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.

Catherine McNamara, Pelt and other stories (Review)

Catherine McNamara, PeltIt seems fitting that my first review of the year be for a book of short stories by one of this blog’s regular commenters, Catherine McNamara. I have reviewed McNamara before, her first published novel, The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy. McNamara  describes that book as commercial fiction. It is, to describe it differently, chicklit for the mature woman – and is a fun read. However, Pelt and other stories is a different thing altogether. It represents, McNamara has said, where her real writing love is – literary short stories.

You will hear from Catherine herself soon in the form of an author interview on the blog, but by way of introduction now, she is an Aussie expat who left Australia as a student a couple of decades ago. She now lives in Italy but has lived in other parts of Europe and for several years Africa. All this is reflected in her stories which have Australian, European and African settings. As with many short story collections, several of the stories have been published elsewhere, on-line and in print. Her story “Coptic Bride” was published in Giramondo‘s now-defunct, but admired, literary magazine Heat.

The first thing to say about McNamara’s writing is that it is not spare. Her exuberant use of imagery reminds me at times of  the early writings of Thea Astley and another expat, Janette Turner Hospital, both writers who have reveled in colourful, figurative language, albeit to different purposes. Occasionally the imagery can feel a little overdone, but I love their freshness, love the risks McNamara takes. The next thing to say is that her subject matter tends to revolve around sex. The book is, after all, subtitled “tales of lust and dirt”. In McNamara’s work, sexual passion represents the best and worst of what life has to offer. And, given that there’s more drama in the worst or the problematic, it is this – in the form of violence, incest, jealousy and infidelity – that we mostly find in Pelt and other stories. Thirdly, McNamara mixes up her narrative voice. She uses first and third person, and she writes in a variety of voices, including, for example, a white gay male and a black female. This keeps you on your toes. You never know who the next characters will be, and where they’ll be from. I like that.

While Pelt and other stories is a collection, several stories are connected, which makes the order of the stories particularly interesting. I suspect ordering stories in a collection, which I discussed briefly in my review of Knitting and other stories, is one of the trials of preparing a short story collection (or anthology). Do you match or contrast tone or themes? Do you put related stories together? The truth is that it probably matters less to the reader than the writer/editor thinks, as readers will often pick and choose. However, with single-author collections, my practice is to read, from the beginning, in the order presented. And this is where the fun started with Pelt and other stories. There are, for example, sly connections in which a character – Nathalie for example – is an important subject in one story (“Nathalie”), but then appears as a passing reference elsewhere. Other stories have stronger connections. I was particularly intrigued by McNamara’s presentation of three of these – “Opaque”, “Where the wounded go” and “Volta”. They don’t appear consecutively, and when they do appear it is not chronological. I’m not sure what McNamara’s intention was in this, but for me it replicates the way we get to know people. We meet them at a point in time, getting to know their current lives, while gradually learning their back story. In a collection that ranges widely in character and location, the connections can be grounding.

What I particularly like about the stories is their honesty. McNamara doesn’t flinch from letting her characters express their (our) meanest, least generous thoughts. Love, McNamara shows, can make us selfish, desperate, and sometimes cruel. In the first story, “Pelt”, the animality of lust is palpable as a pregnant black mistress stands her ground, fighting for her rather weak, German lover against his barren wife. Many of her stories are about compromised relationships and the accommodations made, by one or both parties, to keep them going. “The Coptic Bride” is one of these, as is “Opaque” in which a woman’s love for her man is tested against her sense of morality, of what is right:

But if she called, it would perforate all that she held close to her. It would cost her her life.

Do you think she made that call?

awwchallenge2014These are unsettling stories about characters struggling to survive in a precarious world. Europe’s colonisation of Africa shadows the book. Many of the relationships are mixed, and in most stories there is power imbalance, and hints of exploitation. It’s there in “Pelt”. In “Janet and the Angry Trees” a sex-worker is taken to her Italian lover’s family home to look after his parents, and seems to accept the pittance of attention she gets from her still-married lover. It’s in the little piece “Innocent” about a taxi driver, his white employer and his pregnant teenage girlfriend, and in “Infection” in which a brother receives a western education while his sister “received no education, cursory love, much admonishment”. There’s a suggestion in some stories of stereotyping – you know, the lusty, sensual black woman and the unfaithful white man looking for “a bit” on the side – but the relationships are more complex than that. Overall, I’d say that the stories are more about humanity than about politics, while recognising that politics has contributed to the uncertainty of the world the characters inhabit.

A recurring motif in the book is the photographer. McNamara seems to view photographers with suspicion. At least they tend not to be the most admirable characters in the stories in which they appear. They represent the disconnect between appearance and reality, and perhaps also the idea of exploitation. In “Gorgeous Eyes”, the narrator views photographs by the visiting famous photographer, Nina Cooke, seeing the truth behind the idealised images of “Dinka men – erotic in beaded body corsets”. He reflects that those in the know see something else, “a crucible of sadness”, in these images and concludes:

If Nina Cooke’s gift ever needed an honest name it would be the invasive branding of humble detail. It appears she is at the vanguard of a vulgar world trait.

These stories are not comfortable reading. Some make more sense to me than others. But McNamara’s voice is strong, her writing lively and her characters real. Pelt and other stories will linger with me for some time.

Catherine McNamara
Pelt and other stories: Tales of lust and dirt
Beaworthy: Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781909357099

(Review copy courtesy the author)

Catherine McNamara, The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy (Review)

McNamara A divorced lady's guide to living in Italy

Bookcover courtesy Indigo Dreams Publishing

What would you say to a cross between chick lit, those mature-women-finding-themselves travel memoirs (like, say, Mary Moody’s Au revoir or Elizabeth Gilbert‘s Eat, Pray, Love), and Alice in Wonderland? Such a fusion is how I’d describe Catherine McNamara’s first novel, The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy. Intrigued? Then read on …

The plot is simple. Marilyn Wade, a forty-something mother of two teenagers, is “dumped” in her kitchen by Peter, her husband of 17 years. After a period of disbelief and confusion, she decides to go to Milan where rumour has it that another neighbourhood “dumped” wife, Jean, is living a happy and glamorous life after finding true love at Machu Pichu. Jean, also, she believes, runs an English language school where she hopes she’ll find work. Enter Fiona, Federico, Brett, Arnaud, eventually Jean … and a whole new world, to put it mildly, for our Marilyn.

So, why do I describe it the way I did in the first paragraph? Well, to start with, it has elements of chick lit. Just look at the cover with its title in pink. But it’s not a pure chick lit cover is it? There’s no designer handbag or impossibly high heels, no tiny waisted 20-something young thing. Instead, with the exception of the title, there’s a rather classy black and white cover comprising half of a woman’s face that reminds us of more mature women, like, say, Sophia Loren. In fact, there are many references to Sophia Loren in the book. The cover, then, nicely sets up the content as having some thematic correspondence with chick lit but with a difference.

Because in fact, Marilyn’s search is not really chick-lit-like. She’s a mature woman who sees life a little more complexly, and this brings me to the second style of book I mentioned, the mature-woman-finding-herself-travel-memoir. Marilyn is not idealistic about true love and the desire to have it all that is common to chick lit. She’s been around the block, has been betrayed and hurt, and is more than a little jaded – but she has enough hope and energy to think she can still make something meaningful of her life and she leaves the comforts of home to do it. She takes risks – in all meanings of the word, if you catch my meaning – on her way to forging a new life for herself. (Fortunately, like chick lit heroines, she seems to have enough money to support her adventures into her self).

How then, you must be wondering, does Alice in Wonderland fit into all this? It’s not simply the adventures, because these would be covered by the travel-memoir genre I’ve described, but more to do with the rather fantastical world in which they occur. The world Marilyn finds herself in is characterised by somewhat bizarre people (or, at least, people who push our credulity) and by excessive coincidence. For some readers these may get in the way of their ability to suspend disbelief, since McNamara seems to take Chekhov’s gun theory seriously and pushes it to the limit. The first couple of coincidences had my antenna out, but then I got into the flow and actively looked for them. They made me laugh and feel part of Catherine’s fantasy (because, really, books in these genres are fantasy aren’t they? Or is it me who is jaded!?)

As for the writing itself, McNamara has clearly been honing her craft for some time. She has published a children’s book and several short stories. She has a lovely, original turn of phrase. And while at the beginning I felt she sometimes overused similes, as the novel wore on the writing tightened and became controlled and expressive without feeling overwritten. I liked, for example, the opening sentence:

An old friend of mine named Jean fell through a tear in her marriage and landed on her feet.

(Now, doesn’t that sound like Alice in Wonderland?). And I liked this description of Marilyn’s arrival in Milan:

Then, without waiting for my agreement, the woman who’d sold my husband the prize-winning beetle-eating show turned on her high heels and began to tug me into Milan.

Milan, the fashion capital of Italy where appearance is god, turns out to be quite a tricky place for mature-aged housewife Marilyn, but she’s ready for change and change is what she gets. She learns to smarten herself, without succumbing to the Italian fear of aging:

But this is awful [says her young lover Federico]. This woman she not know who she is anymore. She is like carnevale mask, very scary. But this is Italy now, everyone afraid to get old …

All up, The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy is a fun and often funny read about friendship, love, risk-taking and changing direction.

Catherine McNamara describes this novel as commercial fiction. Her next book, which will be published by Indigo Dreams in 2013, is a short story collection titled Pelt and other stories and represents her foray into literary fiction. McNamara is serious about her career and is clear about her goals and her audience. From what I’ve read so far, I think we’ll be seeing more of her.

PS Elizabeth Lhuede of the Australian Women Writers Challenge will be proud of me. I have stepped out of my literary fiction comfort zone into genre, which will help me achieve my Franklin-fantastic Dabbler level of the challenge. Thanks Catherine for the incentive, and woo hoo!

Catherine McNamara
The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy
Stoney Stanton: Indigo Dreams, 2012
ISBN: 9781907401732

Review copy courtesy Indigo Dreams Publishing via the author who has been, for several months now, a regular commenter on this blog.