I Wasn’t Half As Fragile: A Q&A with Catherine McNamara

Posted on 21 November 2013

Today, I’m happy to share some international flavor on the blog through a Q&A with the author Catherine McNamara. Read on to learn her thoughts about walking the line between guerrilla book hustler and glittery author, having more to say but using less to say it, attempts to enter the market sideways, why you need to listen to your own voice, the challenges short story writers face, adventures in genre hopping, and more.

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and has lived in France, Italy, Belgium, Somalia, and Ghana. Pelt and Other Stories, a semi-finalist for the Hudson Prize, was published in September 2013. Her stories have been published in Wasafiri, Short Fiction, Wild Cards: A Virago Anthology, A Tale of Three Cities, Tears in the Fence, The View from Here, Pretext, and Ether Books. Her erotic comedy The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy was published in April 2012. She lives in Italy.

Catherine’s collection, Pelt and Other Stories, was published in September with the small British press Indigo Dreams Publishing. (For a taste of the collection, read “Nathalie” online.) Catherine is currently doing an extended blog tour and sharing her stories through readings and literary festivals in England and Italy.

I interviewed Catherine to learn more about her writing and publishing experiences. Let’s see what she has to say:

1. Pelt is your first published short story collection, and it follows your erotic comedy, The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy. How would you compare the experience of publishing your first book to this collection? Did you learn any lessons during the publication process for The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy that you made use of for Pelt?

When The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy came out I thought the world would adore my book, that reviews would be scattered across global newspapers, that copies would leap off bookshop tables and that I would sell gazillions of copies. Alas – it has been a lot of hard work. No newspaper reviews though many encouraging online ones; copies not always available in big bookshops and most sales through orders; sales have been good but I won’t be buying the Maserati. In fact most of the time I’ve felt like Catherine McNamara’s secretary.

When Pelt and Other Stories came out I was a lot more savvy and relaxed. My expectations were more realistic, I wasn’t half as fragile – even though the material means so much more to me. I knew I would feel more like a guerrilla book hustler than a glittery author. And I just went with it. The second time around I was more confident with reading and talking in public (though I’m still on a learning curve), and I felt more authentic. I never felt at home with the romance-writing crowd because I knew DLC was too quirky and didn’t really fit into their models. Whereas with short story writers I feel completely at ease, as though we are speaking the same language.

But the DLC experience helped me learn how to put myself out there – write festival proposals, synthesise my work quickly and perhaps even consider myself a writer for the first time.

2. How long have you been writing short stories? Can you describe your process of writing the stories in this collection?

I’ve been writing and publishing stories for over twenty years, with lots of breaks for everything that must be done in between. I didn’t really have a very sophisticated approach in the writing of these stories. Normally I wait until I have an idea that really excites me – or even a shifting or event that I’d like to work towards – and I won’t write a thing until I know I have time ahead and a good first sentence in mind. Then nothing can drag me away from it. I never have a clue how it will end up. Or if I do, for sure it will change completely.

I think in the past I was a lot wordier and often wanted to bathe my reader in words and images. Now I think I have more to say, and try to use less to say it. I love shaping a story. I love reading The Paris Review interviews to see how other writers work. Most of all I like being on my own trying to nut it all out, particularly whether a story has legs to stand on.

3. How did Pelt come to be published? How did you settle on which stories to include and in what order? What was the editing process like?

It’s notoriously hard to have a collection accepted so my ‘tactic’ was to have as many stories published as possible, while I produced something more commercial – The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy – and tried to enter the market sideways, if you like. As my publisher is a small press that publishes a lot of poetry, I knew I could interest them in a good short story collection if I worked hard with DLC and showed them I was a viable author. Pelt was semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize 2011 so that helped.

I tried to include the stories that bounced off each other and eliminated a few that didn’t seem to fit. Some of the stories are interlinked. However there is one strand that goes chronologically and there is another that goes backward. I went crazy trying to order them and lived with 18-20 bits of paper on my mat for weeks, trying to settle on a sequence. In the end I worked forward from ‘Pelt’ which I wanted to begin with, and then backward from ‘Volta’ which I wanted as my last piece. I also didn’t want to clump the African stories together, and had to separate male/female narrators and 1st/3rd person stories. I was a mess and very boring to speak to during that period.

Most of the stories had already been published so there was less editing to do than the novel, but we still worked for a long time. I despise editing.

4. In Pelt’s title story, you draw a strong line of tension between the narrator, who is pregnant with Rolfe’s baby, and Rolfe’s estranged wife. The narrator watches Rolfe take up with the wife again and recounts her growing turmoil through controlled, steady prose. What was your experience writing this story – how did you develop or settle on the narrator’s voice, what were your goals for the story, and when did you know how it would end?

I remember I had one rare morning sans enfants and the voice of the narrator came through very fast. I had no goals, just a voice, a setting and the character’s determination to retrieve her man. I remember I wanted to show up Western and African ways of ‘keeping’ a man, and I wanted humour (I was very puzzled when my first reader said there was no humour!). I don’t ever write to a plan and was on a train to Florence the week after with my notebook, when I had an idea for the hot oil scene and once I’d written that I knew it was finished. I remember sitting there very surprised with my pen and everyone in the carriage staring at me. (continued…)

5. In addition to this collection and The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy, you’ve also published a children’s book. What can you say about the experience of writing and publishing in different genres? Do you have any advice for other writers who also explore different genres?

The children’s book was commissioned by an English publisher, and my then-partner and I provided photographs and a story. It was a one-off payment and we were ripped off! I learned that publishers can be cruel and artists walked over. I don’t know how many editions they have published of this book now…

Changing genre for me is purely economical. I would rather write short stories than anything else and will continue doing so, but they bring in zero cash. As I think I am an awful teacher I don’t want to teach either. But I love writing so much I would write ketchup labels if I thought that would pay the bills.

Exploring genres while you are still uncertain of your strengths and preferences is the only way to test yourself. I would say to read a little of everything and be brave. But if you have a publisher or agent insisting that you should write a certain type of work, prove them wrong by publishing what you know you can do better! I once had an agent tell me that short stories didn’t sell, and that work set in Africa was impossible. Well, she was only half right. Always read literary journals and be informed about the marketplace, but listen to your own voice inside.

6. You maintain blogs both for Pelt and The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy. What’s your philosophy when it comes to blogging, social media, and marketing your work? Do you have any tips for other aspiring writers when it comes to blogging?

I enjoy blogging because it cuts down the isolation of writing and can bring moments of great communication and joy. This was missing before the internet, especially for writers like me who work in isolation and live in another language.

And yet it does bring pressure. I can’t write a blog post that is just waffle about my day because I feel my readers deserve better. I need a good idea brewing. I don’t want to waste their time. I think blogging is a great lesson in entertainment and keeping to a word limit. You are competing with a gazillion blogs out there so it is also a good lesson in marketing, thinking out your product/voice and hopefully encouraging readers to buy your book.

I twitter very erratically and Facebook when I have a blog post to push. I belong to quite a few expat and short story groups, all of which have brought me more readers. I find FB a very useful tool. I’ve had to do a lot of marketing for both books because my publisher is small, but I’ve been able to set up blog tours that have brought much more attention to both books. I’ve also been able to organise readings and festival appearances and all of that energy is now pouring back: I’m now receiving (just a few!) invitations to read and appear, which I never thought possible.

One of my blogs (DLC) is rather funny, but taken from a writer’s daily life in Italy; the other (Pelt) is mostly about short story writing, with interviews and reviews. But it is all so very time-consuming! To an aspiring writer I think it is more important to establish your voice and produce new work, learn to edit your own words alone, and to read classics and contemporary writers extensively. These are all more important than working on an author platform too early. If your work is not insightful, informed and original in some way, then no amount of blogging or social media will help.

7. What’s next for you – what are you currently working on, and what are your next steps as a writer?

I’ve started writing a new short story collection and this winter hope to edit a literary novel I wrote before The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy. I am also genre- hopping and right now I am editing a thriller set in Ghana I wrote a while back, as I have someone who is interested. I am putting a lot of energy into festival applications for 2014 where I will be promoting Pelt and Other Stories gladly. So far I have two very big events and am ‘in the folder’ for festivals in the UK and Australia. I will continue networking with other writers, working online to increase sales, and reading heaps to help my own writing. But my best time will be devoted to new short stories.

Thank you having me Laura – I know this year is a very busy one for you!

♦ Thanks to Catherine for joining us today! Pelt and Other Stories is available as a hard copy and an ebook. Learn more about the book at http://peltandotherstories.blogspot.com.

4 responses to I Wasn’t Half As Fragile: A Q&A with Catherine McNamara

  • Averil says:

    What a terrific series of questions and answers. Catherine’s voice is so powerful and lovely that I found myself reading certain passages over and over, trying to figure out how she does it. (And maybe steal a trick or two—I’m not gonna lie.)

    Well done, you two.


  • Catherine says:

    But Averil you know me – I have the gift of the gab as we say in Australia. I just go on and on. They were great questions though, weren’t they?

  • Rachel says:

    Wonderful interview, Laura and Catherine – great questions and answers! But, crucially, and typically from Catherine, brilliant advice: “Always read literary journals and be informed about the marketplace, but listen to your own voice inside.” Here, here!

  • Catherine says:

    There ain’t no other way, I don’t think!

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