Shena Mackay Interview

mackays01.jpeg Your writing has a poetic quality. How much has poetry influenced your work?

I started writing poetry from the age of about eight and continued through to my early teens. I had Come Hither, a wonderful anthology by Walter de la Mare, which was quite spellbinding. I read a lot of poetry … Yeats, and later, MacNiece and Auden … poetry was what really inspired me. Also, my parents knew W.S. Graham and the idea of Sidney being a poet was very exciting to me.

Did you carry on writing poetry once you started writing fiction?

Not much at all. Once I’d written the two novellas, which came out in the early Sixties, I wrote very little poetry and just stuck to prose. I suppose I wanted to go on doing the same thing, but in a different way, using narrative.

I’ve heard you say that The Wind in the Willows was one of your favourite books when you were a child.

I was given it by my mother one Christmas – I must have been five or six – and it had a dark green cover and beautiful marbled end-papers. It had no illustrations so it seemed a very grown-up book, but I realised that although it didn’t have any pictures I could still read it and understand it. I just adored it; the whole character of the book itself as well as the story. Another of my favourite books was The Secret Garden. It was magical: one of those books that’s become imprinted on my mind forever. I was very fortunate to be brought up surrounded by books. My parents, my mother in particular, were very interested in fiction. They were always aware, say, of the latest Graham Greene, and would get it from the library. My whole family was interested in words and stories. As children, my two sisters and I would make up stories in bed.

Have you ever written any children’s fiction?

No, I haven’t. I was going to once, but obviously the idea wasn’t strong enough and I never got round to doing it. But when I was younger and told people I was a writer, they always assumed I wrote children’s books.

Would you like to see more illustrated adult fiction?

Not particularly. I love illustrations in children’s books, and frontispieces and plates in old books – say in a book of botanical prints – but not in adult fiction. I think the reader can provide their own pictures.

I gather that another book that influenced you as a child was the Bible.

Well, I find the rhythms and the imagery of the Bible so wonderful, both the Old and the New Testaments, and the psalms and hymns. I can remember the hymns we sang at school having a tremendous impact, because of the imagery as much as the tunes. My very first novella has nuns in it and that sort of thing, but it was really the language of the Bible rather than its religious aspect that fascinated me.

How did your first book come to be published?

I was very lucky. When I left school I went to work in a silver shop in Chancery Lane in London. The manager there was Frank Marcus who wrote The Killing of Sister George, and I told him I’d written a novella [Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger]. He read it and showed it to an agent, who showed it to the publisher André Deutsch. They said ‘we like it very much but it’s far too short; if you write something else, show it to us’. So I wrote Toddler on the Run, and they published the two together, back to back. It made quite an impact.

Is it important to have books around you?

Oh yes. Actually I’ve got far too many books; I can hardly move at home for books. I get sent quite a lot as well; books I don’t necessarily want, and I’ve got nowhere to put them. I just pile one on top of the other until eventually they fall down into a heap. I give them away from time to time.

Do you like to have signed copies of books?

Yes, if I’ve enjoyed the book. In fact, I must show you something that was signed today by Edwin Morgan. He signed it for my new grandson, who is also called Edwin. He wrote ‘To Edwin, six weeks, from Edwin, eighty years’. That’s really something to treasure.

Tell me a little about your early life.

I was born in Edinburgh, but my earliest proper memories are of South Queensferry, where we lived until I was three or four, before we moved down south to London and then on to Canterbury. We never actually lived in Scotland again. But we came up in the summer, to visit my grandparents who lived in Elgin, and then, when they retired, in Ayr.

Where did you live in Kent?

Shoreham, which is about five miles from Sevenoaks. It’s very beautiful; a magical place.

Kent and Sussex can be vaguely seedy too.

Oh, they can, yes. Ramshackle; full of broken-down chicken coops. And I rather like that. We lived not far from where H.E. Bates set The Darling Buds of May, and it had that kind of atmosphere. My novels The Orchard on Fire and Old Crow are set in a fictionalised Shoreham; in that sort of landscape. mackays02.jpeg

Part of Dunedin is set in New Zealand. Do you have any New Zealand connections?

Well, I have now. I didn’t then: I was just fascinated by the country, the landscape, the botany and so on, and I liked the name Dunedin – the fact that it’s the old name for Edinburgh, as well as its connection with the Scottish settlers. After I wrote it I was invited to a writers festival in Dunedin, and now I’ve got a couple of friends there, and know a few New Zealand writers.

There’s sometimes a kind of telepathy or synchronicity about writing – write something and then it happens. Do you find that?

Something fulfilling a prophecy, as it were. Yes. It can be uncanny, the way life imitates art. I’m sure it’s coincidental, but it can almost seem as if you have willed something to happen by writing about it.

How do you feel about writing short stories compared with novels? Do you enjoy one genre more than the other?

With short stories, an image or an idea can trigger off something and I don’t know where it will take me, but I want to start writing it. But with a novel, I’m conscious of the larger canvas, with it having to have more characters and bigger themes. It’s much more inhibiting to start a novel. I don’t often work on a novel and short stories at the same time. I find the two take away from each other. I think as I write, the actual writing process is the trigger for the narrative and the dialogue, though with my last novel, The Artist’s Widow, I wanted a very tight structure.

How do you cope with writing as a career, as opposed to something that you do for yourself?

I don’t think I’ve ever got the same excitement writing for publication as I did when I was writing purely for myself. But whenever I do get that old feeling back for a while, it reminds me why I’m still doing it. If you’ve been writing for a long time, it certainly does become a job. It’s reached the point where almost everything I do is connected with writing in some way, whether its reviewing or being part of a judging panel. And you do lose something because of that – a spontaneous approach – because you know that every time you finish something, another thing is looming and it’s not necessarily what you want to do. When I was a Booker judge in 1999 I didn’t get any of my own writing done, as I was reading all these hundreds of novels. Since then, I’ve had other interruptions. I hate it when I’m not working, but sometimes life takes over.

What’s the best writing situation for you?

To be conscious of having a space of time. And I like my things around me, and my cats. I write most happily when I know I’m not going to be disturbed and I don’t have a deadline coming up. I can get so engrossed in writing that time passes really quickly and I go into a completely different mode of thought. When the writing is going well, it’s wonderful to get some of that spontaneous pleasure back.

Do you keep a notebook to jot things down?

I know now that I can’t keep things in my head for long enough, so I do keep a notebook. My problem is that I’ve got about six of them, so when I come to actually write something down I often can’t find my notes, and have to go through a hideous search through all these books and bits of paper. People tend to give me lovely notebooks, and for a while I treat them like school exercise books – I will keep this roughbook neat! But sometimes I can write very cryptic notes which I think will jog my memory about something, only it doesn’t. I always used to enjoy writing longhand, and then I got this thing called a Sharp Fontwriter, which has a little screen and prints things out, and I’m quite happy with it. Before I got it, people always used to say, ‘Oh, you can move text around with a word-processor’, and I thought ‘I don’t care, I don’t want to move text around’, but physically it has made the writing process easier. I think a word-processor makes you write more in your head, in a way, rather then getting everything down immediately on paper.

Do you tune in to snippets of conversation?

I don’t go round listening to conversations on buses – I try not to, in fact, as it’s quite hard to get any silence anywhere, especially on public transport in London. But things I see have an effect. The whole idea for The World’s Smallest Unicorn came from seeing a circus poster – the story gets quite involved, going to Hong Kong and back, just from seeing that one poster. Then there are the things you catch out of the corner of your eye. The other day I came across a headline in the paper that said ‘Tortoise Stabbed’, and I thought, ‘God, how horrible’, because I love tortoises. And then I looked again and realised it said ‘Tourists Stabbed’. So that was alright!

Your writing generates lots of pictures in the reader’s mind. Do you think you might have been a visual artist if you hadn’t become a writer?

Possibly, if I’d had any talent in that direction. I certainly like describing things in quite a painterly way: it can be difficult to get an image exactly right, so it’s great when you do find a description that works. But intellectually and emotionally I’ve always been more involved with words. I love looking at paintings but I could never say what I wanted to in paint.

Do you write primarily for yourself, or are you aware of the reader?

I suppose I am thinking of the reader at some level. But when you’re writing, I don’t think you should be worrying about readers or critics or reviews. The older you get, the more critical you become of your own work. As Liz Lochhead says, the more you write, the more you realise when something is wrong. mackays03.jpeg

Comparing your current work with your early writing, do you feel it has changed a lot or do you recognise the same essential style?

A bit of both. When I first started, writing had the ease about it which you have when you’re just doing something for yourself, in a notebook. Technically I’m much more skilled now and I can sustain a long narrative, but I might think of an image and realise that I actually used it twenty years ago. I make sure I don’t write the same things over again.

Copyright Ruth Thomas 2005.


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