An Interview with Catherine McNamara / Rachael Smart

Rachael Smart: Firstly, congratulations on Love Stories for Hectic People, a collection which excavates love in all of its forms. It is tender and wounding, erotic and transporting, it takes both regular and extraordinary moments in love and offers up brief narratives that are oblique and always unflinching. Your former collections, Pelt and The Cartography of Others were short story collections, a form which allows for, at the very least, a chain in the narratives whereby flash fiction is singular and, could be argued serves as one of the links. Lydia Davis said in her sixth book of brief narratives, Can’t and Won’t: ‘A fire does not need to be called warm or red’ and I think this captures beautifully the poetic attention required for writing very small. Can you give me some insight into how writing in the flash form varies from short stories for you?

Catherine McNamara: Thank you for these words from Lydia Davis. They are truly relevant to how I feel about writing flash. I spent years writing short stories and felt I had some understanding of cadence and shape and the music of a story – that weaving dance with the reader as you move towards whatever transition takes place. I can be obsessive about language so I had to learn to pull back, think more of the reader and the true pulse of the story. But there is always more to learn, and the cross-fertilisation that comes from shifting forms is something we can all benefit from. I came to flash from two directions: first, I was asked to be Litro’s Flash Friday Editor five years ago; next, I had a very unsettled and difficult year that involved a lot of driving, so to de-stress I forced myself to write a 500-word story in two hours, for as many mornings that I could. I wrote about anything – any story thread that came to mind – not thinking too hard. I’ve always been good with beginnings and endings and story ideas, so my learning process became that of selecting a valid story idea, and cutting as close to the bone as possible, discarding fleshy language. It became a beautiful exploration of validity and precision where I also learned to clean out my language, be bold enough to try anything in terms of voice and context (ie. ‘The Mafia Boss Who Killed His Gay Son on a Beach’ – what would I know?). And edit with a flick-knife.

An intoxicating and rare quality in your narratives is that readers are so often located as witnesses – or confidantes – if you like, to social taboos. In ‘Genitalia’ menstruation is a beautiful exhibit, the protagonist with ‘butterfly stains on her knickers,’ who tells her lover how she once ‘painted a line of hieroglyphics’ in menstrual blood on a hotel wall. ‘Asunder’ features a man waiting in the car whilst his partner goes to exchange train tickets. He becomes unwitting voyeur to a woman urinating on the street, a captivating but repellent vision that he will now never unsee, a vision that ‘will make him faint and bring him to a shocked brink;’ Much of your work is transgressive and concerned with emotional truths. How do you see the functions of literature in engaging with forbidden territories?

Much of our story-telling these days is visual and alluring and explicit, already laden with meaning, so I think the risk is that our own imagination becomes clouded, and we do not discover the hidden alleyways of a story because we are told its every aspect. This is where the function of literature serves its highest purpose, in suggesting and triggering and engaging with the unspoken within ourselves, the reaches of the subconscious. This is especially relevant with regard to the illicit, which may touch the many layers of our experience. We might see a woman urinating in a film and this act carries a direct shock, whereas woven into a text we experience the lens of the observer, which then moves along the paths of our personal reaction. So a richer, expanded and less porno experience – I hope!

With regard to the forbidden territory of menstruation, I wanted this story to be a celebration of the unruliness of bleeding, how men are sometimes mystified by this realm. Now that I reflect, I see that the mention of hieroglyphics was my attempt to flag the timelessness of our physicality and the idea of some sort of rite. The idea of course started with that butterfly print of spilt blood.

Writing is so frequently an aesthetic reaction to work writers have read. Whose fiction have you read in recent years that has had a significant impact on your own style and form?

As a writer I admire and love to reread Shirley Hazzard (The Transit of Venus, The Bay of Noon,) whose finesse with language and the profundity of her characters has been endlessly influential. Also Kazio Ishiguro (his story collection Nocturnes), Haruki Murakami (one of my stories, ‘Tokyo Frieze’, is a sort of homage to Murakami), Marguerite Duras (L’Amant, Hiroshima Mon Amour), Marguerite Yourcenar (Memoirs d’Hadrien). I’ve also been influenced in some way by the fearlessness and reshaping of form of Leone Ross (Come Let Us Sing Anyway) and Irenosen Okojie (Speak Gigantular, Nudibranch). And yet I also admire James Salter and Ernest Hemingway for their boldness and scarcity of words, and Maupassant for his mastery. There are so many aspects to the learning process, and so much out there to learn from!

Subtext is a potent charge in your writing which brings readers an identification with your stories that is never prescriptive. I am thinking of ‘Citrus’ where two oranges are served to young boys after an incident of domestic violence. ‘Each inject their oranges with thumbs and lift out the soft stub inside, open up the white pith and the air is citrusy and the yellow skins sit in clumps.’ The perpetrator is merely ‘he’ and we are left to speculate if ‘he’ is the boy’s father but he remains absent from the narrative. Those oranges evoke years of bodily hurt, segments being devoured piece by piece and serve as a metaphor for sexual violence and the family’s vulnerability; zest the unlikely fragrance of harm. ‘The Things You Will Never Know About Your Lover’ is based in the moment of a lover’s departure at the airport and the agony of his other life is narrated by the lyrics of Ute Lemper’s ‘Little Water Song.’ Do you think the voltage of a story exists in the unsaid and when you are writing, are you consciously making things unseen?

I do love the power of the unsaid, and the resonance of a flash piece that plunges into the reader’s mind. And yet, I like a first reading to be delivered as though by a raconteur, whose humanity begins to reach towards the coals of the story. Then the reader has to do the rest. Although this is not a conscious thing or something I pore over, and I’m relieved if it comes together.

When I am writing I am immersed in the character, half-aware of what might be happening in the underworld of what I am trying to represent. But in a first draft I try not to think too hard. I enjoy the magic of not-knowing, of inventing, of ideas dropping out of the ceiling. That said, I do try to tug the reader towards their own humanity located within the story and characters, and set something off. In a successful story this should happen invisibly, swiftly.

Desire is one of your specialisms and a prominent ribbon throughout all of your work, especially in Love Stories for Hectic People which explores the intimacy in relationships. For women there is often a paradox of longing to assert control and yet being socially conditioned to lose it. How do you capture the contradictories of female desire in your writing?

I think we can only capture these societal and innate contradictions by laying them bare in stories, and these stories must make us deconstruct the desires that we house in our lives. I don’t think, in our life spans, we can change much beyond the personal, and sometimes not even that, with regard to the way our rapports are often imbalanced and wrought with pain.

I’m not sure though that my interests are exclusively regarding female desire, as I love to delve into the male psyche just as much. We are poorly-designed creatures! With animal aims that have been bred out of us; we are far too often told how our lives should be, and viewed as failures or outcasts when they take a different shape. And every culture and language take us to a slightly different place.

In this collection I’ve tried to move towards outcomes. There are longstanding affairs, there is jubilant, resistant love, there is failure and violence. I wanted to move towards what we hold in our hands when we are older, whether it be a faith in love, or a memory of its disorder. Two of my favourite characters are Arnaud and Marianne (‘The Woman Who Previously Worked for the Louvre’), who are retired artists from Marseilles looking for a house in the countryside. Marianne thinks over her creative disappointments and physical decline, while Arnaud looks up into the glory of classical art, a conduit from the theatrical passions of his professional life that he has lived fully. These characters were very real to me.

What is next for you on the literary front and will it be a departure from flash fiction?

Like most dogged writers, I am working on a novel. Which I hope will carry some of the clean story-telling of flash, and much of the unsaid resonance of which we have spoken. Probably some weird characters too and themes of passion and place. Flash doesn’t give much space to environment, which I often use as a character, so I am falling back into that.

Love Stories for Hectic People is out now. Read Catherine McNamara on her Lonely Crowd short story, ‘Harbour of Grace’, here.

You can follow Rachael Smart on twitter here.