Flash Frontier

Interview: Catherine McNamara, Love Stories for Hectic People

Interviews and Features

A conversation with Catherine McNamara, with her new book, Love Stories for Hectic People

Flash Frontier: Let’s talk about love! How did this collection come about? How did you come to write a whole collection of love stories?

Catherine McNamara: I started this collection before COVID altered our lives, when the idea of LOVE was at the surface of my mind. Love between man and woman, love between mother and child, the complex love within scattered families. It was very unsettled year as I was waiting for replies regarding another piece of work, and my life situation made my creative energy confined to aggravated morning slots. So I made myself attempt to write a 500 word story every morning. The stories rolled out as they are and I truly began to explore the depth and immediacy of flash fiction. As they took their shape, I realised that the subject was the different forms of love over the arc of life.

I think love is at the centre of all of our lives – that we are defined by the love that seeps into us as kids, the love that races through us as teenagers and adults, and that which tosses through us for the length of our lives. I wanted to show love in her many forms – illicit, fundamental, fractious, stinging, empowering and glorious. I wanted to speak about the sensuality in our daily lives – whether it makes us thrive or it strangles us. Mostly, I wanted to bring the collection to a precipice where the reader might gently recall or believe in the absolution and endurance of deep love.

FF: Your piece ‘Love Is an Infinite Victory’ was first published at Ellipsis Zine and then featured in Flash Frontier for our April 2019 special issue around LOVE, just after the Christchurch mosque shootings.

CM: The day of the Christchurch mosque shootings I was in Amman, Jordan, and I remember feeling so ashamed that this terrible thing had taken place in my part of the world (I’m originally from Sydney). It was an awful realisation – the idea that someone on God’s earth could carry out such an evil act, especially as I was travelling in a Muslim country where I felt comfortable and welcomed as a guest, where I walked past the central mosque each day and listened to the call of the muezzin over the hours. Such a chilling sadness.

I’ve only addressed modern terrorism in a couple of my stories, both of them through the fall-out upon the mothers involved – one the mother of a victim, the other the mother of a presumed terrorist. Around the time of the Bataclan attack and the Brussels Airport bombing, these fears were particularly real as they came way too close to my family.

This story – ‘Love is an Infinite Victory’ – speaks of something else. It speaks of the enduring love between a married couple, one that has survived the years, and that will resist in its delicate form until death. It is about balance and faith.

FF: The release date for this new collection was originally planned for around mid-February near Valentine’s Day. Was this statement about love even if some of the stories are not exactly comfortable, feel-good in tone?

CM: The book was originally meant to come out last year, but COVID pushed back publication a couple of times, and my publisher suggested we launch on Valentine’s Day. We knew the title Love Stories for Hectic People would connect to people on that particular day, even though many of the stories speak of painful, flawed love. In the end it came out on March 2nd – the same day as Kasuo Ishiguro’s momentous Klara and the Sun. That felt rather daunting, as I am a big fan of Ishiguro’s work.

FF: Yes, ‘painful, flawed love’, as you say. The work in this collection shows so many layers of love – even what sometimes results in dissolution. And there is also a declaration of love being victorious — embedded in many of the stories, sometimes darkly, sometimes subtly. Is that an underlying theme for you, love as something ultimately victorious?

CM: Yes, for me love is ultimately victorious; it is what we live for and what binds us. Whether it is sensual, filial, self-love, love of nature – it is what makes us taste life and live it within our cells. It is a life force that we all need, even in its most gritty, inelegant moments. The final stories in the book, for me, are a crescendo of real, worn and exuberant love, which I believe in.

FF: You live in northern Italy, mainly isolated for much of the past year. This has been quite a change from your life up to this point: traveller, adventurer, seeker of new experiences in new places in the world (see FF interview, November 2018; AFRICA). How has your life changed in the past year – and, relatedly, how has your writing changed?

CM: This past year has seen everything change in Italy. Yesterday, we reached the figure of 100 000 deaths. In 382 days. This is incomprehensible and it has really wounded the nation. People have moved from the resilience of last spring to the brief freedom of summer, back to the disasters of last autumn and this winter. It used to irk me when Italians were stereotyped as boisterous rule-breakers who spend their lives in bars or gathered around a family dinner table, but in the absence of any sort of societal hugging or gathering, I realise that these elements are at the core of life here, and what we are all craving. Loud meals, cheekiness, long hugs, bustling bars, strolling through the piazza. There have been moments of respite, but we are currently facing a new hard lockdown. It’s so wearying.

I’m used to travelling around Europe quite a lot – to England to see family and friends, and to attend bookish events, and to Greece in the summertime. I’ve missed music concerts – the opera! – and having guests at home for my writing retreats. That’s all vanished. As far as my own writing is concerned, I’ve been writing a novel so the endless time and isolation have been fruitful for that; and I am now teaching writing masterclasses for Litro magazine, plus private mentoring of writing students. So I am still working and learning and developing ideas. It has been useful to slow down and focus, to really write from the bottom of this silence and slowness. But to be honest I’m dying to host a big summer party at my house and dance all night!

FF: Tell us how, for you, writing is a balm – how writing soothes you and connects you to this earth, and to other people.

CM: I have always loved stories. I’m not sure that writing soothes me because it is a challenge to produce resonant writing, pieces of work that really deserve to exist. I think I like the beauty of human truths and their conveyance in a bed of careful language. I used to be quite wordy (and can still be!) and flash fiction has taught me to cut to the chase. I love the challenge of pulling a story out of the air, whether a turn of memory or complete invention. It’s not easy thing to write meaningful and original stories, and the older one becomes, the more one understands that life is fleeting and many-layered, and you must choose material that demonstrates some sort of awareness of the texture of this life.

FF: Thank you, Catherine – we wish you and your new book well! And, if you do not mind, we’ll share your very fine story about victorious love here again…

CM: Thank you!


Love is an Infinite Victory

Catherine McNamara

From Ellipsis Zine

They decided to rent out the farmhouse to the daughter of their best friends. The young woman had been a charming, mischievous child always twisted around her mother’s legs, and had studied agriculture before moving away to Jordan to work on irrigation projects. She and her Jordanian husband were now expecting their first child.

As best as they could, they removed mementos and personal artefacts from the rooms, using their son’s upstairs study to store crates that were sealed just in case. Photo albums, treasured books, favourite kitchenware and artwork, along with both of their slim wardrobes, went into these wooden boxes. At first, the husband had wanted to put these in a disused shed on the property, but they decided their effects might more likely be prone to fire, damp or theft.

They handed over the keys to the slight young woman with her swollen belly just beginning the show under her dress, and the handsome man with thick waves of black hair and erudite glasses. They felt reassured in the face of such purity, that their house would be looked after and loved.

*

They moved back to Paris where they had begun their lives together many years ago, feeling denuded and carefree as students. They had always kept this tiny apartment, and it was a good thing too. When their own son was at university he had stayed here, and it had served through the periods when their marriage had been strained, when either had gone there to breathe and revive, sometimes taking lovers there to fuck and discard, for they were bound to one another.

Free of decor, with its squeaky herringbone wooden floors and small rooms, the apartment showed no record of their lives, so they were as guests. They resumed heady, unsophisticated lovemaking on the mattress their son had left there, especially through the long mornings when the city revolved and banged and wailed around them. The man found that his erections were sturdy and ongoing; the woman’s parts were bathed and her breasts heaved in burning peaks.

They were so grateful for this, crooning into necks and crevasses. They had not expected this rising.

In the afternoons the man wrote his articles and the woman strolled in the park, or all the way to the river, from where she would call him, describing people or birds.

*

Halfway through the summer the young Jordanian husband called the mobile phone that the older man had left on the kitchen counter. He and his wife were in bed together and the call was ignored. That afternoon the young man called again.

He said that his wife had lost the baby – the tiny girl had died inside of her – and they wished to leave the farmhouse. He said that his wife was broken and they could stay in that place no longer. She was coming home from the hospital tomorrow and they would return to the city. He was presently sleeping in a hotel.

He said they wanted no refund for the rent they had paid, just to be away from there. If there was a place they could leave the keys?
Of course, said the older man. I am so sorry

The call ended and the man resumed his work. When it was complete, he walked through the rooms of the small apartment with its blank walls and on one of the walls he placed his open palms and leaned his body weight and dropped his head. There were piles of clothing on chairs and cleaning implements grouped in a corner. He thought of the empty farmhouse with its verdant summer growth, the cries that rang out after dark and his wife’s slumbering beside him, how there were nights when there was a quickened tampering in his heart and he would go downstairs onto the terrace, feel the warm drifts from the woods like the hands that would take him.


Links

Catherine McNamara / Vicenza, Italy grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write, and ended up in Ghana running a bar. Praised by Hilary Mantel, her short story collection The Cartography of Others was a People’s Book Prize (UK) finalist and winner of the Eyelands International Book Award (Greece). Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and a Hudson Prize semi-finalist. Love Stories for Hectic People is out now. Catherine is a writing coach and runs summer writing residencies in Italy where she lives. More here.
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