Our writer Suzannah Ball talks to award-winning author, Litro editor and mentor, Catherine McNamara about her latest collection of flash fiction, the differences between flash and the short story form, and how travel and migration have influenced her work.
As a follow up to my review of Love Stories for Hectic People, I sat down with author Catherine McNamara over Zoom to talk about what drove her to write her first flash-fiction collection, the theme of love and her love of writing, and how the two become so frequently and beautifully intertwined.
Hi Catherine, thank you for taking the time to talk about your work with me. I’ve been thinking about how you structured your collection and was intrigued by the decision to have the story ‘As Simple as Water’ as the first introduction to love, especially considering its immoral nature. Was there a reason you felt this particular one needed to come first?
Well, first of all thank you for having me! I think I have to explain to you why I even wrote the thing in the first place. Because it’s a silly story, and it’s probably not the reason most people write a flash fiction collection. But I had a story accepted by Litro magazine in the Print issue and I went across to do a reading and the chief editor asked if I would edit the flash fiction section of the magazine, and of course I said yes. So I started to become an editor of this part of the magazine and learnt more and more about the form. I became sort of bewitched about the idea of compacted storytelling and getting to an end really quickly, and really taking the reader through some pivotal emotions and going somewhere different and all the skill that that involves. It’s not just a paragraph, it’s a paragraph in which your life or your point of view can change. So, I was a bit gobsmacked about the talent that was out there; I hadn’t written [in the form] before and didn’t aspire to write it as I’m a short story writer. I’d already published two short story collections (that’s really my thing), and the short story form is much more expansive and has more gaps for the reader to be involved with and to think, whereas with flash fiction it’s all on the page, it’s all going to come out. You can leave a lingering sensation, but it has to be very accurately conveyed.
I had a really difficult year because I had to drive my youngest to school every day. It was 7.30 in the morning and cold and foggy and it put me in a very bad mood. I would come home in the foulest of moods, and it was also when The Cartography of Others, my other book, was on submission so that’s a really harrowing time for anybody when your books out there and you don’t know what’s going to happen. So, I made myself sit down and write a 500-word story every morning after I came back from this hour-long drive. And this story – ‘As Simple as Water’ – is the first story that I wrote. And then, I wrote another one, and another one and another one. And so, in this way the stories actually worked together whilst being quite separate. And I knew once I finished one that I didn’t want to start with the same type of character, the same tone, the same energy, the same pace. So that’s really how the structure came about. It didn’t come about afterwards; it came about in the making of the book. And when I actually got to the last story, ‘Love is an Infinite Victory’, I knew that as I was working through it, I was working on the shape of love and building an arc through love in its various forms, in different people’s lives. And I knew when I got to the last story, that was it.
Each story is short but manages to convey so much. Thinking about ‘Genitalia’ in particular, it moves quickly, what was your writing process? Does the story start longer or do you shorten it after? What’s your editing process?
I edit as I go, and I sort of can’t stop editing. Even when I read other people’s work I’m constantly editing. That’s the beauty of the computer, because when I first started writing I was writing on paper, and I can’t do that anymore, but I could when I was young. So that means you lose perhaps some of the original stuff when it comes out, because you cancel as you go ahead. It also means you have to be confident –well confidence isn’t the right word: you have to be brave, and put the right sentence down with the right balance of words that work together with this whole before and after idea that you’ve brought in. I think that’s really true, on a sentence-to-sentence level.
Sometimes you’ll write a story, and the first sentence will just come, and then suddenly you’re in the mountains with people. So, in the story with the mountains, I’d actually done a lot of climbing, but more summer climbing than winter climbing, and that was a story that just went there and stayed there. But it all involves getting it right as soon as possible.
So much of your writing, and perhaps all of it, delves into very human, very raw, aspects of relationships. How close do you feel to your writing and what influences you as a writer?
Strangely enough, I really like being the man. There’s a lot of male protagonists – even in Cartography about half of them are male protagonists – and I have no reason for that. It’s probably because there’s a bit more distance from my own perspective, and experience, and I think that helps you write a more authentic piece of work if you have bit of distance. It helps you sharpen the lens that you’re viewing your whole story from, or through. I get into character, even if it’s a tiny piece that’s 200-words. The shortest story in my recent collection is ‘A Young Man Reflects’, and I can think of the person who I was thinking of, and I was trying to get inside that guy’s head.
I also write stuff that just has to be absolutely discarded, and that’s another act of bravery; thinking this is a sham, this is not authentic, nobody is going to believe this, I can’t get it right – and I think there is a point where if I think I can’t get it right, you’re a better writer than the person that says I’m going to struggle, I’m going to fix this. You have to know when to throw in the towel and say this is not happening, I can do something better tomorrow, and the story that I write tomorrow will be better than this mess.
Can you tell us about how each story relates to one another – they all connect but still feel singular? One starts with fruit and ends with terminal cancer, another with refugee children and ends with the reveal of widower-hood.
In the writing of them, every story has to work independently. It’s a piece of work, a piece of art. If it’s not begun well, it’s not going to end well. The first sentence is the first note of the whole performance. If it doesn’t ring true nothing will ring true in the story. The exit point is also really important and also scary, probably more in a short story. But in a flash fiction I don’t do them in one day, I do them in a couple of days. I’m not one of those writers that does things over a couple of months, it’s either done or it’s thrown away. And I get quite anxious the night before I have to do a last paragraph or a last sentence, because if it doesn’t work, nothing works. Each piece independently has to be a different experience. They are all different facets of the same theme. But I think my attempt was to keep those facets completely diverse and connected at the same time.
Do you see any of the stories to be connected? When I read ‘A Forty-Nine…’ I thought back to ‘A Goddess’.
It’s more in terms of energy. The energy of the piece filters through. When I was doing them, I was more conscious of thinking, I’m not going to have the same dynamic in five different stories.
I think a lot of my reactions to your stories were a gut feeling, so that makes sense!
That’s what I was aiming for. I wasn’t trying to pin it to the book; it was read and feel. We all have shapes and experiences going through us, or seeing it in other people, or its coming.
You’re based in Italy, so could you talk a little about the influence this country has over your writing?
I left Australia when I was very young, and went to Paris, and Milan, and then Belgium and then Ghana. And I lived in Ghana for ten years. So many of the stories you’ll read in Cartography are set in Ghana. And obviously I’m not a Ghanaian but my kids grew up there and went to school there, and one of them is half Ghanaian, so it’s a big part of my whole thirties. I’ve spent years, not shaking it off because it was so important to me, but years asking myself am I allowed to use this subject material? and wanting to shake it off but not wanting to know what I was moving towards. I don’t feel as though I can write a real story set in Australia anymore because I left when I was twenty-one, and all of my big experiences that influence what I put on the page have been in different countries, and even different languages, and about completely different people than those I grew up with. That’s why it’s shifting, all of the locations are shifting because I’ve just moved around too much.
It’s very hard to write about Italy, first of all because it’s here, it’s right in my face. It’s hard to write about the thing that’s closest to you. And Italy is so cliched; how can anyone write a story about death in Venice after Mann’s Death in Venice? My story ‘In Venice’ was my feeble attempt. And the influence of Italy is the location. The warp that you get in language. Culturally, when you’re within another language you change a bit. And because that’s what I know, that’s what I’ve been exposed to. I’ve been here nearly fifteen years now; these are my parameters. This is how I see people react.
There was no path, there was no plan, and there was no search. It was more that I wanted to write about love, in different forms, and in different lives and in different times of our lives as well.
Catherine McNamara’s Love Stories for Hectic People is published by Reflex Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now. Click the links to follow Catherine on Twitter and Instagram.