Rowena Macdonald was born on the Isle of Wight, grew up in the West Midlands and now lives in east London. Smoked Meat (Flambard Press), her debut collection, was shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. Her short stories have also been published by Influx Press, Galley Beggar Press, Ambit, Unthank Books and Serpent’s Tail, among others. She has won a number of prizes, including, most recently, Glimmer Train’s 2014 Family Matters competition, the Tower Hamlets Prize in the 2014 Write Idea Competition and runner-up in the 2013 Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize. She has recently finished a novel, which is currently with her agent, Jamie Coleman of Greene & Heaton.
Tell us a little about your background and your earliest engagement with literature.
I was born on the Isle of Wight and grew up in the West Midlands, for the most part in Wolverhampton. My earliest engagement with literature was probably my mum reading Beatrix Potter to me. Apparently I used to cry at the end of Mrs Tiggywinkle, finding out that she wasn’t a washerwoman, she was ‘only a little hedgehog’.
What made you want to become a writer and how/when did this realisation occur?
Growing up, I wanted to go into fashion design. I went to art college but ended up eventually doing an English degree at Sussex University. After university I wrote a short story inspired by my summer job as a delivery driver for Oddbins. I sent it to a local competition run by the Asham Trust and was one of 10 winners. We were all given a week at Ty Newydd writing centre in Wales and mentoring by a writer of our choice; I chose Shena Mackay. While at Ty Newydd I had a road to Damascus moment that this was what I wanted to do. And from then on I did it.
…It didn’t take much motivation to write; I wanted to. Life felt thin and boring otherwise…
Describe your early career writing habits and how you sustained the motivation to write.
I used to write every day for an hour before work. It didn’t take much motivation to write; I wanted to. Life felt thin and boring otherwise. Winning a few competitions and having a few stories published early on also motivated me.
What was your experience of living in Montreal and when did you realise this would be the setting for Smoked Meat?
Montreal was a turning point in my life. It was when I gave up a proper career and decided to focus on being a writer. Being in a foreign city was incredibly inspiring, although it was also tough as I didn’t have a visa so I had to work cash in hand. It was an adventure though; it’s freeing to be away from your home country and not pinned down by family and friends’ expectations. I wrote notes all the time because I knew I’d write about the place eventually, although I didn’t start writing Smoked Meat until two years after I’d come back to England. I needed that distance.
Chrystel Lebas, Between Dog and Wolf, 2004
You mentioned in your interview with 3:AM that your characters are ‘amalgams’ and that you ‘don’t transfer people straight from real life to the page as they need to be filtered through the prism of fiction’. How do you balance this process?
I don’t write about people that I am closely involved with day-to-day or about my family. I often write about people I vaguely know or used to know but I never put exact replicas of real life people on the page; my characters encompass elements of people I know but a lot is made up. In my current novel, the characters are more imagined, and these days I tend not to use people I know as inspiration so much. Smoked Meat was more of a roman à clef. When I have written about people that may be recognisable – for example, recently I wrote two stories inspired by a friend’s late mother – I have run the stories past them to check they are ok with them. I would never publish anything that impinged on peoples’ privacy or upset them.
Did any of the individuals who inspired the characters in Smoked Meat read the stories prior to publication? Did they recognise any similarities, and if so, what was their reaction?
Two of my muses read and critiqued all the stories prior to publication and although they recognised some events from their life, they weren’t bothered. I think they were flattered actually.
In 1998 you won a short story competition run by the Asham Trust, tell us a little about the period which followed and the lead up to the publication of Smoked Meat.
After winning that competition I decided I wanted to be a writer. I was working as a journalist at the time on a local paper. In 1999 I gave up my job and went to Montreal with a friend. I came back from Montreal at the end of 2000 and moved to London. I started writing Smoked Meat in 2002, finished it in 2006 and in 2011 I finally got a publisher, after hawking it around all over the place. I am eternally grateful to Will Mackie of Flambard Press (which now, sadly no longer exists) for taking on Smoked Meat. I was the penultimate book published by Flambard.
…the publication gave me more confidence. I felt I could finally call myself a writer…
Following the publication of Smoked Meat by Flambard Press, how did your personal and professional life change, if at all? Did you notice any differences in personality or practice?
Neither my personal or professional life changed that much. I got to know a few more writers, which was good, and a few opportunities came my way which might not have done otherwise—such as being published in the Red Room anthology, edited by AJ Ashworth (fellow Edge Hill Prize shortlistee). I also got an agent this year, but that was for a novel, which I hope will soon be published. But I continued doing my two day jobs, so no change there. The publication gave me more confidence. I felt I could finally call myself a writer. My practice didn’t change, and it certainly wasn’t like I hit the big time or got a load of money.
Though smothered in snow half the year, Montreal’s demi-monde burns with the secret hurts and poignant epiphanies of those living there. Through the lives of its inhabitants, Smoked Meat paints a portrait of a vibrant melting pot that is buzzing with sexual braggadocio and illicit opportunities.
Describe your initial induction into the publishing industry and how it felt to become a professional writer. What was your experience of editors, agents and publishers?
I spent about five years trying to find a publisher for Smoked Meat. It took about twelve years to find an agent. My experience of becoming a professional writer has been longwinded and involved an enormous amount of patience and determination. I have had a lot of rejections. I used to cry about rejections; now I expect everything to be a total hassle and not go my way. Will Mackie at Flambard Press was a brilliant editor and I was very pleased at how professionally he produced Smoked Meat. Jamie Coleman at Greene & Heaton is my agent. He seems like a very nice man and I am hoping he is going to sell my novel for lots of money, but we shall see. My other stories have mainly been published by small presses so far: Influx Press, Galley Beggar, Unthank Books, Ambit, to name a few. I can honestly say that all the small presses I’ve dealt with have been great; full of really nice, intelligent, interesting people who are passionate about literature.
With upcoming publications due in Ambit and a shortlisted story in the Write Idea Festival, how do you juggle professional economic responsibilities with your more creative aspirations?
I work four days a week – three days in administration at the House of Commons and one day teaching creative writing at Westminster University. During the summer term I don’t teach, so only work three days a week. I write all day Fridays (and Thursdays during the summer). I also sometimes write in the very early morning and at weekends. I wish I had more time to write.
…One good thing about London is there are a lot of writers, so you can feel like part of a writing community, rather than a lone weirdo…
Has the geographic relocation from Montreal to London had an impact on your writing, and if so, how? Does the change of city and its inhabitants inspire you in similar, or different ways?
I have to work more at day jobs in London as it is more expensive, so that’s cut into my writing time. London used to inspire me but I’ve been here 13 years now so I feel a bit jaded. I don’t find it as inspiring as Montreal, but I only lived there a year. One good thing about London is there are a lot of writers, so you can feel like part of a writing community, rather than a lone weirdo.
Tell us a little about your current writing habits. Where and when do you feel most productive, and why? Has this changed since your early writing career and following publication?
I‘m most productive in the morning when I am most awake and fresh. 8am onwards is my best time. I am a day-time person and always have been. Never been a night owl. These days I don’t feel the need to write every day, mainly because I am more confident I can do it. I try and write about 1,000 words a day, on my actual writing days. On a really good day I can write 1,500.
When you need inspiration, which book of short stories or novel might you pick up? Aside from literature, which other art forms or artists might you draw inspiration from?
I tend to read books set in the same place as the place I am writing about. So for Smoked Meat I read The Favourite Game by Leonard Cohen, The Main by Trevanian and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler. An August Kleinzahler poem inspired ‘Double Take’, the very first story I wrote of Smoked Meat. And from that story all the others grew. In ‘Roger’s Dream’, which is partly set in a junkyard, I wanted to capture the battered Americana of John Salt’s hyper-realist car paintings; one of his paintings is the cover of Smoked Meat. Some photographs of a twilight forest by Crystel Lebas at a V&A exhibition inspired a story entitled ‘Between Dog and Wolf’, which was published in the 2012 Nottingham Short Story Prize anthology. Three 15th century paintings of nude women wrapped in furs that I saw at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna partially inspired a story about a fur farm entitled ‘My Beauty’, which was published by the Galley Beggar Singles Club. Eventually I want to write something inspired by a fantastic self-portrait of the photographer Samantha Sweeting, which shows her breast-feeding a lamb. I often listen to music that I think my characters would like, although not while I am actually writing. So, for the novel that is with my agent, I listened to a lot of Wire, Neu, Morrissey and Joy Division, as this was the kind of doomy stuff I reckoned one of my main characters would like. For my current novel, which is set at a fictional mid-90s road protest, I have been listening to the album Peggy Suicide by Julian Cope.
Samantha Sweeting, In Came the Lamb, 2009
You stated that you ‘start with setting and characters and a distinct atmosphere [which you] want to convey’, but how do you navigate between the intentional and intuitive?
The way I write is a blend of both intentional and intuitive. I usually know what my end point is going to be and I write towards that end point. Various unexpected twists and turns occur on the way and sometimes the end point turns out differently from what I originally intended. Ideas occur to me as I write. I don’t plan in minute detail but neither do I blindly write without any idea of what I am trying to achieve.
Was there a point in your literary development where you realised your work shared a specific style or source/s of interest? If so, how did this affect you and your writing?
When I read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood I felt we had similar sensibilities in terms of what we notice. I felt the same about Swimming Home by Deborah Levy. However, I wouldn’t say I was influenced by them; I just felt they had a similar style, that they were, like me, very visual writers, interested in concrete day-to-day details like food and drink. Zoë Heller has a similar interest in how family and friends interact and socially awkward situations. Katherine Mansfield is an influence – I like her casualness, her attention to the subtle details of peoples’ interactions and her deceptive simplicity. Her writing is not overwrought. I also like Jean Rhys for similar reasons. I like intimate fiction about daily life; I’m not particularly interested in grand, action-packed plots. A Moveable Feast by Hemingway was an influence on Smoked Meat, as was Dubliners by James Joyce. The final story in Smoked Meat is a homage to ‘The Dead’, although I feel a little pompous saying that.
Do you share your work with close readers and receive feedback as you write, or once the story is complete? How do you approach revising your work?
I share work with various writer friends and editors I know, usually when it is complete. I revise work a lot and always take on trusted peoples’ suggestions. I must have revised my novel at least ten times and am still in the process of revising it according to my agent’s wishes.
…Don’t wait for inspiration. Write every day and you will write through your creative block. Be workmanlike. Don’t be precious…
David James Poissant and Paul McVeigh both recommended leaving a short story for as long as possible before returning to it. Do you agree? How do you know when to stop re-drafting?
I agree. I tend to stop re-drafting just before something is published or just before I am about to send it to a competition. Once it’s published I stop re-drafting.
Once you have decided that a story is ready for submission, what is your process of identifying magazines and/or publications? How do you approach submitting your writing?
These days I tend to only submit to publications that pay money, even if it is only a small amount. I would only submit to something that didn’t pay if it was very prestigious or published good writers that I wanted to be associated with. I prefer submitting to print publications rather than online, because they feel more solid. I tend to submit to more competitions than publications, simply because of the chance of money. I submit to as many competitions as I hear about.
If a submission is unsuccessful, how do you deal with rejection? Do you have any tips or advice for writers who may experience similar difficulties when seeking publication?
I press on and submit the work elsewhere. I remind myself of my successes and tell myself I’m marvellous and that whoever has rejected me hasn’t a clue. I would advise other writers to do the same.
…You have to be like a boxer and big yourself up in your own mind…
What might you tell a fellow writer who was experiencing moments of self-doubts or creative sparseness? How might you inspire the continuation of creation?
Don’t wait for inspiration. Write every day and you will write through your creative block. Be workmanlike about it. Don’t be precious. The world is not waiting for you and your little pearls of genius. Don’t waste time on Facebook envying other peoples’ successes. In fact, come off Facebook altogether. If you’re feeling self-doubt, remind yourself that there’s an awful lot of crap that’s published and your crap is probably better than that crap or at least no worse. You have to be like a boxer and big yourself up in your own mind.
What is the best advice you have received regarding your writing and/or literary ambitions, and what advice would you offer our readers and other aspiring writers?
Robert Edric, an early mentor, told me to write every day and cut at least 100 words out of every page. One of my MA tutors, David Morley, advised to always have something out on submission and never use coloured paperclips.
A good piece of advice I once read by Zadie Smith was don’t spend too much time in writing groups or socialising with writers, just sit at home and get on with it. And an American author whose name I have forgotten said wait until your idea feels so tasty in your mouth that you can’t wait to write it down. Obviously, read every spare moment you can. But one of the main pieces of advice I would give is be persistent.
…wait until your idea is so tasty in your mouth that you can’t wait to write it down….
From Chapter 1 of The Secret Policeman (working title of current novel)
Seren Star’s hula hoop swirled around her in a cat’s cradle of sparkling orbit lines. She was wearing a shiny turquoise leotard and her cheekbones and eyelids shimmered like dragonfly wings. Her feet were bare and her toenails were painted metallic blue. She spun the hoop up and down from neck to ankle, encasing herself in a silver force field. Behind her the sea glittered in the early evening June sun and behind the seafront the tall, cliff white buildings threw back the light. Blue, white, light and sparkle. Seren was both absorbed in her spiralling movements and aware of the effect on the small crowd that had gathered around her; the smiles and the eyes following the trajectory of the hoop. She flicked it above her head, lassoed it three times, then swung it in figures of eight either side of her body before jumping through it like a skipping rope.
A pound coin landed in the upturned top hat at her feet: the teenage girl who had been gazing at her for the past fifteen minutes. A little boy edged forward and dropped in what looked like fifty pence before running back to his mother. A shower of change rained in from a burly middle aged bloke holding a plastic pint glass from the Fortune of War. As well as reading the crowd, Seren could sense silver and gold coins with her eyes closed. Sometimes, at least once a day, she got fivers. Once, even a tenner. Notes were obviously brilliant but they did often involve having to engage with the person who had given them, and often that person was a man who thought that because he’d been so generous he was entitled to ask her out. Busking on the seafront made you a target for all the slimeballs that trawled along trying their luck with lone women. Seren found if she carried on hooping and closed her eyes in beatific bliss they eventually went away. They were unnerved by happy self-absorption.
Author Photo by Martin Fuller
Read Rowena Macdonald’s shortlisted story ‘Phosphorescence‘ here (Write Idea Festival):
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Interview by Tomek Dzido