I met Catherine McNamara a couple of years ago at the launch of the Willesden Herald anthology (New Short Stories 9), when we both had short stories featured, and we’ve kept in touch via good old Facebook ever since. I am delighted to welcome her onto the blog today to talk about her writing.
My own review is at the end of this post.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. She was an embassy secretary in pre-war Mogadishu, and has worked as an au pair, graphic designer, translator and shoe model. Her collection The Cartography of Others came out in 2018 with Unbound. Her book Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize. Her work has been Pushcart-nominated and published in the U.K., Europe, U.S.A. and Australia. Catherine lives in Italy.
The Cartography of Others
A Japanese soprano sets sail for arid, haunted Corsica where she seeks her lost voice. A nude woman at the window of a Hong Kong hotel watches her lover dine in an adjacent building, but is her desire faltering? With a young son and her photographer partner, a journalist traverses Mali to interview an irascible musician. A son relives his mother’s last hours before a hiking accident in the Italian Dolomites, while in London a grieving family takes in an ex-soldier from the Balkan wars, unaware of the man’s demons.
The Cartography of Others takes us from fumy Accra to suburban Sydney, from scruffy Paris to pre-fundamentalist Mali. Each bewitchingly recounted story conveys a location as vital as the fitful, contemplative characters themselves. Lives are mapped, unpicked and crafted, across vivid lingering terrains.
Q: You have such a wonderful portfolio of short stories, published and award winning, how did you go about making a selection of what to include in the collection? I'd also love to know how you decided on the order of stories, what criteria did you use in putting stories next to each other for example?
This is such a writers’ question, and one I’ve often wanted to ask short story writers, and am very happy to answer. The collection shifted over a number of years before becoming the version it is today. However, I was always certain of the order of the first few stories, the final story, and the ones that would precede it. I wrote the first story ‘Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage’, in late 2013, and ‘Three Days in Hong Kong the same month. I think the last stories were written in 2015. Over that two year period I wrote the twenty stories that make up the collection, with a lot of submitting, rejections, revisions and publication through that period. For some reason, I ended up with slightly more male protagonists than female, a couple of second person stories, a handful of first person stories, and many more pieces written in the third person. Having spent years living in West Africa and in Europe, half of the stories are set in West Africa, and the others spread from Western Europe to Hong Kong and Australia. So when it was time to arrange an order I had to think of location and voice and tone, making an even transition from story to story. As you know, this is not easy! I wrote the titles on strips of paper which I lay down on a rug in my attic, and for a week went up there just to ponder and rearrange. Even now I worry there are order changes that I could make. Although I think this is the nature of the writer – never being satisfied.
Q. What first triggers the idea of a story for you? Is it a theme, or title or a line of dialogue? I know for every writer it's a different process. How do you know you have a short story beginning to form?
For me the trigger has to be the pulse of the first sentence. Which as a writer you must be allured and intrigued by – as much as the reader. Diving into the story with this scent or hint of motion is very exciting and I never know where a story will take me. If I know too much I am likely to overturn everything and veer another way. I like to feel breathless and entranced through to the last word.
Q. What are your favourite short stories and/or short story writers? Could you recommend any collections or anthologies to read, particularly for writers just starting out to write this form?
My first short story loves were Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Patrick White, but I have discovered so many along the way, and intend to reread old favourites and discover many more. I also enjoyed the stories of Mavis Gallant, Grace Paley, Carson MacCullers, John Cheever, Yukio Mishima, Joseph Conrad, Shirley Hazzard, Ben Okri, John Salter, Patricia Highsmith, all high priests and priestesses of the form. Contemporary loves include ZZ Packer, Nam Le, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Viet Nguyen, Miranda July, May-Lan Tan, Deborah Levy. A collection I would recommend is Kasuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes and Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now – pitch perfect works. Collections I’ve read and enjoyed this year include Alison MacLeod’s All the Beloved Ghosts, Rebecca Clarkson’s Barking Dogs and Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now.
Q. Can you tell us what you're working on right now? What new projects are you planning or hoping to work on in the near future.
Right now I’m working on the occasional short story or flash piece, but I’m focussing on writing a novel. It’s been a bumpy year so I’m almost looking forward to the long winter so as to straighten out my ideas. I also have a flash collection on submission and am collaborating on a film script for one of the stories in Cartography. I know that my main love is the short story but it’s useful to explore story itself through different forms. I find it makes me carve straight into the essence, and also to consider the diverse ways of conversing with the reader.
Thank you for having me Tracy!
And thank you, Catherine for sharing your process. You’ve also listed a lot of short story writers that I need to track down.
You can link with Catherine on:
Facebook: Catherine McNamara
And buy your copy of The Cartography of Others:
Gardners (for booksellers)
Plus all good book shops.
Here is my posted review of Catherine’s latest short story collection, which I highly recommend, and using her words (see above) her stories made me feel “breathless and entranced through to the last word”:
The Cartography of Others by Catherine McNamara (Unbound) is a collection of 20 short stories, which together map the complexities that link men and women. These are beautifully constructed stories, the language lyrical and poetic yet still authentic and real. Many of these stories felt like the beginning of longer pieces, you could believe in the characters, see their lives continuing far beyond the story’s conclusion. I wanted most of them to be longer, to carry on reading and learn more about the people who populated McNamara’s intricate worlds. The voices are varied, both male and female narrators share their moments, and the settings stretch from Japan to Paris, Mali and Spain, Sydney to a boat cruise round Corsica. Each place is exquisitely drawn and always integral to the atmosphere and mood of the story. McNamara often focuses in on a couple’s relationship at the moment where everything is about to change. The passion and pain of love beginning, or ending, is in these stories. Sexual tension, aggression, along with obsession and unrequited longing are here and the emotions are achingly real.
My personal favourite is ‘Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage’ where a Belgian music manager and his Japanese soprano wife have booked a week-long cruise around Corsica. Their relationship is brought into taut comparison with that of the couple managing the boat. There is also humour here as the cook’s ambition is to see the soprano’s hidden toes. The soprano is delicate and nervous, her voice apparently damaged and degrading. The interplay between the four characters in this story was breathtaking, their complexities and neuroses written with a poignant understanding of humanity. It would make a glorious film. I wanted more of these characters – the cost of the collection is worth it simply for this story, and then you have 19 bonus stories to enjoy.
I envy anyone reading this collection for the first time – they have a wonderful experience ahead of them.