Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Catherine McNamara

In books, fiction, short stories, writing on July 28, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Catherine McNamara

Catherine McNamara. Photo by Finley McNamara-Provencal.

An introduction to writer Catherine McNamara whose novel The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy (Indigo Dreams, UK) will be released in October 2011. McNamara grew up in Sydney, Australia, went on to travel and live in five other countries, and currently resides in Italy where she works as a translator and writer. Her children’s book Nii Kwei’s Day was published by Frances Lincoln, and her short stories have appeared in numerous publications including Wasafiri (forthcoming in 2012), The View From Here, Kerouac’s Dog, Australian Reader, and Pretext.

Quick Facts on Catherine McNamara

  • Blogs: The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy, Pelt & Other Stories
  • Home: I live outside of Vicenza in north-eastern Italy, beneath the Euganei Hills
  • Comfort food: Pierre Marcolini chocolate from Belgium
  • Top authors: Patrick White, Marguerite Yourcenar, Naguib Mahfouz, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf
  • Current reads: The Boat by Nam Le  

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on final galley proofs for my women’s commercial novel, The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy. I am submitting a collection of (mostly published) short stories set in Africa and Europe called Pelt and Other Stories. It’s been a while now, but I am also revising a literary novel set in Ghana, which I wrote a few years ago.

What do you hope readers will take away from The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy?

“The novel was also triggered

by my disenchantment with the way

contemporary women grow older.”

I hope that readers will laugh at my protagonist’s escapades, but as the novel was also triggered by my disenchantment with the way contemporary women grow older, I wanted to create a believable, flawed mother-of-teenagers who has let herself go a little, and finds a way into the light without needing to look like a twenty-eight-year-old. The invisibility and insecurity of the older woman is appalling, especially in Italy, and the idea of the beauty and sexiness of maturity was what I wanted to convey. Not original, I know, but commercial women’s fiction has far too many thirty-year-olds living extremely superficial lives!

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

The older woman, the curious older male. Someone with a weak spot for Italy. Especially the suffering divorcée!

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I am a very seasonal person, and in winter I write first drafts on my laptop in bed with a beanie on (my house is very cold). Editing, however, I do downstairs where I have a lovely office, which I hardly ever use. Blog work and submissions I do in my daughter’s room where there is an internet connection. In the summer (very hot here) I run off to the old chicken shed and install myself with a folding chair and a garden table.

Where would you most want to live and write?   

As I live in the country, and have been here eight years, my dream would be to live in a big city so I could walk around in the evenings and watch people other than farmers on tractors. But if I lived in a big city (as I used to in chaotic West Africa) I’m sure I would say I’d love to live in the country surrounded by grapevines and wisteria.

Do you listen to anything while you write?  

No, I prefer silence. I try to block out my kids if they are in the house. I won’t even answer my mum calling from Sydney, Australia.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

I don’t really have a philosophy. Writing is what I told myself I was best at, although sometimes I wish it had been something easier. Yet, after all my lofty, over-written early novels, writing still turns me on in an almost sexy way. It is the combination of gut feeling, exacting technique, and the sway of the words themselves. I love the way the subconscious swims up, providing you with the thread; I love being in the thick of the story as it unfolds.

“It is the combination of gut feeling,

exacting technique, and the sway

of the words themselves.”

I stopped writing for several years and went back to graphic design, and I felt a great relief to be untethered, not to have this compulsion and obligation. Now I am trying harder to publish, and not be brought down by the first defeat.      

How do you balance content with form?

I have a very organic way of writing, meaning I snatch an idea and run with it, all the way to the end, especially with short stories. I used to be very heavy-handed with language and unclear with content, but now I am kinder to the reader, at least I think. And, I’m a much better editor than I was in the past.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

I read an interview with the Australian writer Robert Drewe where the interviewer mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory”, which I hadn’t heard about before, where the written work is only one-eighth of the entire story, the rest of which remains submerged. I was happy to realize I had already developed this view, although the “Iceberg Theory” expresses it so distinctly.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

When I was young I applied for a journalism cadetship and just missed out. I was told to “go and live a little and come back next year.” I did. I left Australia and went to Paris, went to Italy, and then East Africa. I never went back. I would say to anyone who wants to write—although you’re free to disagree—to read classical and contemporary writers for technique, but to go out and live things, work, talk to people, gather up stories to tell.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Years ago, a friend told me that the story is like a spinning merry-go-round, you just have to find the right point to hop on. I’ve always liked that.

Is there a question you find surprising that people ask you about your writing?

I have four children and people always assume I write children’s books. I did write one book for kids that was part of a series and set in Ghana, but the rest of my writing is literary or comic and definitely for adults.

Is there a question that you wish people would ask you more often about your writing?

I’ve never really spoken much about my writing and I’ve just joined the blog bandwagon to help promote my book, which is coming out this autumn. I’ve always thought writing should be done quietly, as a craft, and not talked about too much. The magic shouldn’t be prodded. Having said that, it has been fortifying to read other authors write about their submission/rejection experiences. That helps.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

“The most challenging aspect

of writing is belief.”

The most challenging aspect of writing is belief; hauling yourself back up by the “book straps” when you’ve had a rejection or feel a story has weakened since your euphoria at its completion. The hardest is governing the ups and downs, organizing and protecting your true creative time, and keeping internet and blogging time in a padlocked box.

The other huge one is knowing when to stop for the day, accepting when the words have stalled a little and it’s time for some fresh air.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

When not writing, I am doing my piano practice. Or in winter I am on a mountain telemark skiing. After a big writing day, I need to come down gently and it takes a while.

About Catherine McNamara
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and moved to Paris as a student, working as an au pair for a theatrical family. She taught English in Milan, then moved to pre-war Somalia and worked in an embassy. She has since lived in Brussels, northern Italy, and spent many years in Ghana, where she co-ran a bar and traditional art gallery. She currently lives in Italy where she works as a translator and writer. Her children’s book Nii Kwei’s Day was published by Frances Lincoln, and her short stories have appeared in numerous publications. Her commercial women’s novel will be released in October 2011 with Indigo Dreams Publishing UK. McNamara’s story collection Pelt and Other Stories is in search of a publisher.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Catherine McNamara.” Words With Writers (July 28, 2011), https://wordswithwriters.com/2011/07/28/catherine-mcnamara/ .]

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy by Catherin McNamara (Indigo Dreams, 2011).

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