So, Did This Really Happen to You? / Catherine McNamara

Truth and Fiction in Story-Telling

When I was a young, confused graphic design student, in the long-ago days of collage and drawing boards, I remember train rides across Sydney to art college. I remember the obsessions of a late, damaged teenagehood involving the death of a child, years of classical piano, Tchaikovsky LPs, warped discotheques and reading the entire opus of the great Patrick White. I remember, informed by Simone de Beauvoir in faraway Paris, informing my mother that I would never make her a grandmother.

And then I left. When you grow up in the suburbs – anywhere – the world beyond beckons. I remember lying on grass by the pool, watching 747s disappearing to the west, beginning their crossing of the red centre where Patrick White’s Voss expired in the desert; and the climb of these monstrous crafts over turbulent south-east Asia, the star-fringed Himalayas, the washed-up peaks of Iran, all the way to the moist cluster of Europe, everybody’s destination.

I rarely think of those years now. My first backpacking trip, my first letting-down-my-hair, my first evasion of the person I was supposed to be becoming. That was where my running away into writing began. We had absorbed London – Mecca for every Australian – before finding ourselves at dawn in Paris, the city of angels, where I decided this would be my stamping ground. I could feel it in my limbs and my breathing. Decades on Paris still occupies a holy place in my heart. This is where I cast off, grew up, rejected, and gave myself permission to write my first (terribly awful) stories. 

Unlike the character in ‘Harbour of Grace’, I did not marry a Frenchman. I found au pair work with a theatrical, bohemian family in an arrondissement that has now been gentrified. My part of the squat was over a sweatshop, and there was no sleeping after the sewing machines began. I learned to kill mice, steal nappies, use the secret darkroom, entice men, experiment, shoplift. 

It was the beginning of adult life, the start of my writing reservoir. 


I don’t write stories from my life. Do you? It horrifies me, an all too visceral transmigration. It is private and involves others. Unlike stories, everyday life has no structure, no beginning or end, it is just a stream of incidents with no resounding meaning, outcome, cadences or portions. When my students say, But it really happened that way, I see they are transfixed by the flattened picture they hold in their minds, rather than embedding an acute instance or sensation into the tissue of the story. It usually falls flattoo, gives us snatches but not the richness and flow pertaining to craft. Around a campfire, the stories of men and women have always been embellished, corrupted and made to fit a purpose. 

When ideas present themselves, I am far more likely to follow the scent of a story that is far removed from anything that happened directly to me, and take up the challenge of creating fiction. Crafting a story with an entry point, tone, gist. Life may give us vignettes, but never the fractious surface of a simmering story, the daring act of creating balance, the task of seducing the reader.

That said, ‘Harbour of Grace’ did come from a place of memory. The idea of return, the idea of a harbour city, the idea of straddling the two clamouring identities within oneself, when you set down new roots in another culture and will always have tendrils reaching back into remembered light. Some of the characters in the story remind me of people I have known, aspects of them or their imagined outcomes; some of the locations are stolen. 

This is a story I could not have written as a young woman, with her innocent and drastic set of circumstances, her hungers not yet sated. This story attempts to look over lives that have been lived, lives that have frayed. I’m interested in older characters coming to terms with their pasts, incorporating the inroads of child-raising and shape of older love and lust.


The great Australian writer Patrick White won the Nobel Prize in 1973 and crankily kept reporters at bay outside his Centennial Park terrace when the announcement was made. White was a returnee from civilised London life. He came back to a suburban 1960s Sydney with its hollow interior, its recent morphing from an English to a Californian affiliation. His observations are merciless, often tinged with the scorn of those years; language is complex, as is his insight into our enduring condition. 

Though Patrick White never replied to my handwritten fan letter, he did give me my first writing lesson. White described his early self as a magpie, a gatherer of shiny titbits, seemingly useless morsels. This is where I began my apprenticeship in the art of story-telling. How many people have I listened to in trains, market places, airport queues, birthing rooms, funerals? White made me realise that the mind is an endless Moleskin, and that the subconscious is our richest bank of material, and that if there is trust and practice, ideas will surface accompanied by detail, texture, sentiment. These will seep as traces into the stories we invent. 

A magpie is an Australian bird of the butcher bird family who makes a distinctive warble. A group of magpies may be called a charm, a flock, a gulp, a parliament, a mischief, a tittering, a conventicle, a tribe, or a murder. 

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and ran away to Paris to write, and ended up in Ghana co-running a bar. Along the way she lived in Mogadishu and Milan, and Brussels, working as a translator, graphic designer, shoe model, photography, mother. Her short story collection The Cartography of Others was praised by Hilary Mantel and finalist in the People’s Book Prize, and her flash/short fiction collection Love Stories for Hectic People has just been published in the UK by Reflex Press.

Image by Jo Mazelis.