Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Catherine, thanks for speaking to us at TSS Publishing. We’re big fans of your work (we published the story ‘They Came from the East’ back in 2015) and interviewed you previously about short fiction. We’re excited about the new collection currently on Unbound. What can you tell us about The Cartography of Others?
The Cartography of Others has now been published and can be purchased here.
Thanks very much for your kind words and support! The Cartography of Others is the fruit of around three years work and all of the stories have been published in reviews or shortlisted in competitions, so they have been rejected and refined and resubmitted over that time, until they found good homes. Basically, I tried to write a decent story every month, although that didn’t always happen because I didn’t always have a sound idea or life got in the way (I once travelled to Naples with an unfinished draft of ‘The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him’ crumpled at the bottom of my handbag, thinking my subconscious mind would collaborate with the manuscript). I grew up in Sydney and ran away to Paris when I was twenty-one, living in various places in Africa and Europe, so the stories take place in these settings. They explore themes that are central to me – displacement and adaptation, our sensual lives, violence, landscape and music.
At what point did you start to think you had a collection ready for publication?
When I had over two hundred pages of material I started to cull and think of the stories as a collection. I also waited until most were published and this takes time.
Did you go straight to Unbound, or did you tread that difficult path of traditional publishing first?
My agent tried the path of traditional publishing and though we received many positive comments, it was quite clear that a novel might have been more viable. Much the same happened with smaller independent publishers. We submitted to Unbound because they have a broad presence and great energy.
How did you set about choosing the short stories for the collection?
Each story springs to life in a different fashion and each has had its own journey towards publication – in many ways having a story accepted is an inexplicable thing. Perhaps a story you felt less confident about is accepted immediately or does brilliantly in a competition, or one you are fond of takes a good dozen rounds of submission. This definitely conditions your belief in each story. I knew that I would be including the shortlisted ones (‘Pia Tortora’ in the Royal Academy/Pin Drop Award last year, ‘The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him’ in the Hilary Mantel/Kingston University Competition, ‘Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage’ in the Short Fiction Competition and ‘The Cliffs of Bandiagara’ in the Willesden Herald Competition, as well as a first prize with TSS with ‘They Came From the East’). And I knew I wanted an even mix of European and West African and Australian settings that might appeal to an international reader. I also didn’t want a bias towards male or female protagonists, or a run of stories in the first or third person, or in the present or past tense. As soon as the mainstay stories were in place I filled the gaps with others that I hoped would lead the reader along a path laden with contrast and surprise.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the process so far?
Having shortlisted stories in competitions or published in wonderful journals, as well as having a London agent who loves your work, is no guarantee of swift publication! So I felt as though I was hovering for a long while before the final decision was made. The crowdfunding is a long process so you just have to work at it, accept the array of responses you will receive, be grateful to each person who understands the concept or likes your work and comes on board. Rather than think of it as a fund-raising venture, it’s really a way of building up the readership of your book, and putting books into hands.
Which is your favourite short story nestled between the covers?
We’ve all heard that a short story is like a love affair – with all the passion and pitfalls and inevitable brutal ending – while the novel is more of a committed rapport, which of course makes the short story sound dangerous and alluring. So each story has been quite a fling for me! I’d probably sit with ‘Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage’, because it has water and womanhood and pain and oily black pebbles on a Mediterranean beach. And an opera singer, as opera is quite big in my household.
In a number of places, you talk about the necessity of writing blog posts, connecting with readers, doing the whole social media thing – over your writing career, is this something you feel is becoming increasingly important, and if so, what are the effects upon the writer and writing more generally?
I think it’s an essential and beneficial tool. I live in the Italian countryside so there was no way I could have promoted my work without blogging or social media. I remember years ago, pre-internet, when I was sending submissions from Mogadishu or Accra and waiting an age for a reply, the waiting game and the isolation were crippling. Now I am meeting like-minded writers all the time, sharing news or celebrating our publishing successes, and able to contemplate the massive outreach that is crowdfunding. It can be an unreal world full of tailored personae, but there is good energy and eye-watering generosity out there.
When my collection Pelt and Other Stories was published, I had already built up a small reader community through blogging about my first novel, an erotic comedy called The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy. Amazingly, DLC readers ‘switched teams’ and went from mild erotica to literary short stories, because I had identified issues that drew them in and pricked their interest. The blogging period also taught me to write quickly and synthesise ideas about the writing life, for the purpose of attracting and sustaining a reader’s attention. But it wasn’t only that. A lot of useful exchange occurred and continues today. When I launched the crowdfunding project for The Cartography of Others, these were faithful readers and friends who came on board immediately, and gave me courage!
Of course social media activity is extremely time-consuming, and mustn’t impinge upon creative time and energy. The important thing is to have an honest voice and decide what you want to share about yourself.
In an interview with Words with Writers, you state that when it comes to talking about writing ‘the magic shouldn’t be prodded’ – could you elucidate on that for us?
By that I meant that I don’t like to tamper with the process of story invention. I’m always grateful when a story presents itself and asks to be told. I do a lot of stewing in the car but never too much – I’ll reach the precipice of a plot idea or a character trait, or perhaps get a glimpse of an outcome, then I really enjoy the freefall at my desk.
Lastly, if you were to convince someone who had never read short stories before, to pick up a collection or anthology, what would you say?
So often, readers on book forums say that short stories give little satisfaction and leave you wanting, and that is when I want to tear out my hair and say that this ‘ wanting’ is both intended and indicates a degree of success. So much more is demanded of the reader in this dance which is why it is such an exacting and exciting form.
My first love was Katherine Mansfield because of her clarity of voice and bewitching language. I love it when language is so elegant and surprising that you feel yourself gasp. But to a short story newbie I would suggest three brilliant contemporary writers from Australia: Fiona McFarlane’s collection The High Places is quietly disturbing, Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots and Like a House on Fire are insightful, engaging examples of the form, and The Boat by Nam Le is masterful and flawless.
Thank you, Katherine.
Thank you so much for having me Rupert!
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write at twenty-one and ended up in Ghana running a bar. Her collection The Cartography of Others was published by Unbound last year. Pelt and Other Stories (2013) was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize, and her stories and flash fiction have been Pushcart-nominated and published widely. Catherine lives in a farmhouse in Italy. Catherine can be found on Facebook, Twitter @catinitaly, and Instagram: catinitaly. You can also read her short story ‘They Came From the East’ that was published on TSS.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London. He’s also Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers (London) and Curator for WritingCompetitions.org. His own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.
Submit an interview to TSS.
Support TSS Publishing by subscribing to our limited edition chapbooks.