Writers Chat 12: Catherine McNamara on “The Cartography of Others” (Unbound: London, 2018)

Catherine, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your second collection of short stories, The Cartography of Others (Unbound: London, 2018) ,which transported me into other worlds, as good stories do!

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SG: First and foremost, tell me a little about how you went about assembling the collection. There are many award winning stories here and your stories cover a wide span of geography in terms of where they are placed yet we often feel we are in familiar territory. How important was setting for you in compiling the collection and selecting the order?

CMN: Great question! It was very complex for me to select the story order, and I had story titles on bits of paper flying everywhere. Because around half of the stories are set in West Africa, and the others mostly in Europe and Australasia, we had to keep the locations apart. It was also important to separate common themes or elements, and more titillating stories from slower, quiet ones. Rhythm was so important. Some of the stories are heavy and require breathing space, others race on and are more light-hearted. Another factor to consider in selecting story order was the gender of the protagonist – and not have the ‘female’ or ‘male’ stories bunched together – and we also needed a good distribution of first, second or third person pieces.

The main factor however was setting, as the reader needed to be gently tugged from one place to the next. My hope was that these faraway environments would feel vivid and tangible amongst more familiar settings such as London and Paris.

SG: Yes, that’s actually an element that I enjoyed – not knowing where I’d be transported to next! Some of the stories have fantastic first lines. For example, the opening of one of my favourites, “Magaly Park” begins: “There is a murderer in the new apartment block on the Point in the garage downstairs, it’s all cordoned off.”

This really sets the scene and captures the atmosphere of the whole story. The narrator, Grant, is somehow disconnected from his surroundings and yet incredibly embedded in them. He sees but does not always feel everything. Tell me how important are beginnings for you?

CMN: I cannot start writing a story unless I am curious about where the first sentence will take me. Beginnings are essential for me, and once I can ‘hear’ a first sentence I will rarely change it or the first paragraph. Like the first notes of a piece of music, the first notes must set the tone for the rest of the story, and elicit a precise response from the reader. It is the voice and the echo chamber of the work.

SG: Yes, tone is so vital to the short story in particular. Now, many of the couples in The Cartography of Others have trouble communicating what they really want to say. Some resort to silence, others let their bodies speak. It got me thinking about the power of silence and the potency of voice. I’m thinking about “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage” and “Three Days in Hong Kong” in which the narrator Philomena M manages to be humorous in her overt sensuality. And in “Return from Salt Pond” – “even her suffering silence was dialogue, insinuating itself along the cords of his brain, snaking with his thoughts, coaxing words from him that were unwilling and unclotted.” Can you talk a little about silence and voice?

CMN: This is a really interesting point.

The dynamic of the couple can be endlessly fascinating, with the alternation between spoken and unspoken, physicality and detachment, and the search for balance and equality – rarely attained. So much of the stories of our lives take place in our heads: we are almost always viewing, measuring, recollecting, and the short story is a wonderful avenue for exploring these alleyways, and the porous skin between thought and speech.

I do like humour. And the dry, slightly-tortured-dialogue-with-self in “Three Days in Hong Kong” was a lot of fun to write, with Philomena M’s sensuality a distinct character within the piece. Flaunted at the hotel window, her body changes from a sensual device to the channel she will use to recover her sense of self. Other stories like “Return to Salt Pond” chart the plunging of a rapport into miscommunication and hardening thoughts, while events and context hover around the protagonists.

SG: You also have a great eye for detail. At times I felt I was reading lines from notebooks, where maybe you had sat in a café people watching…(It’s something that I love to do!). For example, this wonderful description of Russian girls in Moscow “The Ukrainian Girl”: “the statuesque silken women who would one day decompress into their pillowy mothers with pincushion faces and arms.” Can you tell us a little about your methods for recording the physical aspects of your characters.

CMN: Thank you, Shauna. I hate to say that I am hopeless with notetaking. I’ve tried recording details and scenes in notebooks – as I imagined a real writer should do – but I rarely look at them again! I know there are a few mostly empty Moleskins around the house.

When I have an idea for a story I become immersed in its fabric and I really enjoy creating characters from scratch. Recalling locations or perhaps people I’ve observed, and really sewing these new beings into the piece. I love the act of writing and I try to switch on as much of my brain as I can – tuning in with the subconscious where a type of magic occurs and images are thrown up, and the language takes on a pace and shape as the story progresses. I am always observing and listening to people. I’ll talk to anyone and if I’m not assessing them my subconscious probably is, storing up vital images, scents, energy.

SG: Oh how wonderful to be able to store images, scents and energy like that. I love the idea of storing an energy for a story. In this last question we return to place, and specifically, landscape. In many of the stories, the sea has a wonderful healing power and the land is stifling. In “The Bamboo Furnace”, the siblings return to “their sorrowful Eden”, literally battered and bruised by places they have lived in, and in “Astragàl” the emotions at Luna’s disappearance echoed by the view out the window (reminiscent of Hitchcock, I thought) –  “He looked up in a rage at the first folds of the peak and the summit in a crust of white pleats”. Can you tell us a little about the importance of the landscape in your stories?

CMN: For me landscape is a vital part of the story, often a character itself. In the opening story, “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage”, the sea is a balm that unblocks the wounded voice of a Japanese soprano, while soothing the pain of the narrator whose partnership may be tapering to a close. The two mountain stories – “Astragàl” and “The Kingdom of Fassa” – were written to express our belittlement before the cruel alpine environment. In a world where many of our emotions and thoughts are responses to what we read online, it is almost refreshing to feel the plain power of nature, the dramatic simplicity of an accident, or the course of the seasons and the futility of man’s efforts to tame these forces. Like everyone, I am gravely concerned by global warming and the changes I already see locally (I live in the Veneto countryside, close to the Dolomites), so these stories are an attempt to record and value these places.

Having moved around a lot, I am fascinated by the harrowing effect context and environment can have upon a person. Displacement is one of my major themes, and several of the stories explore the discomforts of being an isolated foreigner. These can span from basic communication issues to the need to accept a different climate and culture, sometimes leading to a remodelling of self within the new circumstances. Some characters adapt and survive. Others, like Santo, a Ghanaian migrant in northern Italy in “The Healing of Santo Yeboah”, do not. In the final story, “The Cliffs of Bandiagara”, the magical highland of Mali and its celestial firmament bring enlightenment and harmony to an embattled couple.

 Finally, five fun questions, Catherine:

  1. Dogs or Cats?

Dogs! I live in the countryside and have a German Shepherd called Astrid.

  1. Paperbacks or Hardbacks?

Paperbacks from good bookshops.

  1. Mountains or Sea?

The sea – I’m a swimmer. But I live near the Dolomites and also ski and hike.

  1. What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile?

I’ve just started My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, and next up will read Watermark, a story collection by Australian Joanna Atherfold Finn.

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Thanks again, Catherine, for stopping by and chatting.

Keep up to date with Catherine here: Facebook – Catherine McNamara, Twitter/Instagram – @catinitaly, Unbound – The Cartography of Others

The Cartography of Others is available at all good bookshops or online at Hive, Amazon UK

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Writers Read: On “Vampire in Love” by Enrique Vila-Matas

NOTE: This post was first published on my blog in October 2016

There’s a radio advert for a book festival in Dublin which tells listeners that you never know what will happen when you open a book. The selection of stories ‘Vampire in Love’ by Enrique Vila-Matas is testament to this. Translated by the great Margaret Jull Costa and published by the innovate Andotherstories this collection showcases some of Vila-Matas’ finest stories. From the opening ‘A Permanent Home’ which is as unsettling as it is disturbing, to the witty ‘I’m not going to read any more emails’, the play with language and play on words forms a thrilling part of the read. The way in which Vila-Matas uses time to keep us (as readers) on our toes puts me in mind of the work of another Catalan writer, Jaume Cabré, and, of course, Roberto Bolaño.

 

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Vila-Matas has stated in an interview with the Paris Review that

What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures…

This interest is clearly evident in ‘Vampire in Love’ where the narratives flick and flash back and forth between reality and truth, with the questioning of perception prominent throughout the collection. Yet his use of language is also poetic. In one of my favourite stories, ‘Rosa Schwarzer comes back to life’, a sinister painting comes (or seems to come) to life, creating creates an epiphany moment for Rosa who is grossly unappreciated by her family.

The coffee brought her almost savagely awake, and, for a moment, as if it were a brief foretaste of what she would experience at the museum today, she saw in her mind the remote landscapes of that dark foreign prince’s country.

It is this beautiful mix of the every day sensory experience with the dreamscape seeping into the reality of both the character and that of the reader that I found so special. In another scene in this story we are presented with a picture of Rosa’s plummeting emotions where the landscape echoes her inner state:

The sky was a grubby opaque white colour, and, in her mind, a similar opaque whiteness began erasing the memory of what she had experienced with the night owl, whom she had abandoned in the park.

These emotions are later displayed  – though bluntly go unnoticed by her husband and sons:

‘What’s for supper?’ demanded her son Bernd from the sofa.

‘Death,’ she said. ‘Death.’

She said this so quietly, from the solitude of her kitchen, that they didn’t hear, just as they didn’t hear, at that same moment, a chicken having its throat slit.

 

Opening lines that hook you are another feature of the collection. Take this loaded first sentence (from ‘In Search of The Electrifying Double Act’):

One April afternoon some years ago, when my name was still Mempo Lesmes and I was very young and a starving, unknown actor, I got lost in the labyrinthine outskirts of San Anfiero de Granzara, and I came across a large mansion surrounded by an overgrown garden – the Villa Nemo.

Or consider the theme of memory that ripples through these stories: this from the fantastic tiny story ‘Indentifying Marks’ –

I remember nothing of that year except that elections were held, and someone, on a night that seemed to me interminable, swore blind that I was Catalan.

And the strong sense of place, from ‘Invented Memories’:

I remember that on my trip to the Azores, I visited Peter’s Bar in Horta, a café frequented by whalers near the yachting club; a mixture of inn, meeting place, information centre and post office.

For Vila-Matas, concepts of place and that never-ending search for something – in art, literature, cinema – as an integral part of the urban existence is often what drives the narrative arc. In the title story (‘Vampire in Love’) the vampire – our hero – thinks:

We look for distant people who are often to be found much closer to home; in movies, we look for the vampires that exist inside us.

The truth about people is often intertwined with history and place, as in the subtext of Franco’s Spain that runs through the chilling (yet at times amusing) ‘Greetings from Dante’ in which the father-narrator reveals his profound fear for and hate of his son whilst maintaining his fatherly role of trying to discover why the child – Tito – is mute. In conversation with a psychoanalyst the father discovers that in the sixteenth century, in their neighbourhood, a Portuguese student was revealed to be a demon when he was seen eating a bowl of flies. Unnervingly, Tito’s sister who is patient and understanding of his muteness often proclaimed ‘A shut mouth catches no flies’ and on this occasion (without knowing the history which the father has discovered) changes the proverb to ‘Tito’s mouth is full of flies.’ Violence ensues and so the story goes on – the mysterious sense of the streets taking in and then letting out evil pervades. Similarly in ‘Niño’, where the narrator/father maintains the position of the niño’s ‘attentive assistant’ despite the uncomfortable dislike for his son who, like him, in trying to survive, searches for the truth and attempts to face the void that is life (and death):

‘We’ll find out the truth about the beyond,’ he said.

‘Be careful,’ I warned. ‘Those who seek the truth deserve the punishment of finding it.’

The collection is also very much a writer’s book. I particularly loved the sense of voyeurism, obsessiveness and vanity that peppers the characters of Vila-Matas. In the fantastical ‘Modesty’ (my favourite story in the collection), we meet an occasional spy who, in this quote, is observing the No. 24 thief (so called because he operates on the No. 24 bus):

He doesn’t seem interested in any other route or any other bus. He must simply enjoy – as I do – being a regular, or perhaps he simply loves doing the same thing over and over. He’s not unlike me in a way: we are both of us thieves. Of course, he steals wallets and purses, while I only snatch phrases, faces, gestures…

In ‘Death by Suadade’, the narrator recalls – when he was nine – how the growth of curiosity about where he lived, and what made the place itself became his sole occupation:

The street began to steal a whole hour of my homework time, an hour that I recovered thanks to the simple method of cutting down the time I usually spent after supper reading great novels, until the day came when the charms of the Paseo de San Luis proved so alluring that they stole all my reading time. In other words, the Paseo replaced great novels.

I also recall spending hours – at a little older than nine though – staring through open windows, imagining the lives of others.

I read the collection from start to finish, and although many of the characters seemed to have merged into one by the time I had finished, on reflection it is the emotional weight which carries the book. Ultimately it is the re-imagining of the lives of ‘the other’ and of others that this story collection presents to the reader. ‘Vampire in Love’ is a book which gives us an escape; enabling us to dive into the pages, the minds, and the lives of characters who might well have come from our own dreams.

You can order ‘Vampire in Love’ here and see an interview with Vila-Matas and Paul Auster here.

Writers Chat 3: Alan McMonagle on “Ithaca” (Picador: London, 2017) and “Psychotic Episodes” (Arlen House: Galway, 2013)

The third post in my “Writers Chat” series is mix of old and new chats: a re-post of a chat with Alan McMonagle about his second short story collection Pyschotic Episodes and a new chat about his highly acclaimed debut novel Ithaca…

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Alan since our last “Writers Chat” five years ago, your writing has gone from strength to strength, most recently with the astounding and well-deserved success of your debut novel Ithaca (Picador, 2017).

The Irish Times described it as a “fierce and funny modern odyssey” and while I do not disagree, I wonder if what they have described is what essentially makes up all stories – that of the hero’s journey. Did you set out to write Jason’s story as an odyssey (I’m thinking of the title here, of course, and the reference to Greek mythology) or did the story start with character and then evolve into an odyssey as you, the writer, journeyed with Jason?

When it comes down to it there are two stories to tell: a person goes in search of something and a stranger comes to town. This remark has been attributed to many writers, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jason’s ‘search’ arrived fully formed from the get-go, a journey of sorts slowly began to present itself as the basis of a narrative arc. Jason’s story, however, started out as a voice. A youthful voice, playful and unreliable, that evolved into a character and to whom I bequeathed a hinterland, a stomping ground along with its motley population with whom Jason was going to interact in varying degrees. This mix of voice and character, of setting and encounters, I suppose, offered a tension that helped sustain a narrative thrust. However, from the outset I always felt there was a gaping hole in Jason’s psyche. And the further the narrative progressed the stronger this feeling took hold. Writing is an act of faith, and so I pursued my wayward narrative in the hope that what this gaping hole was would eventually present itself. As a writer I spent a lot of time looking outside of Jason. To his nearest and dearest. To his enemies. To pretty much everyone with whom he was interacting. I was constantly looking to the hinterland, to the claustrophobic horizons of Jason’s stomping ground. I was three quarters way through a solid draft when I realized I was looking in the wrong places. I shouldn’t be looking outside of Jason – I should be looking inside. This guy literally wouldn’t harm a fly, I said to myself. The only person he is a danger to is himself. And then it came to me – he is a self-harmer. He is a self-harmer because he is in need of a hero – a parental figure – he can look to. And so I went back to the beginning. And in this manner the narrative of Ithaca takes on that classical trope of the hero’s journey – but I think it is very much an inner journey, in addition to the more obvious outward journey as Jason strikes out beyond the confines of his stomping ground. So really the evolution voice into character provides the basis for the quest my narrator sets himself.

What a fascinating insight into your process, Alan. Lots to ponder here about character formation and narrative voice. Now the town, in Ithaca like in much of your short fiction, is another character. Tell me about the divisions of the town – the Swamp, McMorrows, Rich Hill – and how they might echo the divisions and gaps in Jason’s own life.

Great question. The Swamp, McMorrow’s, Rich Hill are key locations for Jason as he sets about locating his elusive ‘Da’.  The Swamp is where he first meets the Girl. She is in the water, and thinking the worst, he fishes her out and so begins one of the story’s two central relationships. A relationship that provides Jason with a means to reveal a side of himself he will most likely otherwise conceal. Another location, Rich Hill, provides Jason with a taster of how the other half lives, the ‘haves’ as opposed to the ‘have-nots’. Rich Hill in general and Fat Grehan’s unfinished mansion in particular serve to highlight Jason’s ‘wrong side of the tracks’ origins. It’s also the part of town where he gives himself permission to lash out at his circumstances and terms of existence. It’s where he is most likely to get in trouble, fall foul of the law and so forth. A third key locale, McMorrow’s (‘dimly lit pub’), is where he goes to seek out Flukey, the initial candidate Jason posits as his Da. And so, yes, the pub is representative of another crucial gap in Jason’s existence, and as far as Jason is concerned, probably the gap that matters most. At the end of his famous play Life Of Galileo, Brecht has Galileo’s friend say, Unlucky the man that has no heroes. And Galileo says, Lucky the man that needs no heroes. Well, for better or worse, my little guy needs a hero, and in his case it involves a journey that is a mix of humour and pain and chaos and desperation. A journey that involves a search for someone or something that may remain out of reach, elusive. And ultimately what I think the narrative of Ithaca is trying to do is convey the measures Jason is prepared to take as his search becomes more desperate and he finally begins to realize that who or what he is looking for may be a lot to closer to home than he is ready to believe when we first meet him. The locales you mention in your question, along with one or two others, all have a part to play.

Yes, I love how everything in Ithaca fits together. There are no wasted characters in this landscape. 

Read on for the Writers Chat Alan and I had in 2013 about his short story collection Psychotic Episodes.

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I’ve just finished Psychotic Episodes, one of the few story collections I have read in one sitting. It seemed to me that what brought all the stories together was that thread of the absurd coupled side by side with a sense of dread and caustic humour. Tell me, did you have a plan or a vision for this collection or did it evolve into itself?

A plan – definitely not. In fact I am fairly certain that each of the stories has their own story to tell as to how they came into existence. One or two arrived unannounced from the farthest recesses of my imagination and insisted on writing themselves with little or no input from myself. One or two literally fell out of larger pieces that were paying absolutely no heed to anything I was telling them to do. Others were not so keen until they looked a certain way and so needed a little finessing. Others said to hell with the rules, let’s just go for it. The upshot of all of this is that I am, at various times, an instinctive, reluctant, plodding, spontaneous writer. It was only when I started looking over what had accumulated that the common ground began apparent – the absurdity and chaos you refer to, that teetering on the brink. The stories are in a big way influenced by my own reading and, of course, by my own latent sensibilities, how I perceive and receive the world.

I’m interested, also, in the sequencing of the stories. You start with the moving ‘Looking after Little Patrick’ – I love the child’s name here and though there is something shocking about the cocktail making at the start, by the mid to end of the story I was laughing out loud and feeling they were all having a lovely time until, of course, your killer ending, which wiped the smile off my face and left me feeling guilty for laughing!

Your question, as well as being so well thought out, is also the ideal compliment you can give this particular story, Shauna. My good writing friend and all round purveyor of lightning wisdom, Ger Mills, says my stories snuggle up to you and then take a bite. I like this description and think it can be applied to the story you speak of. The story is essentially a psycho-drama – with the comedy thrown in. At the time I was re-reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and sitting up late watching Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton go at it in the film version. Also, at the time, my neighbours’ little baby seemed intent on establishing a new world record for crying. Also, at the time, my girlfriend and myself were given our little nephew for the day. Somehow the disparate yet timely elements coalesced. Instinctively, I placed this story as the opening story for the tone it quickly sets, for the early flavour it provides of the skewed sensibilities in the stories. It was also the first story I finished after my first collection.

That’s really interesting, such an insight into the creation of the story, and indeed, the collection. I’d like to hear about how you get into character. You’re fond of first person voice and move well between a child’s voice (‘The Story Teller and the Thief’ and ‘Runaways’) and a female voice (‘Psychotic Episodes’).

I am an aural learner (as opposed to the more common visual learning). And so, in any piece of writing, I need to ‘hear’ everything – narration, reflection, observation – in addition to dialogue. In my own reading there are writers I return to time and time again precisely for this purpose. William Saroyan (his wonderful take on childhood). Flannery  O’Connor (for the darkness). Sergei Dovlatov (for the chaos). Grace Paley and Amy Hempel (great female voices). These (among others), if you like, are my tuning forks. I’ve read about the so-called advantages of the third person narrator, its flexibility and omniscience. However, I feel if you have a strong enough ‘voice’ then a first person narrative becomes an essential part of story.

I must look Hempel up I don’t know her work. Now, tell me about endings. You have some wonderful ones – ‘Gutted’ and the wonderfully titled ‘Elizabeth Taylor and the Tour de France Cyclist’. Are you ever surprised by the endings that come to you as you write or do you plan the ending?

Almost every time – surprised. Which is why I think writing is an act of faith – at some point in the future you are depending upon something presenting itself (an ending, for example) that doesn’t yet exist. Endings, as well as beginnings, are delicate, require soft hands. It is what takes you from beginning to end that involves cement and mortar and blood and tears. I think it was Philip Larkin, of all people, who said a good story should have a beginning, a muddle and an end. All too often I find myself muddling…And then, from nowhere it seems, a way out – an ending – offers itself. The two stories you refer to here are good examples.

What a wonderful quote, I love the idea of muddling. But I have to ask you if you cycle – I like the way cycling and bikes feature in the collection, almost little creatures in themselves.

Bicycles as little creatures – what a lovely observation…I take a push bike around the narrow Galway streets. On my way in to town, there is a certain road I always use because it slopes downhill and so gets me where I have to be quickly and without huge effort. However, there is a certain hour in the day – early to mid-afternoon – whereupon if you find yourself on this road and on a bicycle you really are running the gauntlet. I also take my bike out on the backroads near where I live. I am restless by nature, need to be in motion, and it amazes me some of the ideas that arrive while pedalling through the desolation and dignity of Old Clybaun.

I  think the collection holds some of that desolation and dignity. But I was also tickled by nostalgia with all the references to 99s, flakes, Tayto crisps and I laughed out loud at the ‘Bloomsday Bus Driver’ which seems quintessentially Irish to me with the ice-creams, the desperation to catch every last ray of sun, the need, generally to get and keep something good while it’s still going. Any reflections on this?           

My grandfather used to work on the buses out of Sligo. Occasionally I would tag along, the five-mile trip from Sligo town to Rosses Point being a particular favourite. ‘Bus Driver’ (in many ways) is a slender story, but I like its simplicity, its purity, which I feel is in keeping with the time it is attempting to reflect. A couple of people whose judgement I respect have said to me that it rings so true. I was even given a wonderful anecdote by a Galway poet about his long-ago experience on slow-moving trains. It is very satisfying to hear that this story is speaking to a generation from a time I myself barely experienced.

Finally, if you’re willing to reveal, what are you working on now?

There are poems to coerce, new stories to plámás into life. Someone has asked me to write a one-act play, the one constraint being that it has to be set in a bar – which, for an Irish writer, surely has to be the most liberating constraint conceivable! And now I’ve put the hex on myself and no doubt I’ll soon be muddling again…

Wow, a play in a bar. Interesting indeed. And poems. Good luck with that. I look forward to reading what comes of the muddling!

Aoife Casby’s wonderful artwork graces the front and back cover. Find out about Aoife here: http://www.aoifecasby.net/