Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Guest author Catherine McNamara: Why Writing a Short Story is Like Sky Diving

Catherine McNamara
Catherine McNamara moved to Italy after many years in West Africa. Here she translates for a WWI Eco-museum, runs a bed-and-breakfast and skis fanatically. She has great collections of African sculpture and Italian heels. She is originally from Sydney. Among her publications are Nii Kwei’s Day (children’s book published by Frances Lincoln UK, October 2003), The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy (2012, Indigo Dreams Publishing UK) and Pelt and Other Stories (2013, Indigo Dreams Publishing UK). 

I’ve never tried sky diving and I don’t imagine I will ever have the courage to do so, but in looking for an easy analogy between the writing of a novel and the rapid journey of the short story, I’ve come up with this.

Picture a long-haul flight: you ascend, you meet your characters/neighbours, you understand your context, you enjoy the wide-sweeping views and perhaps experience a little turbulence. You have your ticket in your pocket, you know your destination; you may drink and make a party of it, or you might even fall fast asleep.

When it’s over, you arrive refreshed or exhausted, depending on your resilience and the air company you have chosen. You may have been changed by your journey – it may have somehow seeped into your skin – but perhaps you are the same as before, untouched and impatient to get going and reach a new destination.

But the short story? It’s a far different type of venture. Firstly, there’s no ticket, no guarantee, no one holding your hand when you have a panic attack. Risks must be taken. You have to jump into the void. It is a fast journey where everything can go wrong. Technically, you must be adept. You must understand timing. You will see the wide views alter quickly, you will feel a sense of culmination – and dread. And when you hit the dust you may not be a different person but you will be altered, the experience will have shaken you, tested your senses, brought you forth from the unknown.

Have you ever dared to write a short story? Or have you ever proposed a short collection to an agent to be told, Nice writing but could you write me a novel? Or, Well I’m afraid short stories don’t sell at all – how about a novel? Why is it that short stories are so often viewed as the junior sister of the more worthy novel? Are they merely practice for the real thing?

I was once shocked to read a well-known author comment that a novel can have ‘baggy’ bits, where a short story must not have a word out of place. That’s the laziest definition of a novel I’ve ever heard! I prefer Isabel Allende’s opinion: she feels that writers should not be urged to move from the short story to the novel, but rather in the opposite direction – that after mastering the novel form, authors should progress to the more challenging technical skills required for the short story.

Interesting, no?

When I grew tired of being asked for a novel I sat down and continued writing my short stories, working on technique, voice, cadences. Gradually, most of them were published in UK and Australian literary reviews. Some threaded together of their own accord. Some were clearly attention-seekers, other were more subtle, written in a different key. Several years later I found myself with a diverse collection set in Ghana, Italy, Australia, Belgium, Germany. Would my small British publisher ever be interested in a book like this?

Fortunately, my publisher fell in love with the stories and offered a contract quickly. I was able to obtain cover comments from two prize-winning authors who also liked the work. A brilliant cover was designed and the book was recently launched at an independent London book shop.

And now a new free fall starts. Promotion and publicity. Hoping that this short story collection might stand out, that readers might be enticed by my blurb or excerpts, and perhaps buy a copy. Hoping that reviews will be good and that bookshops will order.

Hoping that my landing is soft and safe!

Lust and dirt from a world of places

Catherine McNamara’s stories take the reader on a pulsing, eloquent journey through post-colonial Africa and fading, melancholy Europe. McNamara deals with dirty family secrets, the stealth of AIDS, misunderstood gay love and neglected children. She shows Europe’s laundered, subjugated environment and its isolated urbanites.

Some stories are interlinked. Two foolhardy snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites. A Ghanaian woman strokes across a pool in the tropics, flaunting her pregnant belly before her lover’s discarded wife. A sex worker is enlisted to care for her Italian lover’s elderly parents. Hit by a car in Brussels, a young woman returns to her doctor boyfriend. And in Berlin, Celeste visits her suicidal brother Ray and his partner for the very last time.

Pelt and Other Stories lingers on the cusp between Europe and Africa, between ancient sentiments and modern disquiet.

Pelt and Other Stories is available from:
Indigo Dreams Bookshop
Amazon UK
Amazon US
The Book Depository (free international postage)
Kindle version out soon!

Catherine's blog


Liane Spicer said...

Hi Catherine! Welcome back to Novel Spaces and congrats on the release of Pelt. Looking forward to reading it!

Charles Gramlich said...

I had my first successes writing short stories. I still like them a lot and would say it's my preferred type of writing.

chillcat said...

Thanks Liane! Lovely to be here again. It's such a treat to have a book of short stories out there! Ciao Catherine

I agree Charles. I have to say that short stories are where my heart lies - though not so easy to have published! Glad to hear you've had success with short fiction.
Best wishes, Catherine

Unknown said...

I love writing shorter pieces and can imagine possibly making a leap to short stories someday. Yours sound fantastic. Glad to know about your collection.

chillcat said...

Thanks Julie! Good luck with your short story efforts. I think it's a wonderful genre.
Best, cat