Catherine McNamara Interview with Jonathan Cardew
Thank you, Catherine, for joining us for the September Issue at Connotation Press!
Thanks so much for having me!
I love the title of your piece in this month’s issue: ‘The Woman Who Previously Worked for the Louvre.’ What are your thoughts on titles in fiction? How important are they to the work, if at all? What’s the best and/or worst title you have written (and possibly revised) or another author has written?
I think titles and first sentences are hugely important. Sometimes they are with you before you start, and drive the story from the first note. Other times they come to you afterwards, and permeate the story with a backward flow. I don’t think there are any rules, just to be tuned to whatever your mind throws at you, and Try Anything. It’s good to fail or fall flat sometimes, then when a real gem of a title comes to you, you appreciate it even more. One of my favorite titles of my own stories is ‘The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him’, which I confess I stole from a translation I was doing. It was a very technical and awfully written text about an ancient complex of buildings and then the writer broke into this sing-song translated from Latin to Italian – a series of flowery inscriptions on commemorative plaques that had been found in one of the courtyards. I translated the Italian to English and one of the lines provided the above title, which I held onto for a good while. I later wrote a story that had nothing to do with illustrious families from north-eastern Italy, and is set in a contemporary advertising agency in Ghana, but somehow it works. I think my worst title was from a long ago story called ‘Carl and the Many Helping Hands’ which was meant to be about international aid but ended up sounding like a guy working in an ice cream shop…I don’t think I can comment on other authors specifically, but I work as flash fiction editor for Litro Magazine and I confess I like being enticed by titles – sometimes submissions have such soft titles it feels as though they are an afterthought, and I wish authors would take a bigger risk. (Although other times I am completely wrong and they are perfect!)
This is a very rich tale in terms of place and characterization. I just love the descriptions of the house: “A sliver had been cut through the stucco, in between an arrangement of windows. It looked like a device for warfare perhaps, and was full of cobwebs and dry leaves.” And the characters seem very real, not contrived or flat in any way. Tell me about your process in writing—do you typically start with a character in mind, or a place, or an idea?
I think that, as for everyone, it starts with a niggle. Which can be a character or a set of shoulders or a way of moving; or a place that won’t leave you or a sentence that drops into your mind. I think this story started with the idea of a woman restoring the great French Neo-Classical and Romantic paintings, in a house bathed with light, something I heard about once, and a trip I made through the south of France to meet artist friends who’d been very influential when I was a young exile living in Paris.
You’ve lived quite the globetrotting life! Can you tell us a little about the movements you have made around the world, and perhaps also how that has informed or changed your writing?
I was a Sydney kid who lay on the grass looking at 747s departing for Europe. Even now I love a long haul flight. And landing in a different climate and language – that whoosh of tropical air when you get out of the plane in West Africa or Vietnam. I ran away to Paris to study and I usually say that I ended up in Ghana running a bar, but there was so much more in between! I spent three eventful years in Mogadishu before the war, some time in Milan and Bruxelles and Vicenza and Addis Ababa. And I ended up living in Ghana for nearly ten years. I think that moving around makes you feel at home everywhere and nowhere, and certainly hones your observation skills, especially if you are on the outskirts of a language. I learnt French and Italian early on and now have a bi-lingual family, which makes me look at English in a different way –it’s great to explore your own brain through another language – and also to understand the musicality of language, which is linked to the musicality of the written word. When you are essentially an uprooted being, it means you have to work extra hard to get to the interior of your characters and the essence of a location. Although alternately this can give you a hard and fast eye. Some days I wonder whether I will ever finish writing stories set in ‘foreign’ locations –which also means that I am constantly asking myself questions about authenticity and appropriation.
Congratulations on reaching (exceeding?) your goal through Unbound. Tell us a little about your forthcoming collection and the reasons behind your choice of publishing through this platform.
The Cartography of Others is a collection of twenty stories that are set from London to Hong Kong, from the Dolomites to the highlands of Mali, dealing with displacement and dislocation, the geography of love. We submitted the collection to publishers in the UK who liked the work but wanted to see a novel. It’s not easy to publish literary fiction – and it is especially not easy to sell a short story collection! My agent and I decided to try Unbound (which is a crowd funding platform) because we were impressed by the high standard of editing, extensive distribution network and striking graphic design. Unbound has a great name in the UK and has produced several prizewinners. For my first short story collection Pelt and Other Stories I went with a tiny independent and while they were lovely people I would have liked more editorial support – plus the marketing was a solo effort – so I’m happy to be working with a much bigger outfit. I’d like to add this about the crowd funding experience – for me it was (fortunately!) short and intense, but it brought me into contact with potential readers and narrowed the gap between writer and reader. Crowdfunding makes a lot of sense for a non-mainstream project and has been around for a long time in film and music. It also toughens you up and opens doors for the promotion phase. For me it has been a very positive experience so far.
What's next? Any stories upcoming for publication, or projects brewing we can look forward to?
I’m working with my editor on the structural edits for The Cartography of Others, so for the next few months I will be busy! In the meantime I have flash fiction coming out with Jellyfish Review, Moonpark Review and Wigleaf, short stories on submission, and I’m anxious to get back to a novella I started at the end of winter. I also have a flash fiction collection ready to submit.
You’ve entered a fantastical dinner party in which authors from any time period and literary characters from all manner of books are enjoying an evening with food and abundant wine. Who are you most excited to sit next to? Who are the bores? What unusual conversations or situations crop up as the evening comes to its close?
I like to move around at dinner parties. So I would start the evening with the old guys. I live near the village where Francesco Petrarch chose to retire and have often tried to imagine how he might have been. Next I would hunt down John Donne. I think I would sit next to him for a while, and get the two poets talking about representations of love, and then religion, as they were both clerics either side of the Roman Catholic/Anglican divide. I read everything of Joseph Conrad when I was young, and loved his language and images of the sea, but I would like to see Conrad interviewed by Chinua Achebe over his depiction of African civilization – I think there could be some fiery words there. I’d also like to have a whiskey with Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Smart and talk about language and men, both having been devoted lovers and exquisite writers. And before the night is out I’d like to see Simone de Beauvoir dressing down Ernest Hemingway, which I’m sure she would. And if Haruki Murakami were there, we’d be downing shots with Patricia Highsmith, who would eventually bring her snails out of her pockets. I have a feeling that they would both be good time people.
Thanks so much, Catherine, for your time and brilliant fiction!
Thanks again, Jonathan, for having me!
For more on: The Cartography of Others
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