Vicenza, Italy, 2021
An interview, and stories from Contributing Editor Catherine McNamara
Let’s talk about love! Your new collection, Love Stories for Hectic People, is specifically around the theme of love. Why this theme? Why now?
Catherine McNamara: 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.
You live in northern Italy, mainly isolated for much of the past year. How has your life changed in the past year – and how has your writing changed, if it has?
CM: This collection was accepted before COVID and was supposed to come out last year. But publication was pushed back several times – which was good for me because it has given me something wonderful to look forward to! During this time I’ve been working on a novel, and spending more time teaching and mentoring, and also renovating my house. Though I miss the adrenalin of flash/short fiction, long form gave me something to evolve every day, like turning up for work. I had to learn how to pace myself and take the long view, which has not been easy for me as I seem to work in sentences and cadences. But I think the cross-fertilisation that goes on when you change form is enriching – risky but enriching. They are in truth a different lens through which we view the story.
Catherine McNamara reading ‘In Venice’:
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 ones 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.
Did you start pulling together this collection during this COVID year? Did you know when you set out to make this set of stories that we’d have this year of COVID and lockdown and worldwide stress?
CM: 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 took their shape; I realised I wanted to speak of different forms of love, while exploring the depth and immediacy of flash fiction. It was a year of discovery for me. I think I really learnt what story-telling is about. Many of the stories are set in Italy and across Europe, some in Ghana where I lived for ten years.
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, even if you are not writing directly about love? 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.
Tell us about the book’s release. Will you host an online reading?
CM: I live in Italy and my box of books is on its way from England, and will hopefully have arrived by the time you are reading this. Official release date is 2nd March. I’m very very grateful for my extraordinary cover – a painting by Florentine artist Giacomo Piussi. And a host of lovely comments. As soon as I have copies in my hands, I will organise a zoom reading. I’m thinking of an international book raffle and obligatory glasses of prosecco – even for those at opposite ends of the globe (prosecco toast and story dedication if you are in pjs). We all need some celebration at the moment, given there is no COVID finale in sight. Infection rates in Italy are climbing again.
The author reading ‘The woman whose husband dies in a climbing accident’:
As Simple As Water
Vasilis K and Marj B are embracing at an Athens train station (it is Ambelokipi) when Vasilis feels Marj’s legs fold under her and sees her eyes roll back, and the woman he has made love to in a hotel room far above and with whom he argued (he knows he was being unjust) falls in a dead faint at his feet as the airport train rolls in on screaming rails.
A woman in a suit rushes out of the opening doors and loosens Marj’s scarf and tight jeans (he sees her white belly) and checks her airways, laying her in a recovery position on the stone slabs of the train station floor.
A minute ago Marj’s tongue had been enwrapping his own, and her eyes with their long grey curlicues had spoken of wanting while his had (Marj said) been wearing their dark shields, which was what she called his retracting each time before her uncomfortable fading away on public transport, taxis and planes.
Vasilis thinks now Marj will miss her plane and what will he do with her. Vasilis’s day is lined up, as hers was too in another country a short flight away, and now she is lying on the station floor with a woman crouched at her side.
The seams of the woman’s pants stretch over her hips. Vasilis who has been making love to Marj most of the night (except when she wept in a corner of the bed and he waited) wonders about the pelvic cavern of all women which is filled with jostling organs and squelching tubes and lengthy orifices like vivid botanical sections drawn into slithering life. He wonders whether this woman too has mauve toenails within her brown boots.
‘Who is she?’ The wide woman turns back and asks. Marj’s small suitcase stands by the station wall.
‘I don’t know. I saw her fall down.’ Vasilis who had not known these words would come from his mouth stares at
Marj’s pearly face on the ground as another train releases startled passengers who funnel away until he and the crouching woman and Marj’s body are all but alone.
The doctor comes out and he has black hair with dandruff captured at its roots. Vasilis feels a charge of sadness to think of the doctor raising Marj’s wrist and laying it by her side, lifting her eyelids and shocking each pupil with a flashlight. Vasilis still has Marj’s saliva in his mouth and some (she is a vigorous kisser) has dried on his cheek and neck.
‘We’re doing preliminary tests,’ the doctor says. ‘She may have simply hit her head, or it could be some pre-existing condition. Or even the early stages of pregnancy. We may have to keep your wife here overnight.’
‘I see.’ Vasilis’s heart is in stiff points under his skin, barred in his rib cage.
The young doctor with dirty hair stands there, looking at the language on Vasilis’s face. Then he turns back to his patient, slouching up the hall with its seam of lights.
Vasilis walks outside up a concrete path and he calls his wife who would just be opening the shop on the island, and his son who has an anthropology exam in the afternoon. There had been a way to loving Marj as there is a way to loving all women, but in Marj’s case it was a silken rope, a water snake with a ribboning tail, and at dawn they had been clasped at the hotel window (Marj’s cheeks were dry) staring out over the flushed city and now Marj is in a bed under lights and Vasilis is walking, walking.
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 due in early March from Reflex Press. Catherine is a writing coach and runs summer writing residencies in Italy where she lives. More here.
Find her new book here.