Bringing out ‘The Dead’
Rowena Macdonald interviewed by Gavin James Bower.
The sky was violet and fumed with smoke. On the other side of the street an old van was parked. Inside was a boy reading a magazine. A girl ambled up to the open window, passed him a pack of cigarettes and climbed in. Both were nut-brown and loose-limbed in beaten-up old jeans: partners in crime. The boy jumped out, walked away, did a double take and tossed a cigarette back to her before sauntering off with a smile. The girl kicked back with her bare feet on the dash and lit up.
Corinna watched them enviously from her balcony, dressed in her wrapper, drinking the last of Jimmy’s beer alone. That double take, the remembered cigarette; that was love.
This, from ‘Double Take’, is the kind of poised prose-writing that makes you want to high-five the author. It’s one of many just like it in Rowena Macdonald’s debut short story collection Smoked Meat, out on northern-based indie Flambard Press now.
Based on the author’s twelve-month sabbatical in Montreal – half-Francophone, half-Anglophone; covered in snow for half the year, too – the stories eye up the city’s demi-monde, the innocence of life-models, contemporary artists and cash-in-hand cafeteria staff corrupted as they’re each transformed, like Montreal’s signature dish, from green to smoked meat. The stories and lives overlap: Corinna, dumped by her boyfriend Henry for another man, covets Jason and Amy’s relationship from her window; meanwhile, Josh, a drug-dealer working at a backwater restaurant for cover, obsesses over Corinna from afar, her ex a former client. In perhaps the most memorable story, however, the delicately balanced ecosystem of Brian and McMurphy’s loft studio is disrupted by the arrival of Sally, rambunctious and randy – and raring to go.
These are stories of interlopers and of (North) Americana, as evocative of Douglas Coupland‘s Generation X as they are James Joyce‘s ‘The Dead’. Which is handy, given Macdonald’s admiration for what is probably Dubliners‘ stand-out short – its protagonist’s very nature, much like the characters of Smoked Meat, in irrevocable flux. Or, as Joyce puts it: “His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.”
3:AM: Which writers did you have in mind when you approached this collection and, if you could’ve written any short story – ever – which would it be?
Rowena MacDonald: A Moveable Feast, Hemingway‘s memoir of his time in Paris, was dimly in my mind – as I read it while I was in Montreal. Katherine Mansfield‘s short stories more prominently, and Jean Rhys‘ novels of women in Paris. Katherine Mansfield is probably my favourite writer. I also love Patrick Hamilton. In terms of contemporary writers I admire Alan Hollingshurst and Philip Hensher. When I was starting out Shena Mackay was influential; I love pretty much all her novels and she mentored me for six months. I also adore John McGahern and made a pilgrimage to his birthplace in Ireland a few years ago. If I could have written any short story ever, it would be ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce – which is what many writers would say. The final story in Smoked Meat, ‘The Life and Soul’, is my homage to it.
3:AM: Tell me about your background as a writer. Why Montreal?
RM: I ended up in Montreal aged twenty-five a couple of years after graduating from university. I had an apprenticeship on a local paper in Sussex, but my friend Lucy persuaded me to abandon it all to go and live in Montreal with a guy she had met while on holiday in Scotland. His name was Mark and he put us up for the first couple of months until we found jobs. Mark became a great friend and Smoked Meat is dedicated to him and his friend Chloe, who also became a good friend of mine. Mark and Chloe were my muses. In retrospect it was a silly idea giving up a good career to go and live without visas in another country, but I had decided about a year before that I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t have the time or energy to do my own writing while working on the paper. I wanted an adventure. I didn’t intend to stay in Montreal for a year. My plan was to go to America but when I got to Montreal I liked it, so ended up staying there. I didn’t know much about it before I went but it surprised me by being really atmospheric and inspiring.
3:AM: The cover blurb mentions the city’s demi-monde. Did your experiences growing up in the West Midlands fuel that at all, or was there something about your time in Montreal that focused your attention on the margins?
RM: I’m not sure there is a demi-monde to the West Midlands and if there is I certainly didn’t grow up in it, though my parents were slightly unusual in that they both went to art college as mature students when my brothers and I were kids, then my mother became a painter and my dad set up an art transport company. They weren’t bohemians – indeed, my mother disdains that sort of self-conscious artiness – but some of their friends were and I used to be attracted to those kinds of people, though I’m too straight to really live ‘on the edge’. When you’re young you’re more keen to hang out with oddballs – or at least, I was. I went to a very strict, very academic all-girls grammar school in Wolverhampton, so perhaps it was partly a reaction against that. I don’t feel the characters in Smoked Meat are particularly marginal. I didn’t seek them out; that’s just what the people I met were like. It’s probably because I was doing casual cash-in-hand jobs in bars and restaurants – you get a lot of raffish, fly-by-night people in those jobs. Many of the characters are drawn from my friends, though, and they seemed like the norm rather than on the margins. We all lived on the Plateau, which, at the risk of sounding like I’m really up myself, was the cool area. Mainly I just like the word demi-monde; I’m not actually that sure what it implies.
3:AM: How close to the characters of Smoked Meat are you (or, indeed, was ‘the Montreal you’)?
RM: Some of the traits of the female characters are similar to mine – and some of the male characters, too. None of them is actually me, though I did work at a clothes store like Freya’s and at a restaurant like Corinna’s. Corinna isn’t really like me at all as a personality; she’s far more passive, mermaidy and feminine. All the characters are amalgams of people I knew. I didn’t want anyone English in the book because I wanted it to be about Montreal people. I started writing something more autobiographical but got bored. It’s more fun to make stuff up.
3:AM: Short story collections are slowly coming back into fashion – especially as debuts – but it’s seemingly the norm for editors to ask new writers if they have a novel they’re working on when they submit stories. Do you think there’s value in turning that on its head; pushing new writers to start with stories, then move on to a novel? Or is this sort of ‘conduit’ link from one to the other misleading?
RM: I didn’t set off on publishing this as my first book – it’s just the way it worked out. It took me six years to find a publisher for Smoked Meat. While I was in Montreal I wrote a novel set on the Isle of Wight (where I was born), which I finished when I got back to England but couldn’t find an agent for – although I gave up trying pretty quickly. Then I started writing Smoked Meat. It took me three years on and off. In between I wrote another novel. Then I wrote another two novels, the fourth of which is almost finished. I started out writing short stories but I knew publishers were mainly interested in novels, which is why I started writing them. It’s less daunting to begin with a smaller form as novels take so much stamina. You can concentrate on crafting your prose in a short story, whereas with a novel you have to marshal a load of other disparate elements. Most writers start out with short stories; I wish publishers would recognise that more, but I can see why they think the public prefer novels as it’s a longer, more immersive experience. Readers think they’re getting more for their money even if often a lot of it is padding.
3:AM: Reading the stories I thought of writers like Chuck Palahniuk – the Off-Beat chroniclers of contemporary Americana. How much of that’s a fair assessment, and at what point do you think the collection separates and becomes distinctly North American – even, Canadian?
RM: I’ve only ever read one Palahniuk story: ‘Guts’, about a kid whose insides are sucked out by a swimming pool filter. Pretty horrible but I am flattered you associate me with him… I am fascinated by America and love Americana. I naturally write in a pared down, casual way, which might be thought of as typically American. I like the direct, gutsy way Americans and Canadians express themselves. They’re more easily verbal than the English. As far as my book being distinctly Canadian, I don’t know. Perhaps only the setting. To me the language Canadians use seems similar to Americans, though any Canadians reading this will probably curse me for saying that. There is a particular wholesomeness to Canada, but I don’t know whether I’ve captured it in Smoked Meat.
3:AM: Are you ambitious, and do you have dreams as a writer – a place you want to end up? A garret, perhaps? Maybe a trilogy movie deal? How far off are you, do you think? Or are you where you want to be?
RM: I am ambitious. I wish I wasn’t as it’s tiring being ambitious and when you’ve reached one goal there’s always another one just out of reach. You never fully rest on your laurels. I’m thrilled Smoked Meat has been published as it was a labour of love and it’s about a time in my life that was important to me – but I hope to publish some novels in the future, particularly the one I’ve nearly finished writing. I’m not motivated by money, though it would be nice to do less of my day jobs and make more money from writing. I’m motivated most by creative satisfaction. I feel most myself when I’m writing. When I was a kid I used to spend hours drawing cartoon strips of princesses and ballerinas, telling stories about them to myself under my breath, and when I’m in the flow with my writing it feels like that: completely absorbing and entertaining.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012.