Pelt and Other Stories

by HRM on September 19, 2013

An interview with Catherine McNamara

Pelt and Other Stories

Pelt and Other Stories, a new short story collection by Catherine McNamara, is out this month from Indigo Dreams Press. The eighteen stories collected here are transporting and vivid, dark but never sorry for themselves.

Her prose is at once lyrical and staccato, not distracted so much as ambitious – constantly moving forward. I’m talking about paragraphs like: “I was passed Ray’s version of a Tequila sunrise. I wandered out to change my dress. Afterwards, the restaurant had hard lights and the huge, unwieldy bike they’d stolen for me must have belonged to a post-Aryan giantess./ I read Hemingway that week.” (Examples like this work better as stream-of-consciousness, for me, than most traditional stream-of-consciousness does.) James Wood once described Sheila Heti’s first short story collection, Middle Stories, as “prickly,” and I would say the same of these. I mean all of this in a good way, of course. I want a story that surprises in a language that excites.

But the stories are also ambitious in the places they take you. In the characters her stories inhabit. We move from Berlin to Brussels, Australia to Italy, Ghana to Togo…And each character has a very distinct way of narrating each story, yet each story is clearly of a piece, written in Catherine McNamara’s confident, astute prose.

1. From your bio, it seems like you’ve lived all over, and your stories are set in just as many places. How well do you feel you have to know a place in order to set a story there?

This is a question I ask myself all the time. I’d hate to be a fiction tourist and would like my work to reach some sort of truth, if not about a setting, at least about the people living there. I’m really wary of using clichéd places, and yet don’t want to appear to be trying too hard to convey an original location. It’s essential to be able to inhale small things, or use your character for a partial and honest view.

(Follow-up question: do you usually draw from notes you might have taken while there, or does the memory transmute the place into a story later)

I don’t take notes because I am a very disorganised person and would lose them or not be able to read my own writing! I tried for a while, but was just too lazy to go back and decipher. I drive a lot and often jot down a sentence for a story idea and have a file on my computer, that’s all. What I really enjoy is the act of writing, so once I have a beginning, everything that is memory and invention crowds into what follows.

2. Do you read more than one book at once? Do you write more than one story at once?

I try not to read more than one book at once but sometimes it happens – you have to write a review in the middle of reading a big novel. I mostly stick to one book. However I don’t read as much as I’d like to as my day is busy and long. I always save up books or literary reviews to read on trips.

I can’t write more than one story at the same time as I’m so possessed and excited, wondering where the story will go. Although when I’m finished for the day I can go back and do some manuscript revision on something else. Or sometimes I do this to limber up early in the morning.

atherine McNamara

3. How is your editing process different from your writing process? Your choice of words is so specific and often so unusual, I wonder if verbs like “she lay there scripted ” come naturally in the first draft, or come later to replace more mundane verbs like “lay”?

No, these words come in the first draft. It sounds very silly but I just hear them and feel it and write it down. I used to be a lot wordier and still have to take care – as a young writer I was once told my story read like a bad translation! I think I deeply love words and the writers I love best are really athletic and feisty with their word choice. And the way the English vocab comes out is heightened by living your daily life in another language, which is what happens with my life in Italy.

Editing is much more relaxed than writing, as the bones of the story don’t really change. But I know I have to be terribly focussed. I think I am improving with cleaning out unnecessary words and sentences.

4. You seem so comfortable writing from the perspective of young businessmen, pregnant Ghanaian women, ambling Euro-travelers, grieving husbands….how do you get into your characters’ minds?

I’m not sure, and I’m glad you think it’s effective. I’ve lived with lots of different people of different cultures, and I think that helps. I’ve always avoided hanging around with people who are too similar to me. I love talking other people’s languages – making people comfortable and getting them to speak. Probably an initial sense of insecurity being a young Australian traveller many years ago made me want to remodel myself, trying to fit in, and made me work hard on understanding what other people had been through or held close. I’ve always wanted to travel a long way from myself, and this probably shows up in my writing.

5. What triggers a story for you? A word, an idea, a character, a story? I read on your blog that you once saw a man and knew that, from the way that he walked, he was Rolfe [the character from the title story, Pelt]. Did this man come before Rolfe?

I’m very much a first sentence person. That’s the trigger. The first paragraph has to resonate and I (unwisely!) usually fall in love with it. Then there’s the main character. There has to be something I want to explain or heighten. I think with Rolfe in ‘Pelt’ that the character came first, as he was secondary to the first-person narrator, and then I remembered the German man who’d come to our house in Ghana one day and he seeped into the character I needed in the story.

I love the journey of the story as it happens on the page. I don’t like to be constricted by plot ideas too much and enjoy the way everything can shift or pivot. I play classical piano and I love cadences and the motion of a piece.

6. What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new short story collection although promotion is taking up a lot of my time. I have a completed novel waiting to be revised this winter and am looking forward to that. I also have a thriller I wrote years ago that someone wants to see, so I should be going through this, although I think my heart belongs to the short story at the moment.

Thank you Harriet for having me here.

Where to buy the book:
It can be ordered from Waterstones UK or local independent bookshops.

Her blog is and Twitter is @catinitaly.

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