Rowena Macdonald & Anna Maconochie — In Conversation

Authors Anna Maconochie and Rowena Macdonald discuss their work, writing sex, and day-jobs.


threat level

Anna Maconochie:  Do you aim to write every day or do you think that’s a bit of an impossible standard/myth?

Rowena Macdonald: When I first started out I used to write every day for about an hour before work. I was quite military about it and I got a lot written. But I lived on my own then (or at least in a flatshare, not with a boyfriend that I had to engage with) so it was easier. I also used to write during all my Parliamentary recesses (we used to get a lot of time off at the House, but we don’t any more). Nowadays I barely get any writing done. This is mainly because I have a two-year-old. Once she’s at school I aim to get back to writing more. I think it’s important when you are starting out to write every day, or at least very regularly, but now I’m confident I can finish a novel, I don’t feel so beholden to that strict standard. I do think you should be quite workmanlike though, and not wait for inspiration or the perfect writing moment. The more you write, the more you have ideas, the easier it gets. It’s a craft. You have to hone your craft.

AM: Your novel seems to be very accurately drawn from your working life. Did you take notes during the day (pretending to work?) or was it easy to recall details and situations when you sat down to write?

RM: I both recalled situations and took notes. I took notes when work situations struck me as particularly absurd, funny or dramatic, or if I noticed interesting aspects of my surroundings in the Houses of Parliament. I often took notes in meetings but not long notes. My job is too busy for me to write long notes.

AM: Is it important to you to write about NOW? Or were there other reasons for setting your novel in the very present day?

My novel was initially set in 2005, and featured the 7/7 bombings, but my previous agent advised me to redraft it it into an unspecific NOW as he thought it would be more saleable. I think he was probably right although sometimes I wish I’d kept the 7/7 bombings as they added another threatening angle. I wanted to capture the House at a particular moment of change, from being an old-fashioned, eccentric place to work, to being more corporate and fast-paced, which I reckon started to occur roundabout 2005 but my then agent reckoned that 2005 was too arbitrary a time, not far enough in the past to be historical, and that it may as well be an unspecific NOW.

I automatically tend to write about the recent past; perhaps it’s because it’s fresh in my mind. Having said that, the novel I am currently writing is set in the mid-90s and I’m enjoying being plunged back into memories of my twenties. And the novel my agent is going to try to sell next starts off in the early 80s. I prefer to write about times that I have experienced because authenticity is important to me. I’m not that interested in historical fiction, although I enjoy reading old novels set in the time they were written.

I did start a novel that was partially set during World War 2 and I was enjoying the research process and imagining myself into a time I haven’t experienced but I didn’t get very far with it; I kept worrying that it wasn’t authentic enough. My mum read it and said it wasn’t, even though she was only a baby in WW2 and couldn’t possibly have remembered.

AM: Would you write another novel or do you want to return to the short story form? Or something completely different?

RM: As mentioned, I am in the process of writing another novel although due to my baby (and my day jobs) it’s taking me a while. I still write the odd short story. I always write short stories alongside whatever novel I am writing as I enjoy trying things out without the commitment of a novel. But, basically, most publishers don’t want short stories, whatever they may say, so I am going to keep on focusing on the novel. I enjoy being in the sustained world of a novel, although it is a massive undertaking.

AM: Do you wish there was something in particular you could create with your writing and storytelling skills in the future that you haven’t done yet? That could be to come? Sort of a follow on from Q4 I guess.

RM: I wish I was more experimental but I don’t think I have that sort of abstract brain. I am quite traditional in my skills. I would quite like to try script-writing as I really enjoy writing dialogue and my skills are probably better suited to script-writing than trying to be more experimental. The only thing that puts me off script-writing is that you aren’t creating a whole world on your own, it’s more of a collaborative process, and you have to rely on directors, and commissioning executives and actors and so on, so it all seems less likely to come off than writing a novel. I mean, writing a novel is a long shot, but writing a film or TV script seems even more of a long shot, from what I gather from friends who do such work.



RW: Does embarrassment/fear of revealing too much of yourself censor your writing on any level?

AM: Not on any level whatsoever. I am shameless. Or rather I don’t think I’m that interesting. I am just another temporarily living vessel for events and ideas to pass through and some of those could be worthy of ending up on the page. There are moments when I think ‘Oh cringe, people are going to think I am obsessed with things that don’t fit my image of myself as a writer’. For example if you write about dating, then you fear being Bridget Jones-ified and I’m not a fan of Bridget – the books and the woman. But often the work that’s most authentic or stirring is taken from life. Quite a few people, when they read my story Future Digital, told me they were worried about me. Which I took as a compliment to my writing.

RW: How do you fit your writing around your day job and rest of your life? And do you think having a day job can help your writing in any way (despite the obvious hindrance of having less time)?

AM: With difficulty. Evenings and weekends basically, but not enough. Holidays are good for writing. I used to think I wasn’t resting when I went on holiday and wrote but I’ve given in. No regrets so far. My old job was great in that I could write for a half hour here or there and I was unsupervised enough for colleagues to think I was working on a document someone had assigned me. It was handy having two bosses who didn’t know what tasks each had set me. You have to use your time well and you become reliant on your writing life to give meaning to the idiocy of your day job. It works the other way too – your day job is full of petty dramas and banal but precious detail. Most peoples’ lives are made of this which makes the office a promising setting for a book.

RW: In Only The Visible Can Vanish why did you write about sex in such a cool and clinical way? I loved this aspect of your writing but did you feel the need not to be too earnest and visceral (which is the kind of sex writing that often ends up shortlisted for the Bad Sex Awards)?

AM: If it was cool and clinical I didn’t entirely realise or intend it. Or perhaps other writers, especially the Bad Sex nominees, are just overbaking it in comparison. Some stories, such as Derma or The Eight, needed to have ‘cold sex’ as the situation is between two relative strangers, or a boss and an employee who are just making a trade. If the sex is cool and clinical in the other stories, it’s perhaps because there’s usually one party who would like a warmer emotional certainty they cannot quite attain with the other. The bond is never equal in my stories. That said, I think some of the sex is quite affectionate and intimate, such as when Bel is doing whatever she can in bed to save her marriage in The Real Beast. Or when Jeremy completely lets himself go with Marina in The Rats and the Rabbits. Discuss!

RW: Which writer/book do you consider to be totally overrated and why?

AM: I went on a hike recently and one of my fellow-walkers totally badmouthed A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I trust this friend’s judgment as she’s a big reader and used to work in publishing. She dissected the whole book in half an hour which made me feel like I’d read it and wished I hadn’t! The hike got pretty exhausting at this point. The book just sounded completely overblown, exhausting and too long. Total prize longlist fodder. Don’t like the title either. Another writer I get underwhelmed by every time is Paul Auster. Paul, it’s just not working out between us.

RW: How, when and why did you start writing and who/what are your main influences?

AM: I started writing a novel around eight. It had a fox, a badger and a dog in it. I abandoned it. At nine or ten I realised I was reading books with an extra eye – to see what might be possible for me to achieve. At that age, books like Watership Down felt do-able (the can-do’s of being ten!) but school and teenage got in the way. So did poetry. I wrote a poem pretty much every day when I was eleven. I retired from poetry at thirteen and I think I’m still done with it. Then I read Raymond Carver in teenage and it was one of the best sadnesses I had experienced. I didn’t want to write like Raymond Carver (plus I didn’t have the life experience of an alcoholic, middle-aged, divorced door-to-door salesman to draw on) but I was excited to discover what he could do, often with very few words. Then I read thousands of short stories in the following fifteen years and that really showed me what you can do with the form. Whenever anyone says ‘these are the rules of the short story,’ I want to split their head open. Haruki Murakami was my biggest influence when it came to writing about sex as he’s so matter of fact (maybe that’s where the cold-clinical is coming from!). He doesn’t have to be confident about it – it just is what it is to him. Perhaps it helps to be Japanese rather than English and uptight (or European and romantic). The characters eat, cook, fight, sleep, go to work and have sex. He’s not an erotic writer, he’s just a writer. Other influences have been Tessa Hadley, Roberto Bolano (in particular, his story Clara, one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever read, about a man who falls for a woman, Clara, and he knows she’s quite dumb and limited and that he’s a minor character in her crummy little life but he can’t help himself. The style is so immediate and un-literary, it’s like he’s there talking to you), Miranda July, AM Homes and many more. Also I wish I could revive F Scott Fitzgerald and his knack for seeing the era he lived in while it was happening. We are nearly a century on from the Jazz Age. What might he have called our Twenties?

Rowena Macdonald was born on the Isle of Wight, grew up in the West Midlands and now lives in East London. Her debut collection, Smoked Meat, was short-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. Her short stories have won various prizes and been published by Galley Beggar Press, Influx Press, Ambit, Unthank Books, and Serpent’s Tail, among others. Her debut novel, The Threat Level Remains Severe, was published in July 2017 by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books. It was shortlisted for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017.

Anna Maconochie was born in London, where she now lives and works. She has had stories published in the Erotic Review, the Dublin Review and the Bitter Oleander. Her first short story collection, Only the Visible Can Vanish, is published by Cultured Llama.