easy. My first published piece was called ‘Elton John’s Mother’ and  was about welfare mums living in a caravan park on the Central Coast who gave their kids pop stars’ names and lived rather desperate lives.

My favourite short story writers include Cate Kennedy, Grace Paley, James Salter, Flannery O’Connor, Simon Van Booy, Nam Le, Kevin Barry, Emma Donoghue, Alison MacLeod, Sarah Hall, Junot Diaz, Amy Hempel, Robin Black, T.C. Boyle, Kevin Barry. I even read a wistful D.H. Lawrence short story recently, and O. Henry for the very first time. One can never read enough!

In your collection, Pelt and other stories, you have written in 1st and 3rd person, and in diverse voices including a gay male. How do you choose the voice to use? Are there any stories in which you changed the voice because it wasn’t working?

Catherine McNamara, PeltI think that when a story or a story springboard presents itself you immediately feel whether it is a 1st or 3rd person piece. You already know if you want the incisive and selective view of an onsite narrator, or a little more distance from the story crux through a third person character, where more description is allowed. For me it’s as clear as the very gist/illumination/transformation you’re heading for, or hope you are.

I’m very attached to first lines and for me they set a tone I rarely veer away from. But if the story feels fumbling, or as though it doesn’t really need to be written, I’ll bin it and wait for something else. I don’t think I’ve ever tried shifting voice. I think if my doubts were that substantial then something in the mix of the story wasn’t going to work anyway.  Perhaps if you were working on a novel where there were larger themes and plot devices to move around, changing person might enhance the work.

You’ve clearly thought about the order of the stories in Pelt and other stories. What factors did you consider when ordering the stories?

I did have great difficulty putting the stories in order. Initially I tried to vary first or third person pieces, then I didn’t want too many African stories in a line, and I wanted an even progression between male and female protagonists, and short and longer pieces. Then there was also the chronology or backwards chronology of the some of the interlinked pieces! Eventually, I worked through all of this and focused on beginnings and endings that seemed to match up. I had first and last sentences and a key chart on bits of paper on the floor, and tried to make them move along. The frightening thing is that I might even change the order again if I went back to revisions.

You have spent most of your adult life as an expat, which is reflected in the diverse settings for your stories. How has expat life has affected your writing?

When I was first living in Somalia I wrote several stories with traditional expat characters reckoning with their place in an exotic, exploited world. I think I saw things as any Westerner would – even though I had studied modern African independence movements at university and thought I knew something – I didn’t know a thing. “Expat life”, so removed from thrumming everyday life and, at its base, an us-and-them construction, was quite shocking. It nearly drove me crazy! Somehow I stepped through a barrier and found a way to live a more valid life. As I went deeper into my own experiences in West Africa I was largely living, earning a living, surviving. Not writing much at all. After nine years in Ghana I wasn’t so much an expat as someone who remained visible, but just lived there. That way when I came to write some of these stories I had a great variety of voices inside.

Pelt and other stories is subtitled “tales of lust and dirt” – and many of the stories deal with the darker side of sexuality, such as incest, sexual violence, sexual jealousy and infidelity. Yet humour is also clearly important to you. How do you reconcile the dark and the light in your writing?

I’m trying to think of incidences of humour in the stories! “Pelt”, the first story: I remember thinking it quite humorous and was floored when an early reader called it a complete tragedy. For me the African mistress was powerful and sassy and knew her game; she made the Westerners look as though their agonies were clumsy and inarticulate, whereas she “would have pulled his hair out by now” and ends up in the kitchen with a pan of hot oil. I think she was great. I wanted to show the contrast between African pragmatism and Western dithering and diplomacy, often so spineless like Rolfe, who can’t even bring some photos back to show his bird the snow in Germany. But I don’t think I consciously set out to meld dark and light, that’s just voice.

Photographers appear in several of your stories, often as a secondary or supporting character, such as Reece in “Stromboli” and Seth in “Nathalie”. They tend to be passive or even negative forces. How does this fit into your world view, at least as you present it in your stories?

When I was much younger I was torn between image and word and took a while to favour writing. I began a graphic arts course and loved photography and film-making – in fact in Ghana it cropped up again when I co-ran a graphic design agency and art gallery. One of the factors that probably made me sway towards the written word was that photography seemed so arbitrary, almost accidental, however I do realise it involves skill, vision and patience!

In the African context I saw that image is often manipulated to show what the West wants to see of the continent – power remains with the photographer. This can seem like the colonial process all over again.  In “Gorgeous Eyes” I wanted to express my irritation at the way the contemporary African condition is often trivialised, glamorised or showed partially to suit the Western palate. There are some brilliant African photographers out there whose work is more real.

You maintain two blogs, one for each of your recently published books. How important is it for you to engage in social media activities such as blogging and what do you see as the pros and cons for authors of engaging in social media?

As you know the blogs are hard work and time-consuming, and yet I feel they can be very rewarding. As a writer, a weekly blog post (that’s all I can manage) can keep you on your toes and remind you that apart from your creative task, you have an audience at hand whose interest you must sustain, perhaps with a topic that has a soft connection to your book. The rub is having to voyage the internet to attract possible new followers, while being sincere and perceptive in your blog comments. I like to engage with my blog readers, and have met quite a few over the past few years (anyone for a drink in Venice?). We have exchanged guest posts, interviews and reviews – something that kills the isolation of the job and makes you feel knitted into a community (even if it’s to share the various difficult aspects of the task). That can renew energy and ideas, and provide useful contacts (festival and reading invites) in a much faster way than letter-writing or serendipity!

The pitfalls are becoming hooked on your platform and social presence at the expense of your development as a writer. I think it’s unwise to dilute your creative energies, and essential to remember that social media time must serve a purpose – contacts, exchange or potential sales, or just light relief. As it can become very draining, it’s important to keep it in its box.

I’m finding it challenging to maintain two blogs but at the moment my two books have quite different audiences – although many readers have bought both books. Eventually I guess I’ll have to merge everything together. The DLC blog veers towards life in modern Italy and speaks of my writing pursuits, racism, politics and also handbags. The Pelt blog stays strictly with short story info, interviews, festivals and musing.

Both your books are also available in electronic format. Are your readers embracing e-books? What impact, if any, do you think electronic publishing will have on the nature of fiction writing in the future?

I’m still very old-school and like to stumble upon a physical book – mostly through recommendation or random browsing or reviews. I don’t think I’m putting enough time into pushing e-book sales, though I noticed when my publisher placed the book on sale just before Christmas that quite a few blog readers made immediate purchases. Also my Facebook friends who are nearly all work-related gave great support.

I’ve had quite a few stories on a smartphone application called Ether, which is at the forefront of the short story download movement in the UK – they have done a lot of groundwork to stir interest in the short story. E-readers have also opened doors for flash fiction writers over the past few years and there has been a surge of competitions. Trends like these do change what is being written – flash fiction seems to make more noise than poetry currently. Also, with many literary magazines failing to survive I think greater respectability has been given to e-zines, some of which are dynamic hives of writing activity and sharing – interesting both for the reader and writer. And downloads mean that the often-neglected novella form has received fresh attention.

Self-published e-books have of course changed the shape of publishing and I worry that this is a sales-driven sphere – there are endless websites devoted to how to improve your Amazon rankings and broaden your fan base. I imagine this is less applicable to literary fiction which has a smaller readership anyway. What seems positive is that there are more books of every type out there, and it seems as though more people are reading – I don’t know if this is true. I’m just glad that short stories are mentioned more often, and with passion.

As this is a blog written primarily for readers, would you tell us some of your top reads over the last year?

Though I love to write I am very much a reader. However I do have to be careful when reading while I am working on a story or novel – I think that subconsciously the tone or cadences of another writer’s language can easily seep in. This year I read several books I’d read about on this blog – Gilgamesh, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, Five Bells and Tall Man, also Tête à Tête – all books I savoured. I am particularly pleased that I picked up an early novel This Side Jordan by Canadian Margaret Laurence set in pre-Independence Ghana, a favourite era of mine. I also discovered Simon Van Booy’s short stories and philosophy books, and even met Simon by chance at my reading in December. (This was one of the most thrilling moments of my year.) I read Iris Murdoch for the first time – The Sea, The Sea – which as soon as I finished I wanted to begin again. I also read James Salter’s Dusk and Other Stories for the first time – I read each story three times over and wished they would not end. I read some contemporary short story writers – Tom Vowler and Alison Lock – and I’m now reading The Devil that Dances on the Water by Aminatta Forna. That’s all I can see on my book shelf from here!

Thanks very much for having me WG!

… and thank you, Catherine, for sharing your thoughts with us. I, and I’m sure Catherine, would love to hear any comments you have on what she has shared with us.

If you would like to read Pelt and other stories, you can order it from the publisher, Indigo Dreams Bookshop or The Book Depository. It is available in e-version from Amazon (Australia, UK or USA). You might also like to chase up her first novel, The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy, which I reviewed back in 2012.

* Catherine called herself a “word hustler” in a comment on this blog some months ago. A wonderful description, I thought, of someone who is passionate about words and writing.

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